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Frequently Asked Questions & Tips


Question:  Can you set up my guitar with super low action?

Answer:  I don't know - It depends on your guitar.  Normally, I set a guitar up to factory specs, and then see what the guitar will let me do from there.  The "shredder" guitars - Jackson, Ibanez, etc.. - usually have a fretboard radius of 14" or higher, meaning that they are flatter than Gibson's 12" radius or Fender's 9.5" or 7.25".  A flatter radius tends to allow for lower action because there is less of a "hill" in the middle that the high E and B strings have to clear when bending.  I can set a Fender up with super low action, but if it frets out every time you bend the string, it doesn't do you much good.  Sometimes I have to set the action a little higher than I would like to avoid the "hill" when bending.  This can happen because of the fretboard radius, or because of wear to your frets - if you do a lot of bending at the 14th fret, over time the 14th fret will become lower then the 15th or 16th frets, and when you bend the string, it will "fret out" on the higher frets.  When this happens you need a fretdress to level the tops of the frets.  If your strings buzz a lot, a fret dress is usually the cure.


I was just looking through the April 2009 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine (if you love guitars, it's worth subscribing to!) and it has a column on repairs written by Steven Stone, entitled, Repairs: DIY vs. Pro.  I thought I'd share some of the info...  DIY For Sure: Change Strings, Clean and Polish, Raise/Lower Action at Bridge, "...when you lower or raise action, you'll have to make adjustments to the guitar's intonation, as well.  If this makes you anxious, my advice is 'Don't try this at home.'", Check and tighten loose screws.  Some Skill Required: Truss-rod Adjustments, Changing tuners "can be simple, or it can require major surgery."  Definitely Don't Try This At Home: "The list of repairs you shouldn't attempt on your own includes installing a pickup, fret work, neck work, saddle repairs, bridge work, and ... refinishing.  I'm sure I've left out something (I'd include nut work)..."  And the last two lines of the article, "just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.  Now put down that big screwdriver, back away slowly, and no one will get hurt."  Well, put.  I've crossed paths with many guitars that were damaged when their owners decided to perform their own work.  To borrow a quote from Harry Callahan, "...you've got to ask yourself one question (before you attempt a guitar repair yourself): Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"


Question:  Why should I replace the nut on my guitar?

Answer:  Several reasons.  The nuts on 99% of the guitars out there are plastic.  Of those, in my experience, 75% are either hollow, or semi-hollow.  Having a dense, solid, bone nut will improve the tone of the instrument.  Ask any player who's had a bone nut installed (The same thing goes for the saddle on an acoustic). Second, most nuts are cut to fit generic string gauges - usually .009 - .042, or .010 -.046.  A nut that's cut to fit a .046 low E string, will be wide for a .042 E string, but narrow for a .052 E string.  Does the guitar company make the nut to fit YOUR preferred string gauge, or some hypothetical "average".  You already know the answer.  When the slot is too narrow, the string will bind in the slot and  cause tuning nightmares.  If the slot is cut too wide, the string will rattle and buzz when played in the open position.  I cut slots to fit YOUR string gauge.



This is really more advice than a tip.  But first, let me give you the background... I stopped in at a local guitar store to check out the gear.  They claim to specialize in "vintage" instruments.  This usually just means used, or old, or overpriced.  So I asked to try a newer model Epiphone Flying V (How's that for "vintage"?) and, while it played well up to the 12th fret, it fretted out very badly at, and above, the 14th - I'm talking dead, not just buzz.  I mentioned this to the owner - who seemed to be more preoccupied with his cell phone conversation to a friend about going golfing - and his reply was, "I'll have my repair guy look at it when he comes in".  He then went back to his phone conversation.  I was hoping to get a deal on the guitar and repair it myself, but in the end, they lost the sale, and I'll never buy from them in the future.  My advice is this: Don't buy from dealers who don't provide service along with the sale.  If you're in the market for a new guitar, before you hand over your money, make sure that they will give the guitar a final setup before it leaves the store (at no additional cost).  If they won't, buy your guitar from someplace that will.  When you consider the cost of a new instrument - at least a quality one - it should be in perfect playing condition, set up for YOUR playing style, from the moment you get it.  If you're not getting a professional set up with your guitar, you might as well order from an internet store and save yourself the sales tax, because you're getting the same guitar.  (See the next question...)


Question:  I have a new guitar, why would it need a fret dress instead of just a set up?

