What is a Guitar Setup and Can I do it Myself?

In a world with guitar geeks and gear nerds in abundance, the word 'setup' is thrown around like nobody's business, often combined with it's counterparts such as action, neck relief and intonation. Well, utilise this blog post as a kind of google translate for guitar players - before you know it, you'll be throwing around all the hip lingo left, right and centre. But I suppose the main question that I'm answering is, should, or could you be doing your own guitar setups?

At Leigh Music Co., we define a setup as adjusting a guitar to play at it's optimum performance. If you pick up your guitar and you find it very difficult to fret a note without horrible buzz, or the strings are too far away from the fretboard to even begin fretting a note, your instrument needs a set up of the highest order! There are various procedures that contribute to achieving a well playing guitar, for example:

Should you take action on your action?

The word action refers to the distance from the strings to the fretboard, usually measured at the 12th fret. This is usually the most significant aspect of any setup; also usually the motivation for somebody to setup their guitar! An instrument that has high action is extremely undesirable to play and also very uninspiring to pick up. Action can be too low however, which can cause a common problem known as fret buzz. This is quite a self explanatory name, given to the buzzing sound heard from a guitar that has action which is too low. The recommended string height on an electric guitar is 1-3mm, however at Leigh Music Co. we will always do a setup to your personal taste! One of the biggest contributors to action on a guitar in neck relief.

Will relief put me at ease?

The vast majority of modern acoustic and electric guitars have an adjustable truss rod running through the neck of the instrument, which allows you to control neck relief. This is what we call the angle at which the neck is sitting at, in relation to the strings. A mouthful, right? But believe it or not, it is a fairly simple concept! A neck can either be bowed, or warped. If a neck is over-bowed, then the action will be very high and the guitar will be a struggle to play (which is a most common issue in an old or unloved guitar). If a neck is over-warped however, then there will be a lot of buzz, with some notes on the fretboard not even sounding. A general rule of thumb is to have a neck which is almost parallel with the strings, but with a small amount of bow, so the lower notes do not buzz.

In order to change the relief of a neck, you need an Allen key to alter the truss rod (which I referred to at the start of this segment). By turning the truss rod to the left, you will bow the neck, and warp it by turning it to the right. This is quite a delicate process and a broken truss rod is something that is very difficult to fix, so this step is often best left to a guitar tech, or somebody with experience of the task.

Let me help you gauge this situation.

String gauge - it's one of the first questions that we will ask you when you bring your beloved instrument in for a setup at Leigh Music Co. The thickness of the strings you use denotes the type of setup that we will do; it will also have a large effect on the playability of the instrument. The best way to think of string gauge is like this:

A light set of strings will be easy to play, but will not sound as good tonally. A heavy set of strings might sound better, but will be more difficult to play and not as comfortable. The perfect set of strings for you is to find a middle ground between what sounds good to you and what feels comfortable to play! For me, I personally like to use D'Addaerio 11-49 on anything that is Fender style and 11-52 on anything Gibson style. This is because Fender guitars have a slightly longer scale length, and therefore I prefer to use minutely thinner strings than I do on a Gibson. Any of the staff at Leigh Music Co. will be more than happy to help you find a string which suits your needs!

Are you sitting comfortably?

The position at which the bridge sits on your guitar has a large effect on the setup. It is a combination of the neck angle and saddle position that creates a good setup. With the bridge, you can control the intonation of a guitar and also the height at which it sits. Intonation refers to the tuning of notes further up the neck. If an instrument is not properly intonated, then it will play in tune in the 1st playing position, but will rapidly go out of tune as you move up the fretboard. This is due to the position of the bridge saddles - if a saddle is sat too far towards the nut, then the string when played at the 12th fret will be slightly sharper than it is when played open. Either you or a guitar tech would then compensate for this by moving the saddle backwards until the note is in tune when played both open and at the 12th fret. It's a pretty tedious job!

An acoustic guitar has fixed intonation, however you are still able to control the saddle height by filing down the bottom of the bridge saddle. Much like adjusting a truss rod, this is a job best left to somebody who has experience setting up an acoustic guitar.

Don't fret! Or, should you?

Often, frets are an aspect of a setup which are not even touched upon. This is because generally, on a well built guitar, frets are dressed in the factory, leaving you with an even playing field - pun definitely intended. However, sometimes you can find (on affordable and expensive guitars alike) that frets are not level. This means that however you set up the guitar, there will always be a buzz surrounding that particular fret. The only way to sort this problem out is to send your guitar to a professional technician and have them dress and reprofile the frets in order to get it to play at it's optimum performance. This is procedure is definitely not one for the unexperienced, as it requires some quite particular tools and and a trained eye!

A setup is a process of many steps, all with the intention of achieving ultimate playability. The title of this blog asked the question, can you do it yourself? And well, the answer is yes! But, also no. Anybody can go through all the steps that are required in order to setup their own guitar, however it will not necessarily feel or play the same as a setup that has been completed by hands with years of experience. Everybody has to start somewhere, but maybe you should start with us!

Click here to visit our repair page, or here to speak to either Tom or Ted about booking a setup.


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