Hi, thanks everyone for your help and advice in the past. I searched for discussions on this topic and still thought I might get some new insights if I created my own post.

I've done a few refrets and have been trying to understand how to get my guitars set up better in general. Much of my information has come from Dan Erlewine's videos and his book Guitar Player Repair Guide.

I heard Dan say repeatedly that he prefers a "straight neck" and that he's not a big fan of relief, so I simply aimed for dead-flat necks on my guitars. I ignored the idea of any relief, however slight.

Now I'm thinking that a little relief may be an important missing element in my set ups. I found a discussion of acoustic guitar set up which got me thinking. It is from someone who appears to be a hobbyist, however it seems well-thought-out to me--- I want you guys' opinions, though because I'm still trying to wrap my mind around how all the factors contribute to the overall set up and visualize what's going on.

Becker's method is basically setting in the desired amount of neck relief first (he recommends .010"), then setting the saddle height with a capo on the first fret, and then filing the nut slots down.

Erlewine recommends cutting nut slots with the neck adjusted dead-flat, so that relief can be added if desired, as opposed to cutting them with relief, and running the risk of someone coming along later and straightening the neck and finding lots of buzzing. So, a dead-flat neck requires the nut slots to be slightly higher to achieve the same action at the first fret, right? This seems logical. And a relieved neck with "X" clearance at the first fret will have slightly higher action at the 2nd, 3rd, 4th frets, etc. than a straight neck with the same action at the first fret. Is this correct?

As I imagine the path of a vibrating string plucked open or at the 1st or 2nd fret, the idea of relief makes perfect sense to me, as the fretboard could theoretically be made to follow as closely as possible just outside the "cigar-shaped" area (term I read on the forum somewhere---this would be a long, thin, pointy-tipped cigar) through which the string vibrates. The frets would follow the underside of the "cigar" beginning at the tip near the nut, and when reaching the midpoint of the cigar, would no longer follow back up, but remain level to the end of the fingerboard (or fall slightly away at the tongue).

I still am not sure how to visualize how a relieved neck relates to the path of a vibrating string as you move up to the 4th, 5th frets, etc. I do see that on most guitars, the action is lowest at the nut, with the strings rising away from the frets slightly as they move toward the bridge. It makes sense to me that relief mainly serves the purpose of reducing buzzing in the lower frets, as the higher frets are less susceptible since they must be pressed further when fretting, with the vibrating portion at a safe distance from the higher frets. So, in the "flatten-out area" as Dan calls it (frets 9 or so and up), I understand that buzzing would be less likely, but what about the area between the low frets and the beginning of the flatten-out area?

Is there a general consensus about relief vs flat necks? Are certain tradeoffs inevitably involved, etc.? If I imagine the "cigar" shape in relation to a flat neck, it seems that a higher saddle would be required than when the neck has relief, as a cigar whose tip is at the nut would have to be upturned away from the fingerboard (like if you had a pointy-tipped cigar, or a toothpick, etc. resting on a surface and you press one end down toward the surface, the other end is lifted up). Is this correct? Can I assume that Dan plays with a very light touch? Otherwise I'm not sure exactly why he prefers no relief. I also play pretty lightly in general (kind of James Taylor-style fingerpicking and light strumming, no single-note solos up the neck on acoustic--I'd also like to leave some room for strumming with a pick, though I'm never too aggressive), so I figured I'd go for a very small amount of relief to get my ideal playability.

I would love to hear anyone's thoughts on all this! Sorry it was so long---hopefully someone reads it.


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Exactly!  Thanks for that Richard.

Good drawing and you nailed it Russell in terms of understanding this arc concept.  That's exactly correct.

Now if you take your broken lines showing the string passing though the middle and back of the nut and increased that angle (back filing) you can imagine how any string arc may increase.

Likewise if you slacked the string as Andrew mentioned with alternate, less tension tunings you can also imagine what happens to the arc.

This is one of the reasons, there are several, why it's key for folks who may primarily tune in a non-standard manner to let the Luthier know this so that the instrument can be set-up for how they play most of the time.  Relief, action, nut slots and intonation all can change with alternate tunings.

Yes, this all makes sense. Thanks for clarifying. Not a big concern for me as I'm only working on my own guitars.

It just occurred to me, though---doesn't the routine tuning of the guitar, even while only using standard tuning, move the "de-arced" (?) portion of the string around and cause a new portion of the string to be over the nut's leading edge, thus causing arc again?

By the way, all these long replies I get from you guys are invaluable. I remember reading somewhere on another forum where Frank Ford said it takes beginners just a couple of days to learn the correct amount of clearance (I believe this was what he was referring to), however because I don't have anyone next to me to show me and I'm just using my computer, it's not so easy. This forum is the next best thing, and I think I can figure it out with this kind of help, though it may take a bit longer. I think hearing you guys talk at length about the finer details is the next best thing to having someone next to me showing me how it's done. I'll keep listening as long as you guys are willing to talk!

Thanks again!!

When detuning you do change the break point on the string a bit.  On a low-E, when I down-tune a whole step the string shifts at the nut by an amount less than half it's thickness.   On the high-E it's less than two string thicknesses.  It's not much, and though that can affect the intonation, it certainly isn't a lot.  The difference in tension of the string by detuning (making it more compliant) will probably have more of an effect on the intonation.

