What Is A Guitar Setup? Plus 8 Signs You NEED One!

what is a guitar setup

You’ve heard many experienced players talking about it, but what IS a guitar setup exactly? And is it worth the cost? Let’s find out!

A good setup is one of those necessities that you should treat your guitar to regularly, whether you learn to do it yourself, or pay a professional to adjust it to absolute perfection.

In this article, we’ll answer the following questions that you might have.

  • What Is a Guitar Setup?
  • Is It Worth Getting a Guitar Setup?
  • 8 Signs Your Guitar Needs a Setup
  • What Does a Guitar Setup Include?
  • How Much Does a Guitar Setup Cost?
  • Where Should I Go For a Guitar Setup?
  • How Often Should I Get My Guitar Setup?
  • Can I Do My Own Guitar Setup?

What Is A Guitar Setup?

A guitar setup is a service of basic maintenance carried out on your instrument to make sure that it is playing and therefore sounding at its absolute best. It will usually involve several steps such as adjusting the truss rod, making sure the strings are at the correct height, and tweaking intonation.

A set-up is essentially a health check for your guitar. The technician will diagnose any problems and cure them for you.

And just Like a health check, it is important to have this service performed regularly in order to catch any small issues before they can become more serious (and expensive!).

Is It Worth Getting A Guitar Setup?

Absolutely! A good setup will give you a guitar that is easier to play, and as a result, it will also sound better. Every note you hit will be pitch-perfect, and in addition, will ring out for longer. Your guitar will also be more reliable, helping you to potentially avoid any embarrassing live gaffs.

At the end of the day, a guitar is made from (mostly!) wood. Therefore, your instrument is constantly expanding and contracting, hydrating and dehydrating, depending on the climate it is exposed to throughout the year. All of these little changes can have a huge effect on the playability and reliability of your guitar.

This means that in order to counteract these effects and have your guitar playing at its best, you will need to make regular adjustments either by learning to do them yourself, or by paying a qualified professional.

As you’ll find out in the next section, there are a ton of issues that might need to be corrected during a setup. And oftentimes it’s not quite so straightforward to pinpoint the right solution for each one. The process is essentially a balancing act, with one small tweak potentially resulting in several other issues! So it is usually best to leave these fixes to the professionals who have a thorough understanding of how a guitar functions.

Even something as simple as changing string gauge can have an adverse effect on the overall playability of your guitar!

The difference between a professional guitar setup and what you can achieve at home with limited knowledge and tools is often a night and day scenario!

How Do I Know If My Guitar Needs A Setup?

If you’ve just bought a new guitar you might like to take it to your tech to get it set up to your specific tastes. For example, you may prefer to use heavier strings or play with an ultra-low action (string height).

A lot of the time you will be looking for a set-up in order to correct annoying issues that have arisen in your older guitars.

Here are eight signs that might indicate that your guitar is in need of a setup!

1. My Guitar Sounds Out Of Tune Further Up The Fretboard!

guitar intonation problems

We’ve all been there! You carefully ensure that your guitar is in tune to within an inch of its life, but it just doesn’t sound right the higher up the fretboard you play.

Once your guitar is at perfect pitch, check the notes at the 12th fret with your tuner. First play the notes fretted, and then play the harmonics. These notes should match perfectly.

If they aren’t, this is a sure-fire sign that your guitar needs to have its intonation adjusted!

A correctly intonated guitar will have pitch-perfect accuracy along the entire length of the string.

How Do You Fix It? Although there could be many causes, intonation issues are most commonly corrected by either adjusting the saddle to tweak the string length, or by fine-tuning the truss road to correct neck bow. Or both, as tweaking one of these will affect the other!

On an acoustic guitar, adjusting the saddle is a much more complicated job as you cannot just rotate a screw like you can on most electric guitars!

2. My Guitar Won’t Stay In Tune!

guitar won't stay in tune

If you find that after perfectly tuning your guitar it quickly begins to sound out of pitch again, then the culprit is usually the nut.

If the slots in the nut are too tight for your particular gauge of strings, then some strings may snag as you are tuning up. When you start playing again the strings will gradually work themselves loose and sound out of tune.

How Do You Fix It? The best solution here will be to file the slots wider to perfectly accommodate each string. However, lubricants can also be used to allow the strings to move more freely within the nut.

On an electric guitar, the tremolo system could also be contributing to tuning issues.

