Thursday, October 4, 2007


The great thing about doing business over the internet is that its easy . Just about any product you want is only a couple of keystrokes away. Web commerce is also a plus for the environment. The natural resources expended for any given purchase is vastly reduced when we let the UPS man do the driving. And the variety of products at your fingertips is, well, overwhelming.

One of the more interesting presences in the e-commerce world is the internet auction. As of March 25 the auction site was one of the few big online businesses that had a positive cash flow. And among auction categories, musical instruments are right up there in terms of volume of offerings.

Auction buying can be an exiting atmosphere. If you've ever been to a live auction you know about the adrenaline rush of being involved in a rapidly escalating grab at a sometimes unique prize. And the auctioneers banter can be mesmerizing. I'll never forget bidding on a French violin in a big warehouse auction site a few years back. I had seen an ad mentioning "old violins" amongst a sea of (in my opinion) more mundane items. So I went to the preview, about an hour before the start. There were a couple of beat up fiddles, but there was one very fine looking French labeled violin.

I casually examined it, continued on around the room, and then kept my eye on it, checking out the other potential buyers. There were just a couple people who seemed to notice it, so I was primed to pick it up at a bargain price.

I got my numbered placard and took a seat . The auction started and when the french violin came up I got a little rush as the bidding started. 25, 35 ,50, 75, 100, by the time it reached $200.00 there were three of us bidding on it , by the time it reached $400.00 there were two of us and when it reached $550.00 I realized that - 1. I had $600.00 with me and the buyers premium was 10% ( In other words, with the commission due to the auction house, I was already overbidding my wallet) and - 2. I really didn't have a clue as to the actual worth of the instrument, nor the amount of work it might take to make it playable. While I knew guitars pretty well, I was neither a violin player nor a violin repairman . So I got out.

Maybe I passed on a $20,000 gem or maybe the other guy got stuck with a dog, but the reality was, I had no business bidding in the first place because I didn't really know what I was getting into. And I had held the instrument and examined it.

This gets to the "rub" of internet auctions. In a "traditional" auction there is always a period of examination of the product on the block. And while an examination period is still not enough to be certain what you are bidding on, on the web the best you get is a photograph and sometimes not even that. A description of an instrument could be , innocently , incorrect . And ultimately, the quality and condition of an instrument cannot really be evaluated until you pick it up and play it.

This distance between buyer and seller presents a challenge to a smooth transaction. And ultimately, the onus (what a great word!) is on the buyer. If you are the high bidder, you own it, for better or worse. Most web auction sites state this in writing if you read the participation agreements.

This is not to say that internet auctions are , therefore, a waste of time but ,rather, that the ease of participation belies an actual need to be an even more informed buyer.

Within the last three weeks two instruments have come into my shop that were purchased in "virtual" auctions. In both cases the owner thought they had gotten a great deal , only to realize that each needed extensive work to be playable .

Unless otherwise stated, an instrument purchased in a music store has some sort of warrant to be a playable item . Any instrument you buy from a reputable mailorder house entails a period to examine and reject the instrument if you are not satisfied. You don't get that option at auction, and that 's the understanding.

Why do we by at auction ? Well, for some, it's to get something we just couldn't get elsewhere. But other times it is because we think we can get a really good deal. And in both cases this is sometimes true.

Why do we sell at auction ? Sometimes it is because we just need to sell what we don't need, and need to sell it by a date certain ( essentially -now!). The other reason is that we hope we can get more than we would have thought for what we have.

This is why when you buy at auction to get a good deal you have to buy smart.

Here are some considerations.

1. If you are not very knowledgeable about what you are bidding on, and you are paying cash (as opposed to a credit card) don't bid more than you than you can afford to lose. That's just reality.

2. If you are not clear about the condition of an instrument - ask.. Most internet auction sites provide the bidder the ability to e-mail the seller with questions about the instrument. On an older instrument ask about the playablity of the instrument if this is not mentioned in the description. If the person say s they don't know , indicate that your bid will be contingent on the playability of the instrument ( assuming you want to play it...). This doesn't guarantee your satisfaction , but it gives you a leg to stand on if you have a dispute with the seller.

