Most musicians are familiar with the term setup. They know their instruments sound and feel better after a setup. Ask any guitarist how much better their guitar feels and plays after a luthier has setup their guitar.
So what is a guitar setup?
Essentially a guitar setup comprises various adjustments to the instrument to make it easier to play, more accurate, and produce a better tone. This applies to all instruments to some degree or other. With reference to stringed instruments, the most common adjustment is to the ‘action’.
Action refers to to how high or low strings are above the fingerboard or frets. Low action means the strings are close to the fingerboard, therefore less effort is needed so it is less tiring. It also allows faster playing and less likelihood of unclear notes since less pressure is required to hold them down. In order to achieve a low action it is critical that the surface the strings are pressed onto, is level. In the case of guitars this means adjacent frets should be the same height. Non fretted instruments such as violins and cellos, etc. should have no humps or dents in their fingerboards. A level surface is essential for low action and minimum string/fret buzz. Other factors enhancing low action are neck relief (a slight concave curvature of the neck along its length), string gauge, and style of playing.
The usual sequence for setting up guitars is as follows:
1 check the operation of the truss rod
2 check if all frets are firmly seated – ie not lifting or loose
3 stone frets – ie level them
4 crown and polish frets to a shiny, smooth, rounded surface
5 fit new strings
6 tune to the pitch used
7 adjust truss rod
8 cut nut grooves to correct shape and depth
9 adjust bridge saddle/saddles to correct height
10 set intonation on adjustable saddles
11 play and enjoy!