Ah, the mysterious guitar setup. Especially to the beginning player, the guitar setup is something shrouded in confusion - at best, a little bit of mystery. There are also pros who know how they like their guitar to play, but leave it up to a tech to setup. Setting up a guitar can be such a detailed process, that I'm going to break up this blog entry into parts. For this part, we'll cover action height adjustment, the most common reason why players get their guitars setup. I won't be instructing on how to adjust your action, that might come later as a possible idea for a DIY instructional series.
I often hear players come into the shop saying "my friend told me that my guitar needs setup." My first question usually goes something like this, "why do YOU think it needs a setup?"
Here's the deal, part of a setup can be adjusting the action to make it more comfortable. Action height is determined by how high (or low) the strings are from the frets of the guitar. Because action is more than anything a personal preference, it's easy to have confusion about the setup. What one player would feel is 'high action' might not be the case for another player.
Since most players like a low action for numerous reasons (easier to fret chords, doesn't require as much hand strength, faster runs up and down the neck due to more economy of motion with lower string height), setting up low action becomes a balancing act between getting it as low as you can while not having buzz. This is because when strings are struck, they oscillate or vibrate. When there is not enough clearance for the strings to vibrate, they will bang up against the frets on the fingerboard - hence buzz. At the risk of complicating things - minimal string buzz isn't actually a bad thing, and sometimes it's unavoidable depending on the guitar. Sometimes players don't realize a little bit of buzz isn't a bad thing, especially when you don't hear it once plugged into an amp.
Here's another thing about personal preference and action height - playing style. One person could have a lighter touch on the picking hand, so that he or she might not strike the strings as hard, resulting in less of a range of motion for the strings to oscillate or vibrate. This means that the same guitar might not buzz for them, whereas for the heavy-handed player, it would. Players with a lighter touch can get away with lower action - this doesn't mean they are 'better' than the heavy-handers, just different. Which leads me to say that a low action setup is not better than a high action, it depends on the needs of the player. Stevie Ray Vaughan played with heavy strings, and probably had a heavy attack - he required a higher action. There are other pros who use light gauge strings, and a low action. To say that a guitar with a low action has a better setup than a guitar with a higher action, is as much a personal statement as saying that heavy gauge strings have a 'better tone' than lighter gauge strings. Tone and action height is in the eye of the beholder, or rather the ear and hands...
Back to scenario I mentioned at the beginning of the article with the person who came into the shop for a guitar setup. Depending on how experienced the player is, or how in touch they are with their playing style and their necessary action height requirements, I might ask them to play their guitar for me and show me why they think they need a setup. Keep in mind I'm not giving our customers a hard time, just trying to make sure they know what they want, so I can serve them better. If an individual can't tell me why they need a setup, and if they're comfortable with their string height, I usually leave it be. Or, maybe I'll make a suggestion for raising or lowering the action based on how I see the player plays. More often than not, for a beginner that doesn't know what they like yet, I'll lower it more just to make it easier to play for them. And here's a critical part of action height adjustment when you take your guitar to a shop that doesn't know how you like your action (assuming YOU know how you like your action), you should be encouraged to try it after the work as been completed. Any guitar tech worth his wages will make sure the job has been done. Minor tweaking might be necessary if the guitar still buzzes for the player. This doesn't mean the tech wasn't good enough to nail it the first time, unless the player gives the tech the exact measurements of the string height, it's somewhat a guessing game for the tech. Which is why I ask the player to play for me before the setup, and after the setup. Adjustments are made till it is done right for the player.
As a player, your action height might change as you develop your playing style. I haven't even covered other aspects of action height - like how a slide guitar will usually require a higher action for the same player that will have a lower action setup on a different guitar. I didn't mention that string gauge will also determine how low an action can go - not just if the player is heavy or light handed. The quality of the guitar has a say in the matter too. Guitars that are not built as well might have uneven frets, or some frets that are higher than others, this prevents how low you can go. This can be fixed, but it usually is an additional fee to the setup.
Don't lose any sleep if you don't know how you like your action height. Chances are, if you're not noticing a difference, it's not a big deal. Some players are more sensitive to it than others. Besides, like I mentioned, your action preference might change over the years. If you notice that your guitar is a little more difficult to play those barre chords on during the winter time, as opposed to the end of the summer, it's because the changes in humidity/temperature has affected the wood of your guitar - this will happen. Take your axe into your local guitar shop, and get 'er setup.
...more to come with Part II
Bill Wray Jr