April 2nd is another Rockin’ Tuesday Night Jam at the Spinning Jenny. The first Rockin’ Tuesday Night was a big success, so from now on the Spinning Jenny will be hosting an open jam the second Tuesday of the month.
Back in February I posted an article offering three tips to prepare for playing at an open jam. This time I’d like to talk about one thing you can do to make sure you can play the open jam with confidence that your gear won’t fail you.
Get your guitar or bass setup by a good guitar tech or luthier at least twice per year. While learning to setup your own instrument isn’t all that difficult, it can a lot more involved than many people realize. Even though there is nothing mystical about getting a guitar or bass to play well, it often takes a well-trained eye to identify and deal with certain issues properly. A good setup often involves a lot more than just adjusting the neck relief and bridge height. So, if you’re not already well practiced at setting up your own guitar, take it to a professional.
I have seen lots of players really undervalue having their guitars well setup. When they finally have the work done, they are often amazed at the difference. There are some real benefits getting a professional setup.
Better Playability and Tone: A well adjusted guitar or bass will simply be easier to play because the action can be adjusted as low as possible without getting any string buzz, allowing for cleaner articulation. A good guitar tech will also be able to customize the specifications of the setup to fit your individual playing style. Some players can get away with super low action, and some need and even prefer their action to be a little higher than normal.
Better Intonation: If you tune your strings to pitch, and you find that when you play chords they sound out of tune, it means your guitar isn’t intonating well—it’s not playing in tune with itself. This can be caused by excessively high action, improperly adjusted bridge saddles, pickup height, or a combination of all three.
You can easily check to see if your guitar needs to be intonated. Using a digital tuner, tune each string to pitch. Play a harmonic at the 12th fret. That harmonic should be in tune. If it’s not, tune the guitar until it is. Then fret the same string on the 12th fret. The fretted note and the harmonic should both be in tune. If the fretted note is either a little sharp or a little flat, something is off with the intonation, and it needs to be adjusted.
Until you’re well versed in setting up a guitar, take it to a professional. Correcting the intonation may require multiple adjustments. Excessively high action will cause the string to stretch far enough when playing to pull the string out of tune. The magnetic field from pickups that are adjusted too close to the strings will pull on the strings causing them to play out of tune. If the position of the bridge saddles fore and aft on the bridge are off, the guitar will play out of tune. A good setup will check and address all of these factors.
Having your guitar professionally setup is crucial to getting the most out of playing with others. Before you go to play an open jam, make sure your guitar or bass is well setup. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to play with other musicians only to sound lousy because your instrument is poorly adjusted.
If you want to learn more about doing your own setup work, I highly recommend Dan Erelewine’s Maintenance for Electric Guitars and Basses video series available from StewMac.
To get a better idea of some of the intricacise of setting up an instrument, check out this video of Dan Erlewine adjusting the neck on an old P-Bass.