Action Adjustment

"One of the reasons I've been able to pay my rent is a procedure called 'neck-angle reset,'" says Bill Meyer. "That's removing the neck from the guitar and changing the angle that the neck is mounted on the body. The average cost is about $400, but a lot of them run more than that." On Saturday, December 15, Meyer (a luthier -- a person who makes and repairs stringed instruments) will host the grand-opening celebration of Tecolote Guitar Works, a guitar-repair shop and art gallery. The most common issue Meyer has seen in his years of building and repairing guitars is "adjustment." "The typical complaint that you get is a person will walk in and say, 'This thing's really hard to play -- it hurts my fingers, and I think the strings are too high off the fret board.' In guitar lingo, the amount you've got to press the string before it hits the fret is called the 'action.' If they've got a little bit of savvy, they might come in and say, 'I think I need my action adjusted.'"

According to Meyer, there are two parts involved in making an adjustment -- the nut (a piece of bone or plastic into which grooves are made to hold strings) and the saddle (the part that stops the strings from vibrating). In most adjustments, Meyer says he sands material off the bottom of the saddle so that the saddle fits deeper into the bridge, which is a "wooden component that holds the saddle."

Meyer explains that among moderately priced guitars, it is "quite common for instruments to be shipped from the factory with really bad setups, bad actions, and bad adjustments. Typically, if a new guitar costs less than 500 bucks, odds are it may need some close attention to get it adjusted properly. As the price point goes up, you really do get what you pay for." Regardless of price, the body of all wooden guitars, given enough time, will warp due to changes in humidity and temperature.

"Let's say you buy yourself a new Martin guitar and spend $2000 on it -- that's an average, middle- to upper-middle-range guitar. It comes from the factory with a nice playability; it's comfortable to play. That guitar will have adequate adjustability for probably 15 years, and at some point between 15 and 20 years it may need some structural repair [like a neck-angle reset] to regain its adjustability."

Meyer has noted patterns of damage among the types of repairs he's made. "Some of them are seasonal. Acoustic guitars can be extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. Typically, in early to mid-spring -- the first couple of weekends where the weather is actually hot -- you will see acoustic guitars that have been left in the trunk of somebody's car. They parked it at the mall or at their buddy's house, came back three hours later, and the excess heat that builds up in the car trunk will cause some of the glue joints in the wooden guitar to soften."

Certain playing styles are riskier than others. "For instance, the damage on rock-n-rollers' electric guitars -- not just garage bands, but people who are gigging -- the peghead [the part that holds the tuning knobs] of the guitar at some point either gets rammed into the floor or banged into a mike stand. Another thing that is not unusual: there will literally be a collision between the bass player and other guitar players, causing the peghead of the guitar to break off," says Meyer. "It's a common rock-n-roller problem. The [peghead] can almost always be glued back on, but usually there will be some battle scars left."

Acoustic, "coffeehouse players" incur damage of a different sort. "The most common damage is not done while playing but in between sets, when the player will set the guitar down on the guitar stand and go have a cup of coffee or talk with friends. Something will happen, and that thing will fall off the stand. The wood is very thin; they were not made to bounce." Such accidents leave cracks in the body of the guitar, which Meyer fills with glue. "Something like that might not cost more than 30 or 40 bucks -- the crack may be an inch long and isn't separated much. But it can go to $500 for extensive cracks on the soundboard or all the way around the perimeter of the guitar."

The most expensive guitars Meyer has worked on belonged to wealthy middle-aged men. "It's a typical thing for baby boomers to have three or four $5000 guitars around their house. Because these guitars are so beautiful, the people who own them want to be able to see them, so they violate Bill's first rule of taking care of your guitar: When you're not playing the sucker, put it back in its case. I make a noticeable percentage of my yearly income from dogs and kids knocking guitars off stands." -- Barbarella

Tecolote Guitar Works Grand Opening and Gallery Reception

Saturday, December 15

4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

1231 Morena Boulevard

San Diego

Cost: Free (live music and refreshments)

Info: 619-276-1677 or http://www.tecoloteguitarworks.com

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