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Start The Year Off with A Fresh Guitar Setup

I can remember getting my first real guitar. An early 90's American Fender Stratocaster. I played that guitar religiously for months straight. I couldn't have been happier to have a "made in the USA" Fender guitar…until I played a friend of mine's "frankenstrat." It was a hodgepodge of random parts, some not even real Fender parts. Yet, this guitar made me dread coming home to my trusty Stratocaster. I couldn't quite articulate the differences between the two guitars other than his simply played and felt better. The problem in my head was that this should have been impossible. My guitar was the "real deal" and his was a "mutt." What I soon learned was that my friend's "frankenstrat" had been professionally Setup on a regular basis. I didn't know what that really meant at the time – all I could gather was that it might have something to do with why his guitar played so much better than mine. This was the beginning of my obsession with the technical side of guitars and learning why they feel and sound the way they do.

What is a guitar Setup?

Well, the term “setup” is sometimes referred to as a "tune-up", a "quick set", or a "full adjustment". They all describe the same process – implementing adjustments that make a guitar play and sound its best. Much like a tune-up for your car, it is always a good idea to have routine maintenance done on your instrument to avoid problems when you can't afford to have problems. Getting your guitar set up can also mean the difference between enjoying your guitar to its fullest and wishing you could just trade the thing in for a better (often more expensive) one.

The first thing that you must know about guitars is that they all need to be setup at some point. When a guitar is built, it is usually setup before it leaves the factory. When the guitar reaches the manufacturer's distribution center, it is inspected by their Quality Control Team and setup again. By the time the guitar reaches the guitar store, it has spent so much time on the road braving the elements that the original setup is rarely still good. Unfortunately, some manufacturers' Setup only means that they made sure the guitar strings ring out and the pickups (if there are any) work. Usually the string action (the string height from the fretboard) is very high on these guitars by the time they hit the stores 

When you have your guitar setup, you are having adjustments made to all of the key components that control the feel and tone of the guitar. Most guitars have truss rods to help straighten the neck of the guitar when the pull of the strings (usually over 180 lbs!!) pulls "relief" in the guitar neck. Sometimes the string action can be way too high for comfortable playing; most guitars have a bridge that allows for adjustment to help correct high string action. Acoustic guitars typically have their saddles sanded down to achieve a lower action. This is definitely not something someone should try on their own if they do not have the experience required to get the right height. Most electric guitars have adjustable bridges and saddles that allow for the action to be raised and lowered with hand tools. Some of these bridges have adjustable saddles that allow the intonation to be adjusted to accommodate various string gauges and action settings. Intonation is adjusted to make sure that the guitar plays in tune with itself up and down the fretboard. The ideal setting is where the note at the 12th fret is exactly the same as the open string.

For electric guitars, the setup process involves not only the mechanical side of the instrument (truss rod, bridge/saddles, nut, frets, etc) but also the pickups, switches, pots, and output jack. All of these components need to be cleaned, tightened down, and sometimes replaced from time to time. The last thing you want is for your guitar's electronics to fail right before a gig. Switches and potentiometers can get dirty. When this happens, the controls will be scratchy and cut out when adjusted. Contact cleaner is needed to make sure everything is clean and noise free.

The Setup process also includes polishing the frets to keep the wear and tear even across them. The fretboard is conditioned and cleaned to keep gunk from killing your new strings too quickly. All the hardware is then tightened and lubricated. The finishing touches involve a full detail cleaning that can really make an old guitar look like it belongs on the cover of a magazine.

While there are surely far more "mysterious" repairs out there, a setup can be the preventative measure that keeps a potential problem from getting much worse (and much more expensive). I can certainly attest that usually the difference between an awesome playing guitar and a "not so great" playing guitar has much more to do with the setup than the price tag. If you are new to the instrument or are finding yourself getting frustrated with playing your guitar, you should do yourself a huge favor and bring your instrument in to the Chicago Music Exchange Repair Shop and see just what a terrific Guitar Setup can do!

For more information about available repair services, see our Repair Shop Price List.

Darryl Chabot
Darryl Chabot