So you’re prepping to record guitars for your bands' new song or album. You’ve been rehearsing the songs to perfection, replaced your strings, and are ready to slay these tracks! But did you forget one crucial step? The SETUP! A proper setup will not only help you sound better, it will improve your playing and save you time in the studio.
I’ve been there countless times. “Alright, let’s hit those octaves in the chorus... and, record!” The addition of the octave movement is bringing a new excitement to the song! This sounds great! Then the guitarist slides to the 12th fret and suddenly the harmonic bliss that was just soothing souls evokes furrowed eyebrows. The intonation is off! The only options now to avoid out of tune parts are to stop and get this guitar properly setup/intonated, or tune and record separately for each of the parts needing special attention. In this scenario, I choose the former. Either way, we are taking valuable time away from the productive process, and that can potentially hinder the musicians’ positive mindset for the remainder of the session.
It would be wonderful if guitars simply played and sounded their best at all times. After all, it’s the person behind the strings creating that magical tone, right? Well, somewhat. Most guitars are made from wood, and there are many factors such as temperature and humidity that can severely impact the tonal characteristics, tonal quality, and even playability of the instrument. Performing regular inspections and adjustments as needed will ensure your guitar is always in peak condition. Here are a few important steps you or the professional should address when inspecting and performing a setup:
- Removing/Replacing strings
- Cleaning/lubricating the nut to improve tuning, pitch, response, and resonance
- Fretboard conditioning to prevent drying out and possible warping of your fretboard
- Adjusting the truss rod to correct bow in the neck
- Adjusting bridge & string height to ensure proper action and to eliminate fret buzz
- Adjusting pickup height to find the proper balance in tone delivered from the strings to your output
- Fine tuning the intonation so that every fretted note is in tune as you move up and down the fretboard
If you don’t feel comfortable doing a setup on your own, most music shops offer these services. Just as in looking for a mechanic, I would advise seeking recommendations for a trusted guitar tech or luthier in your area and choose one you feel will deliver adequate service.
If you do feel comfortable in learning to setup your own guitars, I would highly recommend doing so! It is fun to learn the ins and outs of your instrument and will save you money, time, and headaches.
The first time I setup my own guitar, I was a bit nervous. I had heard horror stories of people overturning their truss rod and snapping the neck. However, I’ve always had the mindset in life that “other normal people can do that, so why can’t I” and I would learn. Don’t worry... I haven’t came across the right how-to video for performing heart surgery yet. So anyways, I found a step by step guide online showing how to set up your guitar, and followed it. It took me about an hour and a half to do my first ever setup, but it felt awesome knowing I conquered a new feat! Overtime I gained speed and now can knock out a complete setup in about a half hour. I do keep up regular maintenance on my guitars so I’m usually just requiring fine adjustments, but I’m confident in knowing they will always perform at their maximum potential when inspiration strikes.
If you are ready to take the next step and perform your first guitar setup, here is a great step by step article courtesy of Sweetwater! This how-to has some great details and explanations of why and how. I wish this one existed when I was doing my first setup!
For guitar maintenance, I highly recommend Lizard Spit music care products. I’m not endorsed by them by any means. They just make great stuff! Their eco-friendly guitar polish, fretboard conditioner and nut lubricant are honestly the best that I have used on my guitars. They also make a string cleaner and easy fret polishing system that I’ve yet to try, but I have no doubt that they would exceed my expectations. As a bonus, their products are are made right here in Michigan! Upon having the opportunity to interact with the founder and chemist, Chris Webster, I inquired a bit about his business and product development. I can tell you that the honesty and passion this man has for his company truly carries over into the quality of the product. Great people making great stuff. That is something I can stand behind. Get yourself some Lizard Spit here:
Now that you’re on your way to performing your first guitar setup, I wish you the best of luck and am confident that you will succeed in this task! Know your gear, play your gear, and create great music. Do you setup your own guitars? Tell us your experience in the comments below!