I think it’s great when knowledgeable guitar techs share their advice with others. Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s a frequent occurrence in the guitar community.
“Unfortunately”, because all too often the writer, Sam Orr in this case, is sharing faulty, incomplete knowledge. You know, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing!”.
I hate that this will sound like a “hit-job”, but I hate even more when people – supposedly knowledgeable people speaking through a trusted domain like Guitar.com – give bad advice to guitarists.
That’s why I think we should all call out writers and platforms that publish information that will cause trouble for trusting readers and hope that Mr. Orr will care enough about his readers next time to be more careful with his writing.
There is just so much bad or misleading information in Sam Orr’s article, “HOW (NOT!) TO SET UP YOUR NEW GUITAR TO GET IT PLAYING LIKE A DREAM (NIGHTMARE)”, in Guitar.com that I’ll just have to start at the top and take things one at a time..
No ‘Chance’, More Like a ‘Guarantee’
The first paragraph infers that, because of the pandemic and sudden rise in guitar sales, “Many of these newly purchased guitars were shipped directly from warehouses and distribution centres“. Well, yes – unless hand-crafted in a local shop, that is how guitars are shipped – before, during and post-pandemic (if we ever get to the ‘post’ stage).
As a result, “there’s a chance that your new guitar hasn’t even been touched since it left the factory.” – inferring that the guitar MAY need a setup. Duh!
Even if manufacturers stopped to give every brand-new $179 guitar a $50 to $70 professional setup between the factory and the retailer (perhaps setup by the FedEx guy?), chances are great that it would still need further adjusting by the time you get your paws on it.
Thanks to this deep insight, our author, Mr. Orr, is going to gift us with his wisdom – “..a few basic steps that should ensure your new squeeze is all set to provide years of enjoyment and productivity.“
A Setup Lasts For ‘Years’???
Well, unless Mr. Orr is going to have us encase the guitar in a hermetically sealed glass case, no setup is going to last years. Heck, you’ll be lucky if you get more than six months to one year without needing further adjustments – especially on a new guitar.
To give people, especially newbies, the impression that a setup will last years is a disservice to the guitar industry and shows a deep lack of understanding of guitar mechanics and the effect that stresses, temperature and humidity can have over time.
‘Categorically’ No Setup Standards?
Mr. Orr continues, “There is categorically no perfect or standardised setup for any guitar. It’s all personal preference.” – Well, but there are standardized setups for each style of guitar. Personal preferences can take things a tad from there, but 90%+ of us can play perfectly happily from the standardized setup specs such as each manufacturer (and who should know their product better than the manufacturer???) gives.
For insight into setup specs, and personalized variations of many well-known pros, I hardily recommend Dan Erlewine’s book “The Guitar Player Repair Guide“.
Stringing You Along
Orr’s article shows replacing stock Fender Squier #9 strings with #10 strings. He gives no explanation though, why the extra 30 pounds of total string tension is a good idea for your guitar’s neck and truss rod system or your fingers, let alone why a player should prefer the heavier strings.
YouTube is full of videos showing that 9’s can give as good a volume and tonal range as 10s. The only reason I can think of for preferring 10s is how they feel to the player and how they work with his playing style.
It’s fine to play tens if that’s your preference, but to advise 10s over 9s and without explanation, does a disservice to readers – many of whom may be part of the pandemic newbie group and may just assume these are some sort of “upgrade” when in fact, the heavier strings will just hurt their fingers and make guitar playing more difficult.
Of the stock strings, Orr says, “In short, these aren’t strings you want to keep on your guitar, and installing decent-quality alternatives will dramatically enhance your playing experience.”
Well, no. They will not “dramatically enhance” anything about your playing experience. In fact, if you can notice a slight difference, your fingers and ears are much better than mine – and they may be. But a “dramatic” enhancement??? BS!
Peeling Away More Nutty BS
I’m all in on removing the knobs to better peel-off the pickguard’s plastic covering, but you don’t need a spanner wrench. If the knobs don’t pull off easily enough, use two stiff guitar picks – one on each side and work the knobs loose that way.
But hell no! Do not loosen the nuts under the control knobs! Not unless you know what you’re doing and can handle wiring issues. Turning those nuts can cause serious problems. The potentiometer (pot) can turn and pull a wire loose or even contact a lug from another pot or a shielded (grounded) cavity wall.
