Do you have fret-buzz that sounds worse than a swarm of bees when you play your guitar? This situation is just one of the many reasons you need to get a guitar setup as soon as possible. This article will cover six of the most everyday issues that people may face on their instruments, which is generally a good sign that it’s time for a guitar setup, and address some general questions and concerns about them.
Table of Contents
- What Is A Guitar Setup?
- How To Find A Guitar Tech
- “Why Do I Need A Guitar Setup?”
- 1. Your Guitar’s Action Is Too High Or Low
- 2. Your Guitar Has Tuning & Intonation Issues
- 3. The Bridge & Nut Needs Adjustments
- 4. Your Guitar’s Neck is Bowed or Warped
- 5. You’ve Just Bought A Brand New or Used Guitar
- 6. It’s Been Too Long Since Your Last Guitar Setup!
- How Much Does A Guitar Setup Cost?
- Summary & Conclusion
What Is A Guitar Setup?
A guitar setup is very similar to repair, except while your instrument isn’t working the best it can be, it’s technically not broken either, in most cases. Instead, typically, your guitar needs some adjustments done to it in order to make it play and sound optimal.
So what does a guitar setup consist of exactly? A setup will generally include:
- A comprehensive examination of various parts such as the bridge, nut, neck, and fretboard.
- Necessary adjustments (proper tools and precise measurements are used) to fix your problems.
- Other random corrections, like pickup height, input jack, etc.
I also urge and want to put it out there from the get-go that you should never attempt to perform a guitar setup if you have no idea what you are doing. Instead, you should take it to a professional guitar tech.
Like a physician, your tech has a trained eye and will examine your instrument to see what’s wrong with it in particular, but in nearly all cases, he or she will address all aspects of it and even clean your instrument and change its strings!
He or she may also ask you specific questions about what string gauge you like to use as well as what tuning you prefer. This kind of information is essential when performing setups, especially if you plan on switching to a different gauge, such as going from 9s to 10s. Always be aware that there is a high probability that you may need to provide the strings, but this depends entirely on the tech.
In general, you should expect your guitar setup to take a few days to a week to get finished. Once again, that also depends on the guitar tech and how many other instruments they have to work on before yours. If they’re not overly busy, you might get it done the next day if you’re really lucky!
How To Find A Guitar Tech
It’s actually relatively easy to find a great, qualified guitar technician. If you do a search for “guitar setup near me” or something very similar, you should get some quick results of individuals or businesses who can help you. Even some Guitar Centers or Sam Ash stores will do them, but you should check with them first.
In my experience, Craigslist is also another good way to find guitar techs, once you get past the suspicion and trust issues that usually comes with that platform. It’s always someone just trying to make a living so you may be able to get it done cheaper than a larger business. A lot of the time they don’t really have a lot of upkeep either, like other employees or a giant space to rent, which keeps costs lower. That’s just what I’ve seen so far.
Here’s a really cool, insightful video that goes into what it takes to be a guitar tech!
“Why Do I Need A Guitar Setup?”
This segment will go over the most frequent reasons that people get a guitar setup. If any of these apply to you, you know its time to take your guitar to the doctor. It’s better to get it sorted out the sooner you notice any issue so that you can get back to business without any inconveniences.
1. Your Guitar’s Action Is Too High Or Low
This is arguably the number 1 reason someone needs to get a guitar setup. The “action” of your instrument is just the distance between the fretboard and the strings, and there’s plenty of ways it can get out of whack. The action also applies to all fretted instruments, not just guitars.
People generally want lower action. If it’s too high, you have to apply more pressure to the fret in order to get a sound. This can slow you down and make playing the instrument less comfortable.
On the other hand, if your action is too low, your string might hit the metal frets which can cause an annoying buzzing sound every time you try to play one or more strings. This is fret buzz, and it’s the bane of every guitarist’s existence. It is one of the easiest ways to ruin your sound.
It may be tempting to try to adjust it by yourself, but just leave it to the professionals. Take it from me who has made this mistake in my younger years. You might be opening up another can of worms, such as having an uneven bridge or spring tension problems.
2. Your Guitar Has Tuning & Intonation Issues
If your guitar won’t stay in tune, it’s practically unplayable in my opinion. It is so annoying having to re-tune one frequently. In fact, some people like to measure an instrument’s quality based on how well it is able to maintain an accurate pitch.
The fact of the matter with tuning and intonation problems is that there are a few reasons why your guitar can’t stay in tune and it doesn’t always have to do with quality.
Maybe you have loose tuning pegs that are causing your guitar to have problems staying in tune, or perhaps you are having intonation issues across the entire fretboard which can be corrected by adjustments with your saddle or fixing a loose nut. Tuning and intonation issues can happen as a result of the climate, so it’s not always the instrument or the player’s fault, but it is something you can control by paying attention to temperature and humidity.
A guitar tech will identify why your instrument isn’t staying in tune or has inaccurate intonation and make the necessary adjustments to make it more stable and correct.
3. The Bridge & Nut Needs Adjustments
Having a bridge or nut that needs some work done on it can cause a number of issues, some of them we’ve already talked about. For example, you can have one string that just won’t stay in tune if there’s a section on one of these parts that just isn’t right, like a saddle.