3. Pay with a credit card if you can. You have some rights associated with C-card transactions. Of course, if someone can accept a credit card they are most likely in business, so you are essentially buying from a store ( nothing wrong with that , but it takes a little bit of the potential for a " really good deal" out of the picture ).

4. Unless otherwise stated, shipping costs are generally the responsibility of the buyer, so calculate this cost into your final price.

5. Most items have a "reserve" amount below which the item will not be sold. The "bidding" on a 1941 OO-42 Martin opening at $900.00 means nothing until it reaches the $12,000.00 if the seller has indicated it as the reserve. So don't be enticed by ridiculously low opening bids. Check back in the last hour of bidding, these are the numbers that count.

6. Read the auction site's user agreement before you start bidding.

7. Buy smart. If you don't know what the item you are bidding on is worth, don't bid.

As the popularity of on-line auctions increases buyer concerns are being addressed. At least one site- the Gibson auction at - actually examines and certifies the condition of the instruments they sell. Unfortunately there aren't many instruments listed, but the transaction for buyers is much safer.

Ultimately, auction buying is a game of skill, so learn the rules and buy smart.


It is winter here in Silver Spring, MD. and the air is dry. Due to the seasonal drop in humidity I inevitably see more instruments coming in for cracks in the top and string buzz problems.

Cracks caused by dry air are almost always along the grain lines in the area between the bridge and the butt end of the instrument. The soft wood between the darker grain lines shrinks due to the lack of moisture and separates from the denser and stiffer winter growth.

In most cases these cracks can be cleanly repaired with little evidence of the repair, if the instrument is brought to a repairman as soon as it becomes apparent that there is a crack. Most repairmen charge by the inch for crack repair, so the shorter the crack the cheaper the repair. Additionally dirt and oil that works its way into a crack over time makes it more difficult for the repairman to hide the repair.

To avoid cracks which result from seasonal drops in humidity you must always be conscious of the dryness of your home/store environment. Many people who have forced air heating have a humidifier built into their system. If you are one of the fortunate, just set it for a minimum of 45 % and you will probably never have a problem. For the rest of us there are a couple of solutions.

Ideally an instrument should be in its case when it is not in use. This gives it a degree of protection from the room environment. Protective case covers are also commercially available to give added insulation. In-Guitar or In-Case humidifiers, when used as directed, provide adequate protection.

If you display your instruments but do not have a built in humidifiers, there are a number of in room misters and vaporizers available. They work well when used as directed, the most important factor being that the room temperature should kept no lower that 68 degrees. A low tech solution is to put a pan of water in front of a forced air vent, or on top of a radiator.

Additionally, you should invest in a hygrometer with a digital readout so you can monitor the humidity level. Keep it around 45 % if possible. These can range from $40.00 to $120.00. I have a $40.00 unit and it works just fine.

Another effect that dry air can have on your guitar is to tend to flatten the top. It is not unusual to get buzzing strings at this time of year, particularly if your string action is set very low. As the top loses moisture it settles down and takes the string height over the frets with it. (Conversely, in the summer it can tend to swell the top and the string height rises). A good solution for this is to have a second, slightly higher saddle, made for use in the winter months.

Overly dry air can also shrink ebony fretboards, causing fret ends to stick out. The solution is to file or "dress" the ends down. Shrinking fretboards can also tend to cause-bow. To remedy this, increasing the tension on the truss rod (a quarter turn at a time until the neck shows relief as viewed at around the 6th fret)may help.

In many cases one of these measures may be sufficient to correct the problem caused by dry air. In others, all may figure in to your problem and need to be addressed. So do not be surprised if your friendly repair person suggests minor fret work, neck adjustment, and saddle shimming (or a new saddle, which some may prefer). Better yet, keep your guitar well protected from seasonal environmental changes by maintaing proper humidity!


The article that follows will attempt to address the most common issues regarding retrofitting pickups to acoustic guitars. I will not be endorsing or critiquing particular brands.
There are four types of acoustic guitar pickups :

* Under The Saddle
* Contact
* Soundhole
* Microphone

Combinations of these are also blended into one system by many companies.


