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What is a Guitar Set-Up?
By Geoff Luttrell, SF Guitarworks
© 2005 All rights reserved

Every guitar needs to play in tune all over the neck, and to have a string height that allows for comfortable playability. Most guitars, both new and old, are lacking one or both of these traits. This is due to a lack of time at the factory, weather conditions, poor construction or age. A set-up is the adjustment procedure used to bring an instrument to it's full potential, addressing both intonation and playability issues. There may be things that a set-up will not address, such as bad frets, improper bridge location, fingerboard/neck imperfections, incorrect nut or lack of truss-rod operation. The set-up will get the instrument to the point that it plays as well as it can in it's current state, and any other issues may be dealt with at that time. I'm not sure how other shops do set-ups, but I do know it is mostly by feel. I tried this for a time, but decided that this procedure needed a more systematic approach. The set-up is the cornerstone of the repair world, and I want to make sure that the set-ups I perform are always an improvement. To allow me to reach this goal, I developed a set-up checklist. Sounds pretty simple, but I think I am the only shop in the Bay that uses one. It is a list of steps, from initial measurements as the guitar arrives, through the steps required to correct the playability/intonation, with the final action measurements taken as the last step. Here is a set-up on a Telecaster that will outline the procedure and the benefits of the SF Guitarworks set-up system.

First things first- After discussing the instrument with the player, we have a good idea about what needs to happen to the instrument. The first step is to take the current action measurements. we measure the action at the 12th fret on the bass and treble side, the neck relief, the string gauge and the bridge radius. Now we have a starting point and will absolutely know the results of the set-up.

The next step is to check the pots and jack for cracking or shorts. The strings are then removed and all of the hardware is tightened. The instrument is thoroughly cleaned, including polishing the frets, and the neck radius is checked. We will need this info during the final stages of the set-up.

The instrument is then re-strung and the truss-rod is adjusted to flatten the neck. Using graduated nut files, the action is set at the nut. This is done with the neck flat so that any light buzz at the first fret will be eliminated when the neck has some relief. The height of the strings at the nut is critical. If the strings are too high, or the slots are cut incorrectly, the first few frets will play sharp. The width is also very important as the slots must be tight enough to hold the string securely, but not so tight that the string binds, causing tuning issues. We polish the bottom of the nut slots with 600 grit sandpaper and use Guitar Grease to minimize friction in the slots.

The next step is to set the action and radius at the bridge. You will generally have made some request about the action, so we will know if it needs to be higher, lower or the same. The action height is set to allow for a minimum of buzzing and full string bends. Then the bridge radius is set to correspond with the radius of the neck. Sometimes it can be a bit flatter to keep the action down in the middle of the fingerboard but generally, the radius at the bridge should match the radius of the neck. We use a radius gauge to measure the radii of the neck and strings, making the procedure very accurate.

At this point it is time for some playing. Every fret will be checked for buzzing, and the action will be adjusted accordingly. When the playability is right on, the last adjustment to be made is the intonation at the bridge. We use a Peterson Strobe tuner for absolute accuracy.

After the adjustments are complete, we measure the final action measurements and keep a copy of the checklist on file. Over time, the instrument may feel as though the action is changing. If this is the case it is simple for me to pull your checklist, re-measure your action and determine what is going on. This is one of the areas where a set-up at SF Guitarworks stands out from the rest. You can drop in and within minutes we can tell you what is happening with your instrument. No guesswork, no mistakes. Thanks so much for reading! I look forward to working for you.

About the Author: Geoff Luttrell is the proprietor of San Francisco Guitarworks located at 323 Potrero Avenue in San Francisco. His extensive list of clients include Camper Van Beethoven, Autumdivers and the Bobbleheads to name a few. For more information, check out his web site at

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