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Acoustic Guitar Set-Ups Explained

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An Introduction to Acoustic Guitar Set-Ups

The single most important issue when you are buying an acoustic guitar is that it is properly set up!

Here at Sheehans, it's always been our firm belief that - whatever your ability or budget - there's no point parting with any of your hard-earned cash to buy an acoustic guitar that doesn't sound or play right.

That's why we employ our own luthiers to set up ALL the guitars we sell, so that they play as well as they possibly can when you buy them.

All our acoustic guitar prices include a free in-store set up
All our acoustic guitar prices include a free set up in our own workshops, worth at least £30!

What Exactly Does 'Set Up' Mean?

For an acoustic guitar to work properly, it is very important that the gap between the strings and the frets (called the 'action') is set correctly. If the strings are too close, they will rattle against the metal frets when they're played and the guitar will sound horrible. If the strings are too far from the frets, the player will have to push down much harder on the strings, making the guitar uncomfortable to play, and often bending the notes out of tune.

To get the right gap between the strings and the frets all the way along the guitar's neck, several fine adjustments have to be made - these adjustments are known as the 'set up'. To set up an acoustic guitar properly requires specialist tools, accurate measurements, and expert knowledge - so it needs to be done by an experienced guitar technician. Those who are curious can find out more about our set-up process here.

In over twenty years of selling acoustic guitars here at Sheehans, we've found that almost every guitar that's delived to our shop benefits from a set up before it goes on sale.  So, if you want an acoustic guitar that plays and sounds right, you should always buy from a shop who - like ourselves - have skilled repairers and technicians who can set it up for you.

Action Shot
Action Shot... our repairer makes sure the strings are at the correct
distance from the frets, ensuring the guitar is comfortable to play

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Why new acoustic guitars need setting up

In theory, all acoustic guitars should be set up perfectly when they leave the factory - however - in our experience, very few of the guitars delivered to our shop arrive in this condition.

Why? There are several reasons for this:

  • Poor factory set-ups - Setting up an acoustic guitar properly takes skill and time, but factory set-ups (particularly on budget instruments) are done as quickly as possible, to keep the manufacturer's labour costs down. Often the manufacturer will cut corners, and sometimes mistakes are made that don't get picked up by the factory's quality control department.
  • Moisture / Humidity - wood is a volatile material that expands when it's wet, and contracts when it's dry. Most acoustic guitars are made of several different species of wood, with different densities and grain patterns, and different degrees of reaction to moisture. If the humidity of the environment in which the guitar is stored changes at any point, it can have a noticable effect on the set up.
  • Transport and storage times - nowadays, most acoustic guitars - particularly budget instruments - are made in the far east, mainly China, South Korea, Indonesia and Taiwan. Some are sent by air freight, but most arrive in the UK in cargo ships, after a journey taking several weeks. They then wait in an importer/wholesaler's warehouse until they are ordered by a shop. During this time, the tension of the strings and the truss rod in the neck can cause the geometry of the guitar to move around, even if the temperature and humidity are kept constant.

So, even if an acoustic guitar was set up perfectly at the factory where it was made (and not all of them are), there's no guarantee that it will arrive at a shop in the UK in this condition. In our experience, almost all the acoustic guitars that are delivered to our shop need some work doing to them before they can go on sale.

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A look at the set-up process

For anyone who's curious to know how an acoustic guitar is set up, here's a step by step guide to how we do it.

Step 1. Unpack and inspect the guitar

Before starting any work, we need our repairer's expert eye to check over the guitar carefully to make sure there are no major problems, such as cracks in the wood, or anything that will prevent the guitar from being set up properly.

At this stage, any instrument that doesn't meet our high standards is sent back to our supplier, who will exchange it for a new one.

The sheehans set up tag detailing the adjustments we have madeStep 2. Check string gauge, and tune up

Most acoustic guitars are factory-fitted with light gauge (12-53 or 12-54) strings, although some of the high-end manufacturers, notably Taylor and Collings, now fit medium gauge (13-56) strings as standard. Using a set of micrometers, our repairer measures the string gauge, and makes a note of it on our set-up tag.

It's also very important at this stage that the guitar is tuned up to concert pitch, as the pitch affects the tension of the strings, which in turn affects the geometry of the guitar, particularly the curvature of the neck.

Left - the set-up tag attached to each guitar in our shop shows at a glance the instrument's serial number, string gauge, the action it was set to in our workshop, and the checks and adjustments our repairer has made.

Set up stage 3 - adjusting the truss rodStep 3. Adjust the truss rod

Once the strings are tuned correctly, the repairer can set the curvature of the neck by adjusting the tension of the truss rod - a long metal rod that's built into the neck behind the fingerboard to counterbalance the tension of the strings.

Loosening the truss rod increases the curvature of the neck, tightening it makes the neck straighter. When set correctly, the neck should have a very slight concave curve to it, which our repairer measures by resting a long, metal straight-edge along the fretboard.