First,let's define our terms. The "saddle is a piece of bone or plastic which sits in a slot located on the wooden "bridge". The saddle is removable. The bridge is glued to the top of the guitar. On most guitars the strings ride over the saddle and then pass through the bridge where the strings are held in place by "pins" mad of plastic, wood, or bone. On some bridges("non-pin") the ball ends of the strings seat at the back of the bridge.

"Under the saddle" pickups are thin strips of material which are seated under the saddle, in the slot of the bridge.A wire runs from the pickup element to an output jack, usually located at the strap button area at the endof the guitar.

In some cases the saddle slot must be re-cut to provide a flat surface for the pickup to be seated. Even contact between the pickup, the bottom of the saddle, and the bottom of the slot are essential for proper function of these pickups.

Some pickup systems will include a pre-amp assembly which must be mounted inside the guitar. This is usually done proximate to the soundhole. It can either be adhered with Velcro tape, glued to the inside of the guitar, or screwed on to the neck block. Systems with pre-amps need 9 volt power and in many cases a battery clip must also be located, again, proximate to the soundhole.


A contact pickup is adhered to the top of the guitar with a type of putty. Contact pickups can be adhered to the outside or the inside. For temporary, non invasive, now and again usage, an outside application can be acceptable. But many players either prefer or need a contact pickup and want an uncluttered, "permanent" installation including an endpin jack.

For this installation a hole must be drilled for the jack. Putty holds the pickup in place on the inside of the top of the guitar, usually in the area of the bridge. In the ideal installation, the final location of the pickup is determined by trying a few spots to achieve the best tone vs. feedback resistance, which varies depending on the particular guitar in question. The location of the pickup on a Dreadnaught sized guitar is going to be different than on a cedar topped classical guitar.


Some companies manufacture pickups which are clamped or wedged into the soundhole of the guitar. An endpin jack is an option with these pickups as well. (When I install these I like to install an additional plug and jack inside the guitar so that the pickup can be removed for travel.). A wire can be left dangling out the soundhole if the preference is to minimize affectation of the instrument, but, frankly, if you plan to use this pickup with any frequency, an internal mounted endpin jack is preferable. Some marring of the finish where the pickup is clamped can occur if the installation is not done carefully.


Some microphones are integrated with an end pin jack, and thus require expansion of the strap pin hole. Others clip on to the bracing inside the box of the guitar with the option of running a cord out the soundhole. Still others are adhered to the inside of the guitar with velcro and connect to an internally mounted pre-amp which also has an end pin jack.

From this over view it is clear that the "under the saddle" type of pickup entails the most potential work on, if not modification of, the existing instrument. For most "permanent", less fuss, applications, an installed endpin jack is preferred, regardless of the type of pickup.. So, short of running a wire out the soundhole or having one dangling in front of the instrument, the least amount of modification entails the drilling of a larger hole at the strap pin location. Some guitars, such as those made by Taylor come with a factory sized end pin hole which will accommodate an end pin jack without modification .


Under the saddle pickups are of two types -Piezo crystals - literally, crystals, encased in a sheath of varying materials, and thin strips of sensing material (again wrapped in materials in a range of stiffness).

In Piezo pickups, a manmade crystal sits underneath each string. The pressure of the string creates an electrical energy which, when the string is plucked, is transmitted to the amplifier. Each crystal/sensor is, primarily, triggered by the pressure of a particular string, though it also senses some of the surrounding ambient vibration The spacing of the crystals, therefore, must correspond to the string spacing on the guitar in which they are installed.

In the others, a thin sensor is sandwiched between two other layers of material, the nature of which varies from maker to maker. The contact and pressure between the saddle, the pickup and the saddle slot in the bridge, is just as important as with the piezo crystal sensor, though the particular string spacing is not. In this case, the entire strip "senses" the vibration of the strings and surrounding box, though any given string is only as present as it's particular contact with the sensor (as with the crystal).

