I hope you’re all well.
Want to set-up your own guitar/bass? Want it to play better? Wondering what all of those terms like truss rod, action and intonation mean? Don’t worry; you’re not alone.
When I picked up the guitar, I was (and rightly so) ignorant to the idea of setting up a guitar so that it was as easy to play. As my skills and ear developed though, I found that I wanted to know what the technical terms meant, and why my acoustic guitar buzzed when I fretted certain notes and so on.
Over the years I’ve accumulated quite a bit of basic knowledge. Recently though, and thanks to the fantastic book by Dan Erlewine and a fret levelling kit (amongst other things) from gmchandcraftedguitars.com, I have built on my knowledge and would like to share a few basic terms and things you can do to improve your guitar’s set-up. As I learn more, I’ll post more. Deal? Sweet. In this part we’ll look at what a set-up is, as well as learn how to change strings the correct way on an acoustic guitar.
1) What is a set-up?
Number one was going to be how to change strings, and though that’s one of the best tasks you can learn to do yourself, it really falls under the whole idea of ‘setting up’ a guitar.
A guitar set-up simply means that a number of maintenance tasks are carried out prior to and post changing the strings in order to get it to sound and play the best it can in regard to your playing style. Remember: the easier a guitar is to play and the sweeter sound, the more rewarding your experience will be when playing it. A set-up usually consists of:
When you consider all of the different types of guitar out there, such as electric guitars with tremolos, archtop guitars and so on, you can see how this might get interesting!
Anyway, let’s keep things as simple for now and let’s learn how to re-string an acoustic guitar.
2) How to re-string an acoustic guitar
Re-stringing an electric guitar is generally easier than an acoustic. Why? Because whereas most electrics have fixed metal bridges/tailpieces that hold the ball end of the string in place. An acoustic relies on a wooden bridge and removable bridge pins that hold the ball end of the string in place. In short, it’s more fiddly and easier to get wrong.
You will need:
a) A guitar
b) A new set of strings
c) Clean rags/polishing cloth
d) A pair of metal snippers/pliers
Optionally: lemon oil, 0000 wire wool, metal cleaner/polish (I use my Zildjian cymbal polish - it’s excellent on frets!) and a compact mirror with a light.
Step 1 - Remove the old strings
Loosen the strings until you can unwind them from the tuning pegs and slide them out of the slots. Be careful here not to scratch the gloss/wood on your head stock. Next, turn your attention to the bridge. Six or twelve bridge pins (12 if a 12 stringer) will be holding the strings in place. First, see if you can pull the bridge pins out with your fingers. If this fails, pull the strings to one side, stick your hand in the soundhole and under the bridge pins. Using your fingers, push the pins out one by one. Try to avoid using pliers if you can. Set the pins to one side and discard all but one of the thicker strings (you’ll see why in a bit).
Step 2 - Cleaning / oiling
Once the strings are off, inspect the fretboard and the bridge and make sure everything’s in good shape. Also inspect the bridge pins to make sure they’re in good nick. If you have an open grain fretboard (rosewood, ebony etc), get some lemon oil (widely sold), and give the neck a couple of squirts and work in in using a rag. Clean the fretboard and the groove between the fret and the fingerboard using your rag and oil you sprayed. Next, spray some on a clean part of the rag and clean the bridge (again only if a wood like rosewood).
As an aside, lemon oil isn’t actually oil from a lemon - they add the lemon scent in!
Either leave the excess oil to soak in and nourish the wood or clean it off with a clean rag. Next, I like to give the frets a polish. 0000 wire wool is great for this, but if you don’t have any of that, and you don’t have any metal cleaner around, a clean rag is better than nothing! If you have wire wool and a rosewood board, rub the frets horizontally. Don’t use wire wool on maple boards without masking off the fretboard first as the wool may scratch the finish.
Now I like to clean the rest of the guitar. Glass cleaner is excellent on polyurethane/gloss type finishes. These finishes seem resistant to just about anything and glass cleaner leaves a streak free, shiny finish. On natural wood guitars, damp a rag with warm water (not too much!) and give the wood a wipe down removing any dust under where the strings would have been. Don’t use anything other than a clean, damp rag on natural finishes and make sure it’s not too wet.
