No two guitarists are identical. They prefer different things from the setup of a guitar, and this process can change the action or the sound of a new instrument. Is a guitar setup something you can do yourself, or should you take it to a professional? What does this process entail?
This post goes into detail on whether or not new guitars need to be professionally set up, whether you can do so yourself or even whether the way they are shipped from the manufacturer is sufficient.
As with a lot of different aspects of the guitar, there are different schools of thought and even debates about setup. Below, we explore some of the opinions out there and answer many of the questions you might have about setting up a guitar correctly.
Importance of Guitar Setup
Good guitar setup can impact every aspect of the guitar. It makes it sound better, feel nicer and generally play better.
Guitars, being made out of wood, are prone to changing shape. Wood can expand and contract or even warp as humidity and temperature changes, or if your guitar suffers knocks and bumps. In this case, the adjustments of a proper setup can be very useful.
A guitar which is set up properly will have no fret buzz and will feel nice to play along the neck. Also, you won’t have to apply huge amounts of pressure to play barre chords. By making the playing process more pleasant, it means that beginners are more likely to stick with the hobby.
If you are a professional or intermediate player, you will probably have a good idea of what feels ‘right’. You will want to adjust your guitar to suit your preferred action. You may also know when your guitar has become warped or isn’t in good shape and at this point you will know that a good setup is needed.
Broadly speaking, guitar setup is very important if you are serious about your guitar hobby.
What a Setup Involves
Guitar setup is not the same for every guitar. It has been described by many as a ‘balancing act’. You will likely need to find a delicate balance between playability, sound and intonation. The more experienced a professional is, the better they will be at this. This is one of the many arguments for taking your new guitar to a professional to get their assistance with the setup.
A setup involves checking that it is correctly intonated. This basically means checking that the notes follow the frets correctly, and that a string issue or fret spacing issue isn’t causing it to go out of tune in certain parts of the fretboard.
It also involves adjusting the action. This can be done via the truss rod, and it is more of a matter of preference than anything. It is generally accepted that a low action (meaning less distance between the fretboard and the strings) will be more straightforward to play. Other aspects of the neck and the ‘feel’ of your guitar are adjusted at this stage, such as the bridge height.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of the guitar is how it sounds. This is addressed in a setup. By having the correct settings on the neck, the guitar is less likely to buzz. The sound is impacted by the playability, too. The easier and more pleasant a guitar is to play, the less likely errors become.
Other things might be covered in the guitar setup, depending on personal preference. Fretboard oils can be applied to treat the wood, strings can be changed to suit personal preference and more adjustments may be optional, depending on the luthier or guitar technician involved in the process.
What a Setup Involves – A Simplified List
The setup can involve any of the following steps:
- Changing strings
- Adjusting the action using the truss rod or bridge
- Checking and adjusting the nut height
- Checking the electronics (if you have an electric guitar)
- Checking and adjusting tuning pegs
- Oiling and cleaning the fretboard
- Polishing frets
- Adjusting the pickup height
- Checking the intonation and making adjustments if needed
Do They Setup a Guitar When it is First Made?
A ‘factory” setup is standard for guitars.
If you are buying your instrument over the internet, the manufacturer will have packaged it and will send it out to you in a perfectly playable state. This is a big plus point, and for a beginner, the state it comes in can be fine to start to learn the basics. However, guitars being shipped and transported, moved around warehouses and sometimes even taken overseas can mean they are susceptible to temperature changes. A good quality wood helps, as will adequate packaging, but unfortunately, it might be important to partake in some maintenance just as soon as your guitar is delivered.
When you buy a new guitar, 99 times out of 100 it will have a standard set of strings on it. These will be a ‘standard gauge’ and tend to be a versatile set of strings for playing pop and rock music. An electric guitar will have the electronics set up, and in its essence, the instrument is ready to go straight out of the box, but this is a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Though there is some level of setup when you buy a guitar, there is only so much they can do without knowing the action you would prefer, and this may even be negated by the transportation process. The basics can be taken care of, but your guitar will not be suited to your preference. For example, intonation should always have been taken care of within the factory. The action of a guitar, however, is personal preference and therefore not something that can be addressed at this stage.
It is undeniably true that different brands have different reputations when it comes to their setup out of the box. There is some level of personal opinion, of course, but generally, some manufacturers seem to spend more time and attention setting up their guitars. Brands such as PRS and Ibanez have gained attention for their good setup. Perhaps surprisingly, Gibson, one of the larger brands, has come in for some criticism on this matter.
If you are going to a guitar store or a music store to purchase your guitar, then the setup can become part of a negotiating technique. If they are keen to complete the sale, you might be able to request that a guitar tech helps with the setup as part of your purchase.
Do All Types Of Guitar Require a Setup?
There are many types of guitar including acoustic, electric, electric-acoustic, bass and even other specialist guitar types. So how do you know if the type of guitar you are buying needs to be setup?
The simple answer is that all types of guitar can benefit from some form of setup. Most of the components of a guitar which are adjusted during a setup are the same whether you are buying an acoustic or an electric guitar, or any other variety! Most modern guitars have a truss rod, and aspects like the neck, bridge, fretboard and strings are universal. These are the ‘universal’ guitar features.