Set up stage 4 - checking for high fretsStep 4. Check for high frets

Using a small metal ruler, our repairer checks for any points where the ruler is able to rock back and forth - an indication that one or more of the frets is higher than it should be. If this is the case, the repairer will make any necessary adjustments using a set of specially contoured fret files.

Set up stage 5 - adjusting the nut heightStep 5. Adjust nut height

The depth of the grooves in the nut (the block of bone or hard plastic at the end of the fingerboard) affects the guitar's string height or action, particularly on the frets closest to the nut. If the grooves are left too shallow, the strings will be too high above the first fret, making it very difficult to play certain chords such as a barred F. If the grooves are cut too deep, the open strings will catch on the first fret when they vibrate and sound like a sitar!

On rare occasions when guitars come in with the grooves cut too deep, our repairer will make a completely new nut from a blank block of bone - most of the time, though, guitars are shipped from the factory with the grooves cut too shallow, and our repairer uses a special set of narrow metal files to cut them to the correct depth.

Set up stage 6 - the saddle curvature should match that of the fretboardStep 6. Check saddle curvature

The top of the saddle (the strip of bone or hard plastic where the strings join the body of the guitar) is curved in two directions. Put simply, along the longer face of the saddle, the curvature should correspond to the camber of the fingerboard, so that when the action is set correctly for the 1st and 6th strings, it's correct for all the other strings too.

A standard acoustic guitar saddle is also curved when viewed end-on, creating a smooth surface for the string to run across. However, many manufacturers have now switched to 'compensated' saddles with a ridge that alternates between the front and back edge of the saddle, allowing for the difference in string tension between the plain and wound strings, and thus improving the intonation.

Standard acoustic guitar saddleCompensated acoustic guitar saddle

Nowadays, nearly all guitar manufacturers use moulded plastic saddles, with the correct profile - occasionally, though, a second hand guitar will need the saddle replacing or re-shaping, particularly if there are grooves where the strings have cut into it.

Set up stage 7 - measuring the action at the 12th fretStep 7. Set action by adjusting the saddle height

This is the final adjustment to set the gap between strings and frets along the length of the neck. To do this our repairer measures the distance of the bass (6th, thickest) and treble (1st, thinnest) strings from the 12th fret. For a good, general purpose playing action that suits fingerpicking and strumming styles of playing, the 'action' at the 12th fret should be a little under 3mm* for the 6th string, and around 2mm for the 1st string.

Because the 12th fret is exactly half way along the string, the repairer will note the amounts by which the action needs to be raised or lowered for the 1st and 6th strings, and raise or lower the saddle at the point where the 1st and 6th strings cross it by double this amount. If the saddle needs to be lowered, this can be done by grinding material away from the base of the saddle. If the saddle needs to be raised, a hardwood shim of the required thickness is attached to the base.

The repairer must also ensure that the base of the saddle is completely flat, particularly if the guitar is an electro acoustic model, as an uneven saddle can lead to problems with the pickup response.

*If the guitar is only ever to be used for very light fingerstyle playing, it's possible to set the action a fraction lower than normal, but this will mean the strings will rattle if they are ever played hard. On the other hand, some players may prefer a slightly higher action, for example if the guitar is to be used mainly for slide playing. Either way, we can adjust the action to suit a player's specific needs.

Step 8. Check pickup response

If the guitar is electro-acoustic, the pickups need to be checked to make sure they are working correctly. If there is a problem with certain strings sounding too loud or soft, our repairer checks the base of the saddle to make sure it is completely flat, and also for any dirt or unevenness in the bottom of the saddle slot. Occasionally the saddle slot needs to be routed out to ensure that it's properly flat, although thankfully this is rarely a problem with modern guitars.

Further Reading

Want to know more about guitar set-ups and repairs? There a couple of excellent books available here through our online store that should satisfy your curiosity!

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More reasons to buy from Sheehans

If our friendly and knowledgable sales staff, and a free set-up on every guitar we sell, aren't enough good reasons to buy from Sheehans, here's some more to think about!

In-House Repairers / Luthiers

Part of the Sheehans guitar workshop
Part of the Sheehans guitar workshop

As we mentioned above, many other shops that sell acoustic guitars don't employ repairers or luthiers - so not only are these shops unable to set-up their guitars prior to sale, if a customer buys a guitar that needs to be repaired while it's under guarantee, the instrument may have to be sent off to the manufacturer / importer, which can take weeks.

Because at Sheehans we are able to carry out our own repairs on site, we can sort out any problems much quicker, meaning you don't have to wait long to get your instrument back.

Free after-sales support

Because your acoustic guitar is made from woods which can react to changes in humidity and temperature, you may find that after a few months in your home, the instrument needs some further adjustment. If so, you are welcome to bring it back to us for a free check over.

A personalised service

Although our standard set-up will be fine for the vast majority of players, there may be some players with different requirements (eg heavier string gauges, or a higher action eg for playing slide). We will be happy to adjust the set-up to your own requirements.

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