A setup is the process in which the guitar is adjusted to a player's taste. This includes cutting the nut, adjusting the truss rod, setting the bridge radius and saddle height, setting the intonation, adjusting pickup height, tightening hardware, lubricating parts, and a host of other factors.
The nut is located at the end of the fretboard closest to the headstock, and the strings rest in the nut's slots. Nuts are usually made from bone, graphite, delrin, brass, or plastic. They are the most commonly overlooked component of the guitar, yet the nut is the component that most effects the feel of the instrument. Nut slots need to be cut to an extreme degree of accuracy - string spacing and height at the nut are crucial to the overall feel of the guitar.
The truss rod adjusts the curve of the neck, either towards or away from the strings. Truss rods usually come in two types: single acting or double acting. A single acting truss rod only actively works in one direction: tightening the truss rod curves the neck towards the strings ("bow"), while loosening the truss rod relaxes the neck, which allows the string tension to curve the neck in the opposite direction "relief". A double acting truss rod actively works in both directions: it can actively push the neck into a curve towards or away from the strings. Truss rods are usually adjusted to allow for a very small amount of curve away from the strings, to allow room for the string's oscillation.
Relief / Backbow
Relief and backbow (or bow) are terms used to describe the curve of a guitar neck. A guitar neck with too much relief is curved away from the strings, resulting in high action in the middle of the neck. A backbowed guitar neck is curved towards the strings, resulting in notes that choke and fret out in the lower to middle registers.
A radius is the distance from the center of a circle to it’s outermost edge. A section of a circle with a large radius will be less curved, and smaller radius more curved. Guitar fretboards are not flat – they are curved, and the way this curve is delineated is by it’s radius. Typically, instruments like Telecasters and Stratocasters have a rounder curve, usually 190mm-234mm (7.5″-9.25″); Gibson style instruments have a somewhat flatter curve, 254mm-304mm (10″-12″); and more modern style instruments very flat curves of 355mm-406mm (14″-16″). Rounder fretboards facilitate easier chording, but are difficult to bend strings on, as the string tends to fret out as it’s pushed across the fretboard. Flatter fretboards don’t choke out on big bends, but chording becomes more difficult, as the flatter board doesn’t match the natural curve of your fingers.
Some guitars have what’s called a compound radius, with a rounder profile in the lower registers, and a flatter profile in the upper registers. This allows for ease of both chording and bending in the areas where most players do these the most.
A guitar’s bridge radius should match the radius of the neck. If not, the action from string to string will be uneven, and will contribute to a ill-feeling guitar.
A Fret Level is the process in which a guitar's frets are leveled to the same height. This is necessary when a guitar's frets aren't perfectly even, or when they've worn out from playing. This is an extremely common procedure, and many players have a fret level done every few years or so, depending on how they play and how hard they are on their frets. Most guitars can have their frets leveled three or four times before the frets get too low to play, in which case the guitar needs to be refretted.
A luthier is a commonly used term to describe a person who builds and/or repairs guitars and other stringed instruments. It originally was used in reference to people who built an instrument known as a lute, which is an ancestor of the guitar. Myself, I prefer to be called a Guitar Tech.
Setup / Fretwork
Why do I need a setup?
The difference between a good guitar and a great guitar lies in it's setup. A setup is the process in which a guitar is adjusted to suit your playing style - which can include properly cutting the nut, adjusting the truss rod, setting the radius and height of the bridge and saddles, setting the tremolo for proper action, and a host of many other factors. I like to say that there's no such thing as a "simple setup"; every guitar is different, and every player's style is unique, and the setup process and ultimate result should reflect the player's taste and the guitar's capabilities.
Regardless of what you may have heard, guitars are not perfect straight out of the factory - far from it. No matter how expensive the instrument, no matter how prestigious the brand, I can all but guarantee that it's going to need some degree of adjustment. The thing to remember is this: these guitars are coming out of a factory, and are not individually handcrafted works of art like their marketing departments would like you to believe. Gibson, Fender, Ibanez, and the like produce thousands of guitars per day. It's simply not feasible for them to concern themselves with the degrees of accuracy that a guitar needs in order to play it's best. Most of these manufacturers set their guitars to what they consider good enough and then send them out the door, and hope that people don't notice.
