Guitar Repair And Setup

Before you start tearing your instrument apart, or if you’re thinking of buying a particular guitar, there are some steps you may want to take to determine whether guitar repair or setup is even necessary.  Your approach may be different depending on the guitar makers and the woods and parts they use.  Whether you’re evaluating for electric or acoustic guitar repair, following are some pointers to help guide you and evaluate a new or used guitar:

Guitar Repair Evaluation

Because guitar makers use many different woods and parts there are some basic steps you can take to evaluate electric and acoustic guitar repair and setup.  To that end, you should be able to make an informed decision by performing these steps.


Play The Guitar

 First of all, play the guitar from top to bottom and get a feel for the action it has to offer.  Be sure and check the clearance between the bottom of the strings and the top of both the 12th and 1st frets.  These distances will greatly affect the action as will the straightness or relief that you deliberately adjust into the neck.  Relief is a measurable gap, or upward bow, in the fingerboard, caused by the string’s pull and a deliberately loosened truss rod.  In some cases, relief eliminates strings buzzing against frets.


Inspect The Guitar 

 Inspect the guitar under good lighting for cracks, dents, dings and scratches.  This may not affect your setup but it may affect the price your willing to pay.  Inspect and feel the back of the peghead for any sign of a crack or break (especially on used Gibsons with mahogany necks, which are notorious for cracking across the grain).

Test The Neck

 Always have a close look at the guitar neck and test it for strength and twist.  Rest the guitar body face up and on the bottom back edge of the lower bout, support the peghead, and pull down from the center of the neck.  You’ll know immediately if the neck is strong and stiff or weak and rubbery.  Stiff necks are best because you can easily control them with a little truss rod adjustment.  Rubber necks, caused by weak or inferior wood, may never straighten out because the pull of the strings is too much for even the truss rod to correct.  With the guitar in a position where the neck is pointing straight at you, you can see if the neck has a twist toward either the bass or treble side.  If it does, the peghead usually will dip in the direction of a twist.  Avoid buying a guitar if it has a discernable twist.  A wee bit is okay.


Checking For Straightness Or Relief

 With the guitar on its side in the playing position, close one eye and sight along the fretboard edge.  Sight first on the bass, then the treble side, to see if the neck is either straight, back-bowed (away from the strings) or up-bowed (toward the strings).  A straight neck is a desirable starting point for any setup. 

Guitar Repair

You may be able to adjust a slight up-bow (relief), but back-bow is always bad because it will cause the strings to buzz against the fretboard.  Another way to check for relief is to use the strings as a straightedge, fretting a string toward each end of the fretboard while stretching one finger toward the center and pressing the string down.  If it moves, you have relief.  If it rests on the frets, the neck is straight (or maybe even back-bowed).

Bolt-on Neck Alignment

Check the alignment of a bolt-on neck by standing the guitar upright and looking at the neck straight on.  You can see if it is properly aligned with the outside E-strings by sighting the distance each E-string is from the edge of the fretboard.  Strings that lean toward either the bass or treble side, will have a tendency to fall off the edge.  Its easy to realign these bolt-on necks.


Inspect The Guitar Nut

Look closely at the nut.  Make sure its clean and the notches are not too deep.  If they’re too deep they can cause problems with tuning and stretching.  The strings should rise gradually from the tuning pegs to a contact point directly at the nut’s front edge.


Fret Condition And Height

 Be sure to inspect the fretboard making note of the condition and height of the frets.  Look for pitted frets, rough fret ends or loose frets.  With your fingernail, feel for sharp fret ends at the edge of the fretboard.  There are many fretwire sizes.   Players who like to bend strings or whole chords, prefer high frets.  Some jazz and country players however, who rarely bend strings prefer low frets.


Guitar Truss Rod

 It’s crucial that your guitar has a ‘working’ truss rod.  Remove the truss rod cover and, using the proper adjustment tool, check to see if the truss rod works and how well it adjusts the neck.  Before making any adjustments, make a mark with a felt pen on the nut to show where the rod was adjusted.


Guitar Tuning Keys

 Check the tuning keys by detuning and retuning them to make sure they work.  Check for loose hex nuts and mounting screws and be sure that the screw that holds the key onto the shaft is secure.  On most tuning pegs, this screw not only holds the tuning peg on but determines how stiff or loose the key will be.


Guitar Electronics

Plug the guitar into an amplifier and play it.  Adjust the volume and tone controls to be sure they’re working.  If they’re making static noises, they may need to be cleaning and flushed with a contact cleaner.  Move the selector switches back and forth to determine that they’re working. Check the guitar cable connector by moving the cable back and forth.  If it crackles, the jack is loose or there’s some other contact problem with the wiring.

Performing the preceding steps does not guarantee a perfect instrument but serves to help determine whether your electric or acoustic guitar repair is necessary.  If simple setup improves the quality of the guitar, your evaluation will have been a success.  Many of the famous guitar makers such as Martin, Fender, Gibson and others ship their products without much attention to intricate detail.  As a result, a good tune-up and personalization is worth its weight in gold and will make your guitar playing experience a much more pleasurable one.

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