Guitar repair: Again…why that first set-up is so important!

This slotted-headstock Pluto came in some time back for its action to be reduced. One look at the saddle and I went, “oh, crap!” in my mind.

With the tilted saddle, the action was like this

This is how the owner had been playing the instrument for four or five years (I guess). If the tilted saddle had been spotted in time, I doubt if the owner would have been its owner!

And yet, even if you are unable to spot such issues, but make it a point to get your guitar set up soon after buying it, such issues can be tackled and you will be able to enjoy effortless playing, and more importantly, the guitar will be playing with near perfect intonation.

The saddle of the guitar must stand at absolute 90 degrees to the top, in its slot. I doubt if this Pluto ever played in tune (was truly intonated). By the way the saddle is leaning forward, my guess is all six strings would have been playing at least 20 – 25 cents flat.

Why do saddles lean?

Guitars (all string instruments, in fact) have a ‘scale length’, which governs the placement of the bridge on the top of the guitar, and the placement of the saddle in its slot in the bridge. If the saddle tilts or leans, it’s bye-bye scale length, and thus the intonation gets shot.

So, why do saddles lean? Short and simple, it’s a manufacturing boo-boo. What I am going to explain stands true for mass-produced instruments and not boutique instruments (produced few in number and by hand) or boutique builders.

In detail, saddles (plastic, micarta, tusq, etc) are factory made/moulded. The length may change of a particular lot of saddles being made (depending upon what model of guitar the saddles are being made for) but the other dimensions – thickness, height, its radius – seldom vary.

Similarly, bridges are CNC-ed or cut by machines and except for the saddle slot length, other dimensions of the slot seldom vary. Due to human error, the wrong saddle may be seated in the bridge, or, wrong measurements may have been fed while cutting the saddle or the saddle slot.

When the saddle is thinner than the saddle slot and you tune up that instrument, the saddle is bound to lean forward, thanks to the string tension. Consequently, the saddle will always lean forward, and never backwards, making it play flat.

What you want to see in your acoustic guitar is that the saddle sits perfectly straight (at 90 degrees to the top), and you don’t use strength to seat it. Ideally, you should be able to push in the saddle in its slot with the minimum finger pressure, BUT, once you turn the guitar over, the saddle should not fall out of its slot.

Awrite, the class is over!

To correct the issue with the Pluto, I chucked the plastic saddle, and with it the plastic nut too. Little point in changing just the saddle. If you wish to truly appreciate the difference bone makes in an acoustic guitar, both the nut and saddle must be of bone.

And it’s a good thing that the nut was replaced, because the nut slots were cut too deep in it.

A healthy, bone saddle and nut of the correct dimensions was put in, but only after some other stuff had been taken care of.

The fretboard and the bridge, were as dry as a twig, almost pale to the eye and to the touch, and in serious need of nourishment.

Once I had nourished them, they looked much healthier

Then, as I proceeded to replace the saddle, I saw this

Not one, not two but four shims of some suspect wood. Now, with these four shims taking up all that saddle slot depth, if the saddle doesn’t tip forward, what else is it expected to do? I removed these and said a little ‘thank you’ to the Man Upstairs that though I had marked the saddle for sanding, I had not sanded it yet.

I put in the saddle and it was such a joy to see that just a small amount needed to be sanded off it. The nut, though, was a breeze with a touch of the sandpaper making it fit the slot snugly.

Perfect action, near perfect intonation and the fresh set of strings really made the guitar hum.

Some body buffing and here’s what she looked like when she left me.

Amit Newton

An experienced guitar tech with over 10 years of experience working on acoustic Gibsons and Martins in the Gulf region. There is nothing that cannot be repaired; the only consideration is the price at which it comes. And yet, if there is sentiment attached, no price is too high! WhatsApp/Call me: 7080475556 email me:

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