Joe - 62 - not too old, found my passion!

I think it depends a lot on where you buy the guitar. I’m going to trust that someone with more expertise than me will talk a little bit about what “setup” means and what a luthier is. Loosely, a luthier repairs, builds, and adjusts guitars. I don’t know if there is a formal accreditation or if anybody that works at the music store and can adjust the action and restring a guitar can be called a luthier.

But, from the reading I have done on forums and the like, it is pretty common for a new guitar, particularly an inexpensive one, to come home from the store or UPS truck with issues that make it more difficult to play than it should be.

Again, someone with more expertise than I have will probably point out that the truss rod adjustment deals with “intonation.” The “action” refers to how far the strings are away from the fretboard. “High” action can be more difficult to play because you have to press the strings harder; “low” action can cause the strings to buzz because they are too close and can vibrate against the frets.

A luthier is a person that builds and repairs instruments (stringed instruments with a sound box, like a guitar, although the term has been expanded to cover electric versions without a sound box). Many guitar shops don’t have an actual luthier on staff, but you don’t need to be a luthier to do a basic setup. Some guitar shops will do setups and stuff in-house, and some of them will subcontract the work out, depending on the job. If you find a shop with a good in-house luthier or “guitar tech” or “repair guy” it can be a valuable thing.

New guitars often benefit from a setup. This is especially true of less expensive instruments. It can be worthwhile to learn how to do a setup, yourself, but it can require a few special tools depending on what is needed for the guitar in question.

The basic steps are to tune the guitar, check/set the neck relief, check/set the action at the bridge and nut, and check/set the intonation (if possible). There are other things that can be done, too, like leveling and polishing frets, checking for and addressing “fret sprout”, etc. But those tend to be a little more advanced. The tune/relief/action/intonation steps are generally done in that order.

Setting the neck relief involves adjusting the truss rod.

Adjusting action at the bridge involves moving the saddles up or down with a screwdriver or Allen key if the guitar is an electric. On an acoustic guitar, adjusting action at the bridge is not as simple. You may need to shim or sand the bottom of the saddle, or even reshape the top radius of the saddle.

Adjusting action at the nut is similar for both electric and acoustic guitars: again, you may need to sand or shim the bottom of the nut, and you may need to adjust the cut of the nut slots with an appropriately sized nut file.

Adjusting intonation on an electric is usually done by moving the screws on the saddles to increase or decrease the effective length of the string. Adjusting intonation on an acoustic is more difficult since acoustics usually have a fixed saddle. It would normally require a compensated saddle, and creating a custom compensated saddle for an acoustic guitar is probably a job best left to an actual luthier, in my opinion.

Justin has a video series showing these adjustments on an electric guitar. Even if you don’t intend to do setups yourself it can be good to know what is involved in the process. The first video in the series is here:

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