For a guitar to play and sound its best, there are a lot of elements that need to be set correctly and work together in sync. Over time, these elements will naturally drift, causing the guitar to become more difficult to play and keep in tune, ultimately negatively affecting how it sounds.
For many newer or casual players, they might not even realize that anything’s wrong with their instrument and will oftentimes leave it for months or even years before finally taking it to someone for a setup.
But if you don’t know what to look for, how can you even know that it’s time for a fresh setup on your instrument? With this in mind, today we’re going to share with you all the main signs you should look for that will tell you it’s time to take your instrument to your local guitar technician for some tender love and care.
What exactly is a guitar setup?
If you hear someone referring to the term ‘guitar setup’, they are essentially referring to a set of adjustments that can be made to the guitar in order to let it play and sound better.
Depending on how badly in need of a setup your instrument is, these adjustments can range from just a few small tweaks to some fairly substantial work.
Before we go over what’s generally included in a guitar setup we should cover the difference between guitar ‘setup’ and guitar repair. As oftentimes these terms overlap or are interchanged depending on who you talk to.
Here’s what is generally included in a standard guitar setup:
You will usually need to supply these yourself but a guitar technician will be more than happy to change your old, dull, and dirty strings out for some spanky new shiny ones.
Cleaning, Dusting, and Conditioning
Over time your guitar is naturally going to build up dirt, grime, and oils that like to get lodged in and around the frets. The back of the neck can also build up a layer of oil that makes ‘traveling’ up and down the guitar neck with your hand feel less smooth.
So a guitar setup will usually involve a thorough wipe down and clean of the guitar to remove all the dirt and dust from all those awkward and hard-to-reach places such as around the bridge.
Additionally, guitar fretboards have a tendency to dry out over time. If you’ve ever seen a rosewood fretboard that’s been neglected it will have a dry and ashy kind of look to it. So guitar techs will usually use some kind of oil, such as lemon oil’ to ‘rehydrate’ the neck restoring its lost visual luster.
Truss rod Adjustment
The truss rod is essentially a metal bar that runs down the length of the guitar neck and can provide counter tension towards the natural pull of the strings. Without this, the neck will try to ‘bend’ in, resulting in the strings being very far from the fretboard which, in turn, makes the guitar woefully difficult to play.
So setting just the right amount of counter tension so that the string can sit nice and close to the fretboard is important in ensuring the instrument feels good to play. But you can also go too far with this to where the neck has a ‘back bow’ which will not give the strings enough room to vibrate.
As you can imagine this is a very important adjustment as is best left to a trained guitar tech as incorrectly adjusting this can potentially damage the neck.
Nut and saddle adjustments
After the neck is nice and level, you also have to adjust the nut and saddle height in order to leave the strings the correct distance from the fretboard (string action).
This usually involves either shimming or sanding the bridge to raise/lower it accordingly. And for the nut, it can be filled in with nut dust or filed down to raise/lower the strings.
Once the relationship between these two is set your strings should sit perfectly level across the length of the board.
Tightening things down
The guitar tech will also go over every inch of the instrument making sure any screws or nuts are locked down such as tuning pegs or strap buttons.
Most of these adjustments are universal across acoustic guitars, electric, and bass. The main adjustment that’s treated differently when it comes to the electric guitar is the bridge, where its height is adjusted by screws instead of shimming/sanding. Plus you also have saddle adjustments to set the intonation correctly.
A note on guitar repairs:
Everything we mentioned in the previous section is stock standard for a guitar setup. However, some additional processes will usually be performed at the same time as your standard guitar setup but technically this will fall under the topic of ‘guitar repair’. This may include recrowning frets which is only really done when the guitar’s a little bit older and the fret is worn, requiring it to be filed back to that rounded shape again. Likewise fret leveling or re-fretting is quite a substantial job and is not really part of a regular setup, but again is usually performed at the same time as it’s still in the realm of trying to make the guitar play and sound its best. These are things you will need to talk to your local guitar technician about beforehand. He’ll help you inspect your instrument and let you know if this is something your guitar needs.
So how do you know if your guitar needs a setup?
Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what’s involved with a typical guitar setup. So now let’s take a look at some of the signs that your guitar is ready for a fresh setup.
It’s a new guitar
One of the best times to get your guitar set up is, believe it or not, as soon as you get it out of the box. While it might be a little discouraging to have to spend even more money after just buying a brand-new guitar, it’s oftentimes really worth the extra effort to ensure that it’s playing its best.
The main reason is that these days many guitars are manufactured and distributed from overseas factories in countries such as Indonesia and Korea. These guitars then arrive from their respective stores where they may or may not go through an additional QA check at your local store before being passed on to you.
Many bigger guitar stores will have their own setup process in place as they know that international guitars can arrive with some issues due to how they are transported and changes in relative humidity. It’s worth asking them beforehand if they’ve set up the guitar, and if they have, no worries! You’re good to go.
But if they do not, and argue that the guitars go through a setup at the factory before being shipped, then this is a problem as the shipping process often exposes the guitar to major fluctuations in temperature and/or humidity which can throw them totally out of whack.
