Is it worth getting a professional setup on your guitar?

Two Stratocaster guitarsI have been avoiding getting a professional setup on my guitars for far too long. Here’s why you should have your guitar setup by a pro and why you shouldn’t wait for too long to have it done.

Since 1976 (surely not!) I just about always use a Strat or at least Strat-like guitar. In fact, the sunburst one (on the right) has been with me since 1978 when I purchased it from a great instrument repairer and builder Nick Herbert in London’s Camden Lock Market. In fact, I remember, I paid £175 which made me broke for months. Last time I had some work done by a professional repairer was sometime in the late 1990s.

Recently, I was waxing lyrical to a Hamilton friend about how great-a-guitar-it-was and how I love the low action on it. My friend looked at it and remarked that he thought that the action was rather high. That was weird, I thought… However, when I looked closer at my Strat I realised that the guitar has a lot of small problems: very uneven action, with some strings higher than others, and some fret wear which made some strings buzz and choke on bends. How come haven’t I noticed this before?

Of course, I have remembered that in the last 20 or so years I made a series of small adjustments to compensate for the wear and tear and changed parts – hardly a professional setup. Through a lot of playing I got used to “idiosyncrasies” of the instrument and compensated. I bet that lots of Stratocaster players will be familiar with this constant compensation scenario. The G string getting back in tune after a tweak on the tremolo bar. Pressing some notes harder to get them sharper and in pitch around the high fingered chords etc. Because of the abovementioned issues on my guitar, I unconsciously added even more compensation strategies which included: never bending the high F to G on to E string (pain in the arse if you are in a D minor blues), and avoiding the buzzy Eb on a B string (unless I was imitating a sitar drone).

When I counted all issues, I realised that something had to be done. I contemplated doing it myself, but made a smart move to hand it to Gary Price at Shearer’s Music Works in Hamilton. Gary is a well-respected guitar builder, repairer and player, yet I still felt nervous handing over a guitar I played for nearly 40 years. I hasten to add that the result was a revelation! The guitar is a joy to play, sounds glorious and is a real inspiration.

Just before Christmas I handed over to Gary my “Partcaster” (the white one in the photo). Just got it back and I can’t believe how much fun it is to play it again! Thank you Gary for doing a great job for a pretty reasonable price!

So, to sum up, why should you give your guitar a professional setup:

  • It’s been more than a couple of years since the last set up, or less if you gig a lot.
  • It’s a new instrument and you’ve never had it set up
  • It’s a used instrument you recently acquired, and you’ve never had it set up
  • Notes at the 1st fret are difficult to play
  • There is visible damage, or something appears to be wrong
  • Some notes of the guitar consistently “buzz” or don’t play at all
  • Two notes separated by an octave on the same string sound out of tune; for instance, open E and the note on 12th fret of the same string sound a bit off
  • The strings seem too high off of the fretboard
  • You feel a “scratchy” feeling while bending strings
  • The nut has sharp edges that are uncomfortable, or you can feel the ends of the frets scratching your hand as you play.

Why you may not want to do your own setups?

  • I’ve found that my playing benefits from the improvements that a quality setup can bring to an instrument.
  • A pro setup really establishes a baseline for the capabilities of an instrument.
  • A professional technician has done it for years. He/she sees guitars and their problems day-in-day-out and can easily spot and correct problems I might miss or not be capable of handling.
  • Let’s be honest, I am nowhere near as capable a tech as I am a guitarist.
  • When you take a guitar to a tech right after you purchase it, he/she is able to evaluate it and tell you if there are any mistakes in workmanship that might make you want to take it back. That’s security!

How do you find a great repair person?

Most large towns have a store that sells musical instruments, and such a store can usually repair or setup guitars directly or at least ship it off to someone who can. Be wary of a “mate” who can do it. Hmmm…

Educate Yourself

The more you learn about guitars and the set-up process, the better you will be at spotting a guitar that needs work and at identifying a qualified person to do it.

Check References

Your guitar teacher or any working musician can probably give you a good recommendation. Experienced players know who to trust with their instruments. If you are in Hamilton NZ, I will recommend Gary Price at Shearers Music Works, tel: +64 (0)7 839 4747. In London, I highly recommend Graham Parker +44 (0)20 869 42770 who has done some great work on my guitars.

Look for Professionalism

Basic indicators of professionalism apply here, and you probably know how to spot them. A verifiable business presence, online reviews, and a real workshop or storefront are all signs that you’re dealing with a professional.

Get a sense of the kind of work they do

Someone who builds and repairs acoustic instruments is going to have more than enough experience to repair your acoustic guitar. But someone who works mostly on amps and stomp boxes is not going to have as much relevant experience.

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