Although a high quality instrument should sound
better than one of lesser value, there is no need to expect less of an
instrument in respect to its playability. Whether you consider your instrument
to be a student model or a professional one, it should play easily, in
tune, and without problems or buzzing along the entire fingerboard. Just
like an automobile needs a periodic tune up to keep it running right, an
instrument needs to be adjusted and maintained in a similar fashion. This
adjustment procedure is called a Set Up.
When an instrument is made, it is set up for shipping.
The factory anticipates that completed instruments will be sent to a wide
variety of climates. Usually, this means that the strings are unnecessarily
high or safe from buzzing. Additionally, the work performed by line personell
is often limited by factory specifications that are not as close
as the tolerances that a skilled luthier may set for your individual instrument
and your personal playing style.
A Set Up Can Make All the Difference
August 1, 2000
In order for an instrument to perform up to
its full potential, it needs to be set up for playing. After the neck has
been adjusted and checked, each of the individual grooves of the nut need
to be filed to the proper width and depth, and adjusted for the correct
ramping. The saddle height must be adjusted to accommodate the preferences
and playing style of the owner and to correctly match the curvature or
radius of the fingerboard. The stopping point of the strings at the saddle
must be set in order to compensate for string stretch and to correct the
intonation of the instrument. Finally, the instrument should be played
and examined to ensure that the fingerboard and frets are true and level,
and that each note is clear and resonant.
Fretted instruments require readjustment and maintenance
due to two principle reasons: seasonal changes and string tension. The
radical differential in our particular climate here in the mid-west makes
it necessary to readjust some instruments as often as twice a year.
During the cold winter months, the artificial heat inside our homes can
lower the relative humidity down to the twenty percent range. In the hot
summer months, we’re all aware that the humidity can rise to nearly dripping.
These extremes in humidity alternately shrink
and swell the wood in an instrument. Necks can bow forward or backward
causing fret buzzes, and soundboards can pump up or down resulting in action
that is too high or low. To compound the matter, the different types
of wood used in an instrument do not expand and shrink at the same rate,
which causes further distortions in an instrument.
The constant force of string tension gradually
pulls and distorts the thin, delicate wood in an instrument over time.
Light gauge strings on a six-string acoustic guitar produce 160 lbs. -
165 lbs. of tension when the instrument is tuned to correct pitch. This
tension slowly pulls on and deforms the shape of the instrument, making
the action higher and the scale shorter. The end result is an instrument
that is uncomfortable to play and one that won’t play in tune with itself.
Whether these unwanted changes to an instrument’s
playability and intonation are a product of seasonal changes or string
tension, the older instrument will benefit from the same adjustment procedure
described in the set up of new instruments. In fact, customers who
failed to have the initial set up performed are astonished to find their
instrument both playing and sounding "better that it did when it was brand