A Bad Workman Blames His Tools

Once I started playing guitar again, I experienced some of the same problems I had back in the late seventies, when I was learning to play. Some of the teething problems were:

  • barre cramp
  • sore fingertips and fingernail maintenance
  • muffled and buzzing notes
  • speed and dexterity
Playing the Pink Strat

And, although I played regularly throughout the 80s, the last 30 years’ inactivity had set me back, for two reasons:

  1. lack of practice (obviously)
  2. long-forgotten repertoire

Visitors would occasionally point at my guitar, slumbering in the corner of the room and suggest, “can you give us a tune?”
I would change the subject, because I knew that I’d struggle to find something to play, and tie my fingers in knots in the process. Forgetting your repertoire over time creates a vicious circle: the less you can play, the less you will play.

Blame the Guitar

As a way of avoiding feeling bad about my playing, I decided to blame the guitar instead. This was a valuable lesson, because I realised that the way the guitar is set up has a bigger effect on what it’s like to play (and how it sounds) than I thought. And there’s no point in making (re-)learning harder than absolutely necessary.

I won’t go into details on my personal guitar set-up odyssey, because there are already many online tutorials and videos on the subject. I’m not one to reinvent the wheel. What I will say is that it is important that you do it. If you’re not particularly tooled-up or a handy sort of person, I highly recommend paying a luthier or guitar tech to do it for you. Expect to pay £50, give or take a couple of tenners, depending on the thoroughness of the job, which should include:

  • secure and lubricate machine heads (tuners)
  • secure and lubricate tailpiece/bridge
  • secure a bolt-on neck (but don’t overtighten)
  • adjust neck relief
  • adjust nut height* and lubricate
  • adjust bridge/saddle height(s)
  • adjust pickup heights
  • polish frets
  • clean guitar and fretboard
  • change strings
  • adjust intonation
Measuring string action

These are all things you can do yourself with the right tools. Most people already have various Philips and slotted screwdrivers, and Vaseline makes a good general purpose lubricant. A steel rule marked in 64ths of an inch and half-millimetres comes in useful. You may need an inexpensive truss rod wrench (and a bit of care) to adjust neck relief. Special paper and a fretboard mask for fret polishing can be bought cheaply.

[* The only job I’d advise extreme caution with is nut adjustment. Nuts are deceptively tricky creatures, and can cause chaos if set up badly. Though, if you mess one up, a new nut is cheap, and might actually be a good upgrade. I bought a set of luthier’s nut files from the excellent Tonetech in Stockport, which was expensive, and, on reflection, I probably wouldn’t use now — I’d adjust nut height from the base instead.]

A Good Set-up is Like Buying a New Guitar

Depending on what it was like before, once your old guitar has had a thorough set-up, it could be transformed dramatically. Not only could your guitar be easier to play, it might well sound better, and you will want to play it more.

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