I’ve tried for years to understand what my real needs are in terms of getting the action right on my guitars. Most importantly, I’ve wanted to set the intonation properly on my instruments. It’s been an often frustrating journey, and I’ve spent years in a somewhat harsh wasteland of less than optimally set up guitars. Luckily for me Fingerpicking Whiz ‘Little’ Stevie Coyle advised me to get over to a little shop in Tiburon, CA for to avail myself of the “Schoenberg Set-up”.
For more on Eric Schoenberg, read my recent post about his shop and his unparalleled custom-made guitars. What I didn’t mention in that post, is that the Schoenberg guitar shop is also a repair shop and that they specialize in setting up guitars for fingerstyle playing.
But first, what is ‘a guitar set up?’ What is meant by ‘action‘ and what is ‘intonation‘?
One of the hardest things to determine when shopping for a guitar is how the piece you are playing in a store would feel if it were ‘set up’ properly, instead of being shown to you in whatever state it happens to be–either how it was received from the factory or how the last owner happened to leave it. Unlike many shops, at Schoenberg’s the guitars all appear to be properly set-up or at least to have had gotten some TLC before being hung on the wall. The result is that, as you sample different instruments in the store, they all have a continuity of feel and you are not distracted trying to compensate for different action on each piece. In most large guitar stores, and many smaller ones, if you are trying out a new guitar, it will be shown to you without being ‘set up’. It will have a blank saddle and nut that are dialed only to a baseline setting; the ‘action’–the height of the strings from the neck will be very high, up to 7/32″. While this may require little adjustment for a professional bluegrass flat-picker, most of us mere mortals, or those who play fingerstyle or more sensitive music, will need lower action.
The mystery of the right action on the fretboard plagued me for years. Action is one of those things many guitarists seek without knowing what they really want or need. And try to get from a technician who–in your particular case–doesn’t know either. They know what they like, or what works on the guitars and styles they’re familiar with. One of the things I learned after years of frustration is: if you want correct intonation on an acoustic, you need a tech who knows acoustics. And if you want correct intonation for fingerstyle, you need a tech who gets fingerstyle. A tech who only plays electric guitar or acoustic rock probably won’t get what you need, or know how to deliver it. Another scourge mankind is subjected to are the legions of well-meaning guitar store ‘technicians’ who, on hearing you’re concerned about your action, will joyfully pop that little plate off your guitar neck and start doing esoteric things to the truss rod with a little wrench and periodically peering pensively down the length of the neck like a gypsy fortune-teller reading tea leaves. This is a wrong-headed approach. Meanwhile, you shuffle from foot to foot, a little anxious and feeling ignorant, until they hand you the guitar and ask “what do you think?” The usual result for me is I think it buzzes or ‘splatters‘–either the string hits the fretboard in one spot along the neck, and creates a metallic buzzing sound, or the fretboard splatters, where the strings encounter the frets in so many spots on the neck the sound is virtually cutting out. In folk blues fingerpicking you’re plucking individual strings with more intensity than strumming in the manner the tech in question is probably more used to. Even if he or she fingerpicks the guitar, it’s likely they are doing it in the way that is much softer, without emphasis and dynamics someone who has focused on the technique is looking for. At this point, a little disconcerted, they will have to back off (undo) some of the great ‘relief‘–the amount of bend–they have proudly put in the neck. Now attention focuses on the saddle, the proper place to adjust action, and in the attempt to achieve an impossible electric guitar-like action, the saddle will get chopped down to where the resulting string height is closer to 2/32″, usually reintroducing the buzz and splatter, and the need for more relief–while destroying the guitar’s full tone. About now they are getting annoyed with you, not understanding why your action should be any more special than anyone else’s. Meanwhile, nothing has been done about the intonation–how in tune each string is when fretted. The above comedy resulted in me playing for years with: action too low, strings buzzing at certain frets, and worst of all, loss of tone. I also played on too light a gauge of strings for far too long. I realized some years ago I need a 12 on the high E to get the sound I want for fingerstyle, and now I get that I need a little higher action than I was trying to get. How did I figure this out?
Enter the Schoenberg set-up. In the next post, I’ll recount the experience of receiving the Intonation of the Gods from the wizards at the Shoenberg Guitar shop.