Answer:  Well, in my opinion, it shouldn't (see above tip).  That said, it all depends on the guitar.  In the past few weeks, I've seen several lower-end guitars - some were famous brand names (and not cheap at all), and others were brands I've never heard of, straight off the boat from one of the Asian countries.  Many of the lower-end guitars don't get a fret dress.  The theory goes like this:  You've got a new, freshly radiused board, the frets are new, so once they're installed, they should all be the same height, right?  So companies save time and money by not having the frets dressed, and their stockholders collect nice fat dividends.  The problem is that sometimes the frets don't go in perfectly, or sometimes the fret slots are not the correct size for the fret tang.  When this happens, the frets are not all even, and there will be buzzing where there are high frets, this is especially true if the guitar has a good set up, because there is less room for error.  And it only takes one or two misaligned frets to make a guitar unbearable.  Take a look at this photo...

This is a new, famous brand-name instrument.  Where the frets were high, you can see that more material was taken off than on the adjacent frets.  Once the frets are all level, the guitar can be set up to very tight tolerances, and will play wonderfully.


Question:  How did you learn to repair guitars / What is your repair background / What are your qualifications?

Answer:  I am a professionally trained and certificated stringed instrument repair technician.  I am a graduate of the Galloup School of Lutherie, one of the most respected luither training schools in the country.  I have been a member of the Guild of American Luthiers, as well as a member of A.S.I.A. - The Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans.  Both are professional trade organizations designed to provide a comprehensive database of resources, supplies and technical information, as well as being a means of providing multi-level education within the profession.  My shop is one of only three in the entire state of Michigan that is an authorized Buzz Feiten retrofitter for acoustic guitars, and the only one in the entire Metro Detroit area - the other two are in Big Rapids, and Kalamazoo.  Beyond that, I have over twenty years of experience playing and working on guitars and basses.  Like most, I began by taking apart and modifying my own guitars - long before I had any clue as to what I was doing. ;-)


Question:  How do I know if my guitar even needs a setup - I don't notice any problems?

Answer:  Just because you can play a guitar doesn't mean that it doesn't need a set up.  A set up is kind of like a tune-up for the guitar.  Just like you take a car in periodically to have the oil changed and check the air in the tires, you should have your guitar setup at least once a year - twice a year for acoustics.  The biggest factors affecting guitars are humidity (too much or too little) and string tension.  Your guitar should be set up each time you change string gauges (different brands of string have different tensions, even if the strings are the same gauge, so pick a brand you like and stick with it), or when there is a major climate change - which in Michigan happens in the spring and winter months.


Question:  I just bought my guitar.  Didn't they set it up at the store?

Answer:  Generally speaking, stores that have 20 - 75 guitars hanging on the wall do a quick basic set up when the guitars first come off the truck.  And then they sit there.  The string action is almost always set high, so that when a person comes in and plays it, there will be no buzz.  Is this a playable guitar?  Yes.  Is this guitar set up to play it's best?  Not even close. 

A second scenario involves a guitar purchased online.  Here's a little-known fact: Most guitar companies don't do a final setup before it leaves the factory - They assume that their dealer will do the final set up before the instrument leaves the store.  Many internet sellers never even unpack the guitar when it comes in - it goes to a warehouse until someone orders that model off the web page, and then it continues it's journey to your front door, never getting a final set up.

Time and time again I've seen this happen: A person brings me their guitar and says, "It plays great, but I figure it could use a good cleaning, and I need some new strings."  After I've done a set up on it, they can't believe it's the same guitar - more than that, they can't believe how much BETTER it plays.  It's only then that they realize that the guitar they thought played great, played pretty much average.  A guitar that is set up correctly is a joy to play.  All my setups have a 30-day warranty, so you're guaranteed to like the way it plays.


Here's a simple test - fret your low E string at the 1st fret.  While holding it down, use your other hand to press down at the 14th fret (same string).  Now look at the space between the string and the top of the 8th fret.  Is there a gap that is bigger than half the width of the sting?  If so, you could use a set up.  Is the string touching the fret?  If so, you could use a set up (and I'd guess your strings buzz like crazy when you play).

Question:  I can hear my strings buzzing when I play.  What causes this?

Answer:  Here's the short list of potential causes:

  9. LOW NUT


Is the top of your 12-String flat-top acoustic no longer flat?  Is your bridge starting to lift on the ends?  Most 12-String guitars are designed to be tuned down one whole-step, to provide some relief from the added tension of the octave strings.  Instead of E-A-D-G-B-E (low to high), tune D-G-C-F-A-D.  To play in standard tuning, use a capo at the 2nd fret.

2/3's of the acoustic bridge repairs I see are on 12-strings because they were tuned to standard tuning.