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Strings, Setups, and Squeaks: Optimizing Your Guitar For Comfort and Tone

When beginning the guitar, or starting again after a break, it's normal to experience a little discomfort at the fingertips for a few weeks, as you build the small amount of callus necessary for easy playing. However, if you are experiencing unusual problems in pressing the strings to the fingerboard, or finding particular difficulty in playing chords up the neck, the clearance of the strings over the fretboard (or "action") of your guitar may be higher than it needs to be.

A proper setup strikes a balance between a string adjustment that is low enough to play comfortably all the way up the neck, and one that is high enough to avoid string buzz when the instrument is strummed vigorously. As individuals vary widely in their playing technique, there is no single setup suitable for all players or styles. Fingerstyle or electric players can usually play clearly with a fairly low action, while bluegrass flatpickers or swing players need more string height to avoid fret buzz. However, there's no need to struggle with any guitar who's setup is outside a normal range. Whether you're checking your present guitar, or evaluating a new one for purchase, you can perform a quick check of a guitar's action as follows.

1) Sight down along the length of the E strings on either side of the fingerboard, looking from the nut (the small slotted bone piece that holds the strings at the peghead) to the bridge (the part that holds the strings to the body). The fingerboard should look reasonably straight,. A slight bit of bowing (or "relief") is normal, but any significant warping or twisting should be attended to.

2)Pick each string at each fret, listening for areas where notes may be buzzing. This can indicate areas in the fretboard that need leveling, or in severe cases, frets that need replacing.

3) You can do a simple check of string adjustment by inspecting the gap between the bottom of each string and the top of the 12th fret. You can do a rough check by stacking a pair of dimes together, and sliding them face down between the bottoms of the strings and the top of the 12th fret. (If you have a fine-gauge ruler like a machinist's rule, a good average height is in the neighborhood of about 3/32" of an inch between the top of the 12th fret and the bottoms of the E strings.) If there's a significant amount of wiggle room, your action is probably higher than it needs to be.

4) If your string height is OK, but your action still feels a bit stiff, you can check the adjustment of the nut as follows. Take a small scrap of paper, the size of a small Post-It. Check each string individually by pressing the string down at the third fret, and sliding the paper between the bottom of the string and the first fret. You should feel a small bit of resistance as you slide it back and forth in the gap. A string that is too low at the nut will buzz on the first fret when played open, and one that is too high will feel stiff to play.

Adjustments to your guitar's action should be done by an experienced technician. It's not an expensive process, and a routine setup can usually be completed within a couple of days. These shops have experienced guitar techs, and are listed by neighborhood in the greater Seattle area. It's not an exhaustive list, just some folks we've worked with regularly over the years, so tell them we sent you.

Area Shop Phone Contact
Everett Lemuel Guitar Repair 206/526-9964 Lemuel
Ballard Sound Guitar Repair 206/783-7317 Cat Fox
Fremont Dusty Strings 206/634-1662 John Sabo
W.Seattle Paul Stroh 206/937-9418 Paul
Bellevue Guitar Works 425/643-8074 Mike Lull
Puyallup JP Guitars 253/841-2954 Jack Pimentel

Finally, nothing gives your guitar a better boost for the buck than changing the strings. For acoustic guitars we recommend round wound phosphor bronze or bright bronze strings. Phosphor bronze produces a slightly brighter tone, and may last a bit longer than bright bronze. (Chronic procrastinators may wish to try a Teflon wrapped string like the Elixir, which is more expensive, but reputed to be longer lasting.) Otherwise, any standard strings should be just fine, so look for a good buy. We find little if any difference between most brands, and shops typically offer discounts on purchasing several sets at a time.

For optimum tone and volume, we recommend playing as stiff a string as you can play comfortably. Again, no single string is best for all players or instruments. Fingerstyle players may prefer slightly lighter strings, while pickers or band players typically use heavier gauges. For a properly adjusted acoustic guitar, we recommend medium gauge strings (High E string =.013 or .012). Beginning players, or those with older or more fragile guitars may wish to use .011 gauge sets. Extra light strings under .011 are suitable for electric guitars, but won't produce optimum tone or volume in acoustic guitars. Classical guitars must use nylon strings only; any other strings will damage the instrument. When strings sound dull, show corrosion or breaks in the winding, or are hard to tune, replace them: you'll be glad you did. Enjoy!


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