Last month I was at a guitar festival and a student came in for a lesson.
I tried to play her guitar and find that it was very hard to play. I told her…
“You Need a Guitar Setup!”
Students often think that they need to become “stronger” and push “harder” when in fact – the guitar should become “easier” to play.
This is serious because if you “squeeze and push” too hard with your hands, you can hurt yourself – and put your playing out of commission!
A few years ago, I personally played Tommy Emmanuel’s famous Maton that he named “Mouse” – and it played like a dream! So nice, easy, and comfy on the hands. No straining is needed.
You can go to most guitar shops or repair people and get what is called a “guitar setup.” Most students & aspiring young players don’t even know they can get their guitars setup.
You may have a great guitar – but you may be fighting it way too hard when you play it.
What is a Guitar Setup?
Don’t try this yourself if you are not sure what you are doing, you can wreck your guitar.
This involves adjustments of the neck / truss rod, nut grooves, bridge and overall ease of playing.
The “tone” of the guitar is unchangeable. However, the neck is fully customizable and any neck or frets can be adjusted.
How Often Do You Need to Get a “Setup”?
It all depends on how sensitive your guitar is to humidity/weather. I’d say every 6 months, have a tech look at your guitar and make tweaks.
What is “String Action”?
The “action” of your guitar refers to how low the strings lay against the fretboard. The lower they are (less distance between frets & strings) the easier it is to play.
This is done by a combination of small, small, small measurements that guitar techs understand – involving the truss rod (rod in the neck of the guitar), the nut, and the bridge.
The Rub of Low Action? The “Buzz”…
If the strings go too low they “buzz” against the frets.
Many people think that the action is set solely by the “truss rod” adjustment. It’s not! You need to have a “harmony” of all the adjustments made – which is why you should go to a pro!
The Usual, Typical Guitar Tech Argument
You want your action nice & low, but then the guitar tech says “it will buzz.” Guitar techs pride themselves on not having strings “buzz.”
However, there is a big difference between a heavy “strumming” player and a fingerstyle player.
The “strummer” makes the strings vibrate with a bigger string trajectory, so it’s more likely that given the same setup, a strummer will buzz and a fingerstyle guitar player will sound fine.
Tell Your Guitar Tech – with Firm Resolve…
“I play fingerstyle guitar. I don’t care if it buzzes a little, I need it to be easy to play for my left hand.”
Here Are My Setup Measurements
Here are the measurements a tech (Randy Hughes – he is awesome…) once did for me, and I loved the feel of the guitar.
This was Randy Hughes email to me after he did the work:
Here are your measurements. 1st put a capo on the first fret.
The measurement at the 13Th fret is: Bass = 4/64 inch, Treble = 3/64 inch.
The measurement is from the top of the 13Th fret to the bottom of the string. If I can help with anything else let me know.
- this is with 0.12 gauge strings on the guitar
- “guitar setup/tech” people have tools like the one in this photo to measure 64ths of an inch…meaning you can’t do this “by eye” you need the right tools:
- 4/64 inch = 1.5875 mm
- 3/64 inch = 1.190625 mm
- please check my math on the inches-to-mm conversion
I cannot say that these will be right for YOUR guitar. Each instrument is different, and each player is different. For a Maton 808 guitar, it feels great though – so if you own a Maton, you can try this as a starting point.
You will love how easy this makes your guitar feel.
Bring this measurement informaton to your guitar tech person when you get your setup.
Good luck, and you’ll thank me for this after your guitar feels easy to play!
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Tommy often strums pretty heavily though, once he really gets into it. How does he do that without sacrificing playability?
One – Matons sound pretty good with low action, whereas other guitars like Taylors sound “plinky” and not good. And, when you involve a big beefy pickup sound – the low action / buzzing is not quite as noticeable. TE is careful not to buzz on the pretty things he plays. He knows exactly how to make it sound right and himself knows how to set up his guitar.
Thanks for commenting!
Great Reply! I Play a Maton 808 Te, very low action, no buzz also on struming, supersonic sound acoustic and plugged in!
Right on Alessandro!
Hey Adam, great article. I recently bought a second hand Taylor 514ce and am about to have a guitar tech look at it with a view to lowering the action…should I be really worried about the ‘plinky’ sounds you’ve mentioned?
Looking at your measurements I must say that these would be very difficult to achieve on many normal guitars. When I say normal I mean those that are within the budget of most of us.
