It’s not as easy as you might think to trouble-shoot your own guitar. If you’ve had it for years you may be used to its quirks, or you might think you just need to get used to a guitar you’ve recently acquired. Here at Gryphon we’re frequently amazed when a customer brings in a guitar that’s so difficult to play we wouldn’t even attempt an easy 4-string G chord, but they just apologetically murmer, “it seems easier to play chords on my friends’ guitars…” Unlike some repairs, a set-up isn’t expensive and may be the best investment to get more enjoyment from your playing. Below are some easy pointers to help you determine if your guitar may be holding you back.
To start, make sure your guitar is tuned to standard pitch, or close to it. Push the low E string down to the first fret with your left hand as shown.
While holding that string down, press it to the 14th fret with the little finger of your right hand. You’ll be able to reach up with the thumb or index finger of your right hand to push that same string down to the fretboard again at the 7th or 8th fret.
If the neck of your guitar is relatively straight, there won’t be much clearance between the string and the frets in the middle of the neck. But if you can see a gap between that low E string and the 8th fret, enough space to tuck in a couple of flatpicks, the neck of your guitar has bowed up from string tension and getting that neck straighter again will make your guitar easier to play. This may be as easy as having the truss rod in the neck tightened, which Gryphon will gladly do for free while you wait, but sometimes making a guitar neck straighter is more involved.
The above photo shows a Gryphon Luthier adjusting the the truss rod on a guitar with a headstock truss rod adjustment (left) and a sound hole/body truss rod adjustment (right).
Make sure your guitar is tuned to standard pitch and have a good capo handy. Try playing chords in first position, particularly the F chord (if you can’t play a full barred F, just play the top four strings version).
Put the capo on your guitar neck at the first fret, and play that same chord again.
It should be slightly easier to play that F barre chord shape with the capo in place, but if it’s dramatically easier, the strings on your guitar are too high at the nut and lowering them will make the guitar easier to play.
String height at the nut is very critical because each string is tightly anchored in a nut slot. Your guitar’s string action may be quite low overall, so that F chord position is relatively easy if you’re fingering it at the 5th fret (to play an A chord), but if the action is too high at the nut you’re working harder than you need to trying to push strings down to the first fret. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can use a “feeler gauge” to check string height above the first fret while pushing the string down at the third fret.
High action at the nut is the most common problem with inexpensive guitars, but we’ve also seen new guitars selling for thousands of dollars that are tough to play for the same reason.
Often people can’t believe that a virtually new guitar needs a set-up. How could they build the whole guitar but not do that final step? Part of the reason is that the string tension, even over a short period of time, has made that brand-new guitar change shape in subtle ways. Another reason is that modern guitar manufacturing is very efficient, but there’s still no way to mechanize the set-up of a guitar. And since the needs of guitarists vary, depending on the style they play and string gauge they prefer, there’s really no “one size fits all” set-up anyway.