Here's a bit of a different perspective.  Students are taught at one of the top Lutherie schools in the world that it can take around 100 nuts made before someone begins to get the hang of all things nut making....

The instructors there are fond of looking at a students just completed nut, saying that's nice, picking it off the guitar and pitching it in the trash and then saying.... make another one....:)

When I first heard this I thought it to be a bit sadistic and an exaggeration of sorts...  Turns out that in my own journey it took me a lot of nuts before I knew what to look for and could reliably make a decent nut every time....  Go figure...

PS:  The reason why f*ctories rarely if ever cut nut slots well and often the instrument gets sold to someone who has no clue that it's not been properly set-up is that cutting nut slots well is skilled labor and that costs more.  It's also high risk especially for makers who finish the instrument with the nut in place i.e. G*bson, Taylor, Martin... etc. because one swipe too far and you just ruined the nut...

Yeah, I can tell that it's a skill that takes practice, and I probably won't make 100 nuts in my lifetime as I'm not aspiring to be a professional.

I'm still going to try to do my best to make nuts that meet all the key criteria. I may be naive, but I believe I can do it and my results so far are encouraging. At the very least, I know for a fact that what I come up with is an improvement to the guitars I have worked on so far.

Fortunately, being able to reliably make a good nut every time is less important to me since I'm not doing it for others and there's no real consequence if I have to start over once in a while.

Thank you everybody for your input. 

I'm getting ready to do the final lowering of the slots on the nut I made for my Eastman AC412 OM guitar. I refretted this guitar and am working on the setup now. I had the neck as straight as I could get it, which after the fingerboard and fret leveling was pretty close to dead flat, and then I adjusted it until there was a slight relief. Using Stewmac's notched straightedge and feeler gauges with the guitar in playing position, I measured .004-.005" of relief at the 6th fret with the straightedge held alongside (under) the low E string, .006-.007" alongside (above) the high e, and .005" in the center between the G and D strings. Not sure why it varied on the treble and bass sides, or if it's a big deal.

Since I'm working alone with no one to show me how to do this, I'm much more comfortable having some numbers to work with, at least as a guide. (I do also frequently fret the strings between 2nd and 3rd and check the clearances as I go.)

I read on Bryan Kimsey's website that he sets up acoustic guitars with .004-.008" of relief and his typical measurements for clearance at the first fret are:

E: .018"

A: .016"

D: .016"

G: .016"

B: .016"

e: .014"

His measurements for 12th fret action are:

E: .105"

A: .100"

D: .095"

G: .090"

B: .085"

e: .080"

My current measurements at the 12th fret are:

E: .107"

A: .096"

D: .089"

G: .086-.087"

B: .088"

e: .080"

And my current clearances at the first fret are:

E: .032"

A: .023"

D: .021"

G: .019"

B: .017-.018"

e: .017"

I also put a capo on the first fret and measured the clearances at the 2nd fret, which many have said should be my targets, with a few extra thousandths added to account for various factors (the inner strings were a bit harder to measure with the feeler gauges):

E: .012-.013"

A: .012"

D: .011"

G: .011"

B: .011"

e: .011"

Given that my 12th fret action and my neck relief both seem pretty close to Bryan's, while my 1st fret clearances are considerably higher, would filing the nut slots down to approach Bryan's numbers above be a good way to proceed? Before I start filing them down, is there any other advice you guys have? I intend to polish the bottoms of the slots with 1200 grit wet/dry sandpaper, so I will leave a little extra height for that. I am also going to put in Grover Sta-Tite open gear tuners which will increase the break angle, so I expect I may have to do a little additional back-filing of the slots. And I intend to make a new saddle eventually.

Thanks in advance to anybody who takes the time to respond. I'm a little anxious, but excited to get this guitar playing even better.

Quote: "I heard Dan say repeatedly that he prefers a "straight neck" and that he's not a big fan of relief, so I simply aimed for dead-flat necks on my guitars. I ignored the idea of any relief, however slight.

Now I'm thinking that a little relief may be an important missing element in my set ups."

- Snipped for  Shortness -

Quote: "Becker's method is basically setting in the desired amount of neck relief first (he recommends .010"), then setting the saddle height with a capo on the first fret, and then filing the nut slots down.

Erlewine recommends cutting nut slots with the neck adjusted dead-flat, so that relief can be added if desired, as opposed to cutting them with relief, and running the risk of someone coming along later and straightening the neck and finding lots of buzzing."

- Snipped for  Shortness -

Quote: "Are certain tradeoffs inevitably involved, etc.?"

- Snipped for  Shortness -

Quote: "Sorry it was so long"




It's always good to be concise.

Have you ever wondered why there's a "b" in the word doubt?

The  word “doubt”is derived  from the Old French word “doute,” from the Latin words “dubius” and later “dubitare.”

In Latin and Old French, the pronunciation of the term changed; the “b” sound completely evaporated, and also in the words spelling.

English scholars of the 1500's wanted to align the spelling of words with their etymological roots. As “doute” came from “dubious,” it obviously needed a “b.”

It didn’t really matter much if the spelling and pronunciation didn’t match, especially because in those days not everyone could read and write anyway. So they tossed a silent “b” into the word, coupling it with the “t.” “Doute,” therefore, became “doubt”.

