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Understanding a few basics save time, money and frustration. Adjusting your guitar’s action, what kinds of strings you can use with what guitars, what to tell your guitar tech.

Small adjustments to the set-up of your guitar can have a big effect on its playability. And for beginners, playability can have a major impact on how quickly you learn.

New low-priced guitars are getting better and better each year. With new automated manufacturing techniques it is possible to make consistently high quality instruments at a low cost. But the factory set-ups on new guitars are not usually very good. Here are some things you can do to make your guitar more user-friendly.

Learn About Guitar Set-up   It’s a good idea to try to learn as much as you can about your guitar’s set-up. It’s fairly easy to learn how to change strings, and adjust the string height on most electric guitars.

Find A Good Guitar Tech   Ask a professional guitarist in your area who does work on their guitars. If you can, ask two or three. Be careful – there are a lot of amateurs posing as guitar technicians. For simple things like adjusting the action, and intonation you don’t have to worry. But for rewiring and fret work, you want a reputable and experienced guitar technician. If you can have a professional set-up your guitar, it’s probably a good idea. But different people like different set-ups. There isn’t one ideal set-up. So you may have to experiment a little, especially with string height and string guages.

Change To A Lighter Guage String  String guage makes a critical difference in how well your guitar plays. If you’re having difficulty pressing the strings down hard enough to get clear notes, move to a lighter string. The difference in playability between different string guages can be huge. This applies to all guitars. A set of strings costs about $6. Try a light-guage set for a few weeks, if you don’t like them, you can always change back to a heavier set.

Lower The Action On Your Guitar  The ‘action’ of the guitar is the height of the strings above the fretboard. On electric guitars, this is adjusted by a set of vertical screws on the bridge. These screws usually require either a flat head screwdriver or an Allan wrench. This is an extremely critical adjustment. Very slight changes in the action can make a noticable difference for better or worse. Most players lower the action of their guitars to just above the point where the string begins to buzz against the fret – that is, as low as it can go and still sound good.

Check Your Truss Rod   Most steel string electric and acoustic guitars have a truss rod that controls the bend of the neck. This is a critical adjustment, so you may not want to try this yourself. This is a job for a guitar tech.

Lower Your Frets   Frets have a major influence on the overall feel of the guitar neck. Manufacturers tend to make frets high, with the idea that you can lower them if you want. On guitars set up for a light-guage electric feel, high frets can cause a problem with scalloping, which produces out-of-tune notes.

Dressing (filing) your frets can correct this problem. This is a job for a good guitar technician. Don’t try this yourself without a special fret file. This can help for two reasons. First, the lower frets will allow you to lower the string height making you guitar ‘faster.’ Second, if you switch to light guage strings and your frets are too high, you may have a problem with ‘scalloping.’ (Scalloping is discussed later.)

Shim The Neck  On guitars with bolt-on necks, you can place a shim beneath the neck in order to raise the level of the fretboard relative to the strings. Shimming can also correct the angle of the neck to the body. There are times when you can’t adjust the action low enough by adjusting the bridge peices. In these cases, using a thin shim material like card stock beneath the guitar neck can correct the problem.

Shimming the neck is a critical adjustment. It’s a good idea to leave it to a guitar tech. If you do it yourself, be careful not to cross-thread the screws when you are replacing the neck. You may have to experiment to get the right height and angle, and this means removing and replacing the neck several times.

It’s a good idea to use a screwdriver to replace the neck, rather than a drill with a Phillips driver head. It’s also best to remove the strings from the guitar before doing this. At least, loosen the strings completely so there is no tension on them.

Steel String Acoustic Guitars

Most acoustic guitars come from the factory with 11 or 12 guaged strings. A heavier string usually gives the guitar a better tone. But it can also make learning to play harder – and that means it can take longer. A lighter guage string can actually help you to learn faster.

Electric Guitar Feel And Response From Your Acoustic

It’s possible to set up your steel-string acoustic guitar so that it has some of the feel and response of an electric. This lets you bend strings and use an electric-style vibrato. If you’re trying to play electric guitar parts on an acoustic, it makes sense to use the same strings as the original player. Eric Clapton would never have played ‘Crossroads’ on heavy strings.

For steel-string acoustics, try using an electric guitar string set with the first string starting on a .009 or .010. Ask any music store manager what electric guitar string guages they sell the most of, and they will probably tell you light-guage starting on a .009.

One possible problem with switching to electric strings is that your guitar may not tune properly with the lighter strings. There are ways to compensate for this, and there are modifications to the bridge that will solve the problem, but this usually isn’t necessary. If you’re having noticeable intonation problems, have your guitar set-up by a guitar tech.

If you put lighter strings on a steel-string acoustic, it often doesn’t play in tune because of scallopping produced by high frets. If you want to set up a steel-string acoustic to play like an electric, you will probably need to have the frets levelled (lowered), and the bridge and nut adjusted accordingly.

An alternative to using electric strings on your steel-string acoustic is ‘silk and steel’ strings. ‘Silk and steel’ strings don’t require as much string tension as steel strings. This is a good choice if your guitar is starting to show signs of stress due to string tension.

Scallopping   Some guitars necks are scalloped on purpose. For instance, the Ritchie Blackmore Strat has a scalloped fretboard. Scallopping effects can occur anytime the frets are too high. For most players, scallopping from high frets is a problem because notes go out of tune as you apply more pressure to the string.

Test For Scallopping  First, press a string just firmly enough that it touches the fret. Play the note and check it on a tuner. Then press harder until the string is touching the top of the fretboard between the frets. Check the note on the tuner again to see if the pitch has changed. If the pitch got higher as you pressed down harder, then you have scallopping. You can correct this by lowering the frets.

Nylon String Guitars

Don’t put electric guitar strings or any steel strings on your nylon-string classical or Spanish guitar.

These guitars are designed for a different string tension and even light guage steel strings can warp the top and neck of the guitar, making it unplayable.

Acoustic guitars often have plastic bridges that can be filed down. Remove the bridge, and file or sand the underside of it.

It’s a good idea to mark one side of the bridge so you can put it back in the same way it was. Take off only a little at a time, then replace the bridge, and tighten the strings to check the action.

Make Your Guitar Easier To Play

Copyright 2000 by Greg Varhaug. All Rights Reserved.

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