3. My Guitar Strings Buzz Against The Frets!

guitar string buzz

This is another very common issue for guitarists. Also known as fret buzz or fret rattle, this is when the string vibrates against multiple frets. The result is a horrible buzzing sound that instantly kills the tone and sustain of notes. In really bad cases the notes may not sound at all!

On a well-set-up guitar, when you press down on a string it will touch only the fret-wire in front of the fret that you are pressing on.

Fret buzz generally occurs because the string height (also known as the action) is too low.

How Do You Fix It? This issue is corrected in much the same way as when fixing intonation problems. We can either raise the saddle height, adjust the truss rod, or use a combination of the two. It’s also possible to add shims to the nut to raise the string height.

Fret buzz could also be the result of a manufacturing defect such as high spots on frets, which will be a more complicated fix.

4. It’s Hard To Press Down On The Strings!

guitar strings too high

This is the exact opposite issue to the fret buzz problem above. Here, the issue is that your strings are too high, making it more difficult to fret notes.

String height is an individual preference, but if your fingers are hurting after a short practice session, then you should probably look into lowering the action to ease the pain!

The factory setup on a new guitar will often have the action set a little higher than optimal, so it’s usually a good idea to have a brand new guitar adjusted to your preferences.

How Do You Fix It? The fix is usually the case of either lowering the saddle height, fixing any neck warping via the truss rod, or a mixture of both. The action can also be lowered by filing down the slots in the nut.

Again, the issue could also be a manufacturing defect such as an incorrect neck angle. This would be a much more complicated fix!

5. My Fretboard Looks Dry & Feels Rough

If your guitar’s fretboard is made from woods such as ebony, rosewood, or Pau Ferro, then it will need periodic conditioning to prevent it from drying out. Find out more about the different types of fingerboard woods and how to treat them in my massive guitar fretboard woods guide.

When allowed to dry out, a fingerboard will feel rough to play and can also shrink or crack, potentially causing the whole neck to warp. A dry fretboard is less structurally strong, so is less able to contend with the forces exerted by the strings.

If the fretboard shrinks then the fret ends can also protrude from the edges, giving a sharp point that you can easily cut your fingers on.

How Do You Fix It? To fix this issue the fingerboard will need to be rehydrated with a conditioning oil such as lemon oil.

Ideally, your guitar should also be stored somewhere with a relative humidity of between 45 and 55%. Various humidity solutions are available to help with this, such as special packs that you can place inside your guitar case.

Find out more about how humidity and temperature can ruin your instrument in my huge guitar humidity guide.

If you speak to your guitar tech they’ll probably tell you that winter is their busiest period for setups. This is partly due to the cold, dry weather wreaking havoc with people’s instruments.

6. My Neck Looks Warped/Bowed

guitar neck bow

If the string height is lower or higher in the middle of the fretboard than at either end, then your neck is bowed.

Don’t worry – this is also a fairly common issue! It may occur due to a seasonal change in temperature and/or humidity, or it could be the result of a recent change in string gauge.

How Do You Fix It? Again, this can be fixed by either adjusting the truss rod or by exposing your guitar to more ideal humidity levels for a period of time.

If it’s a result of a change in string gauge, you could also go back to your previous gauge if you don’t feel confident in tweaking the truss rod.

7. My Electronics Are Crackling

guitar volume knob crackle

Finally, you may also notice that some of your electronics are not functioning correctly, or are crackling when in use.

How Do You Fix It? Crackling pots or selector switches are usually due to a build-up of dust inside the components. This may be fixable with a simple spray of contact cleaner, although sometimes replacements may be needed.

An electrical hum that disappears when you touch the strings is a good sign that the guitar is not properly earthed.

Dry, or damaged solder joints can also contribute to issues with electronics. This is reasonably easily fixed with a basic soldering iron.

8. My Guitar String Broke (Again!)

Broken Guitar String

Old and worn strings will naturally break with normal wear and tear. But sometimes you’ll find that they snap more often than you’d like, and usually at the exact same place.

If this is happening it could be due to several problems. For example, the strings could be catching on sharp fret edges, there could be a sharp point on your bridge, the nut could be worn or just dirty, or there could be a burr in the tuning pegs.

The list of potential causes is long, and it could be even longer! Of course, it could even just be down to poor technique.

How Do You Fix It? To discover the culprit you will need to find where the string is snapping and examine the area.

If the issue is due to a sharp metal edge, you can usually fix it with a little sandpaper or a metal file. We can also smooth out the nut in the same way, but sometimes it will be too far gone and will require replacing.

What Does A Guitar Setup Include?

