So what exactly is a guitar setup? A guitar setup is the process of making the necessary adjustments and maintenance to a guitar to ensure health and playability. Getting your guitar set up is helpful for addressing the wear-and-tear it can accumulate over time. This means checking and adjusting the guitar’s action, alignment, and more. One way to think about this is that your guitar has a factory setting; a standard from when it was first built. ‘Setting up’ your guitar is like fine-tuning and tweaking its factory setting.
When Should I Get a Guitar Setup?
One important question remains: When should you set up your guitar? The three examples below are some of the most common instances in which you should get a guitar setup.
- If you’ve never gotten the guitar set up previously
- If you just bought a new guitar or a used guitar
- If you found a guitar in your basement/garage/attic/dumpster/etc.
In all honesty, the only time you shouldn’t get a guitar setup is if you know it’s been set up recently and it plays well with a sound that you enjoy.
Once you’ve determined if it needs to be set up, here are some important steps in that process:
Adjusting the Truss Rod
Steel string electric and acoustic guitars built after the late 1970s-80s have a truss rod in the guitar’s neck. It is a long rod that runs down the inside of the neck. Adjusting the truss rod alters how much stress is being put on the neck. This also causes the strings to raise and lower from the fretboard. So if you want the action lowered on your guitar, you might need your truss rod adjusted.
Depending on if it’s an electric or acoustic guitar, the truss road will either be where the headstock meets the nut and fretboard (electric and bass) or under the neck through the sound hole (acoustic).
The nut style is another important aspect that can change if you need a hex key, nut driver, screwdriver, box wrench, or mini screwdriver. On most guitars, you turn the truss rod screw to the right to tighten and the left to loosen. It’s always best to make small adjustments, check and tune and repeat as needed.
Adjusting the truss rod is a particular process, so if you’re unsure, it is always best to let a professional handle it! You don’t want to be responsible for ruining your favorite guitar.
Adjusting the Action
The action of a guitar is essentially the distance of the strings from the frets. High action is far from the frets and low action is close to them. The important thing to remember is that there is no “ideal string action”. It’s all up to personal preference and how you like your fretboard to feel.
For beginners who haven’t built up the finger muscles yet, it’s usually best to have a low string action. You won’t have to push down super hard when you’re fretting your notes and chords. A higher action is typically for more aggressive playing and strumming. Just a warning, though: lowering your action too far will result in your strings buzzing against the frets, so be careful of that.
Adjusting the action on an electric guitar usually involves raising or lowering the saddle. This is located down by the bridge of the guitar. Adjusting action on acoustic guitars involves the saddle as well, but the process can be a bit more difficult. For both acoustic and electric guitars, adjusting the nut impacts the action, too.
Finally, adjusting your bridge manipulates the action as well. There are several different bridge types for an electric guitar, so finding the sweet middle ground of bridge height, action, and intonation takes patience. Once again, this can be a tricky and frustrating process if you’ve never done it before, so it’s best to take your guitar to a professional and see if you can learn from them.
Adjusting the Intonation
Intonation means that the instrument is in tune with itself and every note rings at the correct pitch. If you tune your guitar and notice that notes higher on the neck are out of tune, that means your intonation may be off.
Most beginner players probably won’t notice a slight issue in intonation – most listeners probably won’t notice either. Most people won’t have to worry about this issue too much. Usually, older or poorly taken care of guitars are the ones with intonation problems. But if you collect vintage guitars like we do, you’ll notice this problem a lot.
Intonation is best fixed by a professional, as it requires tiny adjustments that the layperson won’t be equipped to make.
Cleaning the Frets
Frets can get dirty over time and and grime can build up on their sides. A great way to clean your frets is getting a good fret cleaner, a toothpick, and some paper towels. Use the toothpick and the paper towel to scrape the buildup off the frets and fretboard.
You’ll want to also hydrate and condition your fretboard, as hydration is an important step in a setup. In one of our previous articles, we talked about how extreme moisture and heat are a danger to guitars, as they can cause cracking and splitting in the fretboard and other parts of the guitar.
This is the kind of guitar maintenance that anyone can do. It might take you some time, but those before and after pics can be stunning