Updated: May 23, 2021
A nice guitar is like a nice car, a source of pure joy and potentially, depending on what it is, a bit of a financial investment that appreciates in value over time. Another key similarity between the two is that they both need some love from a pair of experienced hands from time in order to keep them in the tip top shape they deserve to be in. Here are five tell-tale signs that it's time to take your guitar in for a professional setup:
1. The Strings are Buzzing!
Generally when strings are buzzing it's because they're touching the frets where they shouldn't be, restricting the free movement of the string and making that awful buzzing sound or just stopping the note completely.
This can caused by a number of things, so we need to take a closer look to diagnose the problem.
Are the strings mostly buzzing on the higher frets, around 10th fret and higher? This usually indicates that the bridge is set too low and needs to be raised to the proper height allowing proper clearance between the string and the frets while still being low enough to provide a comfortable playing experience.
Are the strings buzzing at the lower frets, around 2nd to 5th fret? This is usually a result of too much tension in the neck. An adjustment needs to be made to the guitar's truss rod to introduce the proper amount of relief to neck.
Are there one or two notes that buzz while the rest of the guitar seems fine? This could be because of a discrepancy in one or more of the frets, either the fret has worn down too much or has worked itself loose over time and raised up slightly A raised fret can usually be re-seated and glued into position. Worn frets might need re-levelled and dressed and possibly just replaced altogether.
2. The Strings are Too High!
You'll know right away if the strings are too high, your guitar will feel stiff, uncomfortable and difficult to play. This could be due to a handful of factors.
Does it start to feel bad after the first couple of frets and then get worse the higher up the neck you go? The is probably due to the bridge being set too high and needs to be lowered to the proper height where playing feels comfortable but the strings don't buzz.
Does it feel bad around the first few frets? The string slots in the nut are probably not deep enough and need to be cut to the proper depth.
Does it feel worst around the middle of the neck, between the 5th and 14th fret? This is likely to be caused by too much relief in the neck, the truss rod need to be adjusted to introduce the right amount of tension to the neck.
3. The Guitar Won't Stay In Tune!
Tuning problems are annoying. If your guitar has tuning problems you can feel like you spend more time tuning your guitar than actually playing it. There are a few things that can cause a guitar to experience tuning issues.
Do you sometimes hear a “ping” sound when you tune? This is almost certainly due to shoddily cut nut slots or just a cheap, inferior nut. The strings are getting caught in the slots causing slightly uneven string tension at either end of the nut which when released by a string bend or slightly energetic strum causes the string to go out of tune. This is remedied either by cutting the nut slots cleanly and properly allowing the string to move over it uninhibited, or just replacing the nut entirely with a new nut made from a more adequate material like bone.
Does your guitar have a tremolo system? Sometimes tuning issues can be caused by an improperly setup tremolo system. Fender Jazzmasters, for example, have a tremolo system that absolutely must be set up correctly in order for the guitar to not suffer tuning problems.
4. The Guitar Sounds Out of Tune but My Tuner Says it's In Tune!
Problems with your guitar's intonation can be frustrating, your tuner is telling you that your guitar is complete in tune but those nasty sounding chords you're playing say otherwise. There are two likely culprits for intonation issues.
Does the problem seem to get worse the higher up the neck you play? It sounds like the intonation is set incorrectly at the bridge. The bridge saddles need to be properly adjusted so exact scale length of each string corresponds properly with the placement of the frets making the guitar play in tune up and down the neck.
Does the problem start right down at the lowest frets? This is probably due to one of more badly cut nut slots, the slots need to be re-cut so that the strings take off point is right at the front of the nut so the distance between the strings take off point and the 1st fret are the correct distance resulting in proper intonation
5. Electrical Problems!
Maybe your guitar feels and plays just the way you want it to, but as soon as you plug into your amp you're stopped dead in your track by horrible noises, or even worse no sound at all. Guitars can be stricken with all manner of electrical problems.
Do you hear crackles and pops when you turn the knobs? The electrical component of a guitar knob is called a potentiometer, or “pot” for short. Over time and use these pots can get dirty and can eventually fail. Your pots will need to be cleaned out from time to time to remove any crud and prevent corrosion but may eventually need to be replaced altogether. The same applies to your guitar's pickup switch.
Is your guitar cutting out? This is most commonly cause by an output jack socket that is either loose and needs bending back into place or has failed and needs replacing. It could also be the fault of a broken wire or bad solder joint in the control cavity which can be solved with a bit of handy work with a soldering iron.
Does the guitar produce lots of unwanted hum? Grounding issues can cause guitars produce hum, this could be due to a grounding wire that has come loose or just improper grounding of the guitar in the first place, all of which can be fixed by properly wiring the guitar. Sometimes, however, hum can be caused by RF (radio-frequency) radiation, from things like stage lights or even nearby mobile phone towers, finding it's way into your guitar electronics and playing havoc with your sound, especially in guitars with single coil pickups. You can protect your guitar from RF radiation to some degree by properly shielding the guitar's control cavity, but depending on your environment you may have to just live with a certain about of hum.
Does your guitar make no sound at all? This is most likely the fault of a loose wire or a failed component. With a proper analysis of the guitars electronics the problem can be found and fixed.
While it can certainly be fun to tinker around and try some of this stuff yourself on a cheap guitar with which you don't mind taking the chance of accidentally destroying in the process, it is highly recommended that you take your pride and joy guitars to be worked on by those with plenty of experience. You wouldn't take your chances trying to perform surgery on your beloved family pets would you? Or your kids? So please don't do it with your favourite guitars, it'll only end in tears. Let the pros look after your instruments and they'll look after you for years and years to come.
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