Unless there is a very good neck angle and saddle height it would, in my opinion not be possible.
Other things also come into the equation like fret dressing & fall off, bridge ramping if the saddle is low, it goes on & on.
As guitars age the neck tends to pull forwards raising the action which makes setting up even more difficult.
I have not played a Maton & probably never will although I know they are great guitars. I don’t doubt your measurements at all but they are really not the norm., An action should & would be considered good at 2.2mm to 2,5mm or 5.5 x 64ths to 6.3 x 64ths in USA terms. Even 3mm is often described as low.
I have a 1967 Levin which I’ve owned from new (yes I’m pretty old) some Yamaha’s, a decent Takamine and a few others. I have an action of 2.1mm – 2.2mm on all of them which I must stress has needed a fair bit of work to achieve.
Anyway just thought I would mention it and maybe stop people (folks) breaking out the tools in what is quite often a thankless task.
By the way Adam nice work – I always enjoy your posts and of course your excellent playing.
Alan, Matons are great for stage, not for home! And somehow with low action they sound good whereas a Taylor would sound “plinky” – each guitar has the sweet spot. Thanks for commenting! AR
Matons are great for stage and not home? My Matons are brilliant at home
benjamin pritt says
I have a Epiphone Masterbilt DR 500 MCE and mine is set up with 2.5/64 at low E and 2/64 at high E. It is very low but doesn’t buzz unless I play hard. I mostly play finger style so this low of an action is perfect.
Adam Rafferty says
I bet that sounds wonderful Ben!
Fidenciara Orb says
This is a perfect teach-me-how or learn-how-to developmental communication article.
Awaiting more of this mind-tickle stuff!
Dean Hailstone says
Great article. The setup of a guitar is very important to achieve the best possible tone.
Hey Adam, can you tell something about getting a good bass sound on heavier string(s)? I don’t mean about the thumb tehnique or EQ settings when guitar is plugged in, but what strings is best to use for fingerstyle (thumbpicking), and maybe how to adjust the nut..the bridge..and so on.
I have Yamaha jumbo cpx5 cutaway, but the sound of the 6th string is rather dull and doesn’t last long.
S – try different strings. You can only judge when the set is new.
Also experiment with playing closer / further from the bridge…
Could be the guitar , could be the strings. I’d have to see….can you make a video?
Adam, you are the coolest professional guitar player I’ve seen. It’s incredible how good you are about answering people’s questions!
Barry Jackson says
The pic on this page shows a ruler measuring 1/8″ at the 13th fret? This is standard setup height, yes!
Your measurements given by your setup man say 4/64″? That’s just half what your pic shows. Even my electrics don’t go that low or anywhere near it. Really a setup with only one sixteenth inch at 13?
I’ve read hundreds of articles by setup guru’s and nobody’s ever suggested going that low. I think 4/64″ and 3/64″ should read 8/64 and 7/64″.
Barry, nope 4/64 and 3/64 are correct. Matons seem to sound ok with low action, but not all guitars do.
David Scholtz says
If we go by the picture in your article, Barry is correct. The 64ths side of the scale is showing 7/64ths.
That’s just a stock photo, go with what the article says! 🙂
Carlos Camarasa says
Recently , i have made a guitar setup ,by a pro ,and i am happy .
Charles Adkins says
Thanks for running down the details.
I checked your math and something not quite right. with your typing..
you wrote …
– this is with 0.12 gauge strings on the guitar
– “guitar setup / tech” people have tools like the one in this photo to measure 64ths of an inch…meaning you can’t do this “by eye” you need the right tools:
? – 4/64 inch = 1.5875 mm
? – 4/64 inch = 1.190625 mm
– please check my math on the inches to mm conversion
FYI – looks like a typo to me.
All the best!
Thanks Charles, I have now fixed this! All the best – AR
Dale Thomas Rates says
just for the record, I did this procedure—to the T—on my guitar and it works wonders!
I bought one of those steal rules in 64ths and took a few (3-4?) turns at lapping the saddle of my bridge over some 120 grit paper on a flat surface (turn being: unstring, remove saddle, lap, install, restring, capo in 1st fret and measure again on the 13th.).
It started at 7/64 and 6/64 on the 6th and 1st strings, respectively. Now down to 4/64th and 3/64 (again, 6th and 1st) what a difference! I can’t believe I’ve been slugging this large gap for so long…
Now the funny part…this is a Sigma that I bought new for $250 in 1979!! It’s the only acoustic I use!