It may even surprise you to learn that in terms of setup, acoustic and electric guitars are quite similar. Though the necks and other components will look and feel different, the adjustments are similar in process.
Should Cheap Guitars Have Professional Setups?
This is yet another aspect that is open to some debate, but a good setup is helpful whether you are playing a $100 or a $1000 guitar. You probably won’t need me to tell you that spending $100 on a setup for a guitar worth roughly the same is probably not advisable, but a setup may not cost this much, and it really can help you to unleash the potential of a guitar.
Some people would even argue that cheap guitars may benefit from professional setups more. They are more likely to warp and require some level of maintenance. The question is whether you think it is worth investing this money.
Cheaper guitars can also provide a good platform to learn about your guitar and the way it works. If you have splashed out on an expensive guitar, you should probably ensure a professional is both setting it up and maintaining it, but a cheaper guitar can give you more of an opportunity to experiment yourself.
Should I Always Get a Guitar Professionally Setup?
We’ve talked very highly about setups here, and their benefits are hopefully very clear. However, it is not always the case that a professional setup is going to be required. This is where you can use your discretion.
If you have purchased a guitar from a shop, it may well have been taken very good care of, even if it has been on display. Many guitar techs who work in stores see the instruments as their babies (I can relate) and therefore keep them in very good condition, as well as maintaining a steady temperature and humidity in their store. Some stores will do a setup as part of a purchase, but even if they don’t, this doesn’t always mean you need to get someone to do so.
If you purchase a guitar and it plays nicely, feels good and sounds good then you may not need to do anything at all. A pro setup can be helpful, but you shouldn’t do it just for the sake of it. Check the intonation and get a feel for whether the action of your guitar suits your ability and playing style. If you don’t have any issues then you may be in the clear.
Can You Do it Yourself?
If you are a beginner, we definitely would not recommend starting to make your own alterations to the technical aspects of your guitar without knowing what you are doing. This is especially true if you have spent a significant amount of money buying the guitar of your dreams.
Though it isn’t wise to fiddle with a guitar blindly, there is no reason that the skills required for guitar setup cannot be learned yourself. Many guitarists do not like the idea of relying on others to get their guitar up to scratch. If you have the ability to do so then it can be a skill you find very useful for the lifetime of your guitar hobby (or career).
If you are technically minded and don’t mind using tools and making alterations, then setup may not be a huge step for you to take.
Some aspects of setup are far more simple and “DIY” than others. To be able to oil a fretboard, clean up a guitar and polish the frets are all simple tasks. Other tasks, such as changing the strings, are things you will probably need to learn to do at some point anyway. No guitarist wants to have to take their guitar to the store every time a string snaps or needs replacing.
Where things start to get technical is the more complicated tasks such as adjusting the truss rod, the height of the pickups or the bridge. This guide from Guitar Player has an in-depth list of the different aspects of setup and the tools you are going to need. It even has a DIY rating to show you how simple the process is for those who have never tried it before.
While some of the easier tasks might be suitable for beginners, don’t be too ambitious, especially with a guitar you want to keep in top condition.
Practicing Guitar Setup
If you do plan to go the DIY route, it probably shouldn’t be the first thing you do! Get familiar with playing your guitar and the way it works before you try to make any changes to it. A natural time when people start to practice these changes is often at the time they are thinking about their second ‘intermediate’ guitar. At this time, the guitar you learned to play on can become more of a space to experiment with maintenance rather than just playing.
Adjusting the nut, bridge and fretboard to change the ‘action’ of a guitar is a task full of danger! If you feel more comfortable getting a pro or tech to do so for you, this is nothing to be ashamed of. If you do want to learn, there are numerous tutorials and youtube videos, such as the one below, which can guide you through the process.
Another tip for watching and learning is to schedule one guitar setup with a pro at a time when you can watch them. They probably won’t mind, especially as you will have to be involved in setting the action, anyway. This can allow you to follow the steps or even ask questions.
How Often to Check and Setup Guitars
This is yet another area of some debate. Generally speaking, seasonality and temperature will play a part. If the guitar is your main guitar, and you play it regularly, getting it checked twice a year is a pretty standard thing to do.
How serious you are about the hobby plays a part, too. If you don’t play all that often then twice a year could be excessive.
This is also something you can work out based on the feel of the guitar and if it starts to cause any issues. If the action feels like it has changed, the strings need changing or the guitar just generally doesn’t feel as pleasant to play, it could be time to go back for a setup.
The setup of a guitar is something that gets ignored way too often. Beginners may not realize that these adjustments can be made, or perhaps you may just struggle to find the time and money. However, getting your new guitar setup in a way to suit your playing style can be a great way to make the instrument more personal and enjoyable.
How much does professional setup cost?
It does vary depending on where you take your guitar, but the setup can be anywhere from $50 to $100. It can even be more if, as a result of your checkup, you find you need more to be done to your guitar.
Why am I still getting ‘buzzing’ after getting my guitar setup?
In rare cases, the process may not have been carried out properly, but more likely, this is just happening because you are a beginner. If you make mistakes in the way you are playing or don’t apply the correct pressure, fret buzz can happen. It doesn’t always mean poor setup.