Should You Set Up Your Guitars Differently?

For most guitar players, consistency is thought of as the key to success. We all have specific ways we like things: strap length, pickup height, and string height are just a few examples. But is this “sameness” a detriment to creativity? Experimentation can lead to new approaches, new ideas, and new experiences.

One of the easiest, and least expensive ways to experiment is with the setup of guitars you already own. We all know that every guitar sounds different, but each plays just as differently as well. If you explore these differences within your instruments, you can find new sounds, and even play better.

The Strength Builder

I have a guitar by my bed, like many of us do. This guitar is a small-scale acoustic parlor guitar. Its small size allows me to grab it in any situation, and sneak in some practice in at any moment. I have this guitar set up specifically with higher action; not uncomfortably high, but just a little bit higher than normal for me. There are several reasons for this. For starters, it helps me build strength and accuracy, and play more consistently.

The higher action also protects against the effects of climate change in the room, so the guitar plays well no matter what season it is. Because I leave this guitar exposed and in standard E tuning most of the time, I have silk core strings on it, which allows the guitar to be under less strain than a standard steel string set (a good idea if it is left at pitch for long periods). These strings are also easier to bend -- it allows me to get to higher notes not usually available on a short scale instrument. Using a 12-fret instrument like this also helps me to focus on practicing the fundamentals rather than just soloing. Keep in mind, however, that setting action too high can result in hand strain, so take care with your setup.

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The Slider

Slide guitar is truly its own art and requires a specific guitar to fully explore the style. While it’s easy to turn any electric guitar into a slide instrument, it’s a pain to adjust back and forth, and can be detrimental to the instrument in the long run. Also, as slide is in different tunings, having the instrument adjusted to best cope with the proper string tension is essential. Having the right action for slide will make the notes ring clearer and sound better. If you don’t want to invest in having a higher nut fabricated, Grover and other companies make “extension nuts,” which fit over the existing nut, raising the action, and are easily reversible.

The Alt Tune

Just like having a guitar setup for slide, if you play in alternate tunings, dedicating a guitar for that tuning is a great idea. Proper string tension and action will make for a better playing experience. Even if you tune down slightly, having the proper setup will save you the frustration of buzzing and sloppy-feeling strings.

For example, I have an electric 12-string guitar tuned to D. Many 12-string players choose to tune down, which makes tension and vibrato easier. I also find that tuning down removes some of the piercing high-end treble frequencies that occur with a 12-string. Having mine set up as a full time down-tuned player, the neck is more stable and not under the heavy stress a 12-string tuned to E standard would be. Simply putting a capo on the second fret brings you right from D to E standard when it's necessary.

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The Bender

If you’re a blues player, you understand the simple beauty of a bent string. The longer I've played, I've realized that higher action makes for cleaner bends and more sustain on bent notes. Having a guitar set up for blues playing requires action that lies somewhere between low and medium. Low is great for fast playing, but bends can get sloppy sounding if you the action is too low. I also tend to like my blues action a little on the stiffer side, which makes for a clearer note through the length of the bend, and gives you more expressive tone. More relief on the truss rod will also give more room for bends in the middle of the fretboard, which is very important when playing with blues pentatonic scales or box patterns.

The Speed Demon

Most of us want action that is low, light, and quick. However, achieving this can come with some work. Setting up a guitar for speed requires a straight neck with very little relief and very low action. I find that this setup works well on some guitars -- but not all. I've found this setup easiest to achieve on 25.5” scale length guitars rather than shorter scale guitars.

The greater string tension is more forgiving when making the neck its straightest. But keep in mind that setting for speed may not be optimal for styles that require lots of rhythm work or big blues-style bends. For setting up in this style, I try to find my thinnest-necked guitar that can also remain stiff. A guitar with these attributes lends itself best to this style, which is why Ibanez has been so successful in speed-playing circles: their very strong multi-piece maple necks can accommodate extra-low action.

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The Rhythm Machine

Finally, a dedicated rhythm guitar has been a studio secret for ages. While a speed demon setup may be great for solos, it can also make your chords buzzy and sloppy-sounding. A chording set up will make chords sound rich and full, and will allow for more dynamic playing. Higher action will give you the opportunity to hit chords harder, making your rhythm playing more exciting and dynamic. While you might need to raise your bridge and nut to get set up, the full-sounding chords will make it worth the effort.

We tend to get complacent when we get comfortable with “the same.” Utilizing guitars you already own and tweaking them for different ideal playing scenarios can open you up to new sounds and styles that you might never have experienced before.

What is your set up? Do you experiment on your instruments, or is only one setup best?

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