Have you ever noticed how your low ‘E’ string just never stays in tune? Wondering why it’s harder to play your guitar rather than your buddies’ slick Gibson? The secret to effortlessly traveling along the neck of an axe that melts like butter is probably in the setup.
Of course, some people will try to tell you when buy your first guitar that you should “probably get that guitar setup at some point,” but you just want to get it home and learn that opening lick of Purple Haze. My “why didn’t anyone tell me?!” epiphany occurred to me after buying my first acoustic guitar.
I heard some things about getting a setup done, but I was so discouraged by the $40 commission it carried at my local Guitar Center that I brushed it off for some time. I eventually had a guitar setup done, and I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. The action was significantly lower, so it was easier to play. It also stayed in tune better than it previously had.
So you take my advice and get a setup… then six months later your guitar has this nasty fret buzz on your b string. You’re thinking, “What the hell!?” and for good reason. Nobody told you that when the seasons change, wood expands. Actually, your 5th grade physical science teacher might have tried to, but you were too busy blaring “Hot For Teacher” from your Walkman.
This expanding and contracting in wood results in your guitar changing ever so slightly, and sometimes this can drastically affect the playability and functionality of your axe. This can normally be fixed with a neck adjustment.
Another setup is going to be necessary, depending on how bad it gets. If you don’t live in Michigan like me, or somewhere where it’s one consistent season all year, then lucky for you, you won’t have as many setup problems as the typical laymen.
The expansion and contraction isn’t the only thing haunting you. Humidity issues can really affect your instrument. Traveling around the Midwest this winter on tour, I had in the back of my mind that when I arrived at the venue I would bring in my guitar. The second night I forgot this. Rookie mistake. After the first song, my top E string went way out of tune. Not only was it embarrassing, but stressful.
Letting your electric guitar or bass warm for 20-30 minutes prior to even cracking open the case is a good idea. Humidity also applies to acoustic guitars too, so when the pesky salesman tries to sell you a humidifier, buy it.
I’d say a setup a year isn’t too far ‘fetched’. Depending on your region and how often you work your axe, it may be more often than this, or less often. Regardless, if you’re feeling estranged with your guitar, a neck adjustment (or setup) isn’t a bad idea.