If you unwrapped a new guitar this Christmas season, or your dad handed you down his old axe, you probably need to get it professionally set up. A proper setup for your guitar can mean the difference between a buzzy, hard-to-play nightmare that kills your both your fingers and ears and a beautiful musical instrument.
“The better a guitar is set up, the easier it is to play, which accelerates your learning,” explains Matt Chapman, a Los Angeles-based luthier and former guitar shop owner with more than 20 years experience building and repairing guitars.
What is a guitar setup?
A guitar setup is like routine maintenance on your car or a trip to the doctor for check-up — a once-over from a professional in which fine adjustments are made to make your guitar easier to play and better-sounding. Almost any guitar shop will either set up your guitar or refer you to someone who can.
Why do I need a guitar setup?
A guitar is delicate. It’s basically wood under high tension from tightened steel strings, so a lot can go wrong, even going from the factory to your living room. Changes in temperature and humidity can subtly affect the wood, and the constant pulling of the strings alone will bow the wood, changing the distance the strings are to the fretboard and slightly changing your guitar tuning. A setup puts things back in order so your guitar plays as well as it possibly can. “If you’re a beginner, there’s nothing more off-putting than an awkward instrument,” Chapman says.
You’d think a fresh-from-the-factory guitar would come set up, but this isn’t always the case. Chapman says that when he owned a guitar shop, most of the factory guitars came without being set up, and many shops will sell you a guitar without setting it up at all. A free setup might come with the purchase price of a guitar, so make sure you ask.
If you ordered your guitar online, it’s unlikely to be set up well. If you are familiar with guitars, you’ll know immediately. If you’re not, assume it needs a setup and take it to a shop.
What does a setup actually do to the guitar?
The main things a guitar setup is going to adjust are the action — the distance of the strings from the fretboard — and the intonation, the guitar’s fine tuning. If your action is too high, it’s harder to press down the strings and the tuning sharpens. If it’s too low, you’ll get buzzing noises from the string vibrating against the frets. Problems with your guitar’s intonation means some notes can’t be played in tune, particularly if you’re playing higher up the fretboard.
If you’re just starting out, you probably won’t recognise if your intonation is off or if your action is too high or low, but you will notice that your notes sound sour and that your fingers are aching. A setup from your local luthier/Guitar Centre technician can fix these issues, diagnose more complicated problems with your guitar, and they’ll change out your strings and maybe even give it a quick polish.
How much does a guitar setup cost?
Guitar setup prices vary depending on where you live and the kind of guitar you own, but a basic setup should cost around $50 to $100. This obviously doesn’t include any more complicated repairs a setup might reveal.
How often should I have my guitar set up?
A lot of online sources suggest a yearly or twice-a-year trip to the guitar shop after your initial setup, but according to Chapman, this might not be necessary. It depends on the guitar.
“I’ve got 1960s guitars that are completely stable. I pick them up and they’re always ready to play, just because of their age,” Chapman says. “The wood is entirely stable.”
New guitars, though, are not likely to be stable. The wood used to build most new guitars isn’t pre-aged, or seasoned, for as long as as wood from older guitars — and the conditions in your house are going to be different than the shop where it sat waiting for you to buy it, so there’s going to be a long period, maybe decades, before your guitar is essentially “settled.”
No matter how old or stable your guitar, there are some cases where you definitely want to take it in to be adjusted. If you change the thickness of your strings, the pressure on the wood can be very different, and will require adjustment. And, obviously, if you notice anything wrong with your guitar, like a rattling string or an out-of-tune note that no amount of fiddling with the pegs will fix, take it in to get looked at.
Can I set up my own guitar?
You can set up your own guitar, but the question is should you. As a beginner, you probably shouldn’t. While it’s not all that difficult to adjust your truss rod or fix your intonation, but it takes experience to do it well, and as a beginner, you probably won’t even be able to recognise what’s wrong to begin with. Plus: If you make the wrong kind of mistake, it could lead to a costly repair. But if you’ve played for a little bit, there are tons of YouTube video tutorials to get you started on your own guitar maintenance.