Anything you place between the bottom of the saddle and the saddle slot seat has the potential to affect the transmission of the vibrations which travel from the string, through the saddle to the soundboard, and therefore can affect the sound of your guitar .. In some guitars, the addition of a layer between the saddle and the bridge has a distinct affect on the sound. Some guitars, indeed, can benefit from this affectation,(though, often, people don't hear the difference). For example, if a solid wood shim is placed under a saddle, as is sometimes done to raise the string height at the saddle, the tone can be affected depending on the properties of the shim. If the shim is made of the same wood as the bridge, say Ebony, the primary affect will be increased volume because of a slightly higher torquing action on the top by the taller bridge saddle.

But tone can be changed by the material used for the shim as well . If the saddle were replaced and the height achieved by a taller bone saddle, I would expect a brighter tone, since bone, in my experience, is denser than even ebony (the hardest, commonly used bridge material). If a softer wood, mahogany for example, were used, I would expect a mellower tone, due to the softness of the wood (essentially more space between the cells - less dense). On the same principal, a stiffer pickup element (regardless of style) will tend to provide/maintain brighter tone than a softer pickup element. These can be subtle distinctions and may not always be heard, but on some guitars, and by some ears, these effects are very pronounced.

Accepting the above concepts, we can conclude that piezo crystals, being the hardest material used for sound reproduction, have the potential to produce the brightest , clearest tone, and, to the degree that the sheathing is flexible and the sensing element is softer, a softer tone will be produced.(Remember, though, when amplified, the pre amp, if there is one, further colors the tone from this point on.)

The bottom line on under the saddle pickups is that they have the distinct possibility of affecting the "natural" acoustic sound of your guitar.

Contact pickups sense the vibrations of the top of the guitar. The pickup attached to the top of the guitar with strong tape or putty. They are lightweight and generally will not interfere with the natural sound of the guitar.

Soundhole Pickups, which seat across the soundhole, both tighten the top in this area and block the soundhole. Anything that is affixed to the body of the guitar adds weight, and in some areas, such as the back and to a lesser degree the sides, can affect the tone and volume of the instrument. While some parts of a guitar are more directly affecting the sound (top and back), the whole box vibrates when you pluck the strings. Therefore, preamps, battery clips installed to the back sides and even the neck block, soundhole pickups and contact pickups adhered to the top, can indeed have an affect on the tone and volume of the instrument. The degree to which this is noticeable will, of course, be variable, but cannot be denied.

Microphones are usually clipped to a brace or mounted with tape or velcro inside the guitar. They are usually very lightweight, and tend to have little affect on the natural sound of the guitar.

The bottom line is this - the less stuff you put in and on your guitar, the less the "natural" sound of your guitar will be affected.

Also, let's admit that no pickup is going to reproduce the sound of a guitar as we hear it acoustically through our ears. No matter the pickup or microphone, an electronically reproduced tone is just that - an electronically reproduced sound generated by acoustic vibrations. It's not wood, and steel or nylon, or gut, vibrating the air, it's an electronically generated signal generating a vibration in a speaker cone, which vibrates the air.


Soundhole pickups are certainly the most feedback resistant. They are electrically charged magnets, similar to those used in electric guitars. While they do pick up some vibration from the instrument, most of the sound is triggered by the vibrating strings. This provides a great resistance to feedback caused by ambient vibrations, a problem that the open box of an acoustic guitar is quite susceptible to. The drawback of the magnetic pickup, though, is that, for many people, the sound is not "natural" enough.

Under the saddle pickups provide a relatively high degree of feedback resistance because the pickup is seated under the saddle and surrounded by the wood of the bridge. This resistance to feedback will vary from instrument to instrument because of a couple of factors - The overall resonance of the box The depth of the saddle slot in the bridge. A deeper slot puts the pickup closer to the more vibratory top, and therefore provides less resistance to feedback. The amount of high volume ambient noise hitting the box and entering through the soundhole. This an be mitigated to a great degree by a soundhole cover. The tonal contour of the ambient sound hitting the box and entering the soundhole The volume setting for the signal coming from the pickup. The higher the setting, the more likely to feedback.

Contact pickups provide little resistance to feedback, because they are seated directly on the soundboard and are greatly affected by any ambient sound which hits the soundboard.