Use common sense when applying lemon oil. A little goes a long way and you might not necessarily need to use it every time you change strings. If the fingerboard is a light shade of brown and appears dry, give it some lemon oil.
Step 3 - Secure the strings at the bridge end first
Under the bridge is a bridge pad. This is a piece of wood glued to the bottom of the bridge to add strength. It also houses the ball end of string which is held against it using the bridge pins. The ball end of the string should end up fitting snuggly in the groove of the bridge pin, up against the bridge pad. There’s no excess string under the bridge - they’re up tight against the pad in the groove of the bridge pin slot. See this illustration:
Many techs like to add a curve to the string at the ball at this point or even wrap it round some dowel for some serious curve so that the string slides over the bridge and sits nicely on the bridge pad. You can do this by holding the string and bridge pin so that recessed part of the ball end is facing you. You can then loosely wrap ball end of the string round your finger to add a curve. Note that you don’t want to kink the string here - just add a natural curve in its form.
If you have the mirror as mentioned earlier, stick it under the bridge so you can sight the bridge pad by looking at the mirror through the sound hole. Stick the ball end of the string in the hole making sure the ball end is vertical and the ‘O’ of the ball end is horizontal.
Make sure that the ball end ‘winding’ is out of sight in the hole. Whilst holding the string in the hole with your left hand, grab a bridge pin with your right hand and insert it in the hole. Don’t push it all the way yet - just push it enough to hold the string where it is.
Now, whilst using your mirror, make sure the ball end is in the groove and is up against the bridge pad. You might need to fiddle a bit but you’ll get there. Once it’s there, push the pin in so it’s snug and holding the string in. What we don’t want is to tune up to pitch and have the string windings at the ball end digging into the bridge or slipping up from the pad up through the bridge. Generally if you’ve got the ball end where it should be there’s no string to slip through.
I’ve noticed on some budget guitars that the winding shows whether you like it or not. This is usually because the bridge and pad depth isn’t enough. In this instance the strings will only slip come what may, so I’d put up with it and get yourself a better guitar when you can.
Next we turn our attention to the tuning pegs at the head stock. There are quite a few methods to stringing the guitar at the tuning post, but I like the method whereby you put the string through the post, loop it over itself, then tighten her up so that two or three winds trap the string in place. Here’s how we do it:
Tip: use the string you saved earlier to practice the technique outlined below. If necessary, and if the original wind makes it difficult, cut the string so you have a straight bit to play with.
a) Turn the tuning peg so the holes are vertical. Put the string through the hole and draw it all the way through so there’s no slack.
b) With your left hand holding the string you’ve fed through the peg, use the right hand to pull some slack (about two frets worth) back through the hole.
c) Now, using the slack you’ve pulled back, you want to bring the slack up and around to the right of the tuning peg, trapping the string that you poked through the hole in part a. Once you’ve done this, pull the string tight with your right hand, then kink the excess up with your left hand.
d) Now, whilst keep the string tight with your right hand, turn the peg counter clockwise. You’ll see the string gets trapped under the two or three winds (you may want/need to supervise the second wind so it goes under the string and traps it)
e) Bring the string slowly up to pitch. Once done, get your snippers/pliers and trim the excess string back
f) Repeat these steps for the A and D strings (the top three thickest strings). When you do the bottom three, the G, B and E, you’ll want to bring the loop round the left of the tuning post and turn the tuner counter-clockwise.
(Note that the string here is not the high E and is used just to illustrate the concept! Your string will be a lot thinner than the one here).
Once you’ve done this and snipped off the ends, you can bring the strings up to pitch and play them in. Installing the strings in this way will ensure that your guitar sounds better (the strings are anchored correctly at the bridge end transmitting all of the tone to the body/soundboard), stays in tune better and avoids irritating string slippage that naws away at the bridge.
Next up we’ll see how to change strings on different types of electric guitar and bass guitar.
I wanted to write a bit about visualisations and how they can help people with chronic illnesses and people who want to improve their lives.
I’ve delved into a few books recently that talk about visualisations as being one of the primary methods of regaining health and stability in our lives (The Power of The Mind to Heal, J & M Borysenko, and How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body, David R Hamilton). Both books quote numerous studies and testimonies that go some way to proving the mind->body connection, and how that if we choose to believe and tell ourselves we’re healthy, the body will respond.
