Small adjustments to the set-up of your guitar can have a big effect on its playability.
And for beginners, playability can have a major impact on how quickly you learn.
low-priced guitars are getting better and better each year. With new automated manufacturing
techniques it is possible to make consistently high quality instruments at a low
cost. But the factory set-ups on new guitars are not usually very good. Here are
some things you can do to make your guitar more user-friendly.
Learn About Guitar
Set-up -- It's a good idea to try to learn as much as you can about your guitar's
set-up. It's fairly easy to learn how to change strings, and adjust the string height
on most electric guitars.
Find A Good Guitar Tech -- Ask a professional guitarist
in your area who does work on their guitars. If you can, ask two or three. Be careful
- there are a lot of amateurs posing as guitar technicians. For simple things like
adjusting the action, and intonation you don't have to worry. But for rewiring and
fret work, you want a reputable and experienced guitar technician. If you can have
a professional set-up your guitar, it's probably a good idea. But different people
like different set-ups. There isn't one ideal set-up. So you may have to experiment
a little, especially with string height and string guages.
Change To A Lighter Guage String -- String guage makes a critical difference in how
well your guitar plays. If you're having difficulty pressing the strings down hard
enough to get clear notes, move to a lighter string. The difference in playability
between different string guages can be huge. This applies to all guitars. A set of
strings costs about $6. Try a light-guage set for a few weeks, if you don't like
them, you can always change back to a heavier set.
Lower The Action On Your Guitar
-- The 'action' of the guitar is the height of the strings above the fretboard. On
electric guitars, this is adjusted by a set of vertical screws on the bridge. These
screws usually require either a flat head screwdriver or an Allan wrench. This is
an extremely critical adjustment. Very slight changes in the action can make a noticable
difference for better or worse. Most players lower the action of their guitars to
just above the point where the string begins to buzz against the fret - that is,
as low as it can go and still sound good.
Check Your Truss Rod -- Most steel string electric and acoustic guitars have a truss
rod that controls the bend of the neck. This is a critical adjustment, so you may
not want to try this yourself. This is a job for a guitar tech.
Lower Your Frets --
Frets have a major influence on the overall feel of the guitar neck. Manufacturers
tend to make frets high, with the idea that you can lower them if you want. On guitars
set up for a light-guage electric feel, high frets can cause a problem with scalloping,
which produces out-of-tune notes.
Dressing (filing) your frets can correct this problem.
This is a job for a good guitar technician. Don't try this yourself without a special
fret file. This can help for two reasons. First, the lower frets will allow you to
lower the string height making you guitar 'faster.' Second, if you switch to light
guage strings and your frets are too high, you may have a problem with 'scalloping.'
(Scalloping is discussed later.)
Shimming The Neck -- On guitars with bolt-on necks,
you can place a shim beneath the neck in order to raise the level of the fretboard
relative to the strings. Shimming can also correct the angle of the neck to the body.
There are times when you can't adjust the action low enough by adjusting the bridge
peices. In these cases, using a thin shim material like card stock beneath the guitar
neck can correct the problem.
Shimming the neck can be tricky, but it's not difficult
if you are used to working with wood. Be careful not to cross-thread the screws when
you are replacing the neck. You may have to experiment to get the right height and
angle, and this means removing and replacing the neck several times.
It may be a
good idea to use a screwdriver to replace the neck, rather than a drill with a Phillips
driver head. It's also best to remove the strings from the guitar before doing this.
At least, loosen the strings completely so there is no tension on them.
Steel String Acoustic Guitars
Most acoustic guitars come from the factory with heavy-guaged
strings. This is because most experienced acoustic players use heavy strings. A heavier
string usually gives the guitar a better tone. But it can also make learning to play
harder - and that means it can take longer. A lighter guage string can actually help
you to learn faster.
Electric Guitar Feel And Response From Your Acoustic --- It's
possible to set up your steel-string acoustic guitar so that it has some of the feel
and response of an electric. This lets you bend strings and use an electric-style
vibrato. If you're trying to play electric guitar parts on an acoustic, it makes
sense to use the same strings as the original player. Eric Clapton would never have
played 'Crossroads' on heavy strings.
For steel-string acoustics, try using an electric
guitar string set with the first string starting on a .009 or .010. Ask any music
store manager what electric guitar string guages they sell the most of, and they
will probably tell you light-guage starting on a .009.
One possible problem with switching
to electric strings is that your guitar may not tune properly with the lighter strings.
There are ways to compensate for this, and there are modifications to the bridge
that will solve the problem, but this usually isn't necessary. If you're having noticeable
intonation problems, have your guitar set-up by a guitar tech.
If you put lighter
strings on a steel-string acoustic, it often doesn't play in tune because of scallopping
produced by high frets. If you want to set up a steel-string acoustic to play like
an electric, you will probably need to have the frets levelled (lowered), and the
bridge and nut adjusted accordingly.
An alternative to using electric strings on
your steel-string acoustic is 'silk and steel' strings. 'Silk and steel' strings
don't require as much string tension as steel strings. This is a good choice if your
guitar is starting to show signs of stress due to string tension.
Scallopping -- Some
guitars necks are scalloped on purpose. For instance, the Ritchie Blackmore Strat
has a scalloped fretboard. Scallopping effects can occur anytime the frets are too
high. For most players, scallopping from high frets is a problem because notes go
out of tune as you apply more pressure to the string.
Test For Scallopping -- First,
press a string just firmly enough that it touches the fret. Play the note and check
it on a tuner. Then press harder until the string is touching the top of the fretboard
between the frets. Check the note on the tuner again to see if the pitch has changed.
If the pitch got higher as you pressed down harder, then you have scallopping. You
can correct this by lowering the frets.
Nylon String Guitars
Don't put electric guitar strings or any steel strings on your
nylon-string classical or Spanish guitar.
These guitars are designed for a different
string tension and even light guage steel strings can warp the top and neck of the
guitar, making it unplayable.
Acoustic guitars often have plastic bridges that can
be filed down. Remove the bridge, and file or sand the underside of it.
It's a good
idea to mark one side of the bridge so you can put it back in the same way it was.
Take off only a little at a time, then replace the bridge, and tighten the strings
to check the action.
Be Informed – Read Greg’s Articles in NBIZ Magazine