Think of it like this: you could spend just $100 on a cheap suit, and look bad in it. Or you could spend $3000 on a nice suit... and still look bad. The key to looking sharp in a suit is not how much you spend, but on how well you have it tailored to fit your body. A well tailored suit will make you look like a million bucks, regardless of how much you spent on it. A guitar is the much the same: even a cheap guitar with good fretwork and a proper setup will play and sound much better than an expensive, so-called custom shop guitar straight off the shelf.
My guitar is brand new / expensive. Why isn’t it perfect?
The sad truth is that almost nobody builds a perfect guitar, not matter how expensive it is, nor how prestigious the name brand, nor whether it was made in a so-called custom shop. Guitars need to have to be setup to tolerances within .01mm in order to play really well, and most manufacturers don't bother with these seemingly insignificant details. Yet discriminating players understand that those tiny details matter, and can make a difference between a good guitar and a great guitar. Your sense of touch is your most sensitive - you have over 100 touch receptors in each fingertip, and you can detect tolerance differences of just 75 nanometers! You can absolutely feel the difference even in the tiniest of adjustments on your guitar; this isn't just unimportant minutiae here - this stuff matters. My work reflects this concern for the tiny details: all fretwork and setups are done utilizing the most accurate tooling available, and all tolerances are within .01mm.
So what's wrong with your guitar? The most common culprit is the fretwork. Your frets need to be level with each other all the way up and down the neck - if not, notes can buzz, fret out, and choke. No amount of adjustment can fix this, but a properly done fret level will allow you to pursue a no-compromise setup, and will make even the cheapest guitar play like a million bucks. Another overlooked issue that causes significant problems is the nut - cut too high, and the low register will feel stiff and intonate sharp; cut too low and the open strings will buzz. The nut is also the most common cause of a guitar refusing to stay in tune. Lately, I've been seeing many brand new high end acoustic guitars with an incorrect neck angle where it joins the body, causing high action that can't be solved by cutting down the bridge saddle. There's a host of other issues I often encounter even on expensive instruments, which most people don't even notice until it's pointed out. As we've already established, these details matter, even if you don't know exactly what's issue is at work.
Estimates and consultations are always free, so it couldn't hurt to bring your guitar in for an assessment. What you don't know might very well be preventing your guitar from being truly great.
Does my guitar need fretwork?
The quick answer is probably. Just about every guitar could benefit from a well executed fret level - notes will play clean, bends won't choke out, and intonation can be improved. Uneven frets require a high action, making the guitar difficult to play and throw off the intonation. Great fretwork can allow for a no-compromises setup; when the frets are all perfectly even, the action can be set extremely low and still play clean.
Rarely does a guitar come into my shop with perfect fretwork. High-end custom shop gems, pawn shop prizes, foreign made instruments... they are all almost always requiring fretwork. The frets need to be level with each other with a tolerance of .01mm all the way up and down the neck, which takes a great degree of skill and patience to do right. Most builders simply don't have the time to focus on this degree of accuracy - time is money, and most of them are more concerned with making as many guitars as possible rather than making one truly great instrument.
Fretwork is my specialty. I do all my fretwork on a custom built neck jig, which allows me simulate string tension on the neck, without actually being strung up. Here's how it works: the neck is measured in the playing position, strung up to pitch, and is measured with dial indicators accurate to .01mm. Then the guitar is flipped into a working position, the strings are removed, and then the neck is returned to the exact same measurements that were taken while still under tension. This allows me to work on the frets under actual playing conditions, eliminating any possible variables introduced by the pull of the strings. It's simply not possible to get this degree of accuracy using conventional fret work methods, which is pure guesswork at best. Rigorous methodology is the key to great fretwork, and measurable accuracy is key. A properly executed fret level can make any guitar easier, cleaner, more accurate, and more fun to play.
What is a neck jig?
