Just this week I visited one my local music stores after a referral to the guy to have my Tanglewood acoustic guitar strings changed. Myself and a friend went in, he recommended a pair of guitar strings and stated his price, which was reasonable.

He asked if he wanted the guitar 'set up' - at an additional fee of course.

My friend and I didn't know what he meant by this, and when I asked if he could explain what this entailed he began to use a motorcycle metaphor: "it's like setting up a motorcycle, checking the breaks, addressing the oil..." and so on.

After he finished the metaphor I asked if he could literally define what that meant in the context of guitar, as he hadn't provided a single step that he would undertake on the guitar to 'set it up'.

He then went straight back to the motorcycle metaphor and stated that we probably wouldn't want it set up. Fair enough, I suppose.

A few hours later, we returned to collect our newly strung guitars and he said he hadn't set up the guitar, of course, but that we would likely notice that the guitars were not that nice to play as they had not been 'setup'. He then stated that if we wanted them setup later, we could return and we would notice the difference.

But, he still failed to explain a single thing about what 'setting up' a guitar was, what it entailed and any benefit that wasn't highly abstract. Naturally, I don't fancy paying for a service that is hidden completely behind a black box, so to speak.

Does anyone know what he could possibly mean by 'setting up' the guitar, or he is simply trying to fool an pair of amateur guitar players?

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    A pair of guitar strings... thought provoking! – Tim Sep 20 '17 at 16:51
  • @Tim a set of strings.... – AdamMcquiff Sep 20 '17 at 17:05
  • Setting up a guitar is a legit thing that you should have done after buying a new guitar, but I would definitely go to a different shop to have it done. If the guy is not willing to explain what it entails, he's not worth your business. – only_pro Dec 19 '18 at 18:10

The Set-Up your guy is talking about usually involves three points:

  • Adjusting the truss rod - neck relief
  • Adjusting the action
  • Adjusting the intonation

The truss rod is a metal bar of some sort, embedded into the neck of your guitar. It is used to adjust the curvature of the neck. All guitar necks have a certain degree of curvature - convexity or concavity - this is necessary for the strings to be aligned properly relative to the neck, when playing at various points on the neck. The truss rod is used to bend the neck slightly - stretch it to make it more convex, or contract it to make it more concave. It's called neck relief, and depending on your strings, your action,the environment and you personal preferences, the degree of neck relief needed can change. Often when changing strings, a tweak is needed.

The action refers to the height of the strings above the fretboard - higher action or lower action with reference to the fretboard. Some players prefer higher action, others lower. Some guitars sound better with higher or lower action and some strings work better with higher or lower action.

There are various ways of adjusting the action. For example, screws on the bridge, bridges that raise and lower the height of the strings or can be moved to change the action.

On acoustic guitars there are usually fewer options available for making adjustments. I don't know too much about the details of setting up an acoustic. The bullet points will be pretty much the same, but how to do them will differ - among electrics they also differ. @Tim in the comments says that the saddle itself may need trimming in some cases to lower the action on an acoustic.

Adjusting the action of the strings works in conjunction with adjusting the truss rod. For anything more than very small changes they should be done together.

Intonation refers mainly to each string being in tune with itself. On a guitar for example, the twelfth fret should be exactly one octave higher in pitch than the open string. Various factors can effect the intonation and there are various ways of adjusting it, similar to the action.

Changing strings can require adjustment of all three factors - particularly action and neck relief. These adjustments are tricky and one can impact the other, so it requires expertise to get everything in sync. The overall process of doing all that is referred to as a Set-Up and it often goes together with changing the strings because changing the strings can impact those points.

That's what your guy meant by a Set-Up. It takes some time and expertise, so it's perfectly understandable and acceptable to charge for the service. Where I live, a Set-Up done by an expert can cost $75 or $100 (or more.)

The Set-Up of your guitar can be affected by many factors - changing the strings, the temperature, the humidity, getting a bang or shock, your own changing personal preferences and technique...

Set-Up/maintenance is applicable in different ways to most musical instruments. A musical instrument is a precision built mechanical device whose moving parts are subject to wear and tear from playing and from the environment, so certain parts need to be changed out, and a set-up of some sort is required from time to time to keep an instrument in good playing condition.

Some musicians take their instruments to an expert for a set-up every time the seasons change, because the changes in the weather change the set-up, requiring adjustment and "a fresh set-up".

He then stated that if we wanted them setup later, we could return and we would notice the difference.

In all likelihood, he was telling you the truth. A good set-up can make a big difference in the sound and playability of your guitar.

Sometimes, less knowledgeable people will mistakenly find fault with a guitar or manufacturer because they don't understand set-ups. Often enough you'll find ratings like this when looking for an instrument:

One Star - when I unpacked it, the action was very high. Very hard to play, didn't sound right - I had to send it back.

But a good set-up would likely have eliminated all those complaints. The guy might have sent back a very good guitar because he didn't know about set-ups.

