I recently got an e-mail from a reader asking about getting their guitar “set up”.  I realize that I often recommend folks get their guitars set up, but I don’t often explain it.

Sometimes you may hear a guitar player talk about their set up.

But what does it mean to get your guitar set up?

Should you get your guitar set up?

Short Answer:

Setting up your guitar (or getting your guitar set up) is a lot like a tune up for your guitar. Or better yet – it’s like optimizing your guitar so it feels and sounds great when you play.

Detailed Answer:

So what exactly happens to your guitar when you get it set up?

A few things… But first let’s talk about why you should get your guitar set up.

Why would you get your guitar set up?

When your guitar is first built – usually from the folks at a factory, it is set up to factory setting – or a standard setting. This basically means that your guitar will stay in tune (usually) and make music when you play it. But it’s not quite optimized.

Setting up (or optimizing) your guitar involves fine tuning, or tweaking different settings.  Most beginner guitar players don’t even know that there are settings that can be adjusted (I know I didn’t when I first started playing).

However, after having my guitar set up it playing it feels so much nicer.

Ok, ok – “nicer”?  “Sound better”?

I realize that these descriptions are a little vague.  If I could be more specific, I would.  I will however, give you the bet description of what it’s like to play a guitar that has been set up:

“When you play a cheap guitar – especially one that hasn’t been properly set up – it’s like your playing against the guitar.  There’s more of an effort.  But playing a guitar that has been properly set up – it’s almost like the guitar guides you as you play”

So there you go.  “Guides you as you play.”  

So what kind of things will be optimized in your guitar set up?

Adjusting the Action.

The “action” of your guitar is basically the distance of the strings from the frets. We’re only talking fractions of inches here. There is no standard string height. There is no optimal distance. The appropriate action setting for you really depends on two things:

1. The guitar that you own (the type and brand)
2. Your personal preference/the type of music you play.

For beginner players I usually recommend a low string action. This basically means that you don’t have to push down super hard when you’re fretting your notes or making your chords.

I personally like a lower action.

Be careful though, too low of an action and your strings will rub/bounce/hit the frets when you’re playing – resulting in an unwanted buzzing sound.

A higher action is usually used for more aggressive guitar playing – strumming like crazy and pounding those strings.

Adjusting the action impacts how you play the guitar, and it impacts how easy it can be to play the guitar. In my opinion, adjusting the action doesn’t usually impact the sound of your guitar (again – unless it’s too low and is buzzing against the frets).

Adjusting the action on an electric usually involves raising or lowering the saddle (or saddles). The saddle is located down by the bridge of your guitar.

Adjusting the action on an acoustic can also involve adjusting the saddle, though the process is a little harder. On both electric and acoustic guitars, adjusting the nut can also impact a guitar’s action.

Sometimes adjusting the truss rod in your guitar can fix an issue with action. As with all issues related to guitar set-up I recommend you take your guitar to a professional (either at a music store or contact the manufacturer). There are tons of videos and tutorials online – but proceed at your own risk. If you don’t know what you’re doing you can really do some damage to your guitar (especially where the truss rod is concerned).

Fixing the Intonation

The easiest way to understand intonation is this: When your guitar is in tune, and you play a note it should be the note it’s supposed to be.

For a example. Let’s say you clip on your snark tuner and tune your E String to an E. Then you leave your tuner on and you press down the 5th fret of the E string. The tuner should say “A”. Now let’s say you fret the 12th fret of the E string. The tuner should now say “E” (again). But let’s say it actually says F! Uh oh! Your intonation needs to be adjusted.

This is done be altering the length of the string. This is done on an electric by adjusting the saddles.  However, instead of raising and lowering them (as we would to adjust the action), we lengthen or shorten them.

On an acoustic, fixing intonation can be done by altering or changing the saddle (but the process is a bit trickier).

Most beginner players probably won’t notice a slight issue in intonation – most listeners probably won’t notice either.

However, if the intonation is really off – it will impact the music you play. In my experience, poor intonation is the result of a really cheap guitar that just came from the factory (think: guitars that you purchase at Walmart or Target, or really bottom-of-the-line models – kids guitars frequently have awful intonations issues).

Really old and poorly taken care of guitars may also have intonation issues. So that guitar gathering dust in your attic for 3 decades may not sound all that nice – even after you change the strings and tune it up. You may need to get it set up.

Other Issues

Sometimes having your guitar set up will also include random fixes, adjustments, or just normal maintenance. Here are some other things that may occur during your guitar set-up:

  • Changing strings
  • Wiping down and polishing guitar
  • Cleaning the frets and/or oiling the fretboard
  • Tightening any loose nuts or bolts
  • Tightening any loose machine heads
  • Adding buttons for a guitar strap

This stuff is usually pretty easy to fix and is typically thrown in during a guitar set-up (though you may need to ask about specific issues).

Non-Setup Issues

Here are some other common (and some uncommon) guitar issues that are generally NOT part of a guitar set up:

  • Fixing/Replacing/Repairing ANY electronics in your guitar.
  • Replacing and/or repairing frets
  • Replacing a broken bridge or nut.
  • Any large replacement or repair issues (cracked neck, broken headstock).
  • Replacing pickups
  • Replacing the fretboard
  • Refretting your guitar

As with anything – check with your guitar store/technician to properly diagnose any guitar issues.

Who should setup my guitar?

A qualified guitar technician. Again – check with local music stores and/or your guitar manufacturer.

However, if you have a cheap guitar that you don’t mind (potentially) ruining.  It may not be a bad idea to learn how to make minor fixes to your guitar.  Again – there are a ton of tutorials online.  Proceed at your own risk.

How much does a setup cost?

It really depends. I’d say between $60-$80. And that includes a new set of strings. It’s worth it.

Some music stores will set up your guitar for free if you buy from them. Most people (foolishly) don’t take advantage of this offer.

Should I get my guitar set up?

If you can afford the $70 to set it up? Yeah. Even if your guitar plays perfectly it will give a qualified technician a chance to give your guitar a professional once-over to make sure there are no issues that you may have not been aware of it.

When should I get a guitar set up?

If you’ve never gotten it set up previously.

If you just a bought a new guitar.

If you just bought a used guitar.

If you just found a guitar in your basement/garage/attic.

The only time you shouldn’t get a guitar set up is if you already know it’s been recently set up AND it plays and sounds nicely (and you’re happy with it).

Thanks for everyone that e-mails, comments and asks questions.  If it weren’t for you, I would never be able to address questions like the one in this article.  That’s it!  If I missed anything (or if you have any questions) let me know in the comments below!

Jake Posko is the owner of Severn River Music – proudly and happily providing in-home guitar, piano, drum and music lessons in the Maryland area including: Annapolis, Edgewater, Severna Park, Pasadena, Crownsville, Arnold and Kent Island, inquire about lessons by e-mailing him at jake@jakeposko.com

(photo credit: Alan Levine)