Adam, you are still in Brooklyn correct? I do my own work as far at setup but I would like to try a pro a least one time. Not holding you to anything… but do you know of good local guys to go to? Someone in the NY metro area at the most?
Jonathan Gallant says
Do you think lowering the action significantly like that could mean new guitar players who are really still learning the basics (like me) don’t develop certain skills as thoroughly, like the strength and accuracy needed to play bar chords?
No, low action will simply help you play better! It is not weight lifting, don’t worry.
On the other hand I never let beginners start on electric – which is TOO easy & you can’t tell if you or the amp are making a good sound. – AR
Great advice. I agree 100%
Great. Ever since I started experimenting with unusual set ups on my guitars that go against the typical norms my style and playing has exploded. Well, if you could call it that. LOL…
Frederic Hutchison says
Just bought a Maton ebg808TE, same action as you, same AER and a T-Rex Room-Mate as you! I would like to know what are the presets on your guitar and T-rex to have that great sound?
Guitar – faders to 80%, knobs at 12 o clock, I adjust to the room sound, try to turn up the mic.
T REX Reverb – I use #2 & #3 long & short…
AMP – all knobs at 12 o clock (bass mid, treb) and adjust to the room
Bunny Barnes says
Adam, I too have a Maton and have also played Tommy’s guitar once briefly. He claims my EBG808 is easier to play that his. Hard to believe. I still struggle. I always think my hands are just not strong enough, but think also, maybe the neck has moved. I’ll do a little quarter turn now and then, but it scares the dickens out of me. Do you know any good guitar techs in the Philly northern suburb area? Or can you direct me to anyone who might? I play gigs most weekends, so can’t be without it too long. I LOVE my EBG808 and TE has said it’s one of the finest he’s ever played. (and I really don’t think he says that to all the ‘girls’……tho they’re all mighty purdy!! LOL Thanks! Bunny
Bunny – I’d look up Dale Unger – from American Archtops. He’s near the Delaware Water gap. Used to work at Martin, builds awesome archtops. Either he can help, or he’ll know someone 🙂 Also, you can try 1/4 of a turn – but it may be other stuff going on, best to get a pro on the case! Also – the grass is greener, everyone else’s guitar feels better 🙂
Neil Hutchison says
In addition to the string height at the 13th fret, I’d be interested in the string height at the nut and/or first fret on your guitars. The last 2 guitars I’ve bought have had the nut cut way too high for me, making it a real effort to play an F barre chord at the first fret. Good set ups have really helped.
I’d also like to recommend Charlie Chandler’s book ” The guitarist’s guide to set up & maintenance” (available as an e-book). Having said that, knowing a good guitar tech is a must in my book.
PS Hi to Frederic – wonder if we’re related?
Adam, very good blog article. I play a Martin D-35, a Taylor 614ce, Gibson Howard Roberts and a custom made Kenny Hill classical cross-over. I too like my action low but I have found one disadvantage. If I get the action too low, I have a harder time playing harmonics with only my right hand. Cascading harmonics are almost impossible. I need a little more height in the string for the light touch of harmonics, even though I know it is otherwise easier to play if I lower it further. Any suggestions? Or have you found the same challenge?
Спасибо… Thank you. Timely article. This is exactly the problem that worries me now
Hi, Adam, very good article.
Strings action is and has always been THE main and most sensitive problem on acoustic guitars. I totally agree with Alan about expensive guitars : not anybody can buy them. And even if you can buy one, generally you are not satisfied with the original setup of strings action at the moment of its purchase.
I play on Ovation collector 90, on Seagull Artist Mosaic (I have had the great luck to buy these 2 expensive instruments years ago), and on Lâg T100ACE and T500ACE. No one of these guitars was correctly setted up at the purchase : strings action is always too high, not compared to my personal setup, but with regard to a generic and PLAYABLE setup. This fact is for me totally scandalous, even if the guitar is cheap. And each time I asked the retailer/tech to setup the instrument, he invariably acted on the trussroad bar. So, I had no other choice to make the setup by myself in reducing the high of the saddle bone, little step by little step, till obtaining the good action.
But probably US retailer are better and more relevant than french ones…
OK, sorry for this rant, but it’s really irritating.