The replacement of the “b” connects together “doubt” and “double,” which is essentially important because they have exactly the same root, and if you think about it, having a doubt about something is simply akin to having two  or double takes on the same issue.

In fact, before English speakers adopted the French word “doute,” they had another word for the same term “tweogan,” which similarly makes a reference to holding two opinions at once. It’s not hard to see why knowing a word’s origins can help us understand it (and our collective history) better, and it’s similarly not hard to see why we’d want to record a clue about these origins in the words themselves. In those cases, the silent “b” makes sense.



To me, the real problem for you here, is that you have been in two minds. The inevitable result must be a divided self.

With respect, although I wrote most of this when you first posted I held back from responding to learn a bit more about precisely where you were.  Confirmation has gradually appeared that you are looking here there and everywhere.

Hesh, Rusty Doc, Bryan Kimsy and others are all very fine folk you can learn lots from. But have you considered the idea that it  might be advantageous at your stage simply to follow the clear advice from one expert and follow right through with their method?

With respect, to be honest, if you are going to learn from a teacher, then turn away from his advice and learn from other sources almost simultaneously, it's inevitable that you are going to end up with the confused division of mind, your original post so clearly portrays.

My suggestion to you is the same as the advice I have always given myself all my life through. Find one of the top experts in the world, (happily in my part of the world this is quite easy to do regardless of whatever subject you want to learn about) and learn all you can from them.

When you eventually have learnt as much as you believe you need to know, or all they are able to teach (this could take decades), then at that point, when you have a real grasp and a really full understanding of the subject, then you can diverge towards alternative ideas, if you genuinely feel or believe they may be beneficial or they are leading you towards new approaches and beckoning horizons.

In the main Bryan Kimsy has a well recognised expertise in fixing Acoustic Guitars and more importantly is in my opinion a very fine man indeed I respect, yet in your Avatar you are seen holding a Stratocaster. They are completely different worlds apart. It made me think that someone like Rusty will have the most beneficial advice to you because Electric Guitars are what he Manufactures, and he has perspicacious insight and understands the needs of Electric Players at a whole different level to most people who mainly deal with Vintage Acoustics.

After three pages of great replies we finally learn you are actually setting up a Chinese Acoustic Guitar. Can you appreciate that it might be helpful to differentiate from the outset the incredibly basic detail as to what type of instrument you are actually working on? This is fundamental information that it's wrong to assume anyone will be able to properly deduce unless you communicate that information to them. To be honest from your Avatar I wondered if you were seeking details to set up a Fender? You will appreciate that you have been trying to nail everything you have to set down to precise measurements in thousandths of an inch, or indeed millimeters, whilst Acoustics and Electrics in the main, utilise completely different thickness of string gauge, action, et al. Can you see how helpful getting the basics clear is?

Dan Erlewine has given you sound advice from a widely recognised teacher, and deviating from it will probably will be unhelpful, until you completely understand not only what he's telling you, but essentially, WHY he is telling you it! With respect, I think you are beginning to grasp and starting to understand something of these diverging viewpoints, but my concern  is by embracing such a wide divergence of highly specialised opinion at this stage, and following so many different voices all at the same time, you may well  fail to ever come to properly appreciate and understand the sound reasons Dan approaches these matters, the way he does.

Its understanding WHY Dan does things the way he does that is really important. That is the salient point to grasp along with the fact that whilst lots of people have the ability to enact set ups; very few in comparison indeed could write and record media and teaching materials that people would actually pay good money for that everyone would find extremely helpful to absorb. These are all very basic points to make, but as no one has made these points thus far, I feel they should be made. So I hope you will understand that I am well intentioned toward you, though its often the case that being told something that's true can be difficult to appreciate at the time. Get the basics clear!



That is not to suggest that Luthiers that use a different lodestar from Dan to guide their methods are wrong.

On the contrary, its usually that as a general rule, the panorama of needs they serve involve a different type of client, perhaps a completely different type of player, and even a different type of musical presentation altogether. We should consider that they as specialists already have long ago embraced many things way past, basic methodologies.

Several people have highlighted the importance of evaluating the players style right from the outset, and given the wide range of guitar playing styles that exist, it is pure commonsense that different playing styles and different guitarist's sounds would involve a different style of set up, that demanded a different approach. Top Players possess great subtlety and finesse.

This to me is the key thing to bear in mind as you reflect upon these matters, and is essentially a far more important muse to act as your guide rather than any specifics concerning precise measurements in thousands of an inch, which is an exacting road you seem to be tempted to go down, as these will change and vary with the player, their style, sound and indeed with the specific instrument type that they utilise.



It's not hard to imagine, many will set these matters by eye and feel and that will vary dependent upon player and instrument, and experience has surpassed the ruler as a guide, though I for one am big on measurement.

As you get older you will find that the only way to know what your Blood Pressure really is, is to measure it, and make regular comparisons. Seasoning on food has its dangers and although young chefs like to season everything, doing away with salt altogether has definite advantages.

Analogously and analogically, guitar set ups are the same, and what I fear most about them is the cardboard one dimensional thinking that tends to dominate most guitarists minds, where action alone is the be all and end of everything, and nothing else really seems to matter much. Whereas, in reality, there are other rather more fundamental considerations that ideally, to my way of thinking, should also be borne in mind.



