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What Is A Setup And Why Do I Care?

Well-built guitars are robust and can last you a lifetime, but all guitars are sensitive instruments undergoing constant change. The reason for this change is in their construction and materials – wood put under tension by taut metal or nylon strings, the whole structure then made to vibrate. And then there are all the metals to corrode over time with sweat, finger oils, beer, who knows! (Although I really hope you’re keeping spilling beer on your guitar to a minimum).

With electric guitars, the most vulnerable area is the neck, this being long, narrow and pulled at both ends – the same as the bow from a bow and arrow! This is the reason in electrics (and steel string acoustics) that there is the ‘truss rod’ – a stiff metal bar running through the centre of the neck to keep it’s shape. Nylon string guitars are under a lot less tension due to the nylon strings, so the truss rod is usually omitted. This truss rod comes in several types, some more and some less adjustable, designed to help the neck achieve the correct amount of bow. Further, if you leave the neck ‘out of adjustment’ for too long, it will become permanently distorted, needing more costly intervention or even replacement.

As summer comes and goes, or you take the guitar to a wetter climate, or even just with a lot of use, the wood in the neck and body slowly age and respond, shifting minutely. Even very tiny movements can be picked up by the player, showing up in a difference in action (the string height over the frets), or perhaps improper intonation, or the neck twisting from one side to another, and many other symptoms. Naturally all these problems make it harder to get clean, in tune notes every time and enjoy your playing!

But we have only just begun pointing out the issues a good quality setup is intended to fix. Once you have the neck in the correct position, you are then able to look at two other critical areas that are also subject to constant change – the nut and the bridge. We will keep this discussion on electric guitars for the sake of brevity. The nut creates the end point at which the vibrating length of the string begins – the other end being the bridge, or your finger on any fret, thus creating a different length string and therefore a different pitch. Nuts can be made from a variety of materials: plastic, bone, brass, and several patented substances designed to give increased performance. How could so passive looking a part ‘perform’? The string slots in the nut must let the string pull through a little without sticking in the slot, or squeaking, and the nut slot heights must be very finely adjusted to send the strings out over the frets at exactly the right height for the desired action. Good string travel in the slot is usually achieved by the material of the nut itself releasing it’s own particles that the string slides up and down on. In any event, the slots will wear down over time, and probably unevenly, contributing to an incorrect action. These slots must be gotten to the right height, and of course the nut must be seated properly. At the bridge, things get a little more complicated, as there are so many bridge types and construction. However, they all perform the same function, so without getting into the specifics, let’s take a broad look at the bridges’ task and what needs to be maintained. Like the nut, the bridge is the other end that the string passes over and defines it’s length and therefore the pitch of the note. Depending on the type of bridge, there are many ways the height of the string as it passes over the saddle can be adjusted, but in all cases, the issues being dealt with are roughly similar – the string must not stick or be caught up in any way, it must be maintained at the correct height, and keep the right ‘break angle’.

It is also worth mentioning that the above three components – nut, bridge and truss rod need to be setup specifically for the tuning of your instrument and for your gauge of strings. Try changing either of these without a setup and you may find problems appear you weren’t previously suffering…

But we are not done describing the tasks in a setup by a long way! There are plenty of other kinds of wear and corrosion that occur that damage your sound and the guitars’ performance. Next we should mention fret wear – although made of metal and looking quite tough, as the strings are pressed against the frets over and over, they wear away at those spots, changing their height relative to the string and preventing a clean fretted note. A ‘fret job’ – levelling off all the frets carefully by filing, ‘crowning’ them with the correct rounded shape (how painful would squared edge frets be!) and then polishing them so they have a smooth surface - can be added in to a setup when necessary. This can happen several times until eventually the frets are so worn down they need replacing with new ones. But a common problem faced in setups is the ‘high fret’ – where it was never seated properly in the first place and sits higher than it’s fellows – or perhaps it is popping out because of incorrect glueing or movement in the neck. High frets need to be seated down in order to stop buzzing and being able to achieve the right action….they can just as often be low too, making other frets around them buzz. And corrosion in bridge parts, particularly the grub screws which become stuck in place, can cost a lot of time to fix – or you won’t be adjusting your saddle heights and intonation any more...

Are we done yet? Not by a long shot! Are the machine heads in good condition? Is every screw in the guitar clean and tight? Otherwise the holes will wear larger, or corroded screws will get stuck…Is the fret board dirty with years of finger oils and dirt? This has to go….or is it dry and needing some oil? Is every pot and switch clean and noise free? Is all the wiring in good order, no dry joins, exposed wire etc? Is the jack seated tightly in the guitar and does it grip and connect with the lead properly? How about the pickups? Are they working the way they should? And are they balanced at the right height under the strings to provide a good string balance and the right amount of string pull?

As you can see, in the humble setup there is actually a lot to take care of to keep a beautiful instrument in excellent condition. But the effort is well rewarded – there is nothing between you and your music, day after day. As a final note: it could be assumed that all the issues mentioned above are automatically taken care of when you buy a new guitar, but sadly this is not the case. Most guitars straight off the shelf need a setup immediately, and some actually arrive with issues already such as dry joins and high frets... But if you purchase a Lauda guitar, there is no chance of you facing those issues – they are setup before they are sent out every time, straight to you…because each one is built by us, right here. Happy guitar playing!
 
Cat Johns
Lauda Guitars

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