If you have a go-to guitar, you have probably loved playing it so much you’ve played the heck out of it! At first this isn't a problem because playing a guitar a lot gives it that coveted worked-in feel that everybody likes. But after a while your go-to guitar is likely to require maintenance for normal wear and tear isues like dirty controls, Scratchy switches, buzzy strings, sharp frets, intonation issues, or uncomfortably high action.
Of course, you can go online and start right away looking for a new guitar that has the features you feel are missing in your guitar, but when you get that new axe, it is likely to lack something else that you really like, thus making the vicious circle start all over again.
Before you trade your old standby in, or pull the trigger on a new guitar, it may be worth looking into having that old favorite guitar of yours serviced and upgraded. Servicing, maintenance, and strategic upgrades can make an inexpensive guitar play like a much more expensive instrument, and a professional quality axe play and sound like something bought from a custom shop.
Read on as we take a look at repairs and services that can make your old guitar play and sound like new -- or better!
While guitar websites and magazines regularly mention the importance of having a well setup guitar, there are still many new guitar players out there who aren’t really sure what a setup is or why they should have one done. Having a well setup guitar can make playing your guitar easier and much more enjoyable. A professional setup will improve your guitar’s tone, ensuring that your guitar -- and your playing -- sounds its best.
A setup is an overall, professional adjustment and servicing of your guitar. While guitar shops perform a variety of services under the heading ‘Setup,’ it boils down to getting everything on your guitar that is adjustable set up so that it is mechanically functioning as well as possible. When a professional setup is done right, your guitar will feel and sound as good or better than it did when you first took it out of the box. Many new guitars from big box stores arrive fresh out of the box desperately needing a setup in order to play well.
A setup is not something you do once and forget it. A setup should be thought of as basic periodic maintenance designed to keep your guitar functioning at optimal levels. A professional setup is likely to include neck and nut adjustments, bridge and saddle adjustments, adjustments for tuning stability and intonation and a variety of possible hardware adjustments depending on the type of guitar you have.
The neck adjustment is an adjustment to the truss rod that makes the neck as straight as possible, while bridge and saddle adjustments are done for ideal string height which improves overall comfort and playability. Any parts where the strings come into contact with hardware, and moving parts such as tuning machines and tremolo systems are tightened and lubricated, and the neck is usually cleaned and hydrated. While you usually don’t get a full fret dressing with a setup, they are usually leveled to eliminate string buzz. If the amount of leveling you need goes beyond a certain point, however, you may have to have a fret dress and leveling service done in addition to the setup (your guitar service tech will probably be able to tell if you need more extensive fretwork when they first look at your guitar).
At this point, the guitar is completely fine tuned. The tech having straightened the neck, adjusts every bit of hardware on the guitar until your guitar is perfectly intonated, and every note on your neck is precise and true. When the hardware is properly adjusted, your guitar is tested to ensure that all of the electrical components are in proper working order including the input, controls and switching. Once all of these components are cleaned and adjusted, your guitar is ready for studio or stage and is sure to play and sound its best!
Essential Setup Tips
Prices for a Professional Guitar Setup can vary greatly depending on the guitar you have, its exact hardware components, and what your guitar needs to have done, but if you want your guitar to play and sound as good or better than the first day you bought it, you need a professional guitar setup!
There are hundreds of videos online that give instructions on how to setup your own guitar, and if you’re experienced with it they can be an excellent resource, but like the professional guitarist in the video above, it's natural for many players to be unsure about setting their guitars up themselves. If you are inexperienced or unfamiliar with setting up a guitar or bass, the relatively low cost of a professional setup really makes it worthwhile to have a professional guitar tech do your setup for you rather than having to pay more money later to get your neck relief, action or floating tremolo fixed later!
Sometimes the cleaning and basic polish that your frets get when you have a setup is not enough to keep frets from buzzing and making troublesome noise. Fret wear is an inevitable part of owning a guitar, and worn, dented and uneven frets with sharp edges will mess up your intonation and harm your guitar’s overall tone, while also making it less comfortable to play.
Most guitarists like to have their action as low as they can get it to make playing as easy as possible. The problem is that, the lower your action goes, the more likely fret buzz becomes. If you are experiencing fret buzz, or your frets have become dented. worn down, or uneven, your guitar may require fret dressing and leveling to eliminate fret buzz and improve the guitar’s overall tone.
Fretwork is not just for guitars with a lot of mileage. Even new guitars can benefit from a fret dress, as some may come from the factory with uneven frets and sharp fret edges. A fret dress can also be used to correct minor defects in guitar necks that might otherwise be really expensive to repair.