So I have a few further points I wish to make regarding this issue that I trust you will find food for thought. That is all it is meant to be.

Today, we are continually experiencing problems that are in reality completely unnecessary, purely because someone new or with little experience has thought it extremely clever to skip and omit processes that in the past, would have by tradition been, absolutely de rigueur.

In "Monopoly" terms, the contemporary mentality seems to be to go straight to pass go, collect £200 and hopefully obtain a get out of jail card that will be helpful in the future, in the process. But the increasing experience of people following such life philosophies is newly emerging problems we never had before that sometimes perplex, baffle and defy logical explanation. These are repeatedly causing very experienced individuals indeed, to scratch their heads and screw up their eyeballs in despair.

In almost every instance the underlying problem is that someone has thought it cheaper, easier and cleverer to entirely bypass a critical quality stage, to head straight for a final result. I am concerned that might eventually be your situation if you don't follow through with the basic training from Dan you have been absorbing. Even robotic technology in Manufacturers factories are today being utilised to completely circumvent traditionally necessary processes, and the result is surfacing in new brain baffling issues we never saw before from the Manufacturers concerned.


Perhaps you can guess that missing  process often involves ensuring necks are genuinely flat and true, as a starting point of absolutely reliable reference that ensures the subsequent processes down line are enacted precisely as they should be.

In the corporate world, lean and mean Manufacturing rule, so that means we avoid and eliminate every undesirable or unnecessary process, and all possible wastage, to shorten the time and distance between receiving an order and dispatching the factory fresh finished product to the customer. But newly introduced smart technologies and suboptimal, dumbly programmed, robotic manufacturing mean that not only are traditional hand skills being increasingly lost, but also lower quality standards are often being embraced as a norm. 

I find that lamentable, and born into a place in the world where the pursuit of excellence is the common mindset as I was, you may appreciate I militate against this dumbing down of standards that is taking place  all around the world, largely thanks to emerging technologies but also because of this prevalent contemporary internet driven mindset that is a global cultural phenomenon. But most especially, how so many people and companies today keep finding new ways to highlight, advertise and even heartily celebrate mediocrity, instead of the supremacy of excellence, that so many here aspire upwardly to, and elevate the level of their vision towards.

I visited a major factory a couple of weeks ago and a machine man (robot minder came up to me) he said: "a couple of days ago they had a German robot programmer fly over to re-program a couple of the robots. It cost £9,000 per day to have him here. I told him that you visited the factory and watched the robots when they were first put in and said they were programmed incorrectly. They needed to change this and that and alter the basic pattern to a different pattern you outlined in detail. After you went and a year of  continuous problems later, they eventually flew a specialist over and paid him £9,000 per day to conduct some basic routine tests, then he did exactly what you described needed doing, on your visit when the Robots were first installed."



By the way I am not a Robot Programmer or Specialist in that field, just someone with "an interest" and "a degree of experience".

How is all this relevant to the thread? Well I'm thoroughly convinced that if you listen to the most experienced teacher, even though you might think you can easily shortcut his advice, you will avoid more problems, have less trouble and do a far better job in the long run, by properly following through with the procedures that you have been taught.

To that you can then later add the value of further experiences and knowledge from others. But completely discounting those basics that have been clearly laid out to you can easily invoke and involves more problems, waste more time and cost you more money; but by the time you learn that, it's already far too late. So just follow the most experienced guys advice, who teaches by trade, would be my take on this issue, most particularly in the earliest years of learning.



As it happens..

Personally, I fall into the same camp as Dan and always prefer to go for a dead flat neck.

Like Dan I am not a big fan of relief, though I understand its importance to a great many people, and why they would prefer a degree of relief.

Absolutely accurate measurement, cutting fret slots, et al requires and benefits from a true and level plane, likewise neck set angle and overall geometry is essential. We can't purchase curved straight edges and bent rulers with the built in feature of adjustable relief.

We have to make those necessarily accurate measurements with instruments that are designed and manufactured to be dead flat, usually to an accuracy of a thousandth of an inch. Some major guitar manufacturers won't even warrantee their instruments intonation, unless the neck is set to be dead flat.

Furthermore, its invariably the case that most the Greatest Players have a Touch that is not at all heavy handed. Their Dynamic Control of the instrument is how they make it Speak with a Voice we Emotionally Respond to. Moreover, they are greatly concerned with Optimising their Range of Expression. The Character of Sound of their instrument is absolutely paramount. For the Soul of their Guitar lies in its TONE, rather than in its Action. I really feel point that bears repetition.

The Greatest, Most Memorable Guitarists, want a Killer Sound, Above Everything Else!

Even Action.



Working to THAT end.

The lowest action possible, will probably not project the best possible sound, nor facilitate the widest possible range of tonal expression.

In point of fact, the lowest possible action, will probably allow a more narrowly monotone voice to the player, which may be interesting, but a definite limitation. This is most especially true on an Acoustic Guitar, that it has now finally become clear that you are working on.

Imagine an artist with just one tube of colour to paint with, and ask yourself if that is optimal? If it's a sensationally good colour to look at, we may really like it for a while, but probably if it's truly that vivid, we will probably find it overpowering to our eyes and eventually look for something more amenable to live with. We will feel the need to cleanse our perceptions and probably achieve that, with the colours that are found in the natural world.

