I can remember the first time I heard the term "setup" as applied to the guitar. It was 1992 and I had a Gibson ES 135 that seemed to never stay in tune. How I ended up with this particular guitar is a bitter sweet story that we will get to in a minute. I was talking to one of the sales guys at B&G Music about my 135 and how it didn't stay in tune very well, to which he replied, "You definitely need a setup, dude." B&G Music was located on East Main Street in Belleville, and the first music store I worked at, first as a teacher, then as a salesman, so I knew this sales guy and trusted him...more or less.
"Setup? What's a setup?" I asked. He explained that if I got my guitar setup, it would play a lot better, That they would, "You know, tweak it out and stuff". I was a bit skeptical, but I gave him my guitar and he gave me my receipt. A week or so later, I came in to teach and the guitar was ready! I paid my $40.00, and pulled the guitar out of the case to give it a spin, and I remember thinking, "It doesn't really seem much different." Had I just been had? I just gave this guy my guitar for a week and 40 bucks and now I can't really tell if they even did anything. I mean, it wasn't like we were strangers, I was working there. "Maybe I'm not a good enough player to tell?" I thought to myself. I remember the sales guy saying, "What do you think?" I just mumbled, "It's cool." and I headed to my teaching room to sulk.
So back to how I ended up with this guitar in the first place. Prior to the 135, I had an Ibanez Artist, solid body guitar from the early '80s, that I had found in the Weekly Trader. Kids, before the internet and Craigslist, we had the Weekly Trader, an actual free newspaper with classified ads, which happened to have a section for music gear! Back to the Ibanez...it was as close to a Les Paul as I could afford at the time, and it was awesome, to my recollection. But, it had one issue...it would not stay in tune. I tried pencil lead in the nut, I tried every string brand on the market, I even replaced the tuners with Sperzels, but I couldn't get it to work. I went in to a different shop one day and saw the 135 and asked about putting my Ibanez torwards it in trade. They agreed and I was soon on my way with my new guitar.
So lets review...I had a guitar that I liked, but traded away because I couldn't get it to stay in tune, for another guitar, which I liked, but would also not stay in tune, even after paying for a setup, whatever that was! It's funny, I don't think I had a setup done for a long time after that. I just dealt with the 135, probably because I had a lot invested in it, and I liked the guitar. I continued to buy and trade other guitars and basically took them for what they were. Some played well, and if some didn't, I assumed they were duds. It would be a few years before I really became educated on guitar setups, and quite a few more years before I got to a place where I was truly comfortable setting up guitars.
Now, lets talk present day and set ups. It's 2016 and we have all the information at our finger tips. We can all watch a youtube video and be on our way to setting up our guitars, right? Remember I said it was more than a few years before I truly got to a place where I felt comfortable doing setups . You can watch a video or read an article and get an understanding of your setup, but it's the assessment that is the hard part. That's what you pay for. The road map of what needs to happen and in what order, to make your guitar play to the best of its ability, considering the style of music you play and feel you want. This is why I prefer to have the client there while I work on a setup. I want to have a conversation with them about their instrument, how they play, how hard they pick, and what gauge strings they use. I want to have them play the instrument and see their technique, first hand. Then I can make a proper assessment, set up the instrument and they can play it again so I can adjust it out and get it perfect, or as close to it as possible! It's a very personal thing, having your guitar set up to your specifications.
So here are the nuts and bolts of my process. I want to see the neck straight first. I start by adjusting the truss rod to get the neck as straight as possible. Then I can go to a fret rocker and check for high frets. I check each one at the treble side, bass side, and the middle of the fret board. Frets are curved to match the radius of the fret board and can have a bit of spring in them. A fret can pop up on either side of the fretboard or the center and be seated everywhere else. If there are unlevel frets, we can have a discussion about it and consider a fret level and recrown before the set up process. Again, this is so much easier when the customer is in front of you and can see what you are doing.
Once I am sure the frets are level and the neck is straight, I'll remove the strings, clean the fret board, polish the frets, oil the board, then restring the instrument. I also take time to make sure the tuners are tight, and if the neck is a "bolt on", I make sure that the mounting screws are tight as well. Then I'll check the nut slots to insure they are cut to the proper height and the string is not binding. Tuning issues are mostly caused by poorly cut or worn nut slots, and looking back on the two guitars I previously mentioned, that was most likely the issue with both guitars.
I'll then set the action of each string, measuring from the bottom of the diameter of the string to the top of the bead of the12th fret. I'm looking for around 2/32" for each string as a general guide, then I will fine tune as I play test and the customer plays the instrument. Once my string height is set, I check intonation to make sure the instrument plays in tune up the neck, set my pickup height, recheck my action, and if necessary, clean the electronics. At this point I have the customer spend some time playing it and we adjust anything that is not to their liking.
When should you get a setup? I think anytime you acquire a new or used instrument, you should at least have it looked at by a pro tech. If you decide to change string gauge, you'll usually need a setup, or at least some adjustments, and it's not a bad idea to have your instrument looked at once a year as you go through the season changes. Also, if you move from a different climate or travel a lot, you may want to get your instrument checked out regularly. Finally, anytime you feel your instrument is not playing well, you should take some time to have it checked out. No one knows your instrument better than you.