Microphones, for obvious reasons, are the most prone to feedback. The best way to prevent feedback, regardless of the pickup, is to keep the volume at the pickup as low as possible and let the amp, boost the signal.


First, it should be said that a reasonably "transparent" reproduction of the sound of many guitars yields a result that may not be wholly satisfying. A good pickup with minimal pre-amp tone contouring is going to give you the sound of your guitar, warts and all. If your guitar sounds thin, this will be the case when reproduced, if it is tubby, same correlation. Often when people are displeased with the resulting sound from their guitar it is the guitar and not the pickup that is to blame. But a nice sounding guitar, with a properly placed, quality pickup can sound wonderful. It is also true that a poorly installed pickup will also contribute to bad sound.

Some guitars which have a fabulous amplified sound don't sound as good acoustically. The circuitry in the in the pre -amping provides a pleasing tonal contour which isn't found in the instrument. The strings just trigger the signal, so a pickup system with a lot of pre- amp contouring can be a good choice for a guitar with less than ideal natural tone. And conversely, a relatively transparent system is often the best choice for a guitar with a pleasing natural sound.

A good argument can be made that for a quality acoustic guitar a well placed contact pickup combined with a microphone can provide the most "natural" sound. But the sensitivity of this combination to feedback can make it unacceptable for high volume settings.


First we should clarify that there are two kinds of pre amps - integral and external - and some external pre-amps are mounted on the outside of the guitar, others are independent units which are plugged into on the way to the amplifier.

Some pickups come with a pre-amping circuit wired to the endpin jack. You won't see it, and you cannot adjust it, but it is there. The signal from your guitar travels through it and there is some contouring of the tone, as well as a boost in the power of the signal. This style is non-adjustable.

In others, the pre-amp is mounted inside the guitar, in the area of the soundhole. In some systems you have some ability to adjust the tone of the signal, and/or the volume, but there is not a broad tonal palette which is adjustable.

Some companies offer three and four band pre- amps which can be mounted on the side of the instrument, or plugged into as separate units. For some players, this ability to control the sound and the convenience of having it right at hand is preferred. But there are good reasons for not wanting this type of system as well.

The longer your signal chain, the more circuits you place between your strings and the amp, the further you are getting from the "natural" sound of the box. There is no doubt that a pre-amp gives you more control over the sound of your guitar, and in some onstage situations the ability to contour tone for feedback prevention is essential. While some players are looking for that elusive "natural" sound but louder, others want to play an acoustic in an amplified, band context; so they can compete with other loud instruments but be playing an acoustic.

The bottom line is that Pre-amps give you more control over the tone of your amplified sound, but the least amount of circuitry between the guitar and the amp is likely to provide a more "natural" sound.


Absolutely. no matter what type of system you have, the amplifier also figures into the "sound" of a guitar which is being enhanced by a pickup or microphone. When reproducing acoustic guitar the most transparent (natural) sound is had by a system which gives the least "color" to the signal. Solid state, as opposed to vacuum tube, amplifiers have the potential to provide the most transparent sound, and, to most ears, can produce the most "natural" sound.

It should also be noted that digital technology has advanced such that tonal contouring is a very precise art and, indeed, wholly electronic signals ,even to the most discerning ear, can reproduce a "natural" sound. So there is indeed an argument for forgetting the high end acoustic box and just investing all your cash into a fine digital processor.

Fundamentally, the amplification system is a significant factor in the signal chain, and must be given a high priority if the goal is the "best" sound. But being the first step in the signal chain, the pickup is the most fundamental . The best thing to do is try as many different types of amps with your guitar before settling on one. And these days, there are many amps designed just for reproducing acoustic instruments


In the forgoing article I have tried to provide an over view of the most common concerns related to retro-fitting an acoustic guitar with a pickup. In one sense, it's hard to go wrong these days because there are many high quality pickups on the market, but it is also hard to pick the right one for your needs. Ask these questions as you enter into the fray -Why are you amplifying your guitar and what situations will you be playing in ? How much modification will you accept ? Have you thought out the entire signal chain that you will play through ? Hopefully, this information I have presented will be an aid in deciding which type of pickup is going to best suit your guitar, and your needs.
Steve Carmody has been repairing guitars full-time since 1990. Questions?

