I play guitar. I worked it out, and I believe I received my first guitar 40 years ago this Christmas. It’s a question as to whether I have 40 years of experience or the same 3 years of experience 40 times — the year I scarcely picked it up, the year I pulled it out when I got tired or bored, and the year where I played out a fair amount — but I have read a lot, learned a lot, and played a lot, so I know a fair amount about guitars.

There was a question on the r/Guitar subreddit recently:

I have a few questions on guitar setups. First off, does every new guitar need to be setup? How often? It seems too much to manage to setup guitars more than once especially if you have a large collection…is there anyway to keep guitars in good condition so they don’t need to be setup more than once if at all? What does a setup do? Can I get away with not setting up?

As it turns out, this is a common thing. An inexperienced guitarist has a problem, the experienced guitarists on the subreddit suggest a guitar setup, and the inexperienced guitarists react with fear. The feeling of “I don’t want to have a guitar setup! I won’t” do it!”:” is strong in that. Considering that I think it’s good to talk about guitar setups and answer a few of these questions.

Does every guitar need to be set up?

To some extent, the question is like “Does every shoe need to be tied?”, because the answer is “No, but…” for almost exactly the same reasons. If you want the shoe to stay on the foot, you tie it. If you want the guitar to play right, you set it up.

Guitars, I believe, should be set up well before a guitarist touches them. They should be set up in the test/quality control stage at the end of the build process. They should be tested and set up (at least a little bit) at the guitar store so they know they’re not selling broken things. Sweetwater has a 55-step insepction process. I have one guitar from them, and two that were sent by the builders, and all were set up when they landed in my hands.

But not everyone laces their shoes the same, and so not everyone’s setup should be the same. It depends on the string gauges you play. It is affected by the climate and the humidity in the air. It depends on how you play the guitar.

You should tie your shoes. You should wear a belt. You should get a setup for your guitar. (Or learn to do it yourself.)

How often?

For most people, under most circumstances, they can be one-and-done situations. If you’re playing the same guitar string gaugess in the same environment, you probably never need to do it again. If you travel a lot (like a touring musician) and have a very specific way you want the guitar to feel (like a touring musician), then you probably do a lot of this before every gig, but then you know what you like and know what you have to do, so you know what I’m writing and don’t need to read this. Unless you know why you would want to tweak the truss rod before every gig, you don’t need to set up your guitar very often.

Is there anyway to keep guitars in good condition so they don’t need to be setup more than once if at all?

There’s a line saying that it seems like a lot, especially if you have a large collection.

I have a large collection. As of this week, I have

  • an electric/acoustic dreadnought guitar
  • an acoustic parlor guitar
  • a 1988 Made in Japan Fender Telecaster, which, based on the “30 years” rule, is now a vintage instrument
  • a junker partscaster I threw together as a way to play with guitar electronics and such
  • a 2022 Chapman ML3 guitar, with coil-tapped humbuckers that entered my collection this week
  • an Ed O’Brien Stratocaster with a Fernandes Sustainer system
  • a cheap Telecaster copy I only keep because it has Bill Kirchen’s signature on the headstock
  • a Teo octave 12-string guitar
  • a Supro lap steel guitar I keep in C6 tuning
  • a Kiesel lap steel guitar I keep in open D
  • an Epiphone Pee Wee Les Paul that I used as a lap steel before I bought one, and now kinda use as another octave guitar
  • a GFI pedal steel guitar I need to spend more time with

I have set up the partscaster recently because I wanted to shim the neck so I can get low action with higher grub screws in the saddles, so they don’t dig into my palm. That work required a setup, or at least was a good excuse for a setup, but I have recently went to medium-light .010 strings to very-light .007 strings, and I found that intonation was correct and I didn’t have problems that would be solved by a setup. I have never set up the Chapman or the Teo, and have only done the slightest bit of setup on the Stratocaster. They came to me previously set up (see “Does every guitar need to be set up?” above), and I wanted to make the Stratocaster’s vibrato bridge float.

What I have done, for most of the guitars is change the strings. I kinda believe you don’t own a stringed instrument until you have changed the strings. Strings go bad in the air.Strings go bad because of your acidic sweat. Strings build up dust and gunk and go bad over time. I don’t change strings often, but I don’t have string-killer sweat, I don’t play out much and I especially don’t record, so I don’t go through them fast. But if I was a more professional guitarist, I would expect to change strings every month or two.

But taking care of your instruments, including and especially changing the strings every so often, is part of keeping an instrument collection. String changes are not setups, but string changes are a part of setups.

What does a setup do?

That is a good question.

It is a very good question.

It is so good of a question that it should’ve been the first question.