Suddenly today,  players require more guitars, with a wider range of voices, and a wider range of character, because they can't get everything they want from simply one instrument, whereas years ago they probably would have been able to do almost everything they wanted with just one instrument, and really make it talk they way they wanted it to. Its a trend that started with Electrics and is now becoming more and more prevalent with Acoustics. Today, players seem to need more and more instruments, each optimised for a particular reason. Even great players do this and its becoming more and more the norm and at an accellerating rate, seen at far lower levels of player ability.

So I'm arguing that an ideal  set up (within that scenario described above) resolves many issues to a point where the player them self can make the whole difference to the instrument, dependant upon the way they play.

The instrument responds as desired regardless of how the player wants to make the instrument speak.



In truth, there are of course limitations that a player will none the less run into.

The point is, with one instrument the best sound and the widest possible range of expression is available, and in reality the only things the player can't do with the instrument will be really extreme.

We shouldn't be arguing from the specific and extreme to the all round and general here, but simply focusing upon the general and getting that right and clear in our minds, before taking strongly into consideration the wildest, most far out needs, of an unusually demanding individual. Today, we have finally established what type of Guitar you are working on.

Good design and product build resolves directly competing attributes that are diametrically opposed to one another. In other words, its finding the best working compromise that most fully exploits and optimises an instruments range of features, in a way that reflects and clearly prioritises the players, individual requirements and desires. That in itself might encompass a very wide range of playing style.

If a great player is involved it most likely will. This is what our esteemed colleague Hesh was so eloquently enlarging upon, the player, but what I would see as an ideal set up can encompass most of them. In my experience, although all players want an excellent action that is low. Very few indeed of the Greatest Players will knowingly Sacrifice their Instruments Sonority, Sound Character and Tonality along with the Scintillating Impact of Killer Sound, for the lowest possible action that can be achieved.

Many guitar owners, will do so however, without realising at all, exactly what they are giving up. For those, having the lowest possible action is a kind of mystical holy grail they seek that is never completely satisfied. Often this is a mentally projected, subconscious  substitution for their own innate lack of ability, they are looking to compensate for. Recognise who you are dealing with and what they want, of course, but in my experience, the truly greatest players have learnt that though they want the lowest action possible, its often the case that a better "Volume of Tone" (this is a technical term used in Classical Musical Form and Performance) is projected when low action is not pursued purely as a singular, solipsistic, end in itself.

Here's a simple analogy. On an electric guitar it might seem common sense and highly desirable to adjust the pick height so that they are as close to the strings as possible, in that way maximising the best signal to noise ratio and output of the pickup and guitar to the amplifier to get the most powerful possible. Louder is better right? Yet backing off the pickups on a Stratocaster works wonders for the balance of tone across the strings, and helps enormously playing rhythms and chords that sheen, bell like in sound. It's the same for tonality on a Gibson Les Paul. Getting more volume pursued as an end in itself, will mean that you will ultimately come to a point where you sacrifice tone, and you can actually end up with a very bad tone indeed and even magnetic problems as result, going down that "commonsense" road.

If  you google "The Loudness Wars" you will learn the for decades now, commercial recordings have been pushed higher and higher in volume to the point where there is inherent distortions in the fidelity of reproduction, musicality is lost, and frankly consumers have voted with their feet (and ears) that they don't buy what they are being sold. As I write, No 1 Hits are at their lowest selling point in History. This is what can happen when you pursue a singular seemingly desirable aim, but at the expense of other aims you have not ever, even properly taken into account. Louder normally sounds better at first instance and stands out in Record company demo listening.  But when louder comes at the expense of loss of dynamic range, you now have no comparative scale, no ppp, no mp, no f only fff alone, you lose the sense of comparative dynamics courtesy of hard compression and hence lose the Range of Expression, and all the Power, the Feeling, the Beauty and Strength. The Thrill of Anticipation, of Building Musical Climax, these additional elements afford that are a part of All Great Musical Experience and Presentations.

Exactly the same is true of action, it depends somewhat on the design of guitar, but is never the less an axiomatic truism that going for the lowest possible action achievable will for an average player, regularly mean sacrificing not only the quality of tone, but something of the instruments character and most importantly also the players expression of tone, by limiting their ability to control dynamics with the greatest subtlety and  finesse. But it doesn't end there, as the life of the fretwork if stoned artificially low will in all probability be drastically short lived and also the nut and saddle most likely too. As most players buy guitars so that they can use them to play, they don't want them to spend their lives in the workshop. Continually requiring minor adjustments and routine replacements. They want the parts that wear, to have a reasonable degree of life and wear ability to them. Richard helpfully touched upon this. However, some people hereabouts will change nuts out quite regularly, simply because they have the skills to do so. They are the exception as most people won't have the skills and will want the nut to last a reasonably good while.



There are of course many notable exceptions indeed, but I am sure most players would be surprised to find many of their guitar playing hero's guitars set ups, are rather higher (and far better sounding as a result) than they ever imagined.

A few players have a very, very low action and still get a great tonality, but they are invariably superbly equipped with an ace Luthier, technical backup,  back line and sound team and have spent a great deal of time and attention, working very hard, and indeed continue to do so to further optimise their stage sound and performance.

