Guitar sounding or feeling less than stellar? You might require a setup. But, unless you know what you’re doing you will require the services of a professional, particularly for the acoustic guitar. Which ultimately leads to the question, how much does an acoustic guitar setup cost?
In the following article, we’re going to take a closer look at guitar setup costs, and what’s involved. But first, a quick summary:
An acoustic guitar setup costs between $50 and $100, depending on the condition of the guitar and if new strings are included in the price. A setup involves checking and correcting intonation, neck relief, and action, and may also include fret polishing. A professional setup can make a huge difference to how your acoustic guitar sounds and plays.
$50 – $100 is a ballpark estimate based on a standard setup. Acoustic guitars come in all shapes and sizes and the amount of work required can vary based on your preferences with regard to playability, and the type of guitar it is e.g. 6 and 12 string guitars vary in terms of work required, as do vintage and newer instruments.
In the following section, we’ll take a closer look at when you should consider a guitar setup, the benefits of having your guitar professionally set up, and what’s usually involved.
When should you get your guitar set up?
While the necessity and frequency of having your guitar set up will vary based on whether you are a serious musician or a part-time strummer, the list below shows some telltale signs that your guitar requires a setup.
- You’ve just purchased a new or second-hand guitar
- You’ve experienced a recent change in playability or tone
- Your action (string height from the fretboard) is too high
- There is an audible buzz (fret buzz) when fretting specific notes (particularly higher, or lower on the fretboard)
- There is a buzzing sound or vibration due to loose hardware, or fret wires
- Notes on the first fret are uncomfortable to play
- When bending notes there is a ‘scratchy’ sound and the strings feel like they get caught on the fret wires
- The edges of your frets protrude out from the fretboard and feel sharp (fret sprout) when running your hands along the edges of the neck
- There are intonation problems e.g. the pitch of your open strings is not the same as when played on the 12th fret
- Your guitar will not stay in tune
- The neck is visibly bowed inward or outward
- You’re unhappy with how the guitar plays or sounds
Is a guitar setup worth it?
Most definitely. Paying between $50 and $100 for a technician to assess your guitar and identify and address potential problems that affect how the guitar plays and sounds can be the difference between a guitar that you rarely play and a great-sounding guitar that you can’t put down.
Having your guitar professionally set up not only addresses immediate concerns affecting your playing but may also address problems you may encounter in the future, that would otherwise result in expensive repairs.
For example, a guitar that is drying out may lead to structural problems including cracks eventually developing. A neck that is under too much tension may, over time, develop a crack just below the headstock or require bridge repair or replacement.
In many cases, you will also get advice on correct maintenance for your instrument that will allow you to get the best out of the guitar and help you maintain and care for the guitar over the longer term. For example, a technician may recommend equipment that addresses humidity concerns.
In a nutshell, the difference in terms of playability e.g. if you have your action adjusted to an ideal height, or your intonation problems corrected, or your guitar more reliably remains in tune, can be the difference between a guitar that spends most of its time leaning against a wall and one that is being played regularly.
What’s Involved in a guitar setup?
Guitar setups address three key areas. Tuning stability and intonation, playability e.g. string height, fret polishing, and tone.
If you consider the physics of your acoustic guitar, and the tension placed on the neck, the neck joint, the bridge, and the soundboard. Not to mention the mechanics of playing the guitar and how the wear and tear involved impacts components such as fret wires it’s little wonder our guitars occasionally need adjustments to keep them in tip-top shape.
Setups are really about removing obstacles the instrument might present you in terms of playability, tuning, and tone.
The most common areas addressed include:
- Addressing unwanted buzzes e.g. fret buzz due to the action being too low, insufficient neck relief, or other mechanical vibrations on the guitar e.g. loose tuners.
- Intonation and tuning problems e.g. Does the guitar tune up easily and stay in tune? Is the guitar in tune with itself? Corresponding notes on the fretboard should be the same e.g. your open E string should match the note at the 12th fret, even though an octave apart.
- Playability in terms of action (string height)
- Nut adjustment e.g. the nut may require replacing or refiling, particularly if the strings do not pass through the nut slots easily when tuning or simply bending a note.
- Fret polishing e.g. the individual frets are polished so the strings glide across them more easily. Fret dressing is normally not included as part of this process, however, this may also be recommended when the guitar is inspected and would be an additional expense.
- Conditioning the neck e.g. rehydrating the neck with a fretboard conditioner to prevent the wood from drying out and contracting, resulting in sharp fret ends, loose frets, and even worse.
- Cleaning the fretboard e.g. removing unwanted gunk near the individual fret wires that might otherwise lead to dry rot and your frets becoming loose, not to mention corrosion of the frets themselves.
