A couple of weeks ago, Understanding Guitars reader Marjoline used Suggest a Topic to drop me the following line:
“How to ideally line up the bridge-neck-nut-trussrod to get the best results. I have seen experts starting with the bridge, I have seen equally big experts start with the trussrod. Who is right, and why?”
I didn’t want to keep her waiting and wrote back that there’s only ONE correct order (which I gave her), and said that I would explain why in a following blog post. To my surprise and amusement she replied the following:
“I am looking forward to that! Because many in fact do say ‘There is only one correct order in which to proceed….’
We (the readers) need the convincing arguments why from each person, to decide for ourselves which of these ‘one and only correct ways’ is in fact THE one for us in our situations!”
I can only applaud Marjoline’s attitude. She’s doing exactly what my blog’s baseline suggests: dare to question. That includes questioning ME. It’s all in my website’s Mission Statement.
So now I’m dared, and it’s up to me to come up with those “convincing arguments why” she so rightfully requests. Then, you may decide whether they make sense to you.
(I’ll require more than a few words of introductory explanation, though. It’s complicated stuff.)
In the medical world, PTT (partial thromboplastin time) is a blood test that looks at how long it takes for blood to clot. I’d like to introduce the same acronym into the world of musicians, now meaning playability, tone and tuning. These three key factors are what a setup is all about. All three should be optimal, for your instrument to be in top condition. Hey, now that I put it that way: sounds like kind of a blood test too, doesn’t it?
An instrument’s overall feel or playability is the result of several factors, including neck width, thickness and profile, fretboard radius, fret size and shape, neck bow, string gauges, string-to-string spacing and individual string heights – with most of these variables gradually changing along the length of the neck.
On top of playability, there’s tone and tuning. String height (usually referred to as “action”, and probably the variable that determines more than others whether a player will judge a certain setup as successful or not) influences both: higher strings sound stronger, beefier – but depressing high strings makes the notes sharp. Think of it as string bending, only this time in the vertical plane instead of sideways. The effect is the same: the pitch goes up. Anyway, this calls for compensation (via intonation of the bridge saddles) and minimization (for this, nut slot depths must be optimal).
Comparable to the way that string height is foremost a playability factor with side effects on tone and tuning, pickup height primarily affects tone and tuning but also influences playability! Many people don’t know this, but the magnetic field of a pickup can have quite dramatic impact on string vibration:
Needless to say that all the aforementioned structural features combined make for a very complex whole. And while some of them are non-adjustable, others must be set up for best performance.
Obviously, the player’s preferences and playing style should be taken into account, but to a certain extent the instrument itself dictates what it will allow or not. Lowering the bridge saddle(s) too much will result in buzzing, no matter how weak your attack is, or how heavy your strings are. Strings need some room to vibrate, it’s as simple as that. Just physics. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a huge upright bass, a slim Irish bouzouki, a tiny ukelele, or anything in between: the same principles always apply.
What did he just say???
Indeed, allow me this word of caution: don’t put too much trust in your guitar brand’s support pages or printed setup guidelines. Some are not too bad (although even those are usually incomplete, or too vague to be of any practical use), but others definitely should have a BALONEY ALERT sticker on them!
I’ll elaborate on that subject in another post, but for now, let me just give you THIS to think about: both Fender and Gibson (they’re actually in the not too bad category – I’m merely using these companies as an example because their instruments are so widespread among musicians) have published reference distances to maintain between the bottom of a string and the top of a certain fret (the 17th in Fender’s case, the 12th in Gibson’s guidelines). However, neither company says whether the player should take these measurements with or without a capo on the neck? Since they don’t, I presume they mean without. But any given string-to-fret distance can be achieved by infinite combinations of nut slot depths and bridge saddle heights. So which exact combination should you choose, and why?? Again, they don’t tell you.
The previous paragraph takes us right to the heart of the matter. A certain string height is always the result of the interplay of 3 variables: neck bow, bridge saddle height, and nut slot depth. And the order in which you adjust them is crucial. If you do it wrong, you’ll lose time, you may ruin your nut, and you’ll definitely get frustrated in the process!
Need an example? Suppose you’ve just adjusted your bridge saddles to accomplish a certain string height above the 12th fret. Now you focus on the nut, and find that your strings are sitting a bit too high above the first 3 frets or so. Basic chords are hard to play, and their tuning is off. Let’s say you own a special nut file set (or you’re using a rat tail file, or needle files or whatever), so you trim down the nut slots until string height in this area is to your liking. Uh-oh, now your 12th fret string distance has dropped and you need to adjust the saddles again!
Next, you eye-ball the neck and see that it has severe upbow, a fact you failed to notice (or check) before. After tightening the truss rod to get only slight neck relief, you now have two new problems: the open strings are all buzzing against the first fret, and once again string height above the 12th fret has dropped. Oh my god. You sigh, and start raising the saddles (third adjustment there!).
Unfortunately, when you’re done, the open strings are still buzzing. This means you’ve gone too far when you were filing those nut slots. You’ll have to install a new nut (or pay someone to do it for you), and after that you’ll have to LOWER the bridge saddles because now that the (new) nut slots are less deep, the 12th fret string distance is again incorrect. Hopefully, this fourth bridge adjustment will take you home… Did I mention you’d get frustrated?
Anyway, I think this example clearly shows one thing: a sensible guitar or bass setup DOES NOT start at the bridge.
I’m afraid my answer to that question will have to be: by reading my next article. This post has already become quite long, and if I don’t get back to my workshop soon, guitars and basses will start piling up. But I guess a good cliff-hanger never hurt no-one, has it?
And if you REALLY can’t wait, ask Marjoline. She already knows.