When you buy your first guitar or bass guitar, you might think that it should work perfectly straight out of the box. Well, unfortunately this is not the case. Guitars and bass guitars generally need setting up, so they play as well as they can, staying in tune, not causing the player unnecessary agro through action that is too high (or too low) with no buzzing strings. As a huge number of people buy their first instrument on-line, there is no shop to take the guitar to in case you want to ask any questions about your new axe. As a rule of thumb it is always best to go to a real guitar shop and try out various instruments – even if you can barely play – don’t worry about embarrassing yourself, you can always ask an assistant to play the guitars to you and explain the differences, or take a friend along who can play.
Anyway, as guitars are made of wood and some metal, they are likely to be affected by changes in humidity and temperature. On top of that, if you did buy your guitar on-line, it has probably sat in a warehouse (unheated) for a length of time, prior to which it was probably in a container for several weeks traversing the seven seas from South East Asia to your home country – so the poor instrument needs to settle in and feel at home.
Once you have bought your guitar and had it a few days it is well worth finding a guitar technician or luthier who, for a fee or roughly £45, will set up your guitar perfectly for you, making it playable and fun to own. A luthier will go over a number of things, most notably the truss rod adjustment, intonation and saddle height.
The truss rod is a metal rod that runs through the neck (under the fretboard of the guitar, and it allows you to bend the neck up or down. Below is a useful diagram illustrating this.
When you first unpack your guitar it could be in any of the 4 states above, and though you can adjust this yourself, it is best to let a professional do this, as you can potentially break your guitar. Once this has been set (this may take several goes, as the guitar gets used to the changed tension), usually the the saddle height (for the action, i.e. how far away the strings are from the freeboard) and intonation (whether the guitar is in tune on the higher frets) are set. Should your guiatr re-align itself once you get it home, your luthier would norammly be happy to have it back for a small re-adjustment withouth further charge.
A luthier would also be able to advise you on string gauges, as these can have a dramatic impact on your playing, especially as a beginner. Bizarrely acoustic steel string guitars usually come out of the factory with thick strings on, as these make the guitar sound fatter in the shop. But thicker strings are much harder to play, and as acoustic guitars are harder to play than electrics, you don’t really want to make your life any more difficult than it needs to be, especially if you are a beginner. Conversely electirc guitars usually ship with very thin strings, as this make them easy to play. However, these strings might be too thin for you, and they can be hard to play in tune, as just a little too much pressure on the strings from your fretting hand can make them go sharp.
One last thing to note is that acoustic guitars are harder to set up, as they require filing if the action needs adjusting at the bridge – this is always best left to a professional, as if you file away too much, you’ll need to get a new bridge. Electric guitars thankfully can be set up with screwdrivers and allen keys.