Before you drive your swanky new two-wheeler/four-wheeler out of the showroom, the mechanic there, almost always, makes some very small adjustments to the engine that makes the vehicle run the best that it can.
No two vehicles, even the same variants from the same manufacturer, are the same. And so, some may require a little more attention than the last one.
Guitars (acoustic ones especially) are not very different. They too MUST be ‘tuned-up’ before you tune them up.
I often draw this parallel, and I’m going to again, just to emphasise the rationale behind it.
Except for boutique guitar makers (who typically make no more than a couple of dozen guitars in a year), guitars roll out in the hundreds. Do you think manufacturers can possibly ‘tune up’ guitars before shipping them out? In the time they spend on these minor alterations, they’d be able to roll out 10 more guitars!
And even if they did, would it suit YOU, specifically?
What about retail music stores? Don’t they do it? In the West, they do it without saying. However, here, in India, a salesperson who doubles up as a ‘guitar technician’ can do precious else except change strings and work the truss rod. Chances are that he won’t be able to pick out a solid top instrument from a bunch of guitars. Now, I am sure there are exceptions to the sweeping generalisation that I have made, but they are few and far between.
So, why is that fine-tuning required at all?
As I explained, the assembly line keeps pumping out acoustic guitars and the one you buy could well have been taken by the previous customer, or the one coming in next. You play finger-style (for example) but the next person is a hardcore rhythm guy. Though both of you may be able to play that instrument, you certainly won’t relish playing it because it has not been ‘set-up’ to your playing style.
A new guitar – and especially for a learner – MUST be set-up so that the play-ability and the instrument’s sound appeals to him/her, and does not become the reason for him/her becoming disenchanted with it.
Can only new guitars be set up?
The short answer is ‘No’! Guitars can be set up at any age. If you have never got your guitar set-up, you’ve learned to play on it, and you have acquired a certain degree of proficiency, you’ll be amazed at how well and how comfortably a guitar can play once it has been set up.
In fact, serious players take their guitar in for a set-up at least once a year. It’s like your routine check-up by the doctor. If there is something that needs tackling, it gets done then and there, before it turns into a bigger problem.
Getting your guitar checked periodically by a person who knows what he or she is doing, is a good habit because wood is an organic substance and it keeps changing with changing seasons, weather patterns, temperatures and humidity. The slightest expansion, contraction of wood can have a big impact on the instrument’s action and play-ability.
And now to this beauty lying on my counter (and apologies for the long lecture). This is a three-piece back (usually backs are made of two pieces) and like the rest of the guitar – beautiful!
Some of the tuning machines were slightly loose – some screws and some ferrules – and were duly snugged up.
It’s a brand new, very well-constructed guitar. There was lots of extra relief in the neck (the curvature of it) which had raised the action (the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the frets). All it needed was for the extra relief to be taken out.
Once the relief was where I wished it to be, I checked the intonation and it was off by some distance on the B, A and D strings. I also noticed that despite dialling in the right relief, the action was still a bit high – both at the nut (1st fret action) and at the 12th fret. That called for the nut and saddle to be pulled out and shaved down a bit.
I did notice that the nut and saddle were made of micarta – a man-made material which is much better than plastic, but still, not a patch on bone. (While you’re looking at the nut, do admire the fine binding on the fretboard).
So, I talked to the owner and convinced him to have a bone nut and saddle put in place of the micarta elements. I removed those and put in a truly compensated bone saddle and a matching bone nut.
Once I was through, the instrument had a wonderful action – one that the owner would love to play on.
But as I ran my finger along the fretwire ends, I noticed many were catching the finger: a very dangerous situation. I took the fretwire-end file that I made myself and sanded the ends flush with the fretboard.
And while I was at it, I took off the strings and oiled the fretboard and gave a little rub to the fretwires too. Purrr…fect!!!!!!!!!!
Also, I noticed that the strapbuttons on the guitar matched the tuning machines – gold – and there were two of them and not just one as most manufacturers provide.
What made me happier was the fact that the shoulder strap button was exactly at the spot where I like to see it: on the side of the heel farthest from the player (right-handed in this case), when held in the playing position.
You may have noticed that nowhere in this post have I mentioned the name of the instrument that I worked on. No photographs, no nothing! That is because the owner requested that the identity of the guitar be kept secret as far as possible. However, he did allow me to document the work that I did on it!