Guitar Setups – Getting the Most Out of Your Instrument

 In Blog

What is a Setup?

Guitar technician

A guitar technician working on an instrument

A “set up” is a complete procedure performed by a skilled guitar technician that involves making adjustments on a guitar to improve its sound and playability. The main focus of a set up is to assess and adjust, if necessary, the distance between the strings and the fingerboard. This distance is commonly referred to as the “action” of the guitar and is the most important part of the setup process.  If the strings are too far away from the fingerboard, the guitar will be hard to play. If the strings are too close, you will get buzzing sounds and vibrations that will negatively impact your sound.


The Parts of the Guitar

The "nut"

The “nut” is located at the top of the neck

The distance between the guitar strings and the guitar fingerboard on an acoustic guitar is determined by the size and placement of the “nut” – located at the “top” of the fingerboard near the first fret – and the “saddle” – located on the body of the guitar near the middle and usually embedded within the structure of the wooden “bridge”. Most acoustic guitars have a nut and saddle made of bone or plastic, which can be filed to precise measurements that will optimize the distance desired from the fingerboard. Most electric guitars have a metal or plastic nut and an adjustable metal saddle with individual adjusters for each string. Some electric guitars also have an adjustable nut.


The Neck of the Guitar

The "neck"

The neck of the guitar has a slight curvature

Another important feature of the setup process is the adjustment of the guitar’s neck. Almost all guitars have a “truss rod” embedded within the full length of the neck that can be adjusted to change the curvature or “bow” of the neck. All guitar necks have some degree of curvature. A guitar reaches optimum playability when the curve of the neck is adjusted properly. This requires skill and experience on the part of the guitar technician to determine. Adjusting the bow of the neck also affects the distance between the strings and fingerboard, so the technician must carefully do his work to achieve the desired result, keeping in mind the adjustments made, or that will be made, on the nut and saddle.


New Strings Are Needed for a Good Setup

Guitar frets

Close up of guitar frets

An experienced guitar technician will always do a set up with new or lightly used strings on the guitar, because the condition of the strings greatly affects the overall sound and playability of the guitar. A good technician will also usually notice other defects or potential problems with your guitar. For example, it is not uncommon for the bridge on an acoustic guitar to begin pulling away or lifting up from the body of the guitar, due to the constant stress on the bridge produced by the tension of the strings. In this case, the bridge may need to be re-glued and clamped until it is stable again for normal use.


Other Problems Can be Found During the Setup

Guitar headstock

The headstock and tuners

Other problems that can be discovered during a set up are issues with the tuners, located on the headstock at the top of the guitar fingerboard. These will sometimes have to be repaired or replaced. Electric guitars will have additional potential problems with electronic circuitry, volume and tone knobs, switches, wires, jacks and pickups. Pickups themselves are usually adjustable and will need to be optimized for the best possible sound on an electric guitar.



Guitars Are Made to Factory Specs

Guitar factory

Mechanized robots at a guitar factory

Most guitars available on the market today are mass produced in factories using specialized precision equipment. The manufacturers do not want the action on their guitars to be too low when they enter the market because correcting a guitar’s action that is too low would usually be much more involved and expensive than correcting an action that is too high, especially in the case of acoustic guitars that require physical modifications to the size and shape of the nut and saddle. So, while most guitar makers want their guitars to be perfectly playable when they arrive in the hands of the customer, the reality is that they use general factory specifications that will ensure that the action on their guitars will not be too low when they reach the retailer, which means over-compensating slightly during the manufacturing process.


Importance of Temperature and Humidity

Electric guitar

Electric guitar knobs, switches and patch cord

In addition to the production considerations mentioned above, most guitars are subject to varying conditions of heat and humidity during transport and when they reach their final destination, which may have a different climate than where the guitar was manufactured. This means that most guitars will require some adjustments to reach optimal playability in most circumstances. Heat and humidity have a substantial effect on guitars, especially acoustic guitars with unfinished interior surfaces that can readily absorb moisture. Even electric guitars can be affected by these factors.


A Guitar is a Machine

Electric guitar bridge

An electric guitar bridge assembly and pickups

A guitar is, in the final analysis, a precision machine that needs to be finely adjusted and maintained to perform at its highest possible level of operation, no different than a bicycle, automobile or aircraft. Just like you wouldn’t allow any random stranger to work on your car, you want to make sure to find a trusted and reputable guitar technician to work on your cherished instrument. Once set up properly and given stable conditions of heat and humidity, a guitar set up can last for years, depending on use.



While you may be able to still play a guitar that is not properly set up, a set up can mean the difference between a guitar that is fun and easy to play and one that is not, depending on the condition of the guitar being worked on. Setups are highly encouraged by our teachers, especially for brand new guitars that have never been played, or older guitars that may have been affected by heat and humidity over long periods of time. It should also be noted that many musical instruments, not just guitars, require or will benefit from a complete setup, most notably woodwinds, brass and strings. Setups are usually quite affordable and in our opinion, well worth the investment.

Following are some options in Toronto for your guitar setup:

Shy Boy & Tex Repair Co.658 Queen Street West416-366-7467 $80 + strings + tax
String ’em Up Guitar Repairs260 Carlaw Ave. – call first – 647-382-9873 $70 + strings
Long & McQuade925 Bloor Street West416-588-7886 $75 + strings + tax
12th Fret2132 Danforth Avenue416-423-2132 $85 and up + strings + tax
Junction Guitars2776 Dundas Street West416-761-0056 $60 and up + strings + tax
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