Acoustic Guitar Set Up

Lets begin by defining our terms. In the world of guitar repair, the adjustment of the string height on a guitar for optimal playability is called a "set-up". There are three steps in the basic set-up of any guitar. They must be followed, in the order I present them, to achieve optimum performance. In a basic set up we are assuming that structural or fret wear issues either do not exist (as, ideally, in most new guitars) or have already been resolved.


The first step in any guitar set-up is to check and adjust the curve of the neck. We refer to this curvature as the "neck relief".

Most modern guitars have an adjustable neck tension rod installed under the fretboard. Martin guitars made prior to 1985 do not have this feature, and affecting the curve of the neck in these guitars can only be done by a skilled guitar repair technician. For the purpose of this article we are only addressing those guitars with adjustable tension rods.

Here is an easy way to check the curve of the fretboard in the playing area: With the guitar tuned to pitch, hold the guitar in the playing position and depress the low E string at the 14th fret with the index finger of one hand. While keeping the string down on the 14th fret, depress the same string at the first fret with the index finger of your other hand. The bottom of the E string becomes a straight edge. Sight the area under the string around the 5th to 7th frets. If the neck is correctly tensioned there should be a hair breadth of space in the middle of this area between the bottom of the string and the top of the 6th or 7th frets.This gap gradually diminishes to zero as the string reaches the 1st and 14th frets. (I gauge this by eye, but if you were to measure this space it should be no more than 1/64th inch, maximum).You can evaluate the fretboard under each of the strings using this method. It is not unusual to get slightly different readings from string to string, though ideally they are all more or less the same.

On most guitars you can get away with a dead flat fretboard, but a back-bowed neck will surely cause fret rattle. For this reason, most repair techs will adjust for a slight forward bow.

Most guitar truss rods enable a lifting of the neck in the center of the playing area by tightening, or turning clockwise, the truss rod nut. Conversely, loosening the nut allows more flex in this area. “Double action” truss rods actually push in either direction depending on which way the nut is turned.

NOTE: Prerequisite to any neck adjustment, it must be confirmed that the frets are in good condition, seated firmly, and level.

The most misunderstood aspect of guitar set up is the neck adjustment. There is only one proper neck setting parameter – dead flat to slightly forward bowed. Too much forward bow causes excess height in the middle ( generally between frets 5 –9) of the playing area on a guitar with 14 frets to the body, and can also cause what’s called “string rattle” or “fret buzz” from the middle frets up the neck. A back bow can cause fret buzz in the first five frets or so.

All too often, a guitar with high or low action has the neck adjusted by a well meaning person - to "adjust" the action - without paying any attention to the string height at the nut or the saddle. While it is true that adjusting the neck truss rod can affect the action, and sometimes this adjustment is all that is necessary, there is only one correct parameter for the neck setting.If the neck is flat to slightly forward bowed, you have to look elsewhere to affect the string height - the nut or the saddle.

NOTE: Adjusting the neck may need to be done periodically even after a basic set-up has been performed. The exposed wood of the fretboard absorbs and releases moisture as the relative humidity in the environment it is living in changes. 45 – 50 % relative humidity is considered ideal for guitars ( and people). A guitar neck which is dry tends to bow forward, raising the string height above the middle frets. Conversely, a neck which has been over humidified ( for example, if the guitar is outside on a humid summer day), may tend to back bow. Ideally, a guitar is not subjected to these extremes of humidity, but in the real world it happens. Nevertheless, the setting of the neck is only done to place it within the aforementioned “correct parameter” – flat to slightly forward bowed – not to adjust the action.


Once the neck curvature is set, the string height at the nut is checked. With a correct neck curvature, there is one optimal setting for each nut slot. In theory each nut-slot should sit no higher than the preceding fret. Some builders use a “zero” fret, and a nut sits behind the “zero” fret only to guide each string on its path to the tuning peg. On most guitars the string is both guided and height adjusted at the nut. A string which sits too high at the nut can either feel too hard to push down, or even play sharp. At a minimum the string height should be lowered until it intones correctly, and ideally it should be lowered till it also feels comfortable to depress.

