Not long ago, I got a brand-spanking-new Telecaster, the first electric guitar I’ve bought in about fifteen years. I’d been really excited about getting back into non-acoustic music. So, why then, did it spend all morning the day after I got it on my workbench?
This new guitar played pretty good right off the shelf, but I’m notoriously heavy handed on guitar and kept pulling it out of tune. I also play primarily in the alternate tuning DADGAD. The chances that I can just pick any instrument and expect it to fit my playing style perfectly aren’t very good. I do intend to perform in public with this guitar from time to time, so I need it to function as well as it possibly can.
Luckily, guitars are designed, from the start, to be very adjustable. And that adjustability means that you can tailor your guitar to suit your style of play. This process is called a setup.
A thorough setup will likely cost you around of $70, but if you can make you favorite ax play better than it did when it was new, it’ll be money well spent. Especially when you compare that to the cost of a new instrument.
If you’re interested in learning to setup your own guitars, there’s a great article by my friend and mentor Steve Carmody here. It’s geared toward acoustic guitars, but the concepts work with electrics too.
Concerning The Neck
Most modern steel string guitars, acoustic or electric, have an adjustable rod running the length of the neck. This truss rod, as it’s called, has one purpose: to oppose the tension of the strings on the neck.
If you tighten the rods bolt, the neck of the guitar arches back, away for the plane of the strings. When loosened, the neck is relaxed forward, so that it becomes concave. A friend once described this as “letting the strings win”; as though the strings and the truss rod are constantly playing tug o’ war.
So, as a consequences of adjusting the truss rod, the string height is effected. But a guitars neck should always be set nearly flat, with neither the strings nor the truss rod “winning” more than the other.
If we want to change the strings’ height above the fretboard, we need to adjust the saddle.
This is the plastic, bone or metal part on the guitars bridge where the strings meet the body. You can change you string height (or action as it’s called) by removing material from the bottom of the saddle to lower it or raise it by add shims in the slot that it fits into.
The material that a saddle is made of can have some effect on the tone. Consider that this is where the strings pass vibrations into the body. Switching out plastic for one made of bone or a harder synthetic material is a great way to brighten up a dull sounding guitar.
On acoustic-electric guitars, it’s crucial that the the bottom of the saddle be flat. If the surface that contacts the pickup is curved, less of the string vibration will be transmitted, causing lower volume, poor frequency response, or even total sound drop out.
Worn or loose frets can cause buzzing and cut down the lifespan of you strings. Also sometimes, frets might stick out slightly from the sides of the neck. These can be filed smooth so that there is less abrasion against you hand and a better feel.
Don’t Forget the Nut
Just beyond the first fret, where the strings rest, is the nut. The string height here can be crucial to a guitars playability. If the slots in the nut aren’t cut deeply enough, you may have difficulty playing in the first position, no matter how low the overall action is. A nut that is too deeply slotted will cause a buzz that might not be easily diagnosed.
Again, like the saddle, a plastic nut can be replaced with bone, though you won’t get as much of an improvement in tone here. But bone is more durable, so it’s a good investment in a guitar that gets played a lot.
Go Forth and Play!
All that’s left to do is go make some music, now that you’ve breathed new vitality in to you ax. A well setup guitar will make it that much easier to concentrate on writing that next song.