- Adjusting string radius. The fretboard of your guitar features a radius that matches the curvature of your hand. The saddle should also have a slight radius.
- Cleaning the guitar. A guitar setup, while mostly focusing on how the guitar sounds and plays may also include cleaning the guitar so it looks its best.
- Restringing. While most of us know how to change a set of strings, restringing is often performed during a setup.
Often, addressing one of the issues listed above has a flow-on effect, and will also affect another.
For example, correcting the neck relief will reduce the action, making the guitar more playable. This will also address intonation to some degree because reducing the string height, means the strings are then closer to the fretboard, which in turn affects how much tension is placed on the string to fret a note cleanly.
To understand how this all works, and exactly what you are paying for when having your guitar setup, we’ll take a closer look at the individual steps involved in a guitar setup, starting with perhaps the most important, truss rod adjustment.
Truss Rod Adjustment
The truss rod is the metal tensioning bar running through the center of your neck. If you removed the fretboard from your guitar you would see a routed chamber containing a metal bar with a nut at each end that can be adjusted to affect the amount of tension placed upon the neck.
As tension is reduced on the truss rod the tension on the neck is also reduced. This increases the amount of neck relief and increases the action e.g. the distance between the strings and the fretboard.
Alternatively, increasing tension on the truss rod reduces neck relief and straightens the neck, lowering the action.
All good electric and acoustic guitars feature truss rods, classical guitars traditionally do not, as the tension placed on the neck from the nylon strings is less than that of a steel string, although many modern classical guitars do feature truss rods, possibly to counter the arrival of high tension nylon strings.
What is an ideal neck relief?
A perfectly flat guitar neck isn’t optimal, as guitars require a small amount of neck relief to prevent the strings from coming into contact with the fret wires when played due to the vibrations experienced by the strings. A small amount of neck relief allows the strings to vibrate freely while maintaining sufficient clearance from the fret wires.
Getting the amount of neck relief correct is a matter of finding the right balance between an action that is too low, resulting in fret buzz, and a high action particularly around the middle of the neck e.g. the 8th to 12th fret area, making the guitar more difficult to play.
How is the truss rod of an acoustic guitar adjusted?
The truss rod is adjusted using a hex key (alum key). Turning the truss rod counterclockwise reduces tension on the truss rod, increasing neck relief. Turning the truss rod clockwise increases tension on the neck, reducing the amount of neck relief.
For electric guitars, the truss rod is adjusted at the headstock and requires the truss rod cover to be removed so the truss rod is exposed.
On acoustic guitars, however, the truss rod is usually accessed closer to the neck joint, via the soundhole.
The truss rod is adjusted in small increments at a time and the action is checked with a feeler gauge. This is usually measured at the 12th fret, and while there are no set rules, will generally be somewhere in the vicinity of .073“ on the high E string.
|E string (1st)||B String||G String||D String||A String||E String (6th)|
Many guitarists prefer a low action, but, especially on acoustic guitar, a higher action has its benefits. If you play slide guitar, for example, you will probably want a higher action than .073“
But, that’s not the only way to adjust the action on a guitar, as we will see in the next section.
Bridge and Saddle Adjustment
Electric guitars (not all, but many) have individual saddles which can be adjusted. The individual saddles can be adjusted forward or backward to make small adjustments to the length of the guitar string, which impacts intonation.
While adjusting the height of the saddles plays a role in adjusting the action of the guitar, electric guitars with Tune-o-Matic bridges, such as the bridge on a Gibson Les Paul, can also be adjusted by adjusting the height of the two pole pieces.
On the acoustic guitar, however, things are more difficult.
For one, as resonance is everything concerning acoustic guitars, good acoustic guitars rarely feature any form of metal on the bridge as this additional weight affects how resonant the guitar is e.g. how easily the top vibrates.
With this in mind, when action or intonation adjustments are required on an acoustic guitar the saddle must be adjusted.
This isn’t all that difficult if only adjusting the action.
The saddle sits loosely in its cavity within the bridge. When the string tension is reduced it can be removed and some material shaved from the underside of the saddle to reduce the overall height.
This can be done using coarse grade sandpaper, however, the amount removed must be consistent or the saddle will not sit flush within the saddle route and this may result in action and string radius concerns.
On the other hand, if intonation adjustments are required the actual point of contact for the individual strings must be adjusted.
If you are familiar with compensated saddles (image above) this will make sense to you, as not all strings should be exactly the same length as the mass of each string plays a role concerning how much the string vibrates.
For example, the thickness of your low E string is not the same as your high E string. As a result, the distance for the low E string must be increased slightly to compensate for the additional mass of the strings, causing the string to vibrate more than a string with less mass e.g. the high E string.
This is why saddles are often slanted on acoustic and most electric guitars but not on classical guitars, as the nylon strings on a classical guitar are closer in terms of mass within a given set of strings.
