Whether it’s your first ever guitar, or yet another addition to a frankly oversized collection, getting a new guitar is always a source of huge excitement for a guitarist.
What’s really important is to have a little checklist of things to do when you get a new guitar, to make sure it’s really well set-up and ready for action.
Below are some suggestions on what this checklist might contain, to add to your own existing routines and rituals. Get it done, then get playing!
Plastic and Labels
Remove any plastic and labels on the guitar. This will usually be a sheet of plastic stuck over the pickguard, and maybe a label on the headstock.
Fixtures and Fittings
For all guitars, this means things like tuning pegs, however this applies to a greater extent with electric guitars. Check the volume/tone control knobs, the pickup selector switch, the whammy bar, the strap buttons, and so on. All these little fiddly bits that can be loose or broken.
Don’t forget to check the functionality too, i.e. Not just that the volume/tone knobs are physically secure, but also that they function cleanly and smoothly and have the required effect when the guitar is amplified.
The “action” – i.e. how high the strings are away from the fretboard – needs to be low enough that you can play easily, but not so low that fret-buzz is generated. If you’re an existing guitar player, you’ll already have a good sense of how you like the action to be. If not, let it sit for a while and see how you find it, or ask a trusted guitarist friend to advise you.
The action can be raised or lowered on many guitars by inserting an allen key into the truss rod and turning. One way raises the action, the other lowers it. If done with care, you won’t go wrong, but if you’re uncertain or worried, seek professional help (see the final point on this list)!
Multiple meanings here. Checking the strings are intact and in good condition. If they’re wearing thin or rusting, it’s time for a change. If they sound dull and faded, it’s time for a change. If there seem to be minor tuning/intonation issues, a string change should be your first port of call to remedy this, which it often will.
Many guitars, particularly if bought in person, in-store, can be sold with a brand new set of strings put on, usually thrown into the bundle, or for a negligible extra fee. So try to get this covered so you know that this is something you can already cross off the list!
Two main points here. Firstly, check the guitar’s intonation, meaning that it stays in tune and with good pitching, all the way along the fretboard. If it seems to get gradually off-pitch the further along the neck you go, it needs attention.
Secondly, check for fretbuzz and problem frets. Occasionally you’ll find a note at a certain fret, on a certain string, seems to just choke, when played. This will also need attention.
Professional Setup Needed?
The result of this checklist should be that you know whether or not you need to seek a professional setup. Guitars should always arrive professionally set-up, however with online purchases, issues in transit, the guitar being a sensitive instrument, and so on, it’s not uncommon that there will be issues near the beginning that need attention.
This checklist should leave you with the knowledge of what, if anything, needs doing to the guitar. From there, if the tweaks are minor, and/or you’re confident with guitar adjustments, then you can go ahead and make them yourself.
Otherwise, take the guitar to a store and ask them for a “setup”. If this happens to be the store at which you bought the guitar, they may even offer this for free / a reduced rate, especially if it was bought recently enough that they could reasonably take responsibility for the instrument’s sub-par setup.