Forgive my poor English, Adam, I’m natively french.
Thanks so much for all what you do for us.
Adam, I thought saw you play a Taylor in one of your videos. What is your Taylor setup? Do you always use 12 gauge strings?
josep lluis gomez andreu says
Hi Adam, what about string gauge? are light / extra-light strings easier to play? Is worth the playability and comfort won with these strings or too much volume is lost? Is a lower action setup more important than gauge? I have a Taylor 312e with factory setup and hd light elixir strings (.013 -. 053 gauge)
Oh man, go to 12-53!!!! 🙂
Paul Mahoney says
Hi Adam, I’ve always had a problem with the thumb on my left hand cramping when I play bar chords for any longer than one song. Would this be a result of the action being too high? I use 10 – 42 gauge strings on a Maton em225c. Would greatly appreciate any tips.
Know any great guitar techs in or around Vancouver, BC, Canada?
WT Wong says
I am a guitar beginner. I play 0.12 string now but find it hard to play although I have set up my guitar. Do you suggest I should lower the action of the strings or should go for 0.11 strings? Thank you.
Bring it to a repair shop and the tech guy will know best. Totally worth it!
Chris R says
For fingerstyle guitar playing, what type of guitar do you recommend? OM body side? Scale length? Spruce top/mahogany back? Cedar top?
I just bought a used Martin, so it was due for a setup. I checked around for a good Guitar Tech, and found one here in Vancouver with great testimonials from professional players and top Luthiers If Randy Bachman trusts her with all of his guitars, she’s gotta be good, right.
So I took my guitar in AND GAVE HER A COPY OF THIS ARTICLE. It was great, she read it and totally understood. No arguments or discussion. When I got it back, I could tell just from looking at it that it was gonna be great, and man, it was just amazing. My fingers now just dance across the strings and it feels like I only have to think the note to fret it. You are absolutely right to insist on this kind of action. Printing off this article was the key.
I recently sent my vintage Laskin back to Grit Laskin himself, and asked for action as low as it would go. “I only play fingerstyle” and all of the other good words, but I didn’t have your article at the time. Now that my Martin is set to your specs, and sitting side-by-side with the Laskin, I realize I’m going to have to have Grit’s work redone to your specs. It’s just not the same.
So thank you, thank you, thank you.
And for all of your blog followers: Listen to Adam, and take a copy of this article next time you need a set-up. And be prepared to want all of your guitars done once you play the first one.
Chuck Bergman says
Just turned 70.I have always had a hard time with barred chords.I was about to give up playing, or try an electric.I play a big baby Taylor
Chuck thanks for commenting.
I have a lesson on Barre Chords here for you, enjoy!
“Matons sound pretty good with low action, whereas other guitars like Taylors sound “plinky” and not good.”
That’s a ridiculous generalization.
I own 2 Taylors and 2 Matons currently, I am just stating my opinion. Taylor’s have a more scooped midrange to my ear. What’s so ridiculous about that?
Adam, could you please explain what jumbo frets mean and how it impacts guitar’s playability?
Here is an article. They make each note you play feel fatter somehow! ENjoy!
EVERETTE CORN says
Listen to Randy Hughes!
Just had him work on a 2963 Gibson LG0 that i bought new.
New bridge, fret work and action setup.
Sweet Jesus perfection.
Adam Rafferty says
yes yes yes! Enjoy your buttery new guitar setup.
Koen Sieben says
If I change my medium jumbo frets to jumbo frets, would I need a new nut and saddle?
Adam Rafferty says
All elements have to agree – your guitar tech will have to look at it! Rock on Koen!
anthony brookes says
im looking for a fingerstyle guitar i like matin 17 series dreadnought and alsi the taylor and maton 808 series im playing at home any ideas
You are correct with your 3/64ths and 4/64ths numbers 100 percent
the trick is to play lightly with zero tension in either hand and stay relaxed
Practice with a metronome
Turn your amp up a bit and STAY RELAXED
Radovan Slovakia says
Hi Adam, currently I set up my guitar to your recommended setting. I think its OK but Tommy definitely uses lower action as this. Something around 1 mm at high E and 1.5 at low E. In case I use this lower setting, my B string gonna buzz at first 3 frets once its hit harder (thumbpick or plectrum). Its annoying and I can only hope that my luthier will fix it. There are only 3 ways, setting the saddle, the nut and the frets…