A neck jig is an apparatus that allows me to work on the frets under simulated string tension. Working on the neck under actual playing conditions is crucial to getting a dead perfect fretjob - you simply can't get accurate results using conventional methods. Here's how it works: the guitar is strapped into the neck jig, and is flipped into playing position, and the neck is measured using an array of dial indicators. Once the indicators are set, the guitar is flipped up into working postion, the strings are removed, and the neck is then returned to the exact postion it was while under string tension. With the neck set in place like this, the frets can be expertly leveled, with an accuracy of about .01mm.
The neck jig is not a new idea, but I've made some modifications to the concept, making it more accurate and easy to control. My jig is custom built, utilizing a steel center beam, six precision dial indicators, steel neck supports, custom cauls to match common body styles and neck angles, and an aluminum rail system for body surrogates. With this system, I guarantee you simply will not get a better fret job anywhere.
Do stainless steel frets sound different than nickel/silver?
Many people have said that stainless steel frets are noticeably brighter sounding than nickel/silver, but it's not actually true. Martin Guitars conducted a year long scientific study, to discover that there was absolutely no discernable difference in tone. Think about it: most people who have noticed a difference in tone have had their guitar re-fretted - but when a re-fret takes place there's far more going on than just swapping out frets. Most factories just smash in their frets all at once with a pneumatic press, and then send the neck on down the line. During a re-fret, each fret is carefully seated with a caul that matches the radius of the fingerboard, and the frets are glued in place, ensuring that each fret is extremely secure in it's respective fret slot. This seating process alone can account for a tonal difference, which may be perceived as a brighter tone - but may very well also be extending bass and midrange response as well. The human ear is more sensitive to higher frequencies, which may account for why some people say they hear a brighter tone. But the fretwork is only a part of the equation: most times a fret job is completed, the guitar is properly setup, which can also alter the familiar tonal response slightly. So, to instantly say that stainless steel frets sound different than nickel/silver is disingenuous at best.
However, stainless steel frets absolutely feel different than nickel/silver. When both are properly polished, stainless is certainly smoother, and allows for easier string bending; nickel/silver is a bit grabby by comparison. Stainless also holds this smooth feel for a longer time than nickel/silver, and doesn't wear nearly as easily - so you won't need a fret level for many, many years. For me, it's a no brainer: I re-fret all my own instruments with stainless steel frets, and encourage others to do the same. They feel better, last longer, and save you money in the long run. What's not to like?
My guitar won’t stay in tune. What’s wrong?
Guitars won't stay in tune for a number of reasons, and most of them are very easy and inexpensive to fix. The most common source of tuning issues are the strings themselves: if they're old and corroded, not only will they not stay in tune, they will also sound dull and lifeless. Also, bad strings straight out of the box are a much more common issue that most people are aware of, and can cause buzzing and poor intonation as well as tuning instability. Outside of strings, the most common cause of tuning problems lies with the nut. Nuts are oftentimes cut incorrectly, or have worn out, and so the strings will catch, bind, and ping in the nut slots. Simply slotting the nut properly or making a new one will solve most tuning issues. The bridge is also sometimes a factor - bridge saddles can catch on the strings, and tremolo units can be improperly set up. Cutting and/or polishing bridge saddles can help, as well as setting the tremolo to balance the string tension and return to a zero point.
Tuning machines themselves are rarely a factor in tuning instability. The secret is that tuners rarely actually go bad, and even cheap tuners work just fine. You don't need to spend a lot of money on a new set of tuners, and you don't need locking tuners (a misnomer in it's own right). A properly set up guitar should stay in tune as is, without having to throw away money on expensive tuners.
My guitar is noisy – it buzzes, hums, and picks up radio signals. What’s wrong?
Most electric guitars are susceptible to some sort of electronic interference, such as humming, buzzing, static, radio signals, and other unwanted artifacts. Single coil pickup equipped guitars are more prone to these problems, but humbucker equipped guitars also experience this. The problem is that the electronics in your guitar essentially function as an antennae, picking up all sorts of signals which then get amplified through your amp.
There's no perfect cure for this issue, but the problem can be greatly mitigated by shielding. Shielding creates what's called a Faraday Cage
, which intercepts all those stray signals and shunts them to ground, and prevents them from interfering with your tone. This is done by using a combination copper shielding tape and conductive paint, which is applied to the inside of your guitar surrounding the electronics, covering all the electronics routes and coating the pickguard. There's no guarantee that it will eliminate all
interference, but in my experience it helps a great deal, and is certainly worth doing.
