By Jim Thomas
A guitar setup and adjustment is the detailed process of making a guitar easy to play and sounding its best. Unadjusted guitars can be difficult to impossible to play and immediately puts the player at a disadvantage. The majority of new guitars are not setup or adjusted for optimal playability especially for the price range of the beginning and intermediate player.
The adjustment process is a multi-step procedure and begins by leveling the strings to a specific height over the entire length and radius of the fingerboard. When the strings are level and close as possible to the fingerboard the guitar is easy to play. When too close to the fingerboard the strings buzz against the frets while playing. Often the words “adjustment” and “set-up” are interchangeable.
Adjustments are made at three specific places on the guitar: the neck, bridge saddle and nut. Sometimes additional work on the frets is necessary if they are not level and even with the surrounding frets. Uneven frets cause the strings to buzz, making it impossible to produce a pure musical tone. The strings will need to be raised higher off the fingerboard if the frets are not leveled. This in turn makes the guitar more difficult to play.
How important is a guitar adjustment?
The quality of the adjustment is the most important aspect of the guitar. Having the right size guitar is important but it will not matter if it is too hard to play.
The guitar adjustment or lack of adjustment will determine whether you can truly learn to play the guitar. The varying degrees of adjustment will result in how much playing and technical ability you can develop.
The initial playing condition of a guitar will lay the foundation on which a player learns and builds their skills. One cannot learn to play any better than the initial playing quality of their guitar. A properly adjusted guitar gives you the best opportunity to confidently develop your playing skills.
All guitars need to be adjusted
All new and used guitars need to be properly adjusted before they can be played well. It is natural to assume that all new guitars are ready to play right out of the box but unfortunately they are not. Even if a guitar can be played, the lack of an adjustment will limit the technical playing level that can be achieved.
The only exceptions are cheap, poorly made guitars that cannot be adjusted or will not hold an adjustment. These kinds of guitars are really toys and not musical instruments. They are sold as instruments but can never be made playable.
Many of our students and customers tell us how they tried to play the guitar in their youth but just could not learn. It was too difficult and it hurt their hands and fingers. They couldn’t get their guitar to “make music”. Having learned the difference, they do not what their children and grandchildren to have the same negative experience. Other players feel frustrated and stuck because they cannot improve their abilities. This often requires a guitar set-up followed by improvements in practice habits.
What are the problems of playing on a guitar that is not adjusted?
Several problems occur when the strings of a guitar are too high above the fingerboard.
The guitar will be very difficult or impossible to play.
There are different degrees of being out of adjustment. The strings can be high enough that excessive force is necessary to hold the strings down to get a clear tone which is followed by hand fatigue and unnecessarily sore fingers. Extremely high strings make the guitar impossible to play at all. If the strings are too close to the fingerboard they will buzz against the frets and will not be able to produce musical tones.
You may quit.
When a new player finds the guitar difficult to play, they often quit the instrument not realizing the guitar is the problem and not them. Because they do not have years of playing experience or the guidance of a good teacher, they unfortunately believe they lack the talent to learn to play which can result in diminished self-esteem.
The guitar will play out of tune.
Pushing a string or strings down to play a note or chord will stretch the strings resulting in the guitar playing out of tune. No amount of tuning or retuning can fix this problem.
You will develop bad playing habits.
If you do manage to muscle your way through playing on strings that are too high above the fingerboard, you will develop bad technique from repeatedly pushing too hard. Using excessive force to hold the strings down makes it almost impossible to learn to play well.
You will have to relearn good playing habits.
Once you realize the strings are too high off the fingerboard (which can often take years) you will have to go through the tedious task of developing new playing habits by overwriting the bad habits. Anyone who has ever tried to overcome just one bad habit can understand how difficult it is to change an embedded behavior. This is often enough to make some people quit the instrument or not play for long periods of time.
How often does a guitar need to be adjusted?
Guitars should be examined every six months to a year depending on the environmental conditions such as humidity and temperature. A well prepared and adjusted guitar will remain stable in stable environments, generally 70 degrees Fahrenheit and about 50% humidity. Proper care and environmental control will help make adjustments last longer. However, these conditions are not always in our control. But here is the good news: Once a guitar has been properly adjusted and the environmental conditions are not too extreme, any additional adjustments are likely to be as simple as tweaking the truss rod in the neck of the guitar. A five to ten minute task in any good repair shop.
The guitar is a musical instrument and not a commodity
The adjustment is the final step in preparing a guitar to be easy to play and sound its best and represents a significant portion of the cost of a guitar. However, guitar manufacturers have been very successful in turning the guitar into a commodity. To meet consumer demands for lower prices, they simply spend a fraction of the time a professional repair shop would do to properly adjust a guitar.
Searching the Internet you quickly see that guitar retailers are competing for consumer dollars with the lowest price possible. If the guitar was actually a commodity, it would be a good deal and guitars would be used and consumed as any other commodity. However, the guitar is a musical instrument and not a commodity. You will spend time with this instrument developing skills and abilities, making music from your own hands, heart and mind. A guitar truly becomes a musical instrument after it has been properly adjusted to accurately respond and interact with the player. An unadjusted guitar has simply not been completed.
All new and used guitars need to be properly adjusted before they are played. The quality of the guitar adjustment will affect your ability to learn and develop skills. FirstGuitar was founded on the principle of presenting players with guitars that are easy to play by adjusting every guitar to exacting playing specifications. Our motivating force and purpose is music education and performance. We believe everyone should have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument and enjoy the multitude of benefits and joy of making music. Please follow the appropriate link below for the guitar that is just right for you or a loved one.