Fretwork is generally done in addition to a setup because fretwork should only be done after the neck is made as straight as possible, and string height has been adjusted at the bridge and saddle for optimal playability. In a dressing and leveling, once the neck has been made as straight as possible, the tops of the frets are sanded down a minimal amount to ensure that all frets are the same height. The frets are then re-crowned using a fret crowning file and polished to a mirror-like smoothness. Getting your frets dressed and leveled means no more fret buzzing and absolutely no sharp edges, giving your guitar optimal tone and perfect comfort!
In some cases, the frets are worn down enough to warrant a complete re-fretting of the instrument. Re-fretting can be seen as a game-changing upgrade that can make your guitar feel and sound better than ever before. When you change the fret size or material of the frets, it can have an incredible effect on your guitar’s feel and sound. Upgrading from nickel to stainless steel frets, for example, is known to give your guitar a noticeably smoother feel and brighter tone, and stainless is also widely known to be nearly impervious to corrosion, meaning that they will have much longer life. Refretting is an indispensable part of restoring vintage instruments, but can also be considered as an upgrade for new guitar as well. When you weigh the benefits against the cost, upgrading your fret wire is a relatively inexpensive way to make an old go-to guitar play and sound like new again!
Nickel vs Stainless Steel Frets
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say -- or have even said myself -- that they love the feel of an inexpensive guitar, but they aren’t crazy about the way it sounds. One of the easiest and most cost effective ways to get that guitar that you love playing to the next level in terms of tone is to upgrade the pickups. Installing new pickups should actually be thought of as making a considerable investment in your guitar, and will actually increase the guitar’s resale value.
Upgrading your pickups can make the cheap guitar that you love to play sound like a much more expensive, and expressive, instrument. It’s important to note that the prices for pickup installation services do not include the cost of the pickups or the labor and materials costs from having to alter your instrument to fit the new pickup. If you have pickups that you want installed in your guitar, bring them in and let a tech have a look at them. If you don’t have the pickups, don’t let that stop you from inquiring -- shops can order a lot of pickups for you, including pickups from industry leading brands like Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio and Fishman.
Selecting the best pickups to suit your needs can be tricky and there are so many options it would take an entirely new article to do the topic justice. Common pickup upgrades include adding a pickup to a single pickup guitar, changing out one pickup, or changing out two or all three (in Strat-style guitars for example) of the pickups, either for a new style of pickup or a better quality brand. Another pickup upgrade option is changing from passive pickups to active pickups. Any of these options will certainly change and upgrade the sonic capabilities of your instrument.
Stock pickups generally do not have the power, clarity or bite of premium pickups. Stock pickups often have a muddled sound that is not voiced for any particular style of music, especially in an inexpensive or entry level guitar. Even if you don’t have an inexpensive guitar, upgraded pickups is a way to customize your guitar’s sound, giving it the voice and tone you need for your musical tastes. Here is an article from Seymour Duncan offering guidance about which pickups are best suited to specific musical styles and you can find them here.
5 Iconic Pickups
You can have the coolest looking finish, the hottest pickups on the market, and action set so low your fingers fly across the fretboard, but if your guitar is constantly going out of tune, or your strings buzz even when played open, then you will never be able to get the sound you are looking for. If these problems have been plaguing you with your current guitar, and you are thinking of buying another, you may want to look into upgrading the nut on your current guitar before you pull the trigger on an entirely new axe.
Replacing the nut on your guitar may be either a necessary repair, or an amazing upgrade that is sure to improve the intonation, tuning stability and overall tone of the instrument. Your guitar’s nut has a major effect on the intonation and tuning stability of the guitar, as well as the string spacing, string height and even the presence or absence of string buzz.
There are several problems that a nut replacement can address. If your strings are buzzy even when played open, it may be a sign that the string slots in your current nut are worn down. This is most common on guitars that have soft nut material like ebony and molded plastic. A nut replacement and a setup can eliminate open string buzz, resulting in improved tone and playability.
Even if you aren’t experiencing serious problems with your current nut, getting a nut replacement may be a good idea. Upgrading from a molded plastic nut to a bone nut or TUSQ nut can be a considerable upgrade, improving your guitar’s resonance, intonation, tuning stability and playability. If you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive way to upgrade your guitar’s tone, a nut replacement is a great option for you.
Again, before you get rid of that old guitar that you’ve always loved to play but now has buzzy frets or scratchy switches, think about ways that you can upgrade your old standby to make it sound and play like new. Even if you had all four of these services done on your current guitar, it would cost quite a bit less than a new guitar. Upgrades like stainless steel frets, new pickups, and a TUSQ nut, coupled with regular maintenance can have your favorite old guitar sounding and playing better than ever, at a fraction of the price of a new guitar! For more information on repairs, servicing and upgrades, visit our Service Page or contact us for more info!