A guitar setup makes the guitar playable. A guitar is playable when:

  1. it plays in tune, so that when you fret a note and pluck a string, you hear the sound you expect, without buzzes or other interference
  2. it is comfortable to play, with the strings low enough that you can as easily play all the notes on the instrument

A common initialism for the expected parts of a setup is TRAIN:

  • Tuning: We start with a new set of strings, because old strings suffer from metal fatigue and can be covered with skin oil and gunk and be corroded and all. We replace the strings, and stretch them when they’re on, so that we can do the next steps and have them do what we expect.
  • Relief: Relief refers to the neck. Under load, there should be the slightest amount of curve in the neck, so that each fret is higher than the fret before it. When the guitar is not under load, it should basically be set flat.1 There is a metal bar called a truss rod that fights against string tension to keep the guitar neck straight.
  • Action: Once the neck is straight, the next step is to make sure the strings are in frettable position by adjusting saddle height (up and down in relation to the top of the guitar). Because everything ties back to AC/DC, it is likely that Angus Young has very low action that allows him to play fast up and down the neck, and Malcolm Young had pretty high action that allowed him to play chords and riffs on the low frets without fret buzz. (I have no idea what action they actually had.) But the difference between them in saddle height would be millimeters.
  • Intonation: This is making sure that each note is in tune2. Basically, we tune to the note, and the fretted note at the 12th fret should be the octave. If it is too sharp to be the octave, we need to move the saddle back. If it’ is too flat to be the octave, we need to move the saddle forward. With some extreme string gauges, you might run out of room to move your saddle. Whatever you do, you must always remember to loosen the string before moving the saddle. I carved rows into the chrome of my Telecaster’s first bridge by setting intonation while the string is under tension.
  • Nut: The nut is the thing at the other end of the guitar neck from the saddle. There’s crazy stuff that’s done in the name of Buzz Feiten, but the basics are that you want your nut slot to be a certain height and no higher, because bending it down will tend to pull you sharp if it’s too high, and you’ll get fret buzz if it’s too low. Honestly, I have never filed a nut slot in my life, and I think most guitarists don’t do it, either.

The above elements are most of what a guitar setup entails. There’s things that can be done that are above-and-beyond. Checking the frets, fret jobs, filing the fret ends and rolling the neck shoulder for comfort, tightening the jack and the strap locks, raising or lowering pickups, cleaning the fretboard, spraying pot cleaner into the electronics, etc. You put an instrument in the hands of a decent tech and all the other various things that need to be taken care of will be known.

Can I get away without one?

The guitar should be set up before it get to you. A guitar should be in a playable state before it leaves the factory or workshop, much less the guitar shop. If it is in a playable state, and you make no real changes, it should stay that way for a long time. But not every instrument is in a playable state when it enters the marketplace and falls into the hands of the player. You don’t have to set it up again if you don’t want to.

But r/Guitar regularly suggests a setup, and they do so for two reasons:

  • I compared a guitar with a shoe earlier, but now I would like to compare it with a suit. You can buy off the rack, but they can tailor it so that the hems fall right and the waist size is your exact waist size, so that looks good and feels good on you. A guitar that isn’t set up possibly won’t sound good or feel good, and if playing guitar doesn’t sound good or feel good, you will not progress and you will want to stop.

  • Guitars have issues that can’t be fully or correctly described by new musicians, and all the minor issues that you don’t even know are getting in your way can be solved by putting the instrument in the hands of a guitar tech who knows what they’redoing.

Guitar setups are not scary, even if certain gruff guitar techs can be. They are reasonably easy for people to learn. A tuner, a capo, two screwdrivers, a big Allen wrench and a small Allen wrench, and a $5 feeler gauge are most of what you need to set up a guitar. But learning these skills take time, and new guitarists want to be guitarists and not guitar techs. A professional setup is the fastest way to make a guitar playable.

If you have any questions or comments, I would be glad to hear it. Ask me on Mastodon or make an issue on my blog repo.

  1. Cheap-ass guitar-shaped objects often have a lot of relief so that the action is okay for the open-position “cowboy chords” in folk songs, but the higher the fret, the higher the action and the more unplayable the note. This is the bullshit solution that hates new players. If you know a person who is curious about music, the worst gift you can get them is a cheap-ass guitar-shaped object with bullshit high action. It would be nicer to punch them in the face. 

  2. It is actually impossible to really tune a guitar. Frets mess up the math, which is why the G on the low string will be flat even when the note on the 12th fret is pitch perfect. The existence of just intonation for the strings and equal temperment with the harmonics means that it disagrees on what, for example, what a G sharp is. But we can get close enough, and if we just play with other guitars, we’ll always agree with ourselves.