Red Flags That You Need a Guitar Setup

Red Flags That You Need a Guitar Setup

It’s inevitable. As time passes, the sound quality of your electric or acoustic guitar begins to decline. Since most guitars are made of wood, they’re susceptible to damage from a variety of enemies, including moisture, temperature, greasy fingers, and more. Most serious guitarists are diligent about maintaining their instruments, through regular string changes and careful storage. Once in a blue moon, however, you will need what is referred to as a “setup.”

So What is a Setup?

Think of a setup as an oil change for your guitar. A setup provides adjustments for your guitar’s key components so that it can function at its best. The setup process typically includes neck adjustment, bridge and saddle adjustments, intonation, electronics inspection, cleaning, fret filing, string changing, and more. While it is possible for experienced guitarists to perform their own setups, many guitarists choose to take their instruments to a trusted guitar tech.

Now, the question becomes,

When do I need a setup? Here are 5 telltale signs:

1. Your Tone is Bleh

You probably know that your strings will age over time. Not only will they look less shiny than the day you bought them, but they will also sound different. Our fingers are oily, no matter how much you wash them. This oil builds up on strings in the form of dirt and grime, which eventually corrodes the strings and deadens the tone. This is also the reason why guitarists often refer to old strings as “dead” strings.

Standard, high-quality guitar strings typically last around three months, if the guitar is played every day. With that amount of playing and that amount of time, a setup is usually right around the corner. I like to think of each string change as a seasonal change as well. The winter might have an impact on my guitar that is far different than the summer, spring, or fall. If I’m changing my strings, I typically like to do a setup along with it.

2. Your Guitar is Buzzing

Buzzing is probably one of the most common issues guitarists face. You press down on one of your frets, and you get a nasty buzzing sound when you pick. A string should only touch the fret in front of the one you are holding down. This type of buzzing occurs when the string is rattling against multiple frets. Buzzing is typically the consequence of low string height.

To fix low string height, you can either adjust the height of the saddle, adjust the neck, or perform a combination of both.

However, in some cases, buzzing might be an issue of the manufacturer. A neck that is not set correctly into the body might have a small hump around the 12th fret. This typically results in a nasty buzz within a two-fret span of the bad fret. In other cases, warping from environmental causes, such as moisture, can create buzz.

If you’re not sure what the reason is, a setup by a professional might be in order.

3. Your Strings Are Too High

If your string height is uncomfortably high, it could be a problem. For a typical acoustic guitar, the average string height should be around 6/64ths of an inch on the low end and 5/64th of an inch on the high end when measuring from the 12th fret.

While it might not seem like that much of a difference, 9/64ths of an inch is excessive and could make your guitar difficult to play. Lowering the strings might only require a lowering of the saddle height or a small neck adjustment. However, the problem can be a bit more complex sometimes. High strings could be a result of the neck separating from the body, which is a common issue on old guitars.

The glue on your guitar can unbind over time, separating the neck or bridge, which will inevitably lift the strings away from the fretboard. To prevent any harm to the guitar, you should seek to address the problem with a local guitar tech.

4. Your Fretboard is Dry

Not only does a dry fretboard look bad, but it is also bad for the guitar. A dry fretboard is a catalyst for a myriad of problems, including warping, bowing, and in the worst cases, cracking.

Fun fact: a guitar neck can be made to hold anywhere from 80-180lbs of pure tension.

To maintain a strong neck, it is essential to keep it healthy and hydrated. The best way to keep a guitar fretboard healthy is with a slight lemon oil dose every now and then. Lemon oil can hydrate a fretboard and keep it clean down the line. However, in some cases, you might need to replace frets or deal with shrinkage issues resulting from dehydration. In these cases, a setup is a must.

5. Your Guitar Won’t Stay in Tune

One of the most frustrating scenarios for new guitarists is lousy intonation. If you’ve tuned your guitar perfectly, yet it still sounds out of tune when played up the neck, you probably need to get a setup. To remedy this issue, a guitar tech will “intonate” your guitar.

Intonation helps create pitch accuracy. For example, your low E string might sound perfectly in tune when played open, though play it at the 12th fret, and the octave will sound out of tune. To intonate a guitar, the saddle length must be adjusted. Unfortunately, some guitars do not come with adjustable saddles, meaning there are other variables to consider. Leave it to your guitar tech to decide!

Know the Signs

Regardless of your guitar model or playing style, a great setup can help breathe new life into your instrument. It can help you to spot early warning signs of damage, fix warping issues, make your guitar easier to play with lowered action, and ensure your guitar is reliable so it doesn’t crap out on you at your next gig or recording session.

Of course, you want to make sure that whoever you’re taking your guitar to is trustworthy and has the proper expertise. A great guitar tech can be difficult to find, though once you’ve landed on the right one, you’ll go to them for the rest of your life!

Don’t wait for your guitar to manifest a multitude of issues. Get that thing to your local guitar guru stat. We promise you’ll love the results.

Tyler is a guitarist, singer, producer, composer & engineer based in Los Angeles. In between duties at Humbucker Soup, he swims in the shark tank of music licensing for film and television. His favorite axe is his custom Pelham Blue Fender Stratocaster.