Hi Everyone,
New to this forum & thank you in advance for reading this question.  I wish to move towards doing guitar setups and simple repairs when I retire from my Home Automation/Technology company in the near future and want to learn all I can.  Will move out west to live the dream and want something that interests me to do with some free time.  I've been around guitars for 40 yrs now & just love about everything guitars (except paying for them). 

As I pick up guitars, either electric or acoustic to play, it just amazes me on the vast differences in ease of playing between them. All my guitars are "setup" to about the best they can be with the action, relief, and strings for me to play. Also, NONE of them vary much in the specs of the above "setup" with string height, nuts, relief etc.

What vexes me is this, a cheaper guitar, quickly made, lesser materials yadda yadda, often "outplays" my bigger (sometimes WAY bigger) ticket gits. Now I'm only talking about playability, not factoring in sound as the bigger buck ones (esp in acoustics) just blow the cheaper one away in that arena.

For an example, an Epi Hummingbird vs. a Gibson Hummingbird. On the Acoustics, string height is at or under 5/64" (Low E) & 4/64" (High E) @ the 12th fret. Lower on the Electrics, maybe 4/64 & 3/64. I haven't had all the frets leveled & polished. All have the same brand 11's strings as well (acoustics, 10's on Electrics).

I really do want to understand what you all know and have come to with experience. I don't know what I'm missing. I have some dups in Epi vs Gibson that I'm comparing. Also, if I have the chance to play a guitar that someone else owns vs one of mine not necessary same model even. Just me maybe but I find that my Ric's, Gretsch's & Fenders are my best players in Electrics compared to my Gibson's or Epiphone's. Only exception is my Casino Elitist. It plays wonderful. My Epiphone's somehow to me anyway outplay my Gibson's.

Again, what am I missing and where should I start looking to get playing better. They've been into one of the finest Luthiers in the Midwest for setups on all the bigger $$$ gits even. Very frustrated with the performance as I, maybe wrongfully, expect the big buck stuff to play AT LEAST as well as the cheap stuff.

Still, this is somewhat of an enigma to me. I just can't seem to understand with all the "indicators" being much the same on the gits, why the big buck stuff, that SOUNDS great, are more of a struggle to play vs. my cheap seat stuff.

Thanks again for any guidance or suggestions to check or understand.


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Make up a spreadsheet in excel and compare the following among all your guitars:

Scale length, nut width, nut slot spacing, string spacing at the bridge, neck radius, neck thickness at #1 & #12, fret height and width, string height over #1, #12 & @22, relief @#7.

Get a profile gauge and trace neck shapes for comparison.

After looking at all the data, you'll have a better idea about what works for you.

What he said. There are a ton of personal preferences and needs as well. For instance, where is your thumb when you play? Depending on where it is, you might want a certain thickness of neck. How do you use your fingers for things like barre chords? If you use the tips, or if you mash down your finger to cover three strings at once, also makes a difference.

I'm always shocked at how comfortable my Seagull 12 string is to play, then I realize how wide the neck is and how that supports my gigantic hands. (6'5" people need some pretty wide necks.) The setup seems to make a huge difference.

If you are looking at some used guitars of value, lets say the used guitars in the more valuable acoustic room at Guitar Center, realize that many of those guitars might be on the block because they are difficult to play, perhaps needing a neck reset, saddle work, braces reglued, all kinds of issues that make them unplayable. I've run into my share of baby boomers who sold their older guitars because they were getting hard to play, and were blaming their age, when it was the guitar that was becoming more difficult. They don't sell the guitars AFTER they have been worked on, but when they are just a pain to play. Kind of like selling a used car - you might not be ripping someone off, but are you really going to get the engine and tranny overhauled and new tires put on the day before you sell it?

Mark speaks gold here. You'll learn a lot about your personal tastes by doing this. For a given player, these ideal parameters may vary widely. I make one-of-a-kind guitars, on order basis, and I never do two times the same neck/frets/setup/etc...

Hello Jack & welcome to the forum.

In addition to being a tech for 35 years, I've played professionally full & part-time for over 45 years.  I feel qualified to add to this discussion.

Here are some facts to keep in mind:

No two instruments are the same when it comes to feel & playability.

The "playability" of a guitar is the sum of all its manufacturing quality, its parts, their geometry & the way they're adjusted.

A higher cost does not necessarily equate to a "better" guitar.

Different brands & types of strings greatly affect the feel of a guitar.

The quest for the "right" instrument is never ending and in a constant state of evolution.

Humidity & the environment have a major and oft overlooked affect on an instrument's playability.

Not every guitar is "for" every person.

Let me expand on that last one.  I love Fender style instruments.  They have a 25.5" scale.  I've come to the conclusion that the longer scale (compared to Gibson's 24.75" scale) decreases the comfort factor TO ME.

I also enjoy the sound of a Dreadnaught acoustic but.....I prefer the way a 000 size body feels.

I have definite preferences when it comes to neck shape, FB radius, frets, scale length, pickups, electronics, tuning keys & woods.  These have EVOLVED after decades of using the instrument as a tool of my trade.

I've gone through dozens of working guitars only to end up owing four primary instruments that, in retrospect, surprise me.

So today, my "surviving" guitars have the elements I have come to enjoy & feel comfortable with and with responses that are predictable and controllable.  Essentially, I allowed my guitars pick me. 

And....the way my guitars play are absolutely perfect for me but may be gawd-awful to anyone else.

The first thing I urge you to do is to play as many different individual instruments as you can until you find one that you feel meets your specifications. Then, record the guitar's setup spec's and note what elements you like about that instrument. You now have a "goal" for all future guitar choices.

