Does Your Guitar Need A Setup?

When it comes to cars, I’m not much of a mechanic. I know a few things, but for the most part I let my mechanic do the work. They know when I need new tires, breaks, spark plugs, or how to identify any other issue that comes up. When it comes to my guitar, I know a lot more about it than I do my car. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a specialist to take it to for repairs and maintenance.

In a previous article, we talked about How To Restring Your Guitar. I think this is a skill every guitarist should know. However, that doesn’t mean I think you should do every repair on your guitar. Guitars are living, breathing, and surprisingly complex instruments that you mess with at your peril. I’m not going to teach you how to do a guitar setup in this article. Rather, I’m going to explain to you what all goes into a guitar setup and when to know if you should go get one.

When Should You Get Your Guitar Setup?

A guitar setup is about making your instrument as easy to play as possible and making sure that it stays in tune properly.

Signs I look for include:

  • Strings constantly coming out of tune while playing.
  • Strings not staying in tune when moving up the neck.
  • Difficulty pressing strings down on the neck
  • Strings being far away from the neck especially when moving up the neck.
  • Having strings snap especially in the same spot.
  • Strings buzzing even when fretting properly.
  • Electronics not working properly.
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These problems will likely happen over time and may not be the fault of the guitarist at all. Wood expands and contracts all the time, especially if you live in a place with extreme differences in temperature and seasons (ie. Wisconsin). Electronics will also eventually have issue and may need to be cleaned, repaired, or even replaced. While A standard setup does not usually include the price of electronics replacement, it’s usually best to have an experienced professional handle it.

Where Can I Go To Have A Setup Done?

Most local music stores offer a setup or repair service of some sort and will usually start around $45 to $55 at the time of this article. I recommend going to a store that exclusively deals in guitars as they will usually have the better professionals. Some stores even special almost exclusively in guitar repairs and setups. My go to location in the Milwaukee area is Top Shelf Guitar Shop. They are specialists in guitar setup and repair and do top level work. They also have probably the quickest turnaround times of any repair shop I’ve been to and some of the best prices in town.

What's In A Setup?

1. Bridge Adjustment

The bridge is the portion near the base of the strings where your picking hand is. The bridge and/or saddle height determines how high the strings are on that side of the guitar and can help get strings closer to the neck of the guitar.

2. Nut Filing

The nut is the other end of the guitar where the neck and the head meet. The strings go from the tuning pegs and slide through the nut before reading the first frets. Having the nut filed properly ensure good string height, good tuning stability, and making sure that strings aren’t snapping in the nut.

3. Truss Rod Adjustment

The truss rod is a metal rod that runs inside the guitar neck. It runs the entire length of the neck and is curved. Turning this rod allows you to straighten or curve the neck. Wood can curve and warp over time and the guitar neck is the piece that needs to have the perfect alignment. Adjusting this piece help remove string buzz and allows you to put the strings closer to the neck so you don’t have to press as much.

4. Intonation

As you move up the neck of the guitar, strings can start to go out of tune. This is a clear sign you’re in need of and intonation adjustment. Electric guitars especially offer the ability to adjust the guitar saddles (string holders at the bridge) so that your guitar stays in tune over the length of the neck. Intonation may need to be adjusted if you are using different size strings or using a different tuning.

5. Floating Bridge Tension and Settings

Guitar techs will often charge a little more for floating bridges and whammy bars since they are way more sensitive and therefore way more time intensive. You can adjust how sensitive it is when you pull on the whammy bar by adjusting the springs in the back of the guitar. A tech may not do this unless you specifically ask them. So if you’ve ever though the whammy bar was too stiff or too loose, now’s a good time to ask your tech if they can adjust it for you.

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Additional Services

These services are not usually included in a standard setup at will likely cost additional labor and/or parts.

Pot and Switch Replacement

Volume and Tone knobs as well as pickup selectors can sometimes be cleaned but eventually they will fail. This is usually a pretty cheap repair but a necessary one as a bad electronic can render your electric guitar unplayable.

Pickup/Mic Install

If you’re itching to change your pickups or add a mic to your guitar, most good techs can do this relatively easily. The cost of a new set of pickups or an acoustic piezo/mic system can range in price by quite a lot so naturally there’s also quite a range on the install cost depending on the complexity of the system. Be sure to ask your tech before going out and buying a system. They may even be able to purchase the parts for you or even get you a deal on some parts.


If you have an old guitar or if you’ve been playing the same guitar long enough, you’ll start to notice bumps or notches developing in the frets where the strings set. This is natural and occurs on all guitar over time. At first they aren’t much of an issue but will eventually cause problems and need to be fixed. Fortunately, your guitar tech should be able to completely replace the frets in your guitar neck, making your guitar feel brand new again. The parts cost is not a lot, but it is a very labor intensive job and may set you back a few bucks depending on your tech. Make sure you have a good tech though before doing this as a bad tech can make your guitar feel substantially worse instead of better.

Nut/Saddle Replacement

Replacing the nut or saddle on a guitar can have a surprising effect. On acoustic guitars, a saddle replacement might just be necessary because the previous saddle was too low and once it’s too low, it’s harder to raise and might just be easier putting a new one in. A nut is a little hard since it’s usually glued into place and needs to be filed correctly. This might be an opportunity to trying making the nut out or saddle out of different materials. Just like wood, various nut and saddle materials will make a difference in the way your guitar sounds. An upgrade in this department might surprise you.

Tuner Replacement

Bad tuners can come on even very expensive guitars. There are a few trusted brands and they do a very good job of copying the style of the original manufacturer. There are also some specialty tuners such as hipshot tuners for quick Drop D settings or locking tuners for even better tuning stability.

Major Wood Repair

We’ve all seen the horrifying pictures of a Les Paul with the head snapped off or a Martin Acoustic with another hole in the body. While these are obviously nightmare fuel and devastating injuries to a guitar, they are not always unfixable. A skilled guitar tech may be able to repair them but it may cost you quite a bit. Don’t expect a miracle if you’re forced to make this kind of repair.

But Wait, There's More....

Honestly, there are probably way more services out there that I can list because guitars are very diverse and complex. New styles and ideas are manifesting all the time and this article would be another twenty paragraphs long if I kept going. That being said, I hope you got an idea of what a guitar tech can do for you and when it’s a good time to take your guitar to the guitar mechanic. Don’t ignore the signs. Take your guitar and take care of it. We love our instruments and we should take care of them like we love them.

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