Also, those pots often have cheap, pot-metal threaded posts that can break with surprisingly little force. Inexperienced guitarists have no business playing with those nuts unless it’s to gingerly tighten, while holding the pot steady, one that is loose.
Don’t Rub Me The Wrong Way!
For non-maple fretboards, Orr says, “Gently rub each fret with wire wool to smooth it down to a silken feel.” The accompanying photo shows a hand with a white cloth on the fretboard though.
Orr continues, “Next, use masking tape to mask off the wooden frets, leaving just the metal fret wires exposed. Shine each fret wire by rubbing from side to side with a small ball of wire wool.“
Well, which is it? Do you rub the fret boards or the wire frets? If both, why tape the fret board when doing wire frets? I can’t blame readers for being confused. I think the writer may have been also.
If you were going to use steel wool (“wire wool”) on the frets in a side-to-side motion, yes you would want to tape the fretboard because you would leave scratches in the wood by going perpendicular to the grain.
It would have been nice if Orr had explained that – but actually a total waste of time since it is the wrong method!
If you use the steel wool parallel to the fretboard grain (perpendicular to the wire frets), you’ll do just fine without the need of tape. Wet the pad with Naptha, for a good cleaning and a bit of lubricant over the wire frets.
When finished, wipe up the Naptha with a paper towel, which goes straight into the trash afterward so you don’t spread loose wool bits.
When finished with the steel wool and drying up the Naptha, use a magnet to collect all the lose wire bits along the fretboard, headstock, body and workbench.
For a nice touch, come back with a Dremel with a polishing wheel and red rouge for shiny frets that will last longer, using a fret protector as you polish each fret.
But 1st tape the neck pickup before doing any steel wool rubbing, not just when you get close to the pickup as this article says.
Pricey Fretboard Baptismal Oil
Next, Orr says to baptize (my term, not his), each fret with a drop from a $10 bottle of special guitar oil (perhaps blessed by the Pope?). BS! Find that bottle of furniture polish in the pantry – it might be labelled “Lemon Oil” and use that on your fretboard. Rub in a thin layer, then let it set 20 minutes, not the “few minutes” recommended by Orr, then buff it out. Take care not to knock your nut out of place. (Keep the juvenile jokes to yourself!)
Orr says, “..As you make your way down the frets, you’ll see oil begin to seep out.” Nonsense! I said to rub in a thin amount, not to pour oil all over the fretboard. If you have oil gushing out of your fretboard, you may need the Valdez cleanup crew!
Guitar Polish or Car Polish?
As for cleaning your guitar with “guitar polish” – rubbish! $10 for an ounce or so? Go buy a bottle of cheap car polish. I like Nu-Finish from Walmart. Been using it for years. Sure, I’ve got Maguiers and pricier stuff. And they’re great for working on scratches. But for general cleaning and shining – nothing’s better (or cheaper) than Nu-Finish.
For lacquer type finishes, such as on vintage electric guitars and most acoustics, I use the spray type car polish with Carnauba. Spray it on, rub & clean, then buff out. No 20 minute wait this time. Not even 2 minutes.
Orr Springs More BS
Why Orr would have you mess with your tremolo springs before even discussing whether you want to deck or float your bridge? I tend to agree with not having springs at an angle. But you’re not likely to have much luck changing the springs with the tools shown as being required.
Because having all strings removed can allow the truss rod to backbow the neck and the new strings may need hours to regain the equilibrium, I prefer to set things like neck relief and bridge floating before removing the old strings. Orr tackles relief after installing new strings, seemingly under the impression that ten minutes is sufficient for the new strings to regain equilibrium.
String Him Up!
Orr will have you string your guitar next – “Working from the low E to the high E“. Well, not necessarily. Think, Mr. Orr. Who is your reader? With your headline, the majority of your readers are likely to be beginners – people who’ve been playing or learning guitar for three years or less.
And not all of them own Strats with 6 inline tuner systems. In fact, nearly half of them likely have 3×3 tuner systems.
Why does this matter? Orr tells readers to install strings starting with “low E to the high E – that’s the thickest to the thinnest string“.
The object is to not install a string that will later be in the way of installing another string.
But that doesn’t work on 3×3 systems (think of installing G, B, then e), and it puts uneven tension on one side of the neck before that tension can be counter-balanced by the last three strings.
