By: Rick Mariner
I love guitars, and there's nothing like a new electric guitar with a proper set up! I like the tone, the way it feels in my hands, and the way that I can make a guitar sound "right" for any kind of music that I play. Whether it's jazz, blues, country, hard rock, R and B leads, guitar chords, or just working on guitar tabs, all it takes is a flip of a switch, some prep, a couple twists of the knobs, neck alignment and I'm right where I need to be.
I've bought a lot of guitars over the years, and discovered that taking that beautiful new Strat or Tele guitar out of the box was always just the first step in finding the guitar that fit in my hands the way that I imagined that it would when it first caught my eye. After a close inspection I found that my new guitar wouldn't be quite gig ready until I did all of the little subtle tweaks, repairs and modifications that would make it play just the way I wanted it to when I got it out onto the gig. I'd dress the frets, get the intonation just right, tweak the pick-ups, customize the configuration a bit, and before you know it, I'd be playing a guitar that felt like it was made to be in my hands. Playing music is always fun, but when I'm on the gig with a guitar that feels just right ... it's just pure guitar joy.
After a while I thought; "Wouldn't it be great to be able to buy a guitar that felt gig ready right out of the box?" As wonderful as that idea may seem, in reality it's almost impossible to pick up a guitar in a music store "off the rack" and have it play right. It just doesn't happen. There are many things that need to be done to "prep" the guitar before it's ready to play. At Haywire Custom Guitars
(http://www.HaywireCustomGuitars.com) we recommend and perform all of the following in prep for a guitar purchase before it leaves the bench at the workshop. For our purposes here I will focus only on electric instruments for now. First, let me pose a question to the beginning through the advanced guitarist.
What Is Guitar Intonation and why is it important? Do you know?
Intonation is the accuracy in which an electric guitar or bass can produce a fretted note and the most important issue with any instrument. Setting the intonation on a guitar is the act of adjusting the length of the strings (by moving the bridge saddles) to compensate for the thickness of the string and the stretching of a string due to pushing it down to the fret board to produce a note. To adjust the intonation of your guitar or bass guitar, you move the bridge saddles toward or away from the fret board until the 12th fret note and its harmonic are equal in pitch to the same open-string note, which are exactly one octave apart. Accurate intonation is critical to pitch quality. Pitch quality is essential to "in tune" playing. Poor pitch quality="out of tune" notes which in turn = poor musical presentation. Wouldn't you want to present your musical talents in the best way possible? Of course, you do.
Now, it is not necessary for a guitar player to know this at all. It is essential however that the guitar possess this quality and maintain as close to perfect intonation as possible. Buying on looks alone can be very disappointing. If however, you like an instrument for the looks but realize that you will need to have it worked on to get it playable then that is a savvy notion. It's best to speak to a luthier or guitar builder previous to any purchase. It's akin to asking a mechanic which car he would recommend-before you walk into the show room. In this way you can benefit from his first hand knowledge and experience and not have to go it alone. After all he sees the ones that breakdown more often than you or the car salesmen do.
Below, I have outlined the essential adjustments to be performed prior to purchasing and playing a guitar under optimal circumstances.
1. 4-axis Alignment of the guitar neck.
The guitar neck is checked and adjusted to insure that it is true and straight to insure proper alignment on all axis. This step insures proper action and allows for more accurate and easier guitar tuning, playing and set-up in the following steps.
2. Inspect and Lube the guitar tuning gears.
Each tuning gear is adjusted so that there is no play in the mechanism. They are then lubricated to insure smooth and even movement to make your guitar tune accurately.
3. Potting the guitar pickups.
Dip the pickups in hot wax to reduce squeal and unwanted guitar feedback.
4. Prep the guitar body.
Upon installing the guitar electronic components, great care is taken to insure that all wires are properly routed, spaced, and grounded to insure years of trouble free service with your guitar.
5. Level and polish the frets.
This insures that all of the guitar frets are level, eliminating any possibility of fret buzz due to unevenness.
6. Radius the guitar strings.
Most guitar necks have a contour over the top of the neck called the "radius". Adjust the strings to make sure the height of each string follows the contour of the guitar neck.
7. Adjusting the overall guitar string height and the action.
Once the string contour and radius of the guitar strings is set, it's time to adjust the overall height or "action" or distance of the strings from the top of the frets to the bottom of the guitar strings.
8. Set the guitar intonation
This step should be done twice. The intonation is normally set two times with a 24 hour period in between to allow the new guitar adjustments to properly re-seat.
If these steps are performed before playing your new guitar then, you won't be disappointed. Your focus can then be on the music and not the problems of the instrument. If it is "set up" properly a player will not have to "get used to" it. Everything on it will feel natural and fall right into place and the music can flow.
In summary, Guitar purchase "off the rack" can be a real disappointment. A thoughtful purchase should include consideration in buying a "custom" or "Gig-Ready" electric guitar versus a "pre-fab" instrument built on a production line. Custom guitars are individually built for a specific customer and will have all of the above necessary operations performed. All the guitarist needs to do is-Play!