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The “Setup”… NAMM 2013 Viewpoint

Hello Troubadourians! We’re going to postpone our discussion of how do deal with resonance and improving our tone until next month. As many of you know, the NAMM show is held in Anaheim every year at the end of January. This is where manufacturers in the music industry show off all of their new products. Most of what I saw was evolutionary rather than revolutionary – which is to be expected – and there are always those things that make me ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Or, “Why did anyone think of that?” The NAMM show is an opportunity to test the health of the music industry in general and the builders, manufacturers, and distributors in particular. I am forever grateful for the creative souls who are bold enough to think their way is better and back up their claims by putting their name on the headstocks and faceplates of their creations. Sometimes we place too much emphasis on the “genius” of the particular individual whose name we revere and too often forget that for a name to endure, there has to be a team of equally genius individuals who support the name and keep the business active and relevant, sometimes even long after the name has passed from this earth. I think we need to thank them too. Amen.

But what about all the gear!? OK, OK, there was a ton of gear at the show, most of it as beautiful and beguiling as always. And while I am personally attracted to $10k+ archtop guitars – of which there were several – for the sake of this column I have to be on the lookout for items that I think would benefit the majority of performing musicians in the San Diego scene. I’m always on the lookout for what I describe as a “utility guitar.” By that I mean a guitar that sounds and feels like an acoustic guitar but that has many of the plug and play advantages of an electric guitar. To date, the closest I’ve come to finding that ideal is Taylor’s excellent, and now legendary, T5 series. These guitars, however, really lean more electric than acoustic (they are listed under the “electric” heading on the Taylor website), and can seem less “organic” than an acoustic guitar to some players. This year, I found an alterative to the T5 that may be more interesting to acoustic players; the SA and SAT series guitars by Crafter Guitars. While technically not a new introduction, these Korean-made beauties appear at first glance to be T5 clones, an observation by me that seemed to offend the Crafter rep. These guitars are acoustic guitars first with arched tops and an unplugged acoustic sound that I could hear above the din of the show. The SA is the more traditionally acoustic of the two sisters but both the SA and SAT have L.R. Baggs saddle pickups and preamps in addition to their magnetic pickup (lipstick – SA, P90 – SAT). I wasn’t able to listen to the guitars through an amp but the Baggs system should accentuate the acoustic properties of both models. I was disappointed that the guitars were strung with what seemed to be a standard gauge set (10 – 46) of electric strings. Meh.

But there is one thing that captured my attention more than any gadget or “toy” that was on display. The fit and finish of virtually every guitar on display at every booth and at every price range was amazingly excellent. Gleaming, well-shaped frets and comfortable necks were the norm rather than the exception throughout the show. However, I found that the setup of these otherwise excellent guitars to be lacking and sometimes almost unplayable. High-end or low-end, it didn’t matter, as it seemed to me that most of the acoustic guitars on display felt stiff and unfriendly. (The electric guitars weren’t much better…). It just bothers me whether I spent $300 or $3000, I still need to spend another $150 or so to make my new guitar playable. Meh, again.

So what is a good setup for a guitar? The specific measurements for string height at the nut and bridge, the “relief” of the neck (how much “bow” there is), and the gauge of strings used, can be as individual as the guitar or player wants or needs. I believe that attempting to quantify empirically what constitutes a generic good setup yields only a generic setup, which to me is a waste of time and money. A better way is to define what performance we require from a setup. For acoustic and electric guitars, you should be able to play a full barre F chord at the first fret and it should be in tune. The fretted note at the twelfth fret should be in tune with the harmonic. For acoustic guitars, you should be able to capo as high as the fifth fret without the guitar being noticeably out of tune. (Electric guitars should be in tune even with a capo at the seventh fret, if you must…). When pressing and holding either E string at the first fret and where the neck joins the body, there should be almost no gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the frets. Caution: If there is a large gap, the guitar will be difficult to play – and out of tune – in the higher positions. Likewise, if there is no gap at all, the neck may have a “reverse bow.” Both conditions require a truss rod adjustment to fix the problem. So, who can set up your guitar? I polled my local Facebook musician friends and these are their recommendations – in no particular order: The Repair Zone (Fred Marotta), Andy’s Guitars (Andy Greenburg), Moze Guitars, James Hood Guitar Service, Buffalo Brothers Guitars, and Top Gear Pro Shop. Whoever you choose, take the time to sit down with the luthier who is going to do the work and describe how you expect the guitar to play as well as what you don’t like about how it is currently playing. It will be time – and money – well spent.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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