If the height of the 1st fret above the fret board is known, a metal gauge ( such as an auto mechanics "feeler" gauge - a strip of metal of a known thickness) of the same height as the existing frets , laid in front of the nut can be used as a guide. With a file of appropriate width, the nut slot is lowered until the file touches the gauge.

Without a gauge, the setting is done by eye. To calculate the appropriate height, depress the string in question between the second and third frets with your middle finger and sight back to the first fret. If the string rises above the first fret more than the thickness of a piece of paper (just a hair) the slot should be lowered until just this amount of gap is apparent. While holding the string down between the second and third frets with the middle finger, the index finger can be used to depress the string at the first fret to discern this gap.

If the string sits on the first fret, while the position between the second and third frets is being held down, the slot is probably too low and the string will probably buzz if plucked “open.”


Once the neck curvature is correct, and the height at the nut is set, ( and never before these steps are taken) the height of the bridge saddle can be set. This adjustment is made by filing or sanding the saddle piece to give the desired height for each string. There is no “correct” height of the strings over the fretboard. Playing style determines the appropriate setting. A light finger-stylist can get away with very low action, whereas a blue grass flat-picker will prefer it quite a bit higher. My “shop setup” for acoustic guitar is generally acceptable for both moderate flat-picking and finger-picking, but favoring neither. As measured at the 12th fret I look for 3/32” between the top of the 12th fret and the bottom of the low E, A, D, &G strings, 2.5/32” at the B and 2/32” at the high E string. Bluegrass players would find this too low, pure finger-pickers would want this dropped a hair. Variables besides style also include the size of the players hands, the right hand picking attack of the player, and their level of experience. New players often want a lower string height to make it easier on their undeveloped fingers, whereas more experienced players may prefer a slightly higher string height.

IMPORTANT NOTE : Even assuming that the mechanical elements of the guitar are correct – the frets are firmly seated and level, the neck is correctly adjusted to near flat and under tension from the truss rod reinforcement, the string slots at the nut are at an acceptable height, the box of the guitar is stable ( no loose bracing), bridge and saddle are stable and correctly fitted - there is still no guarantee that a guitar can be made not to buzz at a given string height over the frets, ( I suppose you could set the strings extremely high over the fretboard by raising the saddle way up). Playing style is the key. Ultimately, how you pluck/drive/attack the strings is the biggest determining factor in whether a given guitar will buzz ( once again assuming correct settings of the neck and nut slots, and level frets). The fact that a particular guitar can be made to buzz reflects nothing about the quality of the guitar or of the set up. If I drive my car such that the tachometer is “redlining” ( reflecting overly high engine rpm’s) for a long enough period of time, the engine will likely fail. But this is not a reflection of the quality of the engine or it’s adjustment, it is a reflection of my driving style. And remember - a quality guitar can be adjusted to fit many playing styles. Also, sometimes, for a given string height, setting a guitar up for slightly heavier strings can make the difference. And when all else fails, if you are getting string rattle and can’t abide by it, just keep raising the string height at the saddle. Eventually, it will go away. Whether the guitar will still be comfortable to play is another story. Ultimately, as with many things in life, compromises must sometimes be made.

Which reminds me of the time renowned Telecaster playing guitar-genius Bill Kirchen came to have his instrument refretted at my shop. This guy can really get around on a guitar, and he uses every note. I looked at his guitar, aghast. Every fret was worn and pitted to what had finally reached ( beyond) a critical stage. When I asked why he hadn’t had the refret done five years ago ( when it surely would have been justified) he just said – “Well I just kept working around all the wear…” Just goes to show you that ones attitude has a lot to do with what is or is not acceptable in a guitar.


That’s it. Three basic steps in the set-up of an acoustic guitar. They must be done in this order: neck then nut then saddle. If the neck curvature is off, it won’t help to adjust the saddle or the nut slot heights. If the strings are high at the nut, lowering the saddle will never get you where you want to be. Neck, nut, saddle. Neck, nut, saddle. Neck, nut, saddle...…

Steve Carmody has set up thousands of guitars. He has worked full-time doing guitar repair since 1990. Questions? -