"Does my guitar need help?"

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YES! It probably does.

So many people have given up on a particular instrument, or even given up playing altogether, because they could never get the guitar to sound right. Or play well. It can be quite discouraging to be playing the right notes but they buzz...or sound out of tune...or are too hard to play because there is so much daylight under the strings.

How many times have you seen a great guitar in a store and loved it, but then picked it up and been disappointed by its feel? A cheap guitar can sound and play better than an expensive guitar; a $100 guitar with a good setup can actually be played at a gig where a $2500 poorly setup guitar will not work. Having a proper setup can have the same effect of getting your car's alignment done--you suddenly realize just how much you were putting up with.

I will define some technical and slang terms so that this subject will be easier to discuss:

  • Acoustic vs Classical guitar - Not all acoustic guitars are the same. A “hollow-bodied guitar with a hole in it” is a general description of an acoustic guitar, but generally an acoustic guitar should have steel strings, while a classical has nylon. While technically they are both “acoustics”--one is a “steel-string acoustic guitar” and the other is a “nylon-string classical guitar”, they are usually referred to as “acoustic” and “classical”. If the headstock of the guitar has slots cut through it, and the string is wrapped around a white plastic post, it should most likely have nylon strings. Many classical guitars have no truss rod in the neck and therefore no neck adjustments can be made, so if they are strung with steel strings they will generally sound and play pretty badly. I have restrung guitars like this with nylon strings, and they play and sound wonderfully.

  • Neck relief - Look down the fretboard from the headstock or bridge like you were looking at train tracks, where the strings are the rails and the frets are the railroad ties. You should see the neck curving up toward the strings ever so slightly. The neck is supposed to have a very slight curve to allow all notes to sound properly and without buzz.

    • If your guitar has too much relief (curve), the strings will be too high off the fretboard, causing you to press the string further before contacting the frets, which will cause greater fatigue, with the added benefit of these notes being out of tune (intonation).

    • If your guitar has too little relief (laying flat or curving backwards), the strings are not far enough from the fretboard. Your fretted notes will sound buzzy or, in extreme cases, not sound at all because the strings are laying on the frets and “fretting out”

    • This is also the time to look at the frets as shown in the pictures above. Do any of your frets stand out more than the others? This is a fret that needs some attention, because it will cause problems with the guitar's sound and playability

     

  • Neck adjustment - This refers to manipulation of the truss rod--a long thin bolt within the neck of most guitars and basses--to correct and adjust the neck relief. Truss rods are somewhat sensitive to small adjustments, and they are viewed by many guitarists with fear because of the many urban legends surrounding them. There are probably more guitarists that have heard the “broken truss rods” tales than have heard that “Mikey from the Life cereal commercial ate Pop Rocks and drank a Coke and exploded”. While it is theoretically possible to break a truss rod, and they should be treated with respect, I have never known someone that broke one. This is not to say you should go crazy with it and try it yourself, it just takes a subtle and careful touch. The urban legend is probably just a cautionary tale to keep people from using power tools on them. And DON'T EVER FORCE THEM!!! You just might hunted down by a guy with a hook for a hand.

 

  • Intonation - Poorly setup intonation is what causes a guitar that is tuned perfectly on open strings to be out of tune when you play fretted notes. On most guitars this can be adjusted, some more easily than others, but not on acoustics or classicals. If your acoustic or classical guitar has poor intonation, there are intonated saddles which can be purchased to replace a straight saddle. The best and most cost-effective way to fix this problem is with an Earvana nut.

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