Texas-Luthier.com is Jim Penson, bluegrass musician, instructor, and luthier.
  • What is a Set Up?  

    Whether you bought your instrument from a store, and online shop, or a friend, there's a good chance it hasn't been set up properly. When manufacturers ship instruments, for example, they set the string action failry high at both the bridge and the nut so as to guarantee no string buzzes. Almost all factory instruments come this way, and they can be fairly unplayable. Bridges are often not fit properly to mandolin tops, necks may have too much bow in them. Following is a list of items that may have to be addressed with your new instrument:

    1) String height. The goal is to get the strings as close to the fingerboard as possible without causing them to buzz. This can be a function of both the nut and the bridge.

    2) Neck relief: Relief is the term used to describe the amount of bow in a neck. Many people mistakenly think that a fingerboard should be completely flat. And they can be, but running low action on a flat fingerboard is a good way to introduce string buzz. A string moves when struck, and it "swings" most in the middle. Therefore, some relief has to be put into the neck to account for this and still allow for low string action. This is accomplished by adjusting the truss rod.

    3) Tailpiece adjustment (banjos): I believe, and it has been my experience, that a sharp angle from the front of the tailpiece to the back of the bridge produces the greatest tone in a banjo.

    4) Nut and Saddle issues (guitar): Guitars have a two piece bridge system consisting of a saddle (the wood piece glued flat to the top) and the bridge, usually made of bone, but often plastic, that the strings ride on. Poor fitting bridges can cause tilting which can effect tone. Also, not slots are often not cut properly, and can produce either a muffled sound or a buzz.

    5) Strings: Most new instruments ship with medium gauge strings. I firmly believe that any banjo can be improved by simply putting light gauge strings on it. I prefer and install GHS J D Crowe P-140 Studio Lights. I've been using them myself for over 30 years.

    6) Head tension (Banjo): Heads are often too loose when shipped. There is not "right" tension for all banjos, and some folks even use a tap tuning method for tensioning the head. The method I use is simply to experiment with head tension until it plays and sounds the best.

    The base cost for a setup is 40.00 which includes new strings. Typically, a set up will involve some manipulation of the nut, bridge and neck truss rod. Nut slot checking and lubrication, tuner adjustment (tension), tailpiece adjustment, and a general going through looking for a good fit of all components.

    It's important to note that there is a large personal preference issue. There is no one perfect setup for a banjo, for instance. People will want different sounds from a banjo from a tubby, wooden sound, to a bright metallic sound. This is taken into consideration when a setup is done.

    Should I encounter any issue with an instrument while doing a setup, I will notifiy you and we can come up with a plan of attack. On rare occasions, instruments have had to be shipped back for manufacturing flaws. Sometimes things will break in shipping.