Some bridges take more work than others. Many years ago, I had a Floyd Rose bridge that sunk downwards because something happened to the spring tension. The guitar tech adjusted the springs, which made my bridge level with the guitar again, and everything was fine after that. Your bridge also has a role in intonation and action, so it’s usually always fixed up in a guitar setup.
A lousy guitar nut can create similar problems regarding tuning issues and fret buzz. But did you know that a poor nut can also cause your guitar’s strings to break? That is definitely something you don’t want to happen! A nut can be repaired by filling it or lubricating it. The worst case scenario is that might need to be removed and replaced.
4. Your Guitar’s Neck is Bowed or Warped
All kinds of things can cause your guitar’s neck to warp and bend. The neck, like most parts of the guitar, is made from wood, which is malleable and can be affected by the elements. Temperature, excessive humidity, and pressure can all cause various parts to shift, such as the truss rod.
If you are changing string gauges, you’ll typically have to get the truss rod adjusted to accommodate the switch, especially if you use a Floyd-Rose style bridge. Doing so will straighten out your guitar’s neck.
In addition to truss rod adjustments, you can manage the environment your guitar is in to prevent the wood from shrinking or swelling. One way you can control the climate is by finding a guitar humidifier. Neck changes and intonation problems can be avoided with the right precautions.
5. You’ve Just Bought A Brand New or Used Guitar
Some guitars, particularly the more expensive ones, might be set-up when you first buy it, but a lot of the time, guitars that are straight from the factory will definitely 100% need a guitar setup. This is especially true for a beginner model, like starter sets, which unfortunately do not get as much love as higher-end ones.
On the other hand, if you’re going to buy a used one, you’ll probably also need a guitar setup. The reason being is that you don’t know if or when the last time it received one was. It’s not a good idea to take someone’s word for it either. If you have doubts or you are unsure when the instrument was previously given a proper setup, take it to a guitar tech to see if it looks like it could use one.
6. It’s Been Too Long Since Your Last Guitar Setup!
That used axe in the store may or may not have had a guitar setup recently, but when was the last time you’ve had one done on your guitar?
If we’ve learned anything in this article, is that some issues can happen right under our noses without really being apparent – until something happens, like your neck starts bending. If you haven’t been too mindful of the conditions your instrument is in, there’s a pretty strong likelihood that you’ll need a setup really soon.
How often should you get a guitar setup anyway? I think that once or twice per year is adequate enough if you are doing everything in your power to take care of your instrument and not make any adjustments by yourself.
If you’ve never had a guitar setup yet, and you’ve been playing for a while, definitely go take it into a shop a professional can take a look at it. It’ll make a world of a difference! If you’ve never felt a properly adjusted instrument before, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.
This video shows you what a guitar tech sees when performing a setup:
How Much Does A Guitar Setup Cost?
The price of a guitar setup can vary based on different factors. The area can definitely impact the price of one. If there are several guitar techs in the local area this can cause competitive prices, but lower than one where there are only one or two professionals.
From my experience, and it seems quite universal, the thing that matters the most regarding the cost of a guitar setup is what kind of bridge your instrument has. Working on one with a Floyd Rose-type system will always be more expensive than one with a floating or fixed bridge because it takes more time and effort. More work = more money.
On average though, a setup will probably run you anywhere from 20 to 60 dollars. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed though – the price is comparable to getting your vehicle’s oil changed somewhere. A guitar setup is kind of similar to routine car maintenance if you think about it.
Even if you pay top-dollar for your setup, it is well worth the money. Not only will your instrument receive all of the necessary adjustments that I mentioned earlier in this article, but a lot of guitar techs (if not all) will also give your instrument a full cleaning which includes:
- Guitar Polishing
- Fretboard Cleaning
- Metal Fret & Hardware Polishing
- A New Set of Strings
Afterward, once your guitar is returned to you, you can choose to keep up with your instrument’s basic cleaning in between setups. The only thing you really have to do is grab a cleaning kit like this one on Amazon, and you’ll just dedicate some time to making it look good, usually when you’re going to change your strings. This kit even has some guitar setup tools in it, which is nice if you ever want to learn how to do it down the road.
Summary & Conclusion
Every guitarist should get into the habit of taking their guitar to a tech a couple of times per year to make sure everything is functioning nicely. It might be an inconvenience, and you’ll be away from your instrument for a while, but you’ll be glad you’ve decided to get a setup.
A lot of players wait until there’s an actual problem with their instrument, rather than being preventative, and in this article, we talked about 6 different reasons you should get a guitar setup. To recap, here they are:
- The action is too high/low
- You have tuning and intonation issues
- There are bridge & nut problems (i.e., Sunken Bridge Syndrome)
- Your guitar has a bent neck
- You’ve made a recent purchase (applies to new or old guitars)
- You’re simply overdue for one!
Even if you can avoid some of these common issues, accidents do happen, and it’s understandable if one these just seems to appear out of nowhere. However, don’t make the mistake of trying to take matters into your own hands and fixing it yourself. Always take it to a qualified guitar tech who has the tools and skills to make your guitar perfect.
By the way, setups are for professionals, but anyone can keep their guitar looking nice. If you’ve liked the cleaning you received during your guitar setup, you can learn how to make your guitar shine too! By following this guide to cleaning and maintenance and using the right products, you can make it look pristine all year-round if you really wanted to.