Q: I recently ordered a brand-new acoustic guitar from a well-known, reputable online company. I was frustrated to find that when I unpacked it, right out of the box, the guitar wasn’t comfortable to play; not in first position or up the neck! I took it to my local shop, and they told me it needed a setup. It played much better when they were done with it. The guitar isn’t top of the line, but it sure isn’t a cheap guitar, and it’s totally new. Why would it arrive in the mail already needing work? —Jim Carver, Minneapolis, MN
A: This is an issue that I hear a lot about from my own clients, and I can understand how frustrating it must feel to lust after a certain guitar, order your very own, wait for it, and look forward to playing it—only to find that it’s not set up for optimum ease and playability when it shows up at your door. Didn’t you choose wisely and pay for a quality instrument? Isn’t this a good guitar company? Well, of course, you did, and it likely is. Still, many—even most—guitars arrive from the manufacturer needing additional setup work.
There are a few things to consider when thinking about a setup. Understandably, different players have different expectations and needs when it comes to their guitars. Whether you play with a pick, use your fingers, do lots of single-string leads, use a slide, etc., these factors affect what kind of action will feel good and work for you. So the ideal setup is not the same for everyone. A few subtle things not being right can add up to a setup that doesn’t feel entirely good to the player—especially if that player has been anxiously waiting for their dreamy new guitar to arrive.
If you’ve purchased a luthier-made guitar and it’s been shipped to you, the person who sold it to you has likely been in touch about what to expect, and maybe they’ve even made a recommendation for a local luthier to do maintenance and repair. In the case that it’s not a hand-built guitar, let’s start where the guitar itself does—in the factory. Instruments from big manufacturers can be built very quickly, so while you may be paying to get something well made from quality materials, the last step in the process—a really careful, well-considered setup—may not happen. In contrast, when you pay for a pro setup, you’re basically hiring an experienced tech to spend about an hour with your instrument, tailoring it to your particular needs as best they can. This step may not make financial sense to the bigger manufacturer.
We also need to consider that even if a guitar has a good basic setup when it leaves the factory, it may sit in a box for any amount of time before it’s shipped to you. Obviously, the climate where a guitar is stored will have an effect on the wood. We’d like a guitar to stay at a stable 70 degrees with a humidity around 50 percent, but once that boxed-up guitar leaves the factory, that would be hard for anyone to guarantee—especially if it’s shipped during cold weather or subjected to varying temperatures and humidity. I’ve often thought that even if manufacturers of factory-built guitars did spend time fine-tuning their instruments, the setup could be shot by the time the guitar gets to your door, so perhaps that’s some savvy on the manufacturers’ part—why waste time on a setup if it is likely to change? Add to this the fact that guitars tend to settle in a bit after they’re built, and that it may be months between leaving the factory and getting into your hands.
I hope this helps explain why a new guitar may arrive at your home in need of at least some setup work. It’s a good idea to factor in the cost of a setup (prices will vary by location and who’s doing the work) when having a new factory-built guitar shipped to you. Of course, all stringed instruments need periodic setups to stay in good working order, so you could think about this as the first step toward getting to know your new guitar and optimizing it to work for you in particular. After this first step, all that’s left to do is enjoy your new axe!
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues performer.