Instruments /Accessories / Ordering / Tips
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 swing or gypsy players may need more string height to avoid fret buzz. However, there's no need to struggle with any guitar whose 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.
- 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, without unusual humps or hollows. A slight bit of bowing (or "relief") is normal, especially on the bass side, but any significant warping or twisting should be attended to.
- Pick each string at each fret, listening for areas where notes may be buzzing. This can indicate frets that need leveling, or in more pronounced cases, frets that need replacing or a fretboard that needs to be re-leveled.
- 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.
- 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 crown of the first fret. You should feel just a small bit of resistance as you slide it back and forth in the gap. If it slides too freely, the nut slot is too high, and needs to be lowered. If the paper sticks under the string, the slot is too low, and will need to be shimmed and re-slotted. 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.
- Finally, nothing gives your guitar a better bang for the buck than changing the strings. For optimum tone on 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 longer lasting but are not as brilliant tonally.) Otherwise, any standard strings should be 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. Those using guitars with conventional magnetic pickups should use nickel wound strings for optimal amplification. Bronze strings may be successfully amplified with the proper pickup, and we do offer both adjustable magnetic and piezo transducer pickups that work well with both bronze and nickel strings. See our Accessories page for more info.
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 rhythm or big band players typically use heavier gauges. For a properly adjusted acoustic guitar, we recommend medium gauge strings (High E string = .013 or .012). Extra light strings of .011 or under are suitable for electric guitars, but won't produce optimum tone, volume or dynamic range on an acoustic 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.
Adjustments to your guitar's action should be done by an experienced
technician. It's not a terribly costly or time-consuming process, and is
essential to optimizing the full acoustic potential and playability of your
instrument. A routine setup can usually be completed within a short period
of time. If there's no repair person in your area with expertise in archtop
guitars, please feel free to contact us for information for a precision
setup, specifically tailored to the requirements of your archtop guitar.
Our premium 12 point inspection and setup includes the following procedures:
- Frets precision leveled, recrowned and polished as required
- Trussrod tension adjusted as required
- Fingerboard relief inspected and adjusted as required
- Bridge height adjusted
- Bridge compensation strobe-tuned
- String slots at nut inspected and shimmed or recut as required
- String slots at bridge inspected and recut as required
- Bridge foot contour inspected and conformed to soundboard as required
- Bridge radius inspected and conformed to fingerboard radius as required
- Bridgewheels and tuners lubricated
- Fingerboard and bridge conditioned
- Body and neck cleaned and hand polished.
For more information, or to arrange for a setup, repair or restoration
with archtop.com, please email [email protected] or call 206.325.3737.
Instruments /Accessories / Ordering / Tips