You’d Better Get That Thing Looked At!


You’d Better Get That Thing Looked At!

By Marc Johnson for 

When The Tone King asked me to do a column for, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. As a guitar instructor, I get a plethora of students who come in with a guitar that we in the industry affectionately refer to as a P.O.S. For those of you who aren’t in the know, a P.O.S. is a “Piece Of…” Well, I’ll let you fill in the rest. 

Now, if P.O.S. guitars were limited to kids, I wouldn’t be concerned. But unfortunately, I get “seasoned players” with P.O.S. guitars all the time. They push with all of their might in order to fret a barre chord at the seventh fret, and the sound that emanates from the guitar resembles the sounds of somebody in a public washroom after having too many burritos. After I inform them that their guitar needs work, I am met with the same reaction every time. “But, I just bought this thing!” But what they are really trying to say is, “You have no idea what the hell you’re talking about!” 

“But Marc, how do I know if my guitar is a P.O.S.?” you may inquire. I’m glad you asked! Well, first off, any guitar can be a P.O.S. if it isn’t cared for properly. You want to first check the action. There are industry standards. Generally these are measured both at the twelfth fret and the first. The twelfth fret measurements are usually 5/64th of an inch at the first string and 1/32nd for the sixth on an acoustic, and 3/64th to 5/64th on an electric. The first fret measurement is usually 1/64th at the first string and 1/32nd at the sixth string for both acoustic and electric. 

But, before you get out your ruler, realize that every player is different. Try playing the thing before you go in. Play a barre chord at the first fret. Does your forearm hurt? Try another barre chord at the seventh. How about now? If you notice it is difficult to fret at either of these places, or if the chords are buzzing, then your guitar definitely needs maintenance. Even if it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, you may still need an adjustment. If you tune your guitar up on the open strings, but it’s out of tune on the first, seventh, or twelfth frets, then your intonation is out, and, yep, you guessed it, you need an adjustment. 

“But Marc, I can’t tell!” you might say. Well, I can’t tell either from where I’m sitting. I would suggest that you have another player (not your neighbor’s kid who just started playing a week ago but a REAL player) try out your guitar and see what he/she says. For all of us broke musicians, what it really comes down to is if the guitar is playable and sounds in tune. If your action feels all right and the thing plays in tune, then you’re probably fine. If your string action is so high that it resembles a medieval weapon for shooting arrows as opposed to a guitar, then you should probably get your guitar checked out. 

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The most common maintenance is called a set-up. This is basic ‘oil-change’ type maintenance that you want to get done twice a year with the change in seasons. It involves straightening out your neck (Guitars are made of wood. Those necks move whether you play them or not), a restring, and setting your intonation (making sure the thing plays in tune all over the neck). A good shop will offer a fret-file and leveling as well. 

Out by me, we charge about forty bucks for this, but I’ve heard about some people trying charge as much as seventy. In my opinion, if you’re getting charged seventy bucks or more for a basic set-up, then your guitar better play itself! 

Twice a year is key! If you get a set-up twice a year, your guitar will last a long time. If you’re not sure if it needs it, have a friend check it out for you. And in the name that all that is holy, if your guitar instructor tells you that your guitar is messed up, just take his word for it and get it fixed. Don’t let your guitar become a P.O.S!

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Filed Under: Guitars

About the Author: Marc published his first novel Becoming in 2010. It’s a kick-ass book with monsters and dreams and stuff, and you should buy it. Since then, he’s written thousands of articles for, many of which have been picked up for circulation by manufacturers and other news outlets. His next book, Drugs and Pancakes, should be available early 2014 if his alcoholic editor can find time to work on it in-between destroying his liver and screaming about punctuation. He graduated from Roosevelt University with honors, which means that he’s not as dumb as he looks. He’s been playing guitar for over 25 years, which is almost twice as long as most of his students have been alive.

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  1. Blaine says:

    it’s not that hard to do yourself! the tone king does a great job of showing how to “setup” your guitar. you should check it out if you’re wanting to do it diy style! for most guitars, there’s a few main things to do..
    1st, action! no rulers, just look for buzzing on every fret of every string. if it makes noise, raise the tail piece. you have lots of different kinds like floyd rose or stop-bars like a les paul has. just raise it till you have a buzz-free fretboard. higher on the low strings because of the more viberation the big/ low strings have.
    2nd, trusrod! note- THIS IS USUALLY NOT A REGULAR THING TO DO EVERY TIME! you only need to do this if you can see your neck is higher by the upper frets are higher than the middle frets. if you’ve got some buzzing that won’t go away with raising the bridge, you might need to adjust the trusrod. it’s a long bar inside the neck that makes the neck bend one way or the other. usually it’s access is on the headstock but some are at the body like some fenders. you only need to adjust it if your neck is too flat, too bowed or the upper frets are higher than the 12th fret for example. LOOK AT THE NECK! you should be able to see how it’s bent. you don’t need to adjust it much if at all!
    3rd, intonation! it’s basically adjusting the bridge’s saddles. by moving the saddles back and forth you can get the guitars freted notes correctly in tune up the fretboard. if you play a chord and it is out of tune after tuning the open strings on the guitar, you need to “intonate” your guitar. you usually do this by tuning the open string to the 12th fret harmonic. move the saddles up or down each string until the whole guitar is “in tune with itself”.. there’s more ways of making sure it’s intonated but that’s the genneral way to do it. other ways include playing chords up the neck, hitting different open harmonics to help adjust the tuning with the bridge saddle etc. the main thing is to try the 12th fret harmonic to intonate your guitar. once you get it pretty close, you’ll be on the right track for having a great sounding guitar!
    all this can be done with common tools like screw drivers and hex wrenches for the floyd roses. it is the same for basses too so give it a shot! you might save some money and learn about all the different kinds of bridges and guitars! have fun!

  2. Chris says:

    A friend has a Gibson SG from the 70s he had setup, and the action is terrific. I think he paid around $60 USD, but in Montana the breed of Luthier is far and few between. I am going to have my Les Paul setup this year the next time he goes over to Kalispell.

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