Hello there in guitar land, thank you all for your comments and feedback to my column and to the WEBCAST hosted by Eastwood guitars.
This month I will be discussing a much overlooked aspect of guitar playing and appreciation, the professional setup. As I always say – this is not MY Guitar until it is setup to my specifications. I think perhaps 90% of today’s guitar players do NOT have a personal guitar repair technician that they work with. People have a favorite video / music store with a favorite clerk that helps them with selections, a tailor, a banker, a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer… yet they don’t have a favorite guitar tech. Why? Here are three scenarios that will exemplify this point.
Scenario #1: My Seagull sounds better then my Martin!
How many times have I heard this story, “I bought this cheap guitar at a local music store for $200 bucks, and it really needed a good setup and strings, and afterwards it sounded amazing!” The truth is that this is no urban legend – the professional setup is the real deal – and can make a decent guitar play and sound very good and sometimes even great. This is true for electrics and acoustics equally, although the most obvious is the acoustic as they are usually more prone to neck and body adjustments due to heat and humidity (or lack thereof). But, the electric guitar also needs a good setup as well.
Scenario #2: Music store guitars.
In my 30+ years of perusing music stores I have rarely entered a music store where the guitars were maintained w/ fresh strings and a good setup. As a matter of fact they are rarely even in tune to concert pitch (A440). I know – the profit margin, the man hours, blah, blah, blah – the truth is Mr. Music Store owner you will sell more guitars if they are maintained. Truth be told unless you are talking about a high end guitar shop where they have to sell guitars to pay the rent, guitars are usually hung up on the wall and expected to sell themselves.
So if you are really interested in buying a guitar in a music store, ask them to restring it and set it up for you. I mean don’t be an idiot and jerk the guy around for no reason, but you should know what it sounds like before you buy it. For a guitar under $1,000? Probably not. But for something more expensive, you bet.
For all you vintage guys out there how many times have you picked up that prehistoric Strat and were disappointed with how it played, knowing full well that it probably has been sitting for a long time without the benefit of some needed tweaking. Most dealers will say, “dude I left it as I found it” like that is a favor to you, how convenient! It’s really a disservice to those who’ll plunk down 20 G’s for a piece of guitar history, because these fellas know as well as we know, that just because it was made 50 years ago don’t mean it’s a good guitar, and the only way to know is? You guessed it, if it’s setup professionally.
Scenario #3: Online Purchases.
Online mega stores, Ebay auctions, direct sales, mom and pop sellers, third party sellers, yes my friends this is where a majority of guitar and guitar related commerce is done, online.
I must confess that I was one of those “I ain’t buying what I can’t play” guys. The idea of paying for a guitar that I had not seen gave me chills, and even more frightening to this paranoid guitar buyer was the fact that I was buying one of many guitars in that model that they had in stock. Who was going to pick the one I was getting? Beavis or Butthead? Or what does “very good condition” mean? Now we deal with words like “vibe” “correct” and “players” guitar – and are supposed to know what that means. I know what new means, it means new! I know what a demo is, it’s a demo! Alas, now I have learned how to buy guitars that I cannot play, one way is to buy from someone who is reputable and has a track record. Another is to buy what you know, a 1970 ES 335 (if it has no issues) is a 1970 ES 335, you will pay for it, and 99 times out of 100 get what you expect (from a reputable dealer or seller).
BUT… Now please my friends, pay attention here because this is the gospel as I know it. Never take a guitar out of a box after it has been shipped to you, and expect it to play right. To me that’s an unreasonable expectation. You buy a guitar on the merit of its sound, playability and pedigree (where and who it comes from). Like I said earlier, you can’t expect the store owner to take a lower cost guitar, re-string it and setup to your specifications, just for you to try it out. All players have different ideas about string gauges and low action etc, etc. That is why you need to find your own local technician, who will begin to understand your personal preferences and expectations. These guys can make a $500 guitar play like a $5000 guitar, and the more they know about you the better a job they can do for you. So, as soon as you get your guitar, inspect it for shipping damage and for flaws. As far as flaws are concerned, be reasonable, as far as I am concerned my expectations on a guitars fit and finish are directly related to its price.
Here is what I believe are the necessary parts of a good setup:
- A neck adjustment (if needed)
- Action adjustment
- Fret work (leveling if needed)
- Pickup balancing
- Nut filing (a way underrated aspect of tuning issues)
- New strings
- Cleaning scratchy pots (used guitars)
These tasks should be done by a qualified guitar repairman. You should have a local guy who knows your likes and dislikes. I personally like a flat neck adjustment with almost no bow and a higher action then most would like. You have your own expectations for a setup, communicate these to your local repairman and than enjoy your guitar.
I will say again – any guitar I own is not truly mine until it is setup to my specifications.
So in closing my friends I respectfully say don’t decide whether a guitar is a good guitar or not until it is setup professionally.
So many guitars, so little time.
3 thoughts on “That Is Not My Guitar Until It Is Setup To My Specifications”
Although I agree with the main idea of your article, some of us live quite a distance from a major music store and have had to learn set-up techniques on our own.
I often refer to Dan Erlewine’s articles and others and can do a pretty good set-up on my own guitars. I don’t think I would ever try setting up some-one elses axe, but I just don’t feel the need to drive over two hundred miles to get a set-up done.
I completely agree with the sentiment that the guitar should be set up! Especially for intonation.
But by the same token, I’m not a guitar tech fan. I’ve had techs do setups that have ended up being redone because they don’t know me, my playing styles and my likes or dislikes in a setup. I’ve encountered a few good techs but there’s far too many hacks out there.
So I spent the money and invested the time to learn how to do a proper setup for myself. If there’s an issue with anything beyond that, I take it to a qualified luthier.
I am guilty of playing a guitar out of the box with no or little adjustment other than tuning. The truth is, most people do not know how to set up a guitar properly, and some adjustments–such as a truss rod tweak–can ruin a guitar if you don’t know what you’re doing…hence the argument for a professional.
I learned the difference set-up can make by, believe it or not, falling in love with a Daisy Rock Isis–a beautiful guitar with wonderful fretboard inlay. I bought the guitar for the way it looked (I have 12 or 13 guitars hanging on the wall, another four or five on stands a a few in cases) and was amazed at not just the strength of the OEM pick-ups, but with the playability and fell of the the guitar in general.
Come to find out that Daisy Rock ships their units pre- set up. Granted, everyone has different taste and definition of what “set up” means; however, there are recommended standards in this area and I discovered how much a difference set-up can make by playing the Isis.
The problem is locating someone knowledgeable (read, “trustworthy”) enough to work on my guitars. Some of my instruments are very rare; one guitar is one of three made.
The main reason I have not had a tech work on anything is that I do not want to have to learn the hard way if someone knows what they are doing or not. These days, everyone claims to be an “expert” and I have talked with some people who do not seem to know as much as I do.
And I do not claim to be an expert.