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Getting a good set up...


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Hey all, normally I'm happy quietly reading all your excellent posts, but thought I'd pick your brains about how you go about setting up your guitars...I've always done my own set ups on all my guitars - I'm confident with what I'm doing, and know I can achieve the best end results doing it myself. After all, I'm doing it for my own personal tastes. And along the way (sometimes with much learning and trial and error!), you come to understand your own instrument, and how it all works together, and I believe thats a good process. I guess most of us here are the same, we love our guitars and like to tinker with them, and we can hear and feel the subtle differences as we change stuff, and learn and decide how it works for us. I just think getting that basic set-up right, has such a MASSIVE impact on the tone of the guitar and how it plays and feels to us, and in turn how we feel about our guitars. It got me to thinking, about how others do this process? Do you leave it to a guitar tech you trust to do your set ups to how you like, or do you do it yourself? Or even, how many people just buy a new instrument, and leave it be? I know for sure that my much loved 'bird (bought for me new last year by my much loved wife!) plays ands sounds so much better now, just for me having spent time and effort setting it up right to my preference (simple stuff too; neck relief, action, new saddle, right strings...). I don't think many (non custom!!) guitars perform to their maximum potential straight off the rack or out the box, and just understanding and making some even minor adjustments can give such awesome results. So how many nice guitars do you reckon are dismissed as being a bit "meh", "nothing special", when they just need some love and attention to set them up for that player?


Bit deep and philosophical?? Hell Yeah!


Big love to my Gibson family



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I have never owned a guitar I did not set up to suit me. With me the action, generally on the low end is too low. I also like to see if I can coax any further string separation out of the nut unless I am starting with a 1 7/8" nut. Used to do it myself but now have a repair guy do it. The guy knows me well and exactly how I like everything done. Maybe it is just because I am paying for it but I am convinced he does a better job than me.

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I've little choice - with nobody near, it's me.


OTOH, I've been pretty lucky given that what I like in a setup likely isn't all that typical.


I would prefer a real pro to add that extra 25 percent I figure I could get if I reeeeally knew what I was doing.


But to me the trick is perhaps more difficult than how some others see it. I perceive that it's the whole combination of what I like for strings and what I do as a picker on a given guitar "type" than anything else. Given that I wear exceptionally light strings on most of my flattops compared to the average flattop picker, I think it's even more important to ensure "stuff" all fits.


Then again, I have two flattops I'll likely always wear a bit heavier strings - but I'm still not heavy handed, so I can get by with a lower action than perhaps most.



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I am incredibly lucky to have found the cream of the guitar tech/luthiers in this country - I had a few problems with a Dobro and a Tele that no-one else seemed to be able to fix. Another guitarist in a band of a friends' mentioned him in glowing terms and the rest is history!


The difference between taking it to him and doing it yourself is his knowledge and experience, but also he has ALL the tools x 25 for every occasion after a life of frets. But his very special guitar tools are his magic wand and can of magic dust..... and the guitar is now:








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I have not heard of a recommended luthier within a 4 1/2 hours drive from where I live so when I first get a new guitar I measure string height and maybe tweak the truss rod a bit. I'll do minor saddle work to get any guitar's string height where I like it. If I get it too low I generally will make a new bone saddle and learn from my previous mistake as to how that saddle needs to be. I like to play a brand new guitar for about a year if it's not WAY out before I send it down to Boulder to have it completely gone over by the guys at Woodsongs. It's so dry here I just want to make sure the guitar has completely acclimated before I pay for work (and yes I do humidify my guitars but...) I've only had one guitar come back from them that I thought was so different from how I'd been playing it that I noticed it in a big way. There's probably a point after a couple of years that my guitars should be checked out again but I'll start a thread perhaps to get everyone's feedback on what point in time that is.

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I bought a couple things to help me.


A 24" flat ruler and these from StewMac




Plus I made my own nut file/saw and have plenty of hand tools and measuring calipers.


Assuming I do not need a neck set or have a twisted neck I do this in this order -


1 - capo at the 1st fret, nut slotting gage @ the 7th, hold down string around the 20th, push string down next to the gage to see the neck relief. I adjust truss rod to get this around .005"


2- remove everything, put gage over 1st fret and push the string down to measure the string height at the 1st fret. I deepen each slot until they measure where I like it around .020" on the top and .015" at the bottom.


3- remove everything. Using the gage, measure all the string heights at the 12th fret which is the mid point from the nut to the saddle. I record the measurements, mark the string locations on the saddle, remove the saddle, measure saddle height and record each string location, remove twice the amount of how much I want to lower the string to my targeted height. I use digital dial calipers to measure this. It only takes me one try. I target at 12th fret string height of .065" at the top down to .050" at the bottom. That's too low for most of my friends who play harder than I do. When I do their guitars they normally want between .075-.090 at the top and .060-.065 at the bottom. A drop in saddle gets the material removed from the bottom of the saddle. The through saddles get the tops sanded down.


If I run into high frets I take it to my luthier. If something else is goofy I'll put my straight edge on it to see if anything stands out.


It works for me. Takes about 20 minutes.


After this if a guitar gets out of whack I usually just have to put the gage at the 12th fret and adjust the truss rod






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In the early days we always fiddled the saddles and that was that.


In phase 2 so and so many years after, I began asking the 'doctor' for assistance when the D-35 was re-fretted.

Told him to keep the action low with a 5 % sitar on the high E and he usually reacted satisfyingly.


After I got into the guitars as more than a brave squires, my method has been the following :


I make the luthier guarantee the neck is straight (and maybe work out a more or less ideal saddle too).

Then - as no authority can reach the exact details I'm after continue further sanding at home. I need the guitars to answer my playing 100 to 100, which is a highly subjective matter.

So it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to expect anyone else to hit bull eye.

I sand, , , and sand, , , and even go to the controversial upper-side-sanding. Still in the process keep the tr-cover off so fine tuning can be done almost for every new state of saddle by truss rod.

Now some may see this is sacrilege, but as it's only a little back and forth this can be defended as harmless. Especially because a thin mark is painted straight on the brass tr-bolt in the position handed me by the luthier. That detail literally keeps me from screwing up. .


I'm sure the most people and certainly the authorized doctors would call my set-ups half weird, , , or far too low.

But in all respect - what do they know about what I'm after.

For me the important thing is expression and I have a bunch of test-tunes and riff to measure things by a very private affair it is.


On an end-note, I'll add that some of my acoustics (the F-bird and the HD-28V fx) are significantly grand by nature. In fact more than I like them to be.

Those guitars are brought to even lower action to make them less pompous. A fairly bold trick and one have to be extremely focused when acting.


Basis idea is -


The higher action, the more royalty - - - The lower, the more street-hobo.


So what I'm after, I guess, is the ragged King !

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