What pickups should I get?
Many players ask me what kind of pickups they should install in their guitar, but many of them can't articulate exactly what's wrong with the pickups they currently have. Many guitarists feel that their instruments will sound better with upgraded pickups, but defining "better" can be tricky.
I often will encourage the player to first define what they don't like about their current pickups. Think about your pickup's tone in general terms: are they too dark, too bright, too hot, too weak? Do they sound muddy, or shrill? Figuring out what you don't like is the first step is towards finding what you do like. Armed with this information, you can start narrowing your search down to what you're really looking for: a clear, open sound? A "vintage" sound? More gain? A thicker, warmer tone? Defining what you're looking for can give you a clearer direction in finding the right pickup.
Typically a pickup comes in two flavors: "modern", darker, hotter pickups and "vintage" brighter, weaker pickups. Usually hotter pickups require more winds around the coil, resulting in a higher internal resistance which leads to more output, but at the loss of high end - the converse is true with weaker pickups. Magnet types also play a part: ceramic magnets tend to be brighter, and alnico magnets darker. There's many other factors that contribute to a pickup's tone, but ultimately none of it really matters in a theoretical sense - you have to hear it for yourself. I compare trying out pickups like trying out a new restaurant: you can read the reviews all you want, but you'll never know if you like it unless you eat there. Everybody's tastes are different, and what works for you might not work for the next player. Trust your own ears.
I heard that replacing my pots / caps / etc. can improve my tone. Is this true?
Many people have claimed that changing the potentiometers and capacitors in your can greatly affect your tone. While I will admit that changing the values of these components can affect tone, simply changing the brand or type of component doesn't have very much effect to my ears.
Pots: A potentiometer is simply a variable resistor, no more no less. Changing these for a higher quality pot of the same resistance and taper will make absolutely no tonal change whatsoever. If you were to change the pot to something of a greater or lesser resistance, then it will affect the tone dramatically, allowing more or less or more high end to pass through. The perceived volume and tonal roll-off can also be changed: a guitar that has very little useful volume sweep (either all the way on or all the way off, with very little in between) most likely has a linear taper pot installed, and can be improved greatly with an audio taper pot. Also, if the tone gets too dark when the volume is rolled down, a treble bleed circuit can be installed on the volume pot to allow for a more natural sounding volume reduction. But as far as overall tonal quality is concerned, all potentiometer sound exactly the same.
Caps: A capacitor does nothing but store electrical charge. Higher value caps store a greater charge, allowing less high end to pass through, and lower value caps store less charge, allowing more high end to pass through. Changing the value of the pot can greatly change the effectiveness of the tone circuit, and can even change the tone of the guitar slightly, when the tone knob is all the way up. Many people claim to hear the difference between different caps of the same value, but of different designs (ceramic vs. oil & paper vs. orange drop, etc.), and spend a lot of money on fancy capacitors. However, the dirty secret is that capacitors often will wander out of spec as much as 15% within their first year of manufacture. So who's to say what they're really hearing? Are they really hearing a difference in capacitor quality, or capacitor value? To further muddy the waters, the human ear re-calibrates itself to new information in a fraction of a second, so unless these players are rigging up a system that allows them to compare the different capacitors instantaneously, it's impossible to say what exactly is really being heard.
Now, I'll not argue what somebody is hearing and what they're not - if they think they're hearing it, then they are hearing it. But I'd like to offer a word of caution: there's a lot of people out there selling pots and caps for a lot of money, when they only cost fractions of cents to make. The science of electrical engineering doesn't bear out their over-hyped results on paper, but if you must install expensive components in your guitar, I'm happy to help.
Who makes the best guitars?
It's rare that I come across a guitar that I can't find some fault. Most guitar factories are more concerned with getting as many guitars out the door as they can, and don't bother as much with making a quality product. That said, speaking from the point of view as a guitar tech, my favorite larger scale production guitar companies are PRS
, Ernie Ball/Musicman
, and Collings
. Their quality vs. quantity ratio is much better than most, and they manage to do it without being prohibitively expensive. Sure, they still need a tweak here and there, but they aren't plagued with the kind of larger problems most other guitars suffer.