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    On acoustic guitars, the six pegs that hold the strings in the holes behind the bridge won't be anything to do with the set up. The saddle itself may need trimming in some cases to lower the action. – Tim Sep 20 '17 at 17:19
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    I think I paid closer to $30 or $50 for my most recent setup, so it depends on where you go for sure. I went to a local music shop that has been around for a long time. I think they just charge time and materials and I think their hourly rate is around $30. – Basstickler Sep 20 '17 at 17:33
  • @Basstickler - I am in NYC: "best set up in town" costs $85 at one of the best repair shops. Bring it to a boutique dealer or if you want something special it will cost more. – Stinkfoot Sep 20 '17 at 19:37
  • @Tim - as mentioned, IDK much about acoustics. I'm incorporating your comment into the answer. – Stinkfoot Sep 20 '17 at 19:38
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    @Stinkfoot - I imagine things would be more expensive there. I'm in Maine, so most things are probably cheaper than NYC. – Basstickler Sep 20 '17 at 19:40

The range of what you can do in a "setup" is quite wide. A basic setup can be as simple as adjusting the truss rod and minor adjustments of the action at the nut and bridge. Electrics with movable bridges can get some intonation. A full setup can involve basic work plus fret leveling and dressing, cleaning and oiling, tuning machine maintenance, electronics cleaning, structural inspection and repair and more. Here's the services I provide:

All guitars:

  • overall inspection

The instrument is checked for any issues, such as broken struts, lifting bridges, electronic problems etc.

  • Adjust the action at the bridge and nut, and the truss rod for the tension of the strings.

Action is lowered as far as the instrument will allow, or to musician preference. In some cases the action is lowered to match the playing style of the musician: heavier playing/strumming will need to be a higher action than a light touch melody line jazz player. The action is set so that the strings don't buzz against the frets at full volume playing.

The nut action is set using gauged files to match the string gauges, and is lowered just above the point that the strings would buzz against the first fret. This puts less tension and a softer feel on playing open position chords and scales.

The truss rod is set so the dip of the finger board is just below the rotational distance of the lowest string (when picked and vibrating, the vibration distance doesn't hit the frets). Some action might have to be set higher to allow for the 12th to 14th fret body joint "hump" that occurs in some guitars.

  • Fret level and dress

The relief of the neck is set to the same profile as when fully strung, using the truss rod (loosen the rod to emulate the relief the guitar has when strings are tuned up on it). Some luthiers have a neck jig that will hold the neck in profile with clamps. The frets are then marked with a marker and then checked for level using a true flat sanding board. Low spots will keep the marking and high frets will be worn off. If there are low or high spots, or string channel wear, the frets are filed down using a fret leveling file until they are level with each other, or the string dents are removed. Once the frets are level, a crowning file and other dressing tools are used to shape and polish the frets back into a smooth round top.

  • Clean and dress the finger board and raw wood

The fingerboard and bridge (if made of raw wood) is cleaned with lemon oil and 0000 steel wool, or cleaner for lacquered finger boards.

  • Check and lube tuning machines, end pin

Tuning machines are cleaned and checked for tightness of the parts and tightened where possible. Loose screws and end-pins have the screw hole filled to tighten (small softwood dowel and glue). Exposed gears are lubricated with silicone or lithium lubricant (oil based can stain the wood and loosen screws).

  • clean and polish

the rest of the instrument is cleaned and polished using standard guitar polish. Metal parts and bridges are brushed out and cleaned.

  • scratch removal

In some guitars minor chips or finish scratches can be hidden with furniture repair pens, or buffed out. It just makes the instrument look cleaner, and is a nice touch.

Electric Guitars:

  • intonation and tremolo action adjusted at the bridge

where possible, saddles are adjusted to intonate the guitar to the string set being used. Tremolo bridges are set up: for Strat style, tension is adjusted at the bridge springs (adding springs if necessary) to be just below lifting for the string gauges installed. Floyd Rose(tm) style bridges are adjusted to level height.

  • clean and lube pots and switches

electronic spray cleaner and lube is sprayed into pots and switches.

  • Check tightness of the input jack

You can usually bend in the tip prong of an input jack that is a little loose. Replacement of the jack and any grounding/electronic issues aren't covered in the setup job.

At my shop we have different levels of setup available.

  1. Restring - restring the instrument, clean and lube.

  2. Restring with adjustment - restring and adjust bridge, nut and truss

  3. Full Setup - the above list.


Setting up a guitar can involve several things: adjusting the height of the strings at nut and bridge, making sure the slots in the nut fit the strings, leveling the frets, rounding the ends of the frets, and many other things to make the guitar more playable. But I don't understand why this guy didn't explain this- it's not like it's secret knowledge. If he found something specific that would have been improved by being "set up", he should have told you what it was. If you want your guitar set up, you might want to go elsewhere.

  • But I don't understand why this guy didn't explain this.. - I agree that it's perhaps a little shady sounding. But it's likely that since the OP didn't know what a set up was at all, he didn't want have to take a lot of time to go into the details - the motorcycle metaphor was a time saver. – Stinkfoot Sep 20 '17 at 13:31
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    In my experience, a setup wouldn't usually include fret work. They have typically just addressed the action and intonation. – Basstickler Sep 20 '17 at 17:32
  • @Stinkfoot you would think this was the case, but we conversed for a long time about other matters, so I feel that time saving was not on his agenda, which is peculiar. – AdamMcquiff Sep 21 '17 at 23:51
  • @AdamMcquiff - maybe. Sometimes it's a pain in the butt for a pro to break down things for a newbie - it's work. General conversation is a lot easier. At any rate, now that you know about set-ups, if you want one (you probably do) you can go in there knowledgeable and cross examine him a little- maybe ask him if he's going to do A B and C etc. If you don't like the answers, go elsewhere. – Stinkfoot Sep 22 '17 at 14:58

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