I mean hours and hours every day, day after week after month after year, just continually working to hone further and get the best they can out of everything they have. It's something of an obsession. They are very dedicated indeed, obsessively so to a degree even most great players would simply baulk at and few individuals can devote that much of their lives to such a pursuit. They invariably utilise a range of instruments throughout their performance for different pieces of music. It's not because they need someone else to get their guitars in tune!



Start with a dead flat neck, and optimise the character of the instruments sound, learning and coming to properly understand precisely what that might be with the action that little bit higher.

You can then adjust in whatever neck relief you wish should it be desirable to do so, and further optimise, allowing a reasonable amount for wear ability for a working instrument on the road, as it were.

But it's very interesting to me that certain of the major guitar manufacturers like Rickenbacker will not even guarantee their instruments intonation can be correctly adjusted without the neck being set to be dead flat.

Does Dan and Rickenbacker know something that the mathematician and part time self confessed guitar tinkerer Thomas Becker doesn't?  I think it highly likely that is the case, although its true to state that many people do definitely prefer and find it completely normal advantageous to introduce a little degree of relief.

So understand yourself and potential clienst and what their requirements and desire are.. however...



In a jungle, its handy to have a map, and know where you are on it.

So I always go for a dead flat neck as the starting point, and optimise from that happy state once that is established.

It's exactly what I did to a new guitar a couple of days ago, The thing is, when you go for a dead flat neck and Optimise for an Audience Grabbing, Breathtakingly Stunning, Killer Sound.

Seeing the effect of that on someone is a wonderful thing, when a guitarist can simply play a chord, and no one has ever heard a simple chord, sound THAT good. Suddenly everyone sits up to attention and the hair is stood  up on the back of the neck of everyone there. Because rather than sounding  just like another guitar, the Instrument Sounds Stunning, so much Better, Than Anything they have Ever Experienced Before.

That, to me, is really what it's all about.

Furthermore, I think most of the Greatest Guitarists throughout the History of Recording are looking for that Soul of Great Tone.

A Sound by which they can Voice to the World all the Emotions, Feelings and Varying Moods and Characteristics of Human and Musical Expression they are Capable Of. In reality, I feel this is what the Listening Public can Instinctively Understand, Appreciate and Identify With, and Ultimately why they Buy their Records.

Though its true to state that the fact that the action of their Guitar was extremely low, might facilitate and enable a Guitarist to play in a manner that makes someone want to buy their Record.

No one ever bought anybody's Record, because they knew that the action of their Guitar was low.

All the many schools of Historical Guitar Makers, Torres, Manuel Ramirez.

C.F. Martin, Orville Gibson, Seth Lover, Leo Fender.

Were all really seeking Great Sound.



I think that you can choose the Lowest Possible Action.

Or the Greatest Possible Sound.




How to Resolve that Dichotomy, is the Reserve of Great Luthiers!


Comrades; Peter,

I am often led to say "If it was easy everyone would be doing it" and having a read of your latest Peter gives me more inclination to say this. 

The division between the simple action of filing a nut slot and the larger considerations that you have expressed so eloquently is a fascinating tour of all we do. Chaos Theory for luthiers. 

The small things in isolation are done to death in minutia...whereas the truths of great/average players and brutal/delicate applications of left and right hand techniques to acoustic and electric instruments both on great sound stages and small rooms is a thing of awe.  To explore the greater issues along with the finer details all in a couple of pages is a delight and inspirational. 

I consider my luthiery skills to be hard won, blunt and imperfect processes exercised to get the player into the ballpark - after that time the musician makes the music and the magic happens.  I have never heard a member of the audience say, wow, that guy must have a great guitar tech, or for that matter, wow that's a great guitar...when some musician has just nailed it.   And I like it that way.

Thanks Pete, thanks guys, this is a great thread and very much appreciated. Have a good weekend.


Thank you Peter. 

I will try to be more clear in the future from the very beginning about what type of guitar I'm working on. I see how my photo was misleading--it's just the only suitable photo I had on my computer when I was asked to upload a photo of myself. Yes, I am working on an acoustic OM guitar and I am primarily an acoustic player these days. 

I sense the truth of what you are saying and have noticed it myself in all areas of life, that one thing is pursued as a singular objective and everything else becomes out of balance, and so much is lost and perhaps forgotten forever in the process.

In thinking about Dan's perspective versus all the other opinions I have read (I do consider carefully WHOSE opinions they are---for instance, those I take most seriously are those who I know for a fact are widely respected by the whole long-standing community of luthiers/repairmen, such as Frank Ford or Dan Erlewine, as well as those who are directly responsible for instruments that I have personally repeatedly observed to be superb, such as the producers of Collings guitars---for all others, such as Thomas Becker, I cautiously suspend judgment [no offense Thomas!], and I also consider that many unforeseen problems may come from carelessly switching from one expert's methods to another's), I have noticed how he carefully and respectfully mentions that while he's not a big fan of relief, a lot of people like a little of it, AND at the very same time Dan himself says that he sets up his Martin (unknown model) with .005" of relief.

Therefore, after leveling and refretting setting up several acoustic guitars with dead-flat necks and playing them in this configuration for a couple of years, I am now cautiously and slowly following Dan's advice to, after starting with a dead-straight neck and seeing if you like the feel, very gradually add relief. My general feeling at this point is that my straight-necked acoustics have lower than necessary action at the low frets.

