I’ve got a cool story to tell from one of this week’s guitar tech jobs that hit our work bench. But first, some background…

To most, a guitar setup means having a truss rod and saddle heights adjusted. If you’re lucky, maybe the tech will set the intonation and polish the guitar. So far, so good.

guitar truss rod

Your guitar’s strings and its truss rod are in a constant tug-of-war with strings pulling up on the headstock and the truss rod pulling back down. Both strings and rod fatigue with time. When your strings fatigue, they go flat and you re-tune them. But that truss rod rarely gets re-tuned.

So, what happens? Going back to our Tug-Of-War analogy, both teams get tired, but the “Strings Team” is always bringing in new team mates. Can you guess which team is likely to win?

As your strings start to win this game, your headstock slowly begins to rise by just thousandths of an inch, slowly increasing your “action” – probably not enough for you to notice… yet.

But it gets worse. We not only have a fresh, stronger “team” pulling up on your headstock, but as the neck begins to bow, the “Strings Team” gains an additional advantage – Leverage, causing the neck bow to increase a bit more rapidly.

Now, in your experience, what happens to a stick (I’m assuming your guitar’s neck is made of wood?) as you bend it and keep it bent for a long period of time – say months?

That’s right! It gets more and more difficult to ever be able to get that stick straight again, am I right?

I hate “Basic Guitar Setups”. Why? It’s like going for your annual checkup, but telling the doctor not to check anything below your neck. Works great, if all you have is an ear ache or sore throat, I guess. But what if you have an undetected heart problem? You get the idea.

I believe that a guitar setup should take a holistic approach. Here’s an excellent example of “why” –

Yep, I’m finally getting to this week’s tech bench story!

The customer brought in his Fender Jaguar for a setup, saying, “It’s buzzing a bit, but it’s a new guitar so it should only need your Basic Setup”.

The only reason I offer a Basic guitar setup is because I have to compete with shops that only offer a basic guitar setup but they just call it a “Guitar Setup” and only charge fifty to seventy dollars, sometimes even less, like the guy who’ll give you a “setup” in five minutes, while you wait for just thirty bucks.

To be fair, if I’d done a complete setup within the past year, it now probably only needs a basic setup.

So this Jag goes in the rack with six other guitars ahead of it. Some needing nuts, some refrets and all but this Jag, slated for a Complete Guitar Setup.

On the second day, in the afternoon, I reach for the Jag, forgetting that it isn’t in for a complete setup. Four low nut slots means those open strings are buzzing on the first fret. Seriously low saddles for A and D, means buzz for those strings.

Mission Accomplished?

But I think I’m doing a Complete Guitar Setup, so I pull the strings and check the frets. E to e from the first fret to the last. I find four high fret spots and file them, being careful to retain a consistent crown. Each of these high spots would have caused buzzing or “dead notes”.

Mission Accomplished?

Just before adjusting intonation, I inspect the bridge and saddles and find that the E intonation screw was contacting the string beyond the saddles and the A string was a mere thousandth of an inch or two from the string which would have caused a buzz or at least loss of tone and sustain. Also, those screws could not move their saddles back far enough for proper intonation.

(Photo shows a fret rocker being used to detect uneven frets.)

So, I shortened the screws and even shortened the intonation spring for the E saddle, in order to get the intonation properly set.

If I hadn’t “messed up” and performed a complete setup, my customer would have been a few bucks “better off” but totally dissatisfied with his guitar setup because it still would have had buzzes and not be even close in intonation.

How sad, to have a brand-new guitar that you’ve invested hundreds of dollars in and not be able to fully enjoy the guitar due to numerous problems that most players would not be able to diagnose!

Our Complete Guitar Setups are as detailed in the Guitars Done Right book, “Guitar Setups for Professionals“, available on Amazon.

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