My friend Jeff started playing guitar recently, and after playing acoustic for a couple years he’s interested in an electric. He recently asked me about buying decisions and what to look for when shopping around.
I told him, “The most important piece of advice is to ask the sales rep if they have a good tech to do a proper setup with fresh strings if you decide to buy one. You’ll want someone knowledgeable to inspect it no matter which guitar you choose.” It really doesn’t matter what guitar you pull of the rack. Chances are it will benefit from a new set of strings and adjustments to the action.
What does this mean? Why is this so important? If you aren’t experienced with assessing guitar setups and playing action, you should have someone else look at it to make any needed adjustments.
For instance, let’s say a guitar was just put on display the day before. Maybe the strings are fine, or maybe they’ve been tuned up for a while and already started to oxidize since the guitar was boxed up in a warehouse months earlier. Higher end guitars come with good strings and don’t sit in boxes, but nearly every factory guitar can use some neck adjustments and other tweaks to make it play right for you.
It is well known that factory setups are done purposely with high action, and the guitar can feel a little stiff without making any changes. There are valid reasons for manufacturers to do this. A guitar goes through many subtle geometric changes from when it first gets strings to when it finally reaches a display wall in a store somewhere, and eventually finds itself in your hands.
So, what is a Custom Setup?
First, we’ll have a conversation about your playing style and I’ll watch both of your hands, your attack and technique. We’ll discuss your individual guitar and what you want before doing the work. And when you come to pick it up we can fine tune and make further tweaks before you go.
It takes an experienced technician to execute a perfect setup customized to the individual player. A full setup includes adjustments to all three primary action points: nut slots, truss rod, and saddle height. On an electric guitar it also includes setting the saddle intonation points. All maintenance is included as well, tighten/adjust tuning gears, oil and condition the fingerboard, check electronics, balance pickup outputs, polish the frets and the finish. At Solstice, this is our second tier of setup work.
What is a Custom Pro Setup?
This is considered our top shelf level setup work. A Pro Setup includes everything above plus fret leveling and dressing. Some call this job a level-crown-polish. We take it a step further… When wood dries it shrinks, and in Arizona we see plenty of dry guitars. Often we’ll find loose or hollow frets that aren’t seated properly, sometimes even moving up and down. We have different techniques for locating problematic frets, and we always stabilize them with thin cyanoacrylate glue to make them solid and seated properly before leveling the tops. This enhances your tone and gives you more note articulation when a string connects with that fret. It also lets us achieve the best possible fret level, knowing that every fret is secure while the file does its work.
The simple gist of the process is this. Tops get grazed with a leveling file, then we use a special tool called a crowning file to make the frets round again (removes the flat tops from the previous step.) Then every fret gets polished after the fret-ends are beveled for smooth edges.
The Human PLEK Machine
We approach fret leveling like a human plek machine. I always set neck relief properly and focus on the geometry of each individual guitar, then level the frets according to how I want the plane of the level to differentiate from both ends of the fingerboard and across the radius. The plek machine is a great tool, but I think a really good tech can achieve the same quality or better depending on who strings it up and sets the action after leveling. And besides, most guitars are made of wood.
Some people have a misconception that if they get their guitar PLEK-ed it’s good forever. It’s not. Wood expands and contracts throughout the seasons, and many players wear down their frets quickly enough to make regular leveling a necessity. Of course, the cost of PLEK-ing has gone down in the last few years from what I can see… But I digress.
Book a FREE consultation now to discuss your setup (video chat or in-person.)
If you have any questions about our setup work, leave a comment below or send me an email.