As an aside, I recently came across The Lightning Process. For those who don’t know, TLP is a course that focuses on freeing the body of pain by essentially telling the subconscious that you’re free of any illness. Ok, that’s a really superficial overview, but it all points to the same thing: pull yourself out of the mental, “I’m sick rut”, and you’ll improve.
I’ve been practicing many visualisations for about a month now. You’ve got to do it regularly, and really sink into what you’re visualising. You’ll also find that it’s actually a very calming, spiritual and relaxing thing to do. I’m not into meditating, but I get the feeling visualisation gives you the same feeling.
Here’s one you can try:
- The secluded fresh water pool and waterfall
Imagine that it’s a blisteringly hot day. You’re walking along a path when all of a sudden you start to here the splash of water. Birds fly overhead, the sun beats down. You continue on the trail. All the while the splashing gets louder. As you come into the clearing, you see a powerful and high waterfall pouring its contents into a fresh water pool. First you decide to go for a paddle. As you enter the water, a burst of energy goes up through your foot and disseminates itself throughout your body. You suddenly feel more alert, more energised. You look at your skin and find that it radiates. Any cuts on bruises you’ve sustained fade away in front of your eyes.
This feels good, you think, so you decide to take a swim in the pool. You strip off and edge towards the end of the rock that drops away into the deep pool. You decide to dive in. As you do the cold water hits your skin. It invigorates your mind and body. Any and all skars, mental pain, physical pain and illnesses are healed. As you descend into the pool until your natural motion reduces, you head up to the surface. You take a big gulp of air and feel the strength and vitality run through you.
This is a great visualisation to do, and one you can elaborate on. Hell - you could moonwalk on the water if that’s what you want to do :)
Give them a go and really believe that you’re regaining health and strength. Good luck!
I’ve been meaning to post this for ages…
One of my sporting icons was Lance Armstrong. I watched all of his tours when I was younger, I read his books, I bought his DVD, I believed he was clean. I was wrong.
Last week as I’m sure you will know, Lance confessed to Oprah that he had taken banned substances not just once, but throughout his career. He admitted controlling and bullying people in the process. Anyone that stepped out and claimed he doped during his career felt the full wrath of Armstrong.
I was left not upset or surprised, but rather angry that someone can mislead and lie for the greater part of their life. Not just to lie, but to live in that lie, to continually deny that he was doping, and probably the worst offense: point to his cancer ordeal as a reason NOT to dope.
From what I understand, it was the culture of the sport to dope then. I daresay many of the riders were on something or other - maybe just to get through the Tour let alone compete to win the thing. Is that much of an excuse though? Presumably a lover of the Tour and a lover of cycling like Armstrong could have competed clean and not doped. Who knows. It’s easy for me to sit in my armchair and point the finger, but what is irrefutable is that Armstrong doped and lied for literally years.
I believe that Armstrong should name everyone involved his doping ring and they should be brought to justice. I also believe that Armstrong should not be made eligible to compete professionally again. Only then can cycling move out of the shadow he has cast over it.
I was only in the pub with the band playing a New Year’s gig last night, when caught saying something like: “I don’t make resolutions - you can make changes at any time of the year…”
As you can tell, I’m not really one for resolutions, but when a bad habit happens too often, and you’re aware enough to realise that you can break that habit, that’s a good point right there to do something about it.
My overriding feeling/emotion/whatever you want to call it, in 2012, has been anxiety. For people that haven’t suffered from it in an acute form, it’s such a difficult thing to explain. People always think there’s a reason why you feel it, but sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes it comes on out of nowhere and is really hard to shift. You just have to wait it out more often than now.
Therefore, my first resolution for 2013 is to work on overriding the feeling when it comes, and to generally worry less about everyday things that I have no power over.
My second resolution is to really make 2013 a great year musically. This means working with more musicians, singers and writers. Writing more of my own music, continuing my journey on guitar, bass, drums and singing. Maybe even take up a new instrument.
I want 2013 to be the year I look back on in the future and say that’s the year it happened. The work starts now.
Good luck with your resolutions if you’ve made any, and make 2013 the year it happened for you too.