How is Intonation Adjusted on an Acoustic Guitar?
The intonation is adjusted by sharpening, and/or shifting the point of contact on the saddle itself by strategically filing the saddle based on the position of the strings.
For example, for the higher strings e.g. the E and B strings, the saddle may be filed in such a way as to reduce the point of contact shifting it slightly closer to the front of the saddle and reducing the vibrating length of the string marginally. This is not usually the case for the wound G-string however, as the additional windings increase the mass of the string.
For the heavier bass strings, the opposite is true.
The saddle may be filed so that the point of contact is closer to the back of the saddle, which in turn increases the vibrating length of the string.
During a guitar setup, the nut will also be inspected. If the strings are not passing through their respective slots freely, or the depth of the slots has increased resulting in an increased chance of fret buzz occurring the nut may need to be replaced.
The slots within the nut must also match the fretboard radius to an extent (more on this shortly).
The nut may also be repaired, by simply cleaning the string grooves and potentially adding a graphite coating to allow the strings to slide more easily when the tension on the string is increased e.g. you are playing a bend.
The fret wires themselves may also require polishing. This is done to allow the strings to easily slide across the fret wires if for example you are bending or sliding a note.
The fret wires may be polished using fine-grade steel wool followed by an eraser. The fretboard is often protected during this process by either masking the fretboard completely or using a fret guard, as pictured above.
During this part of the setup, the fret wires are inspected, and if they are uneven or have dents within the wires or sharp edges protruding from the edge of the fretboard more detailed work e.g. fret leveling, crowning, or in some cases refretting may also be required.
This won’t be included in the cost of an acoustic guitar setup and will cost additional money.
Guitar fretboards usually feature a radius. This is more pronounced on the electric guitar, and less so on the acoustic, while many classical guitars feature no radius at all.
While the fretboard will often feature a radius, the saddle, being the last point of contact for the strings, will also be radiused.
Keep in mind, that this is a compound radius and not an exact match under most circumstances as the radius typically flattens out the higher up the neck you go. Therefore measuring the fretboard radius at the open position e.g. within the first four frets will be different from when measured at the 12th fret or higher.
Typically, the radius of the saddle will match the fretboard radius of the highest fret.
Can you perform your own guitar setup?
You can learn to perform some of the tasks carried out during a basic guitar setup, but more advanced aspects such as fretwork, and saddle adjustment are best handled by someone with experience.
For example, truss rod adjustment to counter problems with neck relief may be intimidating to someone new to guitars, but the process itself is not complicated. Just be sure to make minor incremental adjustments and continue to check the guitar’s neck regularly during the process.
Other basic tasks such as addressing unwanted mechanical buzzes, often involve a bit of detective work to identify loose hardware. On acoustic guitars, this will almost always be the tuners, or occasionally the battery compartment of the guitar’s onboard preamp if the guitar has pickups, or less commonly the bracing inside the guitar becoming loose.
An experienced technician will identify these problems quicker due to having more experience dealing with problems of this nature, but none of the processes involved require great technical ability or specialist tools, although these can certainly help.
Otherwise, learning how to condition the neck, clean the fretboard, and restring the guitar, should be considered basic maintenance tasks, and in many cases should be carried out whenever you restring the guitar.
Don’t try this at home
Outside of the basic tasks listed above, more complex work such as nut refiling, carrying out any type of fretwork, or saddle adjustment (particularly if adjusting intonation) is best done by a professional.
Working on your frets for example, if done incorrectly can result in the guitar requiring fairly extensive work to correct. Considering the cost of a standard guitar setup, it’s a no-brainer to utilize the services of a professional, especially if the guitar is valuable.
Other services typically not included in a setup:
While a basic setup will address any concerns you might have with your acoustic guitar, general repair work is not usually considered part of a guitar setup. This includes:
Fret Repair work:
- Fret leveling, crowning, and polishing
Nut and saddle repair or replacement:
- Repairing or replacing the nut
- Repairing the saddle
- Making either a saddle or nut from a blank
- Bridge replacement or repair
- Headstock crack repairs
- Bracing repair
- Body crack repair
Hardware and Electronics:
- Replacing, and/or custom hardware installation
- Electronics repairs or replacements
A guitar setup price of between $50 and $100 is a small price to pay for the difference a setup can make to your guitar. Keep in mind, many of the problems addressed during a guitar setup might otherwise creep up on you e.g. you might rarely notice small changes to your guitar that are occurring, making the guitar less playable or sounding poorer incrementally. Having your guitar professionally set up can provide early detection and prevent smaller problems from becoming bigger and more costly.
If you like this article be sure to check out some of my other articles on acoustic guitar maintenance.