Should I install locking tuners?
Locking tuners are very commonly misunderstood. Most people think of them as locking in place, preventing backlash in their gears - but this isn't the case. A locking tuner only locks the string inside the shaft of the tuner, eliminating the need for multiple string winds around the post, but a locking tuner is subject to the same amount of gear backlash as any other. The only advantage that this offers is to players that use their tremolo: with standard tuners, when the tremolo is depressed, the strings loosen, and the multiple winds around the tuner post slacken - but when the tremolo is released and the strings return to pitch, there's no guarantee that the winds around the post will return to their previous position. Since locking tuners don't have multiple winds around the post, there's no variable of the strings returning to their previous position. This is great for people who use their tremolo a lot, but is completely pointless for those guitars with fixed bridges and non-trem users.
Locking tuners do have a few distinct disadvantages. Since there aren't any winds around the tuner post, the string often exits the tuner hole at a severe angle, kinking the string considerably, and oftentimes results in broken strings. If you change tunings a lot, each time the string is loosened and tightened, that kink in the string gets worked, further weakening the string resulting in a premature string breakage. They also have quite a few more moving parts, which can easily break down, or fall off and get lost.
I generally don't recommend locking tuners except for players who are using their tremolo quite a bit. I feel that they can cause more problems than they solve, and are rarely necessary. A properly set up guitar with a expertly cut nut and standard tuners will stay perfectly in tune for most players.
How often should I change my strings?
I recommend changing your strings at least once a month. The oils and dirt from your fingers will corrode the strings, and will cause them to sound dull and lifeless, and will oftentimes refuse to stay in tune. Some players have extremely corrosive body chemistries, and can destroy a set of strings in a matter of hours. Even if you play rarely, the corrosive effect on your strings continues to work while you're away from your instrument. You can change your strings as often as you deem necessary - some players change them every week, or before every gig, while others change them far less often - but at least once a month is a good start.
You can mitigate string corrosion and extending string life in a number of different ways: wash your hands before playing, wipe down your strings with an untreated rag after playing, and/or using coated strings. Coated strings are offered by almost every string manufacturer, and utilize a polymer coating over the string to prevent corrosion, and can make the string last for much longer. Some string makers (like Elixir) coat their string after it's been manufactured, resulting in a smoother feeling string, while others (like D'addario) coat the individual winds first, then manufacture the string. There's no right or wrong way to do it - experiment and find what's best for you.
Metric is an international decimalised system used by almost every country in the world - except for Burma, Liberia, and The United States of America.
I use metric because, quite simply, it's a better system. There's no fractions to convert, and every prefix is easily divisible or multipliable by 10, which makes it very easy to understand. Almost all guitars made outside of the U.S. utilize metric tooling, and increasingly American manufacturers are following suit. It only makes sense to adopt the international standard.
What’s your hourly rate?
I get this question a lot, and I'd like to make this point very clear: I don't have one. Having a set hourly rate encourages rushing and thus poor work, which I'm simply not interested in doing. I set my rates based on each individual job, and I try to stick to my initial estimates as much as possible. I work to a standard of quality, not to a particular time frame - if it takes me longer than initially expected to do the job right, so be it. It's more important to me to do quality work than to make a few bucks.
What forms of payments do you accept?
I accept cash, all major credit cards (including Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover), and Paypal.
How did you learn all this stuff?
What do you play?
I mostly consider myself a bassist, but I also play a bit of guitar, saxophone, keys, and sing a little. I play bass with a variety of artists, covering everything from hip hop to metal. I've also released four albums under my own name, which you can check out at benjaminstrange.com
I've got a small handful of weird guitars, but my main instrument is my fretless Ovation Magnum bass. It's been defretted (the fretboard dots and fret slots were filled with ebony, and then the entire board coated in black cyanoacrylate), had three extra pickups added between the neck and bridge pickup (Rio Grande Pitbulls & Rio Grande P-Zazz), had the active preamp gutted and replaced with a set of passive controls (one volume, and five on/off switches), and the tuners replaced with Schaller lightweights.
Got a question that’s not answered here? Send a message through the contact page or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.