What IS a “setup”?  Guitar techs can’t seem to agree.  To some, it’s “tweak the truss rod and adjust saddle heights”.  To others, it’s much more and many draw their lines somewhere in between.

If you don’t know precisely what the guitar tech is going to do for your guitar, you’re basically saying, “Take my money, here’s my guitar – do whatever you want.” Big-box guitar store or mom-and-pop shop, makes no difference. Every guitar shop seems to have their own definition of a guitar setup.

Well, who is the setup for?  It’s for you, the guitar player.  And you’re trusting your guitar tech to know what needs to be done. If you knew just what your guitar needed, you’d probably be doing the setup yourself!

Imagine a “broke” guitar player who is going to invest seventy dollars in getting their guitar “setup”.  That may be all the disposable cash they have.  Maybe the guitar is “buzzing” and they’re relying on the tech to get things right.

So the guitar tech tweaks the truss rod, sets the saddle heights, installs new strings, pockets the seventy bucks, and hands over the still-buzzing guitar to the hapless customer.

Who wins?  Not the poor player with the still-buzzing guitar.  Not the guitar tech.  Not really.  Sure, he’s seventy dollars ahead, but the customer is going to tell every other musician he talks to, about that “lousy guitar tech” who took his money and didn’t solve the problem.

And just what was the problem?  Poorly cut nut or low slots?  Worn or uneven frets?  Missing string guide?  Loose hardware?  

Do you see the problem here?  Customers trust their guitar techs to solve their guitar problems, not merely to perform certain adjustments.

A setup has to include at least the inspection of everything, if not necessarily the solution.  In other words, before you begin work, and preferably before you accept the guitar, you inspect it from end to end.  If the nut may need replacing, (sometimes you can’t be sure until it’s on the bench), you inform the customer before any other work has started.  Same with the frets, etc. 

“Looks like this guitar may need a new nut.  I charge fifty dollars to install a nut.  That would be on top of my setup fee.”  This way, if the total repairs would be out of their budget this week, the customer can hang on to the instrument – maybe to play a gig or two and make the extra money.

Sample text receipt for setup job

As a receipt, I take a photo of the guitar and text it to the customer while they’re right in front of me.  With the photo, I type what work I’ll be doing, what it will cost and when it will be ready.

There should be no surprises.  If I can’t definitely say whether a nut needs replacing or fretwork is called for, I can at least warn the customer that these are possibilities.  And I can verify what work needs to be done before I begin so that there is no charge if the needed work doesn’t fit into the customer’s budget at this time.

But it goes beyond surprises and ignoring half the issues that can cause guitar problems. There’s the issue of competence – a huge issue!

I’ve met several guitar techs who’ll brag about how long they’ve been in the business and all the big-name players they’ve teched for, and in the next breath, they’ll say stuff that proves they don’t know what they’re doing!

Just the other day, a customer brought in a brand-new Les Paul guitar. He’d bought it at a big-box guitar store and paid extra to have the guitar “setup”. The guitar tech proudly proclaimed that he’d worked at Gibson Guitars and was a “top-notch” guitar tech.

Measurements from a brand-new “setup” guitar

Here’s my whiteboard on that guitar. Neck relief was almost zero, which is ok for a player who needs high string action, but not for this customer. Low E string height was 0.055″ at the 12th fret and 0.090″ at the high e string! Now that’s just crazy!

Pickup poles varied from 7/32″ to 2/32″ with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Strings had not been stretched. I did just a bit of stretching on the A string and it dropped fifty cents! Frets and the guitar itself had not been polished.

In other words, this guitar was not really in playable condition, yet it was a brand-new guitar with a “professional setup” by a guitar tech who was supposedly highly qualified!

So what can you, as a paying customer, do to ensure you get your money’s worth when you pay for a setup?

One thing you can do is have a list of items you want checked and worked on and a written estimate of what it is going to cost you.

Secondly, check online reviews. Ask for recommendations from other musicians. Size up the shop and the tech. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t leave your guitar.

Lastly, don’t just pick up the guitar, pay and leave. Check it over first. Play the guitar. If there are any issues, take them up with the guitar tech right then. A guitar shop should give a guarantee on setups. I offer free adjustments if needed for the next thirty days. Ask about their guarantee.

Here’s a great idea – when you bring your guitar in for a setup, show them this article and discuss things before you let them have your guitar! Or, just download the free “Guitar Setup Guide” below…