“What is a guitar setup?”
Good question really!! A setup is the balance between the FEEL and TONE of your guitar and, to a certain extent, the compromising effect they have on one another.
That basically sounds like a load of old horse sh*t I know! So let’s break this down and look at it from a less convoluted angle:
Fairly straight forward…how easy does your guitar feel to play? are the strings difficult to push down? do they feel like they are spaced out incorrectly? do the strings hang off one side of the fret board? is it difficult to tune? are the frets sharp?….etc etc.
Again pretty simple…what does your guitar sound like? do the strings buzz? Are there any undesired rattles? is the sound uneven or muffled? are there any undesired “overtones” sounding within the notes? does it sound in tune?…etc etc.
So now we know what we mean by feel and tone, the two most basic but important parts of a guitar setup, but what about their relationship with one another? Consider this:
In GENERAL “most” people consider strings that are close to the fret board ( a low action) to be a comfortable/ good setup which is fine, however, the lower you drop those wires the more buzz you will introduce as they get closer to the metal frets…there you go..the first relationship between feel and tone…simple eh?!
OK so maybe you want to go the other way and raise those wires a bit. Now you are starting to gradually make the guitar more difficult to play by increasing the distance of the strings from the frets and so increasing the effort it takes to fret a note. The caveat here is that, although the guitar might feel like it’s fighting you, the notes will ring cleaner and louder…and there it is again…the relationship between feel and tone!
So you can see from these examples that it’s all a giant balancing act and that there is no “right” or “correct” setup. Many will agree on certain adjustments making for a “good all round setup” but at the end of the day setups can be as unique as the guitarists that have them, some players like a “low and fast” playing guitar and don’t mind the odd rattle of nickel on nickel, others prefer a “loose and loud” clean playing guitar and will sacrifice some finger pain for clean,loud note definition.
Although string height, or action, represents one of the most fundamental and critical adjustments during a guitar setup it is certainly not the only aspect of a setup, although it is the one most people look for as it has the greatest affect on our ability to “comfortably” play a guitar. Many other adjustments can be made to a guitar to better balance it’s tonal performance versus it’s feel.
My piece of advice when assessing a guitars setup is to use your hands more than your eyes. Although we can use our eyes to sight a neck to check for warps, twists or bows in the neck and check for other mechanical defects in a guitars construction, our eyes cannot tell us how a guitar feels. An experienced guitarist can feel the minutest difference between guitars and i’m talking about thousandths of an inch adjustments in string placement…your eyes cannot do this!
As i said at the start you can think of guitar setup like an old fashioned set of counter balance scales.
On one side you have FEEL and you make adjustments to your guitar to try to make it as comfortable as possible to play, however, all the time you should be conscious of “upsetting” the other side of the scale….TONE. A technicians job is to PERFECTLY counterbalance these scales so they float in a total equilibrium that is suitable for the player in question. Try to baby a player and make a guitar super slick to play and you WILL hinder tone, try to make the guitar as loud and tonally responsive as possible and you WILL sacrifice comfort. Exactly where this equilibrium exists is entirely dependent on the player.
In the drop-down section of the WTF menu on this blog i will go into more detail on the individual areas of a guitar that affect this equilibrium and how they can be adjusted,