Luthier Panel: What Goes into a Great Blues or Rock Guitar Setup

There often comes a time in a guitarist's playing life when they realize that their guitar needs a good setup — a set of actions performed on a guitar to ensure optimal playability, intonation, and stability.

There are lots of ways that you can setup a guitar with much of how it is done coming down to the specific player’s preference. And as with all things guitar, different genres breed different trends and tendencies.

I recently reached out to three of the leading and most in–demand luthiers and guitar techs in New York City to talk about common setups for blues and rock guitar players, the difference between setting up a Fender and a Gibson, and what they think are the best blues guitar models.

Our esteemed panel includes:

Mas Hino: Legendary NYC–based master luthier known for his work at Rudy’s Music and Pensa–Suhr, as well as his own custom guitar/bass line. Mas has repaired and set up guitars for everyone from Mark Knopfler to Eric Clapton over the years. Check him out here.

Rick Kelly: Owner of Carmine St guitars, master luthier and pioneer of repurposed pinewood guitars. Rick has been building and setting up guitars for legends of NYC and beyond for decades. Check him out here.

Farhad Soheili: This Greenpoint, Brooklyn–based luthier was dubbed “King of NY Guitar Repair" by Brooklyn Magazine. He’s also the owner of FS Lutherie Repair and FSC Custom Guitars. Check him out here.

What are the most common setup preferences among blues and rock players? I’m predominantly a blues player myself, and I generally like my action slightly higher than most other players seem to.

Mas Hino: Most of the blues and rock players [that I work with] like their action just a little bit higher, but [action] generally depends on the scale and type of guitar. The radius also players a big part in a guitar’s action because it can make bending the strings easier or harder to do.

The music can really be played on any guitar — a blues guitarist can play whatever guitar. It’s not really the music that determines the setup, it’s really the player’s preference." - Rick Kelly

For example, normal action on a Gibson is 2/32'' at the last fret on the high E–string and 3/32'' on the 12th fret at the low–E string. On the other hand, the preferred action for Fender–style guitars is at about 2/32'' on both E–strings. It may be higher on the high E–string, but again, that depends on the radius of the fingerboard.

The blues guys especially like it when I set the high E–string higher so that they can bend up two whole steps!!

Rick Kelly: In my experience, they’re either going high action and heavy strings or low action and heavy strings. The music can really be played on any guitar — a blues guitarist can play whatever guitar. It’s not really the music that determines the setup, it’s really the player’s preference.

Farhad Soheili: When you have a blues or rock guitarist, you can typically expect a lot of leads and high bends. That means you have to find the sweet spot in the guitar's setup where the action is comfortable and the notes aren't fretting out. That can range from a very simple setup to more complex jobs involving fret work, depending on the guitar and the guitarist's preferences on action.

Most common preferences: High action and heavy strings or low action and light. Gibsons tend to have lower action than Fenders.

If a player doesn't have a preference, what kind of setup do you recommend?

Mas: Personally, I tell players that lower action is better than high action because of the intonation problems that arise if the action is too high. That’s how I do my setups, and most people are happy with it.

For strings, I recommend 10s for tremolo guitars like Strats and 11s for the Gibsons. Lighter gauges and 10s are more popular with the older people.

Personally, I tell players that lower action is better than high action because of the intonation problems that arise if the action is too high. That’s how I do my setups." - Mas Hino

Rick: Like I said before, they’re usually going low and light like Billy Gibbons or high and heavy. If they don’t know what they really want, they should go somewhere in the middle. That’s why I suggest trying a set of 10s with medium action. It’s comfortable whether you’re an older player or just learning the blues.

Farhad: It all depends on the guitar and their playing style, of course. I'd personally recommend 10s if it were a vintage–style Fender (25.5" scale with a 7.25" radius and smaller frets), and what I'd consider to be a "medium–to–low action." This allows all of the notes to ring clear and true all over the fingerboard.

That scenario changes on, let's say, a Gibson SG, where you will have a shorter scale, flatter radius, and can typically set the guitar up with lower action and .11 strings and still achieve the same results.

Most Commonly Recommended: Depending on whether it’s a Fender or a Gibson–style guitar, 10s with medium–to–low action.

Not to be redundant, but what are some of the key differences between setting up a Fender–style guitar and a Gibson?

Mas: Fender and Gibsons are totally different animals. The radius matters a lot in terms of setting the action. Gibsons don't buzz as much as the Fenders because Fender has a longer scale, making the strings looser (because of the neck angle difference).

I set Gibsons up about the same action as Fenders, but the high E–string can be higher on the Gibsons because of the flatter radius. That said, most new Fenders have flatter radiuses making blues–style string bending easier with lower actions.

On those guitars, I go with a 2/32" on the high E–string on the last fret and 2/32" on the low E.

Rick: A lot of the traditional, vintage–style Fenders — like vintage ‘50s Strats and ‘57–’62 reissues — have a really steep fingerboard radius (7.25"), which is much steeper than a Gibsons 12" radius.

That means that bending can still easily be done on a Gibson with lower action without the strings choking out. Fenders, on the other hand, can choke out quite a bit more, so you want to prevent that [with a higher action].

A lot of the newer Fenders have a 9.5–10" radius, which helps eliminate some of that, but still you have to check that first to make sure that the action is high enough to not choke out the strings in the upper register.

Farhad: The main differences are that the scale lengths differ. The Fenders also typically have a rounder fingerboard radius versus a flatter radius on a Gibson. I consider Strat setups to be a little more involved than Gibsons.

Key differences between setting up a Gibson and a Fender: Fenders have a steeper radius and Gibsons are generally more flat. Setting up Strats can be more involved than setting up a Gibson.

In your subjective opinion, what is the best style of electric guitar for blues players?

Mas: When it comes to the best style of electrics for blues and rock, I’d have to say that there isn’t just one beast. You have the Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster, or the Gibson ES–335, Les Paul, SG, and Flying V. The blues players I like the best are Robben Ford, Rev/Billy Gibbons, SRV, BB and Albert King, so my tastes reflect that.

Albert Collins with his Telecaster

Rick: I’d have to say a Telecaster. You had most of the Alberts (Lee, Collins) playing Telecasters. Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton played Telecasters. The Yardbirds and Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck started on Telecasters, so there’s a lot of history to it with blues players. [Editor’s Note: BB King even played a telecaster before switching to Lucille.]

The other type are hollowbodies and semi–hollowbodies — they’ve got that raunchy sound that George Thorogood made popular. I almost like that sound better, but like I said, you can play blues on pretty much anything if you like the music.

Some blues players, like Michael Bloomfield, even use a Les Paul. Though, that’s not really ideal, as it’s a crunchy–sounding guitar.

Farhad: It’s very subjective, but personally, it's hard to beat a vintage Strat neck pickup through a cranked Fender Deluxe Reverb.

Best for blues: Any guitar can be used to play the blues, but a classic Fender (Tele or Strat) or Gibson (ES–335/55, SG, Flying V) are historically the weapons of choice.

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