Why Are Guitars Set Up So Badly From the Factory?

I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about guitars, and why they come from the factory with such BAD setups. I seem to discuss it all the time with clients, especially when I’ve just set up their brand new guitar and the difference is massive.

Seriously. The action is always too high at the bridge. The action is always too high at the nut. The neck usually has far too much relief (bend) in it.

These factors add up to make a guitar that is nowhere CLOSE to being as nice to play as it possibly could be. Given that guitar manufacturers are in the business of selling guitars, and given that guitar buyers usually play guitars before they buy them, why don’t the manufacturers set them up really well to make sure THEIR guitars are the best in the shop?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this, and the first is that guitars are set up to have a cushion of safety in them. If I set up a guitar with a super low action and a straight neck and export it from the far east (or the USA/Mexico) on a plane/ship to Europe, the guitar is likely to experience some change in temperature/humidity on its travels. If this cased the neck to “shift” a bit (i.e. bend a little), and that bend meant the neck going even straighter (or over-straight) then the strings could start choking on the frets. When a guitar is set up low, it can’t deal as well with changes of neck straightness, and the last thing a guitar retailer wants is a guitar that comes out of the box with strings that are flat on the frets. So that’s reason #1. Margin of error.

I think the second reason is time and money. I have read that a cheap guitar comes out of a Chinese factory costing something like £25. Once the exporter adds their bit, that guitar costs the wholesaler £50. Then the distributer adds their cut and the guitar costs £100. Then the retailer adds theirs and that guitar is now £200 on the shelves at your local guitar store.

Now, let’s say that a PROPER setup takes an hour, and that a Chinese worker is paid £2 for that hour. That hour will cost the employer £3, and that £3 is added onto the £25 cost of the guitar to make a guitar that leaves the factory at £28. By the time it’s been passed along to the retailer as in the last example, that guitar is now on the shelves at £224 – over 10% increase in cost. I’m thinking that margins are so low after all costs are taken into account that a 10% increase in build cost isn’t acceptable if the shelf price is to stay at that magic £200 mark? Maybe.

So the upshot of all this is that nearly every new guitar I see (and this includes expensive ones as well!) needs a setup to play anywhere near to the best it can, and the difference that can be made is often quite staggering. Given that a VERY high percentage of guitars that are made (Fender sold over a million alone in 2021) must NEVER see a guitar tech or have a proper setup, that’s an awful lot of guitarists that are struggling to play guitars that quite frankly, play like shit. Guitars with unnecessarily high actions. Guitars that intonate badly. Guitars that are a pain to keep in tune.

And another thing. Never believe a big-box retailer that tells you that all of their guitars are set up before sale. I’ve had my hands on plenty of guitars where this was claimed to have happened, and, well. It really had NOT. Setup time is just not part of their business model. It’s part of MINE.

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