I hope I am not coming across as though I am trying to defend myself too much. I myself am nothing much more than a tinkerer in this area, and I appreciate your expertise and time spent replying and can sense the experience you and others have in these things. As I have now had the experience of going from absolute beginner to something slightly better than that in a number of different "hobbies," and contrasting that with my more extensive experience as a musician and guitarist which has been ongoing since childhood, I have noticed the tendency in myself and others, in the early stages of learning, to seek some or other "holy grail" as you said, which in this case could be, as you said, the pursuit of the 'lowest possible action' to the exclusion of all other considerations. I hope I am not getting carried away by some such obsession. I know that ultimately, like everything else, it must be a conscious coordination of variables to achieve the desired result.

Thank you again. I welcome anything more you have to say, and I can tell that you are well-intentioned in your reply and appreciate it very much.

Quote: " I see how my photo was misleading--it's just the only suitable photo I had on my computer when I was asked to upload a photo of myself."

- Snipped for Shortness -

Quote: "I have noticed how he carefully and respectfully mentions that while he's not a big fan of relief, a lot of people like a little of it, AND at the very same time Dan himself says that he sets up his Martin (unknown model) with .005" of relief."




You seem to be a very nice young man and I'm positive that it's a very great pleasure for everyone to see your interest in developing your guitar set up skills.

Whatever questions you are likely to have, you will probably find the best most reliable information on Franks Forum. I'm continually learning new things from the many experts authorities here that are so helpfully generous with their time and trouble.

As you have noted, people often write things that they later appear to slightly contradict. Whilst I am not an apologist for anyone, it's relatively easy to pick up on something and place it alongside something written elsewhere later, that could create such an impression.

People try do this with the Holy Bible, so I 'm sure it must be extremely easy to do so with a Guitar Set Up Skills Manual. I think the answer is, you have to read what is written, and understand it within the context of the specifics of what is being written about. So I could easily imagine how it might be possible for such a thing to appear to happen.



If you study the History of America, you will know that Abraham Lincoln learnt what he did about Law, from the Writings of Oxford Professor, Sir William Blackstone who lived nearby.

Through Lincolns influence, American Law was originally based upon Blackstone's Writings.

Blackstone believed that underlying all Good Law, was what he would have called "The Universal Laws of God."

He believed that there were Laws, Inherent in Nature Itself. Laws, self evident to everyone, and that All Good Law, overlay what was Universally Accepted as True, Moral and Upright.

Furthermore in American Law there is a principle known as "Originalism." That is, in order to be able to properly understand and correctly interpret and apply a Law, as a Senior Judge might be required to do.

It is necessary to interpret that Law with full knowledge and in the light of the Cultural Norms prevalent at the time in which the Law was Written. This is akin to what I wrote earlier, "you have to read what is written within the context of what is being written about."



In other words Russell.

See the need for a Dead Straight Neck as an absolutely necessary perquisite for a Great Guitar Maker.

It's an Underlying Principle when Cutting Fret Slots in the Optimal Position, for Ideal Intonation for any Manufacturer.

A Solidly Reliable Place to begin to work from, for someone performing a Set Up on a Guitar that requires Skilled Optimisation.

For the alternative of cutting all those slots as low as possible as many people would be likely to do, then adjusting the Truss Rod later on, is far, far more likely to be productive of additional, unnecessary and unwanted problems.



This should be self evident to you, following the first response by Richard to your original post.

However, if it's still unclear, I believe Dan is writing that if you can start with a Dead Flat Fretboard, cut the Nut Slots and then Add Relief, that's the Safest Approach. This is Dan's way to look at it.

My situation is perhaps a little different to yours in that there is more than just the one Guitar to deal with. So I have to adopt a Process and Methodology that is By Design, Fully Adequate and Optimised for my Specific Requirements.



An Important Key to All Good Manufacturing Processes is to Eliminate Variables.

Customers like Consistency in the Quality of the Products they Purchase, and the way to Achieve that is by Eliminating Variables.

Its far, far easier to ensure every Fretboard is Dead Flat and Straight than it would be to ensure Every Fretboard had an Exactingly Precise, Amount of Relief. Especially taking into account Environmental Considerations.

Working from the Default Position of a Dead Flat, Completely Straight Neck, Completely Eliminates Many Variables that could otherwise introduce Unwanted and Unnecessary Complications and Very Expensive Rework before a Product was able to continue to the next Manufacturing Operation.

It's straightforward and easy thereafter, to introduce a Small Degree of Relief by Final Assembly Adjustment. If you follow the Logic of getting the Underlying Principles Right, you Eliminate Qualitative Variability's and Ensure that any Subsequent Operations and Processes Downstream are Clear from Undesirably Costly Issues.



Whilst I need to seek a Dead Flat, Perfectly Straight Neck as an End in itself.

Dan, You and perhaps most of those that enjoy playing the Guitar, would see it as a Means To An End.

I think what Dan is describing, is in fact Easy to Understand, does Not Appear to be Contradictory, and is simply a Safe Approach for Untrained and Unskilled Individuals, to Achieve a Better Set Up.

With respect, I think that fairly describes your situation.




Quote: "I have noticed the tendency in myself and others, in the early stages of learning, to seek some or other "holy grail" as you said, which in this case could be, as you said, the pursuit of the 'lowest possible action' to the exclusion of all other considerations."