Overlooking these differences may make writing quicker and easier for the author, but is not likely to make for a satisfying experience for his readers – especially newbies who are trying to learn from his writings.
On 3×3 systems, you want to start with outer strings and work toward inner strings. And this is not the time to tune them. Just get the slack out and introduce a bit of tension, but not a lot.
A minor point maybe, but Orr has readers cut their strings before threading through the tuning post, while I prefer afterwards, as clearly shown in one of my “How to re-string your guitar” articles.
Next, Orr says, “Ensure that each string goes clockwise around the post“. Give ten inexperienced people that advice and I think you’d be lucky to see five of them wind the strings on the correct way, even without 3×3 systems! Perhaps, “Strings enter the posts from the center of the head, curving around the top of the post with each wind snug against and below the previous one.”, with an accompanying photo or video.
Time For A Stretch
I’ve had countless customers come to me with “tuning problems” after reading BS advice like this.
“Have you stretched your strings?”, I’ll ask. “Certainly, just like (place any Orr-like writer’s name here) says to do it.”, replies the customer.
I’ll take the guitar, tune it, then evenly stretch each string, low-E to high-e, from saddle to nut, using about the pressure of a multi-tone bend. Usually they each drop a good half-tone or more. “Well, the directions you read might’ve worked if you’d followed them six to ten times!”, I’ll say.
I’ll then show the customer how to properly stretch each string from near the bridge to up near the nut. If it needs retuning, it needs another stretching. Rinse and repeat.
And still, for a week or two, those new strings will need retuning every day. Eventually, it may go two or three days – even four or five, but that’s about the best you can expect. You don’t just tune a guitar and expect it to stay in tune forever after. With that expectation, many newbies get frustrated.
A Pain In The Neck!
If I show you two guitars – one with the strings 0.065″ above the 17th fret and one with a 0.075″ gap, a ten thousandths difference, your chances of guessing which is which is about 50%. Yet, that is the difference between a pleasant to play guitar and one that is uncomfortable.
Orr is having newbies sight down the neck and ascertain differences of as little as 0.002″ – (two thousandths) because that’s how much makes a difference between the proper amount of relief and possible problems.
Aside from the question of whether you’ve had your eyeballs calibrated down to a thousandth of an inch lately, why would you resort to medieval methods when you have six “straight edges” right in front of you?
With a capo on the first fret (unless you have big hands), fret at the highest (last) fret (at the body). You want a gap of about 0.010″ (ten thousandths of an inch) at the 17th fret (Strats, Teles, bass, etc.) or 12th fret (most other styles) and the outside strings.
You can use a string clipping from your hi-e string as a gauge. Be very careful that you have the correct wrench size (4mm for the Squier Strat shown) and that it is seated fully in the Allen screw.
You want to do this adjusting while the strings are tuned – not slackened as Orr advises. The reason is we’re working with two forces – the force of the strings and the counter-force of the truss rod. Your measurements will not be precise if your strings are not tuned.
If you find the truss rod hard to turn, you have problems that require a more experienced person (than a newbie) and you should take it to a guitar tech.
This all depends on how you’re looking at it. Most likely, the guitar is on a bench or table and the right-handed “tech” is looking down on it with the guitar body to his right and the head (with the truss rod access) on his left. Turning to face the truss access, low-E is on his left an hi-e is on his right.
In this, most likely case, turning left is tightening and right is loosening – The exact opposite of what Orr advises!
‘Right’ and ‘Left’ is often too inexact for directions. Clockwise and counter-clockwise are more informative terms. I’ve seen countless guitars messed up by owners trying to DIY their guitar setups, using awful articles like this one in Guitar.com as their guide.
In all cases, the owners would have been perfectly capable of doing a good setup job, if only given proper, complete information. Yet, they ended up causing more problems than they started with, all be cause they trusted a source like Guitar.com and an author like Sam Orr.
It’s about time that guitar websites and authors realize that they have a responsibility to provide accurate and complete information to their trusting readers. As part of the guitar community, we should police online articles and published books and call them out when they’re just looking for cheap publicity and quick SEO hits.
If we can clean up this ocean of misinformation, maybe we can reduce the ridiculously high percentage of beginner guitarists who give up in frustration.
It’s up to you – don’t let guitar websites get away with BS, incomplete info that can lead beginners astray. Shame on Guitar.com and others like them looking for quick, cheap articles so they can foist their ads on their trusting users.