Ultimately the guitar needs a setup once it has landed in the country it will be sold. So if they are not doing it already, then I encourage you to sweet talk the retailer into giving you a fresh setup for free (if you turn up the charm you can sometimes get a fresh set of strings thrown in too).
The sound is dull or dead
One of the primary consumables you use on a guitar is the strings. While these strings can last years, even decades without breaking, what doesn’t last is their tone.
When you first put on a fresh set of things it will have this nice, pristine, glassy chime to them. But as you continue to play, oils from your hand will oxidize the coating and grime will work its way into the winding which limits the string’s ability to vibrate. This results in a ‘dulling’ of the tone.
Manufacturers have gone to great lengths to try and extend the life of strings with special coatings that slow down the effects of oxidization.
Now there are some things you can do at home to try and extend the life of strings such as wiping them down with a lint-free cloth after you’ve finished playing, which can help to remove excess oils. As well as store it in a case to protect it from humidity.
But sooner or later they’re going to get dull and will need swapping out with a nice new set.
Just to be clear, we don’t recommend taking your guitar in for a setup if the only thing you need is a string change. It’s a little excessive to spend money on something that’s easily done at home.
But it is just one indicator that you can confirm along with other potential issues concerning playability that can indicate it’s time to take it in for a setup.
String buzz, or fretting out
As you use your guitar more and more, over a prolonged period of time certain components will start to wear down. Primarily the frets, the nut, and the bridge.
As these age, they can cause your strings to ‘buzz’ which essentially means the string is physically hitting the fret as it vibrates with manifests as a buzzing or jangling sound. This is usually an indication that it’s either time for the action to be raised or the frets may potentially need leveling and recrowning.
In either case, string buzz is a good indication that it’s time for a setup.
However, please note that a little bit of buzz is quite normal. Some people accept a degree of string buzz in exchange for that comfortable, low action. Others actually like the tonal quality it brings, particularly on the bass strings as it can sound percussive and aggressive.
So we want to emphasize that it’s ‘excessive buzzing’ as your cue to get a setup.
Similarly, ‘fretting out’ is when you press a string down on a particular fret, but either the action, fret wear, or the back bow of the neck is so extreme the string is actively touching the frets in front of it (A dead fret), giving it no room to vibrate.
When you try to pick the string all you will hear is a single pluck without any sustain. Take it to your nearest tech immediately to have this addressed!
It feels difficult to play (high action)
Alternatively, you may also be faced with the strings being so far from the fretboard that the guitar feels uncomfortable to play. This can make playing fast nearly impossible, and holding chords down more doffocult as it requires additional finger pressure.
This problem is exacerbated when you are a learner who needs all the help they can get to wrestle with that higher tension of an acoustic guitar.
There are several adjustments that need to be made to lower the action (string height) which may include things like tightening the truss rod to give the neck a little back bow.
The nut might also need filing if the strings aren’t sitting nicely, or the saddle may need sanding down to let the strings sit closer to the fretboard.
Changing string gauge
If you are changing either to thicker or thinner strings, you can pre-emptively arrange for your local guitar tech to do this as a change in string gauge will almost always need to be accompanied by a setup.
If you are increasing the string gauge it will give the guitar’s neck a forward bow (neck relief) making the action higher, so this will need to be accommodated with a truss rod adjustment.
You may also find that the nut of the guitar was only filed just wide enough to accommodate the strings that came from the factory, so increasing the string gauge can sometimes mean they won’t fit snugly into the nut slots which means they will need to be filed a little bit wider.
Likewise, if you are going down in string gauge, that lower tension on the neck will be overcompensated by your current truss rod setting resulting in too extreme of a back bow which will manifest as sting buzzing and fretting out. So the truss rod will need to be eased off a bit.
How much does a guitar setup cost?
The cost of a setup can vary quite a lot depending on the country you live in and your local rates, as well as if you are having any additional ‘repair’ work done which might include re-crowning of the frets or a full refret.
Check out our comprehensive look at how much guitar setups cost here to get a better idea of what you will be looking at for your particular setup.
How often should I get a setup?
Generally speaking, guitar setups should be reactive. That is to say, you are getting a setup to address one or more of the issues we have mentioned above.
If there’s no active reason to get it looked at and you’re confident changing the strings by yourself, then save your pennies and wait until the time is right.
However, some people love their guitars and are all too happy to see them well maintained, even if it’s just for peace of mind that a professional has put eyes on it and confirms to you that it’s playing its best.
So if the money is not an issue, taking your guitar for a setup every year is not a bad idea. Some people even do it every 6 months which is a great way to build up a good rapport with your local music store.
My old guitar teacher used to say to me:
Keeping your guitar setup and playing its best is key to getting the most out of the instrument, and even if it’s an older, used guitar a good setup can give it a new lease of life.
If you have a guitar that’s not feeling great to play right now, before selling it we highly recommend reaching out to your local music store and getting it setup. You’ll be amazed and what a difference it can make!