A basic guitar setup usually involves a visual inspection of the instrument, tuning and intonation adjustment, correcting string height/radius, fixing any neck warping, simple detailing, plus fresh strings.

More involved setups can also include tasks such as adjusting the height and angle of pickups, the bridge angle on floating tremolos, and checking loose components and electronics.

Make sure to check with your guitar tech (or several!) to find out exactly what processes their setups involve.

If you’d like to see some of the steps that might occur during a setup, check out the video below. Keep in mind that this shows a setup at its most basic level, and oftentimes, far more work than this will be required!

How Much Does A Guitar Setup Cost?

In many cases, a consultation and estimate will be free of charge, but the average cost of a basic guitar setup will be around $60-$80. This obviously varies depending on where you live, the amount of work required to correct any issues, plus any additional parts that may be needed.

If your guitar requires some more extensive work carried out such as a fret-dress or crack repairs, then the overall cost could ramp up quite considerably.

Obviously, the cost of a setup will also depend on the type of guitar you own. I contacted several well-known guitar stores in the USA and have listed some of the average costs I got back below.

Average Cost of a Guitar Setup

  • Acoustic Guitar Setup – $60
  • Bass Guitar Setup – $60
  • Classical (Nylon String) Guitar – $100
  • Electric Guitar Setup (Fixed Bridge) – $60
  • Electric Guitar Setup (Standard Tremolo) – $80
  • Electric Guitar Setup (Locking Tremolo) $120

A 7,8, or 12-string guitar will add roughly an additional $40 to each of these prices.

Where Should I Go For A Guitar Setup?

Your local music store will usually have a guitar tech who will be able to carry out the work for you. A guitar tech who also has experience in luthiery is probably going to be the absolute best choice as they will have a really thorough understanding of how the guitar works.

Try to find online reviews for local guitar techs, as it is important to find one who is reputable and trustworthy. They’re not always easy to source, but once you do find one, you’ll keep them for life.

Guitar Setup

If you have guitarist friends or a guitar teacher, be sure to ask them where they take their instruments for servicing. Otherwise, you can also try asking in local Facebook groups or guitar forums.

How Often Should I Get My Guitar Setup?

It is recommended to get a new guitar setup as soon as you buy or receive it. There are three main advantages to doing this.

  1. Your guitar tech can identify any manufacturing defects or other issues that you might not be aware of. This might warrant you returning the instrument to save headaches and money later on.
  2. If the guitar has travelled a long way to get to you, the change in humidity and/or temperature could have drastically affected the factory setup. Not that factory setups are usually that good in the first place!
  3. All being well, you can have it set up to your specific playstyle and string gauge, giving you the perfect playing guitar straight off the bat.

Otherwise, it is recommended to have your guitar set up roughly once a year to keep it in tip-top playing condition.

Can I Do My Own Guitar Setup?

Of course, you can – but should you?

If you are new to guitar or have never attempted to adjust your instrument before, then it could be easy to accidentally make your guitar play even worse. You may even cause extensive damage, resulting in a much larger bill!

For a lot of common issues, there are a number of different factors which could be causing them. While a good guitar tech will easily be able to pinpoint the exact issue, you probably won’t! And even if you do, you most likely won’t have the correct tools to do the best fix. Some fixes involve measurements down to just 1/1000th of an inch – eeek!

True story – when I found that the strings on my first guitar were buzzing, my solution was to take a metal file to the frets where they were rattling. I knew nothing about adjusting string height back then. Needless to say, I ruined that guitar… It would have cost more than the value of the guitar to have it re-fretted.

As a new player, I would at least recommend shelling out for one professional setup. This way you can get a feel for how your guitar should play at its best, and you’ll have a good reference point for when you come to start doing these jobs yourself. And when you do, begin on a cheaper guitar as you will inevitably make mistakes.

Even if you’ve been tinkering with your guitars for years it’s still unlikely that you will be able to match the quality of a setup from a professional technician. They will (hopefully!) have been doing this for years, have seen every issue under the sun, and will own all of the best tools to properly correct all of these problems.

The store I work at periodically runs guitar setup classes where you can learn the basics from one of our experienced technicians. If your local store offers events like this, make sure to head down and absorb some knowledge.

Alternatively, I have a great book that I have learned a ton about guitar setups from over the years. It’s called The Guitar Player Repair Guide, and you can check it out at Amazon here.

TLDR: Until you can absorb a lot of knowledge and really understand what you’re doing, pay a professional to do your guitar setups.

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