The Guitar Setup. What is it and why is it important?
“If you want to have your guitar performing at its peak, the setup is vital.”
Every week I get numerous calls, emails and messages from players who want their guitar to play better. Either they want it to play like it did when it was new, or they’ve just bought a guitar and want it to play to its highest potential.
The ‘Setup’ is a universally-acknowledged term for the act of improving how a guitar feels and plays. So what are the major factors and adjustments influencing the playability of a guitar?
Elements of the Setup
1. Neck bow – truss rod adjustment
The amount of bow in the neck is the starting place for the setup. The neck needs to have a very subtle curve to it when viewed from the side – less than half a millimetre for most guitars.
This adjustment is not relevant to classical guitars, which have no truss rod in the neck. This puts the onus on the manufacturer to get the amount bow perfect without being able to use this feature for correction once the guitar has been built.
It is when setting the truss rod adjustment that deficiencies in manufacturing or changes in the neck and fretboard timber become apparent. Many cheaper guitars or those that have travelled large distances through changes of climate will require more intensive work as a result. Typically the cure for this is a ‘fret dress’, a topic to be covered in another article.
2. String height at bridge or ‘action’
The next adjustment to be assessed is what’s commonly known as the guitar’s ‘action’. This is defined as the string height above the upper frets. An action that is too high or inconsistent across the strings will have a negative impact on how smooth and effortless the guitar feels to play. Conversely an action that is too low may cause the strings to buzz on the frets as they vibrate – especially if some of the issues discussed in point 1 above are apparent.
On acoustic or classical guitars the action is controlled by the height of the saddle within the bridge, which must be shaved down to reduce the string height. On some vintage fixed-bridge designs, the action can only be adjusted at either side of the bridge. Modern designs allow for independent adjustment to each string to more closely follow the profile of the fretboard.
3. String height at nut
Often overlooked, the action at the nut can have a big impact on playability – and on some guitars the intonation as well.
In general, when a manufacturer builds a production line guitar it is shipped with a basic light gauge string set (.009″ – .042″), and the slots in the nut are cut accordingly to accept these gauges. So when the player decides to go up a gauge or two, the strings sit up out of their slots and as a result the guitar feels more difficult to play. The remedy for this is to have the nut slots enlarged to accept the new string gauges, whereupon playability will return and the intonation will be consistent once again.
The last adjustment to be made – the icing on the cake – is the guitar’s intonation adjustment.
This adjustment affects how consistently in tune the guitar is across all positions, both fretted notes and open strings. Intonation is impacted by all three areas discussed above.
Intonation can be controlled (or not controlled) in a number of ways:
- Acoustic/classical guitars: not adjustable due to the fixed nature of the string saddle
- Early electric guitars: basic ‘global’ adjustment available at either end of the bridge
- Modern electric guitars: independent adjustment to each string available
If you want to have guitar performing at its peak, the setup is vital. If you’re a beginner or amateur, it will give you a head start towards your goals of becoming a guitar virtuoso. If you’re a seasoned player or professional it will take your already awesome technique and give it a turbo boost. With your guitar properly set up, there’ll be no stopping you.