Also, I've found that players' preferences change over time, so what floated your boat 5 years ago may be completely wrong for your current expectations.

In summary, there is no definitive answer to your question.  It's an ongoing quest of man vs. machine wrapped in a love/hate relationship.

Some folks buy guitars that they think are "cool" only to find their quirks (and ALL guitars have quirks) aren't for them.

And the Epi vs. Gibson thing:  Sorry that you had to learn that one the hard way.

Now...for the REAL answer:

Q."What makes a guitar a "Great Player?"

A. The person playing it.

Best of luck,


Thanks for the suggestions.  I understand about the name not making the Guitar good.  I just don't care for the "sound" of my Epi's vs the Gibson.  As I'm getting older, I'm finding that my fretting of the guitar is more fatiguing on several of them.  I have a wonderful new J-45 Custom and Dove (both Gibson's) and both are more difficult to fret than I have in my head they should be.  Maybe I just need to eat more "Spinach" and get me forearms like Popeye?  :-)  I was just wondering if there were any technical fixes that should be double checked and possible corrected to get the Dove & J-45 playing as great as both sound. 

Thanks again, and thanks for the welcome!!


Are the Dove and J-45 from the era of pathologically skinny and narrow necks? I find it really hard to play guitar on what is essentially a fretted pencil...

It's unfortunately impossible to do a detailed analysis without having the guitar(s) right in front of us.

Jack, what you are seeking is what I call a personalized setup.  I encourage you to take your instruments to an experienced tehcnician and have them customize the action for you. This involves the tech watching YOU play the guitar, evaluating the issues and then making many incremental adjustments until the "playability" suits your liking. The guitar will be passed back & forth many, many times.

Having the player right there to "dial in" the guitar to their liking is a set up guy's dream.

You see, each guitar must be individually evaluated.  Other than maxims like "Replace broken and unrepairable parts.", there are no cut & dried "universal fixes" for guitars. They all, of course, have to perform within the laws of physics, but the variable that cannot be formulated on a simple scale, is the player. Every guitar is different and each player expects different things from each different guitar. It's the interaction between the player and the guitar that determines the technical spec's.

I guess what I'm trying to say is; forget about the differences between the instruments and work on getting each one set up the way YOU want them.

Like I always say: Builders build them & then technicians perfect them.

I'm sure that after a custom/personalized setup that you'll be "enjoying" those beautiful instruments in no time flat.

Best of luck.

The difference between a great playing cheap guitar and a crappy playing expensive guitar is in the SETUP.

Nut slots, relief, saddle heights, consistency in the radius of the saddles, consistency in the nut slots. fret work.

All these things come together as ONE

If someone says

"i want my action lower"

you cant "just" lower the action. All the elements of setup work together. So the customer "needs" a complete setup with lower action being the "goal"

Now all that said, I personally believe that CONSISTENCY is key

A customer brought me a Martin HD-28 with factory setup.

Complaint was that the guitar was TOO STIFF. Hard to fret chords at the first couple frets.

I re-slotted the nut (was very inconsistent in slot heights) and took 1/32" off the saddle.

The difference in action height was barely discernible, however when he took it out of the case his jaw dropped and he said it was "WAY LOWER" which was not true. It just felt much better and now was butter soft.

He called to say he was re-recording three songs because the guitar just didn't feel "right" before.

What does this mean?

Nut slots are KEY for one.

Action height alone tells you nothing.

Any change to a guitars geometry affects all other aspects of it's geometry. (to a degree)

AND, sometimes, a guitar may only "need" one simple adjustment.

By the way, those action heights you gave seem a little high to me.

Oh, and as far as "living the dream" I sincerely wish you all the luck in the world.

As that was MY idea.

I won't tell you how it's going so far, so as not to dis-illusion you.

I don't really have anything to add to the excellent material already presented so I will just say that this is why I always tell people to play as many guitars as they can before they buy then pick the one they like the best regardless of the name on the headstock. If you don't like how it feels as well as how it sounds, you won't play it. 

I have 4 acoustic guitars that are the core of my collection of instruments. They are the keepers and every one is different. They feel different, sound different and demand different thing of me but I keep each because I like them. One is worth thousands and one is worth a couple of hundred. Their value is not really a consideration simply because I don't own them for an investment, I own them because I like to play them and, to me, that is the best definition of a "great player".

Thanks again for great suggestions.  Mark P, the Dove & J-45 Custom were both made in May 2011.  Joe F, I will have the shop check the nut again on the J-45 as it's back in there after a complete setup (and I wasn't happy with the fret buzz as I don't really think they are all totally level IMHO).  Also, my idea for "living the dream" will be complete if I just don't have to freeze my behind off in the winter & sweet with the humidity in the summer.  Like that Southwest living if I can get moved there & will still work.  Like the notion to be able to ride my Harley's in the winter & 65 degrees/sunny weather.  :-)

Paul, that's a good idea and will ask if they will do that for me at the shop. 

Thanks again & I'll get on this to tweak these beauties ASAP.

Jack A

I've found after 62 yrs of playing guitars that the price of a guitar has nothing to do with it's playability.Now the sound of a guitar is something else.There is a point, however, where the cheaper guitar begins to sound as good as the more expensive one.Then you begin paying for the name on the headstock.The cheaper guitars (after a certain price is reached)are made out of the same materials.So it should not come as a surprise that they sound and play as well as the high-dollar instrument.I have a Yamaha guitar that I have had for 30 yrs.I picked it off of a wall of at least 150 guitars.Somehow I settled on this one I have never heard another guitar sound or play any better.To me guitars are like women.If you find a good one do everything you can to keep it(her)around.Not too technical I guess but "just saying".

Wonderfully stated Lonnie (:


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