It’s possible that the sound of your brand-new or years-old guitar is due to something other than your playing. Even if you’re just starting out, basic setup and maintenance are essential for a guitar or bass to sound and perform its best. Is it required to pay someone to set it up for you (either at the time of purchase or later in the instrument’s life) or is it OK to do it yourself?
What exactly does it entail to set up a guitar or bass?
Guitars and basses are primarily wooden instruments with strong metal strings that must be balanced in order to stay in tune and play correctly. The purpose of setup is to get a new guitar or bass to sound and play as good as it did the day you got it, or to get your old favorite to perform as well as it did the day you bought it. This means, among other things, no buzzes on any string at any fret, consistent intonation across the fretboard, and string height that’s appropriate for your playing style (for most beginners, this usually means “low”).
The phrase “setup” encompasses a wide range of modifications, and not all of them may be required for your specific instrument. Some changes are simple enough for a novice to perform, but others necessitate knowledge or special equipment—or both.
Truss rod: The truss rod controls the string height, or “action,” of the guitar. The instrument might be difficult to play if the motion is too high. The strings can buzz at specific frets if it’s too low. The truss rod is a sturdy metal rod found inside the neck of most modern guitars and basses that helps to relieve string strain. The truss rod would be the bow, and the strings would be, well, the strings, if this were an archer’s bow. By altering the amount of bend, or relief, in the neck, the truss rod elevates or lowers the strings on the midsection of the fretboard.
After the strings leave the tuners, there’s a thin piece of (typically off-white) material at the top of the neck that the strings rest on. This is referred to as the nut. It retains the strings in position on the fretboard, both horizontally and vertically. In contrast to the “global” adjustment of the truss rod, the nut, coupled with the bridge at the other end, allows per-string height modifications. Adjusting the nut necessitates physical alterations via filing, and the changes cannot be reversed without replacing the nut.
Bridge: At the other end of the strings, the bridge is the nut’s counterpart. The strings may come to an end here, or they may pass through the body or to a separate tailpiece, depending on the construction of the guitar. Most electric guitars and basses’ bridges allow for three different string height adjustments: global string height, individual string height, and string length.
String length affects intonation, which is the degree to which notes are in tune across the entire fingerboard, not only on an open string. Your guitar would measure in tune on your tuner, sound great with most chords, yet sound off as you progressed up the neck without perfect intonation. To offer an extreme example of bad intonation, imagine tuning the open string to E but playing the 12th fret with an E flat instead. It’s evident that getting this right is critical.
Acoustic guitars often lack the bridge modifications seen on electric guitars, instead opting for a saddle that resembles the nut at the neck’s top. This is more difficult to change (as we’ll see in the next section).
Frets and fretboard: Hopefully, the frets (metal bars across the neck) and fretboard (the rest of the neck’s front side) of a new guitar or bass won’t require much attention. However, smoothing rough frets and making sure they’re all uniform can be necessary at times. If one of the frets is slightly out of place, it may scrape against your fingertips or cause a buzz when you play particular notes or chords. This is especially true of older guitars, which may have frets that are unevenly worn. Steel wool is commonly used for smoothing, however playing a new instrument for a few weeks may suffice.
You might be wondering why we haven’t discussed ukuleles yet, given that we have a guide on them and they’re comparable to guitars in many ways. Because ukes are rarely played above the seventh fret and nearly none of them have the adjustments we’ve outlined here, setup isn’t as important. In addition, practically all of the ones we’ve tried have performed admirably right out of the box.
Which modifications would necessitate a professional installation?
Several of the above-mentioned modifications may be too difficult for a novice.
Adjusting the truss rods requires a screwdriver in some cases and a hex wrench in others. The truss rod on some guitars is difficult to reach.
Nut adjustment: For a newbie, this is the most difficult adjustment—and the one most likely to throw you into trouble if something goes wrong. Filing down the nut necessitates the use of specialized tools and a steady, calm hand. If you file the nut down too far, there is no quick reset. It may be necessary to replace the nut or shimming under it in order to rebuild it.
Bridge adjustment: The bridge on many electric guitars can be adjusted using a competent tuner, a small screwdriver or hex wrench, and a steady hand. There are extra aspects that make the process more challenging if you have a floating bridge (one with a “whammy bar”).
The bridge (actually, the saddle) on most acoustic guitars is comparable to the nut, necessitating careful physical adjustments to change the action. Even more difficult is adjusting intonation, which may need replacing the saddle or, in severe situations, shifting the bridge.
How much would a professional installation put you back?
Most music retailers provide their own setups or can direct you to someone who can. The cost will vary depending on the region and the amount of repair required on the guitar or bass. A professional setup costs roughly $50 on average, but it can cost up to $100 if there is a lot of work to be done.
Because the gauges of the strings affect intonation, new strings are frequently part of the setup process. This cost may be included in the setup fee or it may be an extra charge; make sure to inquire.
A thorough cleaning, moisturizing, and polishing, as well as a spritz of contact cleaner on any devices, are likely to be included in most establishments’ services.
Is it therefore worthwhile to hire a professional?
Our guitar and bass writers have a combined expertise of more than a century, and we’ve evaluated dozens of guitars and basses for our numerous guides. If you’re wondering whether or not you should have your instrument professionally set up, our answer is that it depends.
If you’re a complete novice who doesn’t know the difference between a nut and a bridge before reading this post, you should probably hire a professional. There are many of tutorials online that may teach you how to make various modifications, but getting a professional setup first will give you a good idea of how your guitar or bass should sound. If the instrument stops playing the way it used to, you can either have it re-set or invest the time learning how to do it yourself.
Whether or not you get a professional setup is also dependent on the instrument you’re purchasing and where you’re purchasing it. Electric guitars and basses can be adjusted in a variety of ways with only a little expertise and some readily available tools. Setting up an acoustic guitar is significantly more difficult for a novice. An acoustic guitar isn’t the best place to start if you’ve never set up a guitar before.
If you have a professional setup done first, you’ll have a good idea of how your guitar or bass should sound.
If you’re buying a guitar or bass online, the out-of-the-box setup may be suspect, so it’s worth spending a little extra money to get the instrument playing at its best. The lower the price of an instrument, the less likely it is that the manufacturer spent time in the factory perfecting the action and intonation—and most brick-and-mortar stores can’t afford to complete setup on low-cost models. If the instrument is unplayable when you receive it—or if it becomes unplayable or buzzy after only a few weeks of use—a that’s red sign, and you should probably return it. If a guitar or bass plays well right out of the box, it’s possible (maybe even likely) that a little tweaking will improve its performance.
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