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I'm a newbie transitioning to intermediate and I have a rather nice strat with 11 gauge strings. I'd like to try lighter strings but someone told me changing gauge will require the guitar to be re-set up.

I'm pretty competent at changing strings but I don't want to screw up my lovely guitar.

Should I take it to the shop and have them do it? Is setting up a guitar something that I can learn to do easily?

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Not quite... and it also depends on the type of guitar you have. If you're going to a lower gauge, I wouldn't worry too much about getting it set up again. I switch between mediums and lights on my guitar every now and then and I never have to get it set up or anything. The real danger only lies in switching to a gauge much higher than your guitar can handle. I wouldn't worry if I were going lighter. –  Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 0:23
    
@Jimi Is there a reason you didn't post that as an answer? –  Matthew Read Jan 14 '11 at 1:42
    
@Matthew Read: Well, just out of habit, like I do on other SE sites, I wouldn't really post an answer except I am absolutely sure it is correct or my comment has been affirmed by other users. That way, I don't mislead other users. As you can see, the other posters insist on getting a set-up regardless of what gauge you switch to. For me, this has not been an issue between medium and lights. Thus, my answer is based on personal experience and practice, and probably stuff I read way back, but I guess the asker has found a useful answer that professional luthiers would most likely subscribe to. –  Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 1:49
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@jimi Conversation in comments is excellent, questions to get more context are excellent. But I like to see even tentative answers posted as answers. Reputation and voting will help me find the useful one. Even though I accepted a different answer, I would have voted yours up as it is useful to know that there is a different point of view. It also makes me a little more confident that I could do it myself next time. –  Kevin Lawrence Jan 14 '11 at 1:59
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@Kevin and @Matthew: you guys are right. I'll go for answers, especially at this early stage. The thing is, I invest considerable time in posting answers. And I'm trying to work right now, so I cannot really focus on this at the same time :D But I will start posting answers seriously now, damning the consequences! –  Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 2:03

6 Answers 6

Yes, If you change the gauge of the strings the tension on the neck will be different resulting in your guitar falling and staying out of tune.

Take it in to a shop and that will show you what they are doing (try and find a local shop). The cost is generally not that bad and you will make sure it was done right. Most shops will put a new pair of strings on your guitar if you are getting a setup.

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Yup, a resetup is required if any significant change in string gauge is made. This is because the intonation and tuning will be all wrong on the guitar, and The action will also not be as you want it. Do not try and setup your guitar yourself the first couple of times. Find a local guitar shop that specialises in guitars (general music stores I have found do a low quality job), take it there and they will guide you through what they are doing to your instrument if you ask. After that, if you are confident you can try doing it yourself. If in doubt, take it to a pro. It can cost a fair bit, but the few times I have had to do it it has been SO worth it. Hope this helps.

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The need for a resetup is especially true if the guitar has a tremolo/Floyd Rose; as the different tension of the new strings will unbalance the bridge springs, possibly leaving the bridge too high or too low (ideally it should be parallel to the body).

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While at the shop, also be sure to check the highest gauge your guitar is meant to handle. My first electric ended up with a busted nut due to trying to drop a set of 12s on it since the low E was wider than the clearance left for it.

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Yes you will need to set that lovely Strat up again. Don't worry, you can't screw your guitar up. Take a look on youtube, there are many videos that explain how to do it. The hard thing on a Strat is finding the perfect balance on that tremelo system. I like the Carl Verheyen technique a lot, I use it constantly! Make sure to work with already stretched strings or you will have to redo it completely!!!

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Yes, you will need to set it up again. There are two essential reasons for any guitar -- bow, and intonation. (For those with tremolo bridges, other responses have already addressed that.)

Bow: The string gauge effectively determines the total tension on the guitar neck, when the string are tuned to pitch. (Note that this affects those who change tunings too.) The counterbalance to that string tension is the truss rod. Imho, every player should be prepared to adjust the truss rod in their own instrument(s). In addition to string changes, seasonal humidity changes can also affect the neck. Being familiar with this process will enable you to quickly make on-the-spot tweaks as necessary.

The truss rod is one of three components that allow you to set the action height; the other two are the nut (slot depth) and the bridge (saddle height). The truss rod adjusts the bow of the neck. While the action height is a matter of personal taste, it must accommodate the player's playing style (vigorous vs. gentle). (I will assume that the prerequisite task of levelling the frets has already been completed; it generally needs to be done only once in the lifetime of the frets.)

The actual truss rod adjuster varies by guitar. Some are beyond the nut, some are in the neck pocket, some are below the soundboard. Whatever tool your instrument requires, I recommend that you purchase one and keep it with the instrument.

Believe it or not, the desired neck is not straight (or dead flat). The desired shape will have an ever-so-slight concave bow. When you adjust the truss rod, make small changes -- no more than a quarter of a turn at one time. And don't force the adjuster it if the resistance increases; that may signal the end of the adjustment range, and going further might break something. After each small change, allow ample time for the wood to "move" and redistribute its stresses before measuring the resultant action height.

Intonation: Adjusting the intonation is also something that you can learn to do for yourself, however, it generally requires a very precise tuner -- such as a strobotuner -- or very gifted hearing. The actual adjustments vary by guitar, but the goal is to adjust the string length until the pitch of the string fretted at the twelfth fret matches the pitch of the (first) harmonic at the same location.

In summary, the first step in setting up your guitar is to choose the string gauge. Many consequences follow from that choice.

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