You wouldn't believe how many times I have known guitar owners shave a good amount of saddle from their bridge, in the knowledge and belief that could enhance their Instruments Playability.

Only to find that after restringing and tuning, they are massively disappointed to observe, "Hey, Where has all my Guitars Tone Gone?"  As our dear friend Rusty enlarged upon, this is skilled work, where the trick is to arrive at the Sweet Spot for an Instrument. Giving the best Possible Tone along with the Lowest Possible Action, and that is easily lost, by a just stroke or two of a File, where a Nut is Concerned..



This is Why Great Guitarists employ the Skills of Great Luthiers.

Why Great Guitar Shops like Gyphon and Anne Arbour Guitars, stand Head and Shoulders above places like Guitar Centre.

Why Experienced and Knowledgeable Guitarists that are not Sponsored by a Guitar Manufacturers, seek Smaller, Boutique Guitar Makers like Rusty's  Operation, that Build to High Quality Standards.



Recording a  Guitar you will find that rather than trying to get a Good Sound by Adjusting Equalisers,

If instead you Choose the Optimal Mic, placing it in the Optimal Sweet Spot for that Instrument, Great Sound, Suddenly Appears, All by Itself!

But this Unbelievably Simple, Masterly Approach, belies the Requirement of Tremendously Profound Experience. Most people  place a Mic, where they have seen others place them, assuming that's the best place, which it most probably isn't if the Guitar and Guitarist are different, which they always are.

The point to absorb is, if you follow Dan's advice, you will approach your Guitar Set Up from the Position of Always Erring to the Safe Side. You can always Add a Little Relief Later, should you wish to. You will Eliminate Unnecessary and Unwanted Complications that have already been described in detail and you can always Optimise Further in Future, if you feel that would be Desirable and Beneficial.



Furthermore, going on from your comment.

I believe it's sometimes the case that the problems guitar owners perceive with their Instruments, are actually Psychological.

Often just in their head, and in truth based in their own inward insecurities and projected outwardly towards their Guitar as a Form of Displacement.

They endlessly examine the need to swap out bridge pins, nuts, saddles, pickups, potentiometers et al. When what they really need to do is to concentrate on working hard at Getting Better as a Player.

Work Hard to Improve, Practice Regularly, find a Good Teacher etc.



I am not implying that you are one of them, not at all.

But I am strongly of the opinion that for some people, the pursuit of an ever lower action is an avoidance,  compensation  and displacement of the fact that at a Profoundly Deep Level, they know they are not as good at Playing, as they need to be, and often act as if they are. They are in a way, Living a Lie, and that is the Basis of Their Insecurities. It's just a matter of How that Surfaces.

So they believe their Musical Instrument needs to Improve Radically. But of course its really they who Need to Improve. I think this mental battle within Players is a rarely spoken of, but common occurrence and goes on at every level both Amateur and Professional. I could tell you of some of the most Famous Performers that literally Throw Up before a Major Event. It's as if their Whole Existence is Suddenly on the Line, and All That They Are for Years Ahead will be Completely Defined before the Whole World within a Couple of Hours on Stage.

So I've noted over the years that a great many Players Dissatisfaction with their Instruments and Equipment, often directly coincide with the Demanding Requirements of a Forthcoming Event, where their Live Talent will be clearly on Display, an Important Audition, A Studio Recording, A Live TV Show or Very Major Concert before a Huge Audience and Filmed and Recorded to Boot!

It either gives them an edge, or pushes them over one!



So I think it's always good to do a couple of things before you do anything else.

Check what the Manufacturers Default Setup Measurements should be and ascertain whether  the Instrument is within those Parameters. If it is you really shouldn't have any huge difficulties Playing the Instrument.

If  you want to Set Up your Instrument beyond those Parameters, further Optimising its Performance. In the first Instance, take it to a Good Luthier and ask if you can watch them work, whilst they Perform the Set Up?

If they will allow that, it affords a great opportunity to observe how it's done, and gives you the ability to ask the discrete and occasional question, but it's a great way to learn, at the side of an expert and thereby gain valuable experience you can later put to good use.

It's extremely cost effective however you look at it, and you have a Great Guitar Setup to Boot. Going over Dan's Manuals or Whatsoever Manual you prefer, suddenly many things may become far clearer to you with the benefit of this practical observation. Furthermore, the confidence you gain from Personal Interaction and Relationship with a Skilled Luthier will be a Strong Motivational Actuator for your Future Development.

Good Luck in All Your Endeavour's!



Yes, I agree---the fact that Dan made apparently contradictory statements told me that there was much more to learn and understand; that it wasn't one way or the other. Realizing this only makes me that much more appreciative of Dan's instruction, because he has not simplified things, but rather conveyed his own complex perspective as a highly skilled repairman as best he can, leaving it up to the pupil to fully digest over time and to corroborate with his own personal experience.

And I also agree that many who seek "optimal" setups, etc. are running away from the reality of their own shortcomings as players.

That is a great idea about observing someone setting up my guitar. I am thinking I will do this with the Martin 000-15m I recently bought. I live in New York City, so I'm sure I can find an excellent luthier to set it up. (If anybody has any recommendations, let me know.)

Thanks again!


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