A few days ago I posted about setting up my recently built Jazzmaster. As part of the post I mentioned about the availability of Billy Penn’s guitar set up guide. Since then I have bought a copy and have had chance to have a good read through.
First some background. Billy is a guitar and amp tech, based in New Jersey, who has over 20 years experience. He has tirelessly provided help and assistance on his youtube channel, as well as being an active blogger and twitterer. Billy has decided to document the key steps in maintaining and setting up a guitar, and to sell this eBook for US$4.99. The e-book comes in three different formats; ePub, MobiPocket and the ubiquitous PDF Portable Document Format.
I made my first tentative steps setting up guitars in the early 80s. I am reasonably familiar with most aspects of guitar maintenance, although in those pre-internet years, I learnt most of my lessons by making mistakes and then having to fix them myself. I have used guitar techs to do setups for me but, around five or six years ago I resolved to try to do everything myself. So far I haven’t regretted the decision. Some people worry about cost of the specialist tools required but, in my experience most of what you need will be found in the average toolbox. The only two exceptions I’ve come across have been files for cutting nut slots and for crowning frets. The cost of both of these costs less than a pro setup, so I regarded this as an investment.
OK so, let’s dive into the book… after a brief introduction Billy jumps straight into the basics, covering the tools you’ll need, your workspace, and then running through a basic service from removing the strings to getting them back on again and all the steps in between.
Part two of the book covers everything about setting the guitar’s action, including truss rod adjustment. The omission from this section is a detailed discussion about cutting the nut slots. Billy’s rationale, correctly in my opinion, is that because it requires a specialist tool it is beyond the scope of this book.
The third part of the book talks about setting the intonation before going on to the fourth section covering the adjustment of the pickups. The book wraps up with some tips, a glossary and product list.
So, what did I like about the book? Above everything, the most appealing aspect is Billy’s clear no-nonsense writing style, amply illustrated with pictures. The book also includes links to many of Billy’s videos to expand on the topic. This is where an eBook really scores over the dead-tree version and Billy has made great use of the capabilities. I like the fact that it covers all types of guitars both acoustics and electrics, with special notes about some of the vagaries of the different types such as how to deal with a floating bridge or a Gibson style tune-o-matic. There are detailed discussions about specific features of Telecasters and Strats for example.
I genuinely think that, with a basic toolkit, Billy’s book, and a “can-do” attitude, a well setup and maintained guitar is within the reach of anyone.
And what didn’t I like about the book? To be frank, not much. I’d have liked that info about cutting nut slots and I’m really looking forward to the intermediate/advanced setup guide that I hope will be coming. There are a couple of things Billy advises of which I’m not a huge fan, such as using boiled linseed oil on a fretboard. I don’t have a problem with it – it is just that I personally prefer a citrus/mineral oil (a lemon or orange oil). Perhaps in a future edition it would be nice to see some of the alternatives discussed.
When I first wrote about the book I had mentioned that buying the book was as much a way of saying thank you to Billy for being so generous with his knowledge. I had hoped that I might learn a trick or two, but wouldn’t have felt at all short-changed if I didn’t. So, did this old dog learn any new tricks? Oh yes! I’m not going to spill the beans but tucked away in there were a couple of absolute gems. (hint: one was about the stickiness of tape and the other was about the jack socket)
Value for money? I’m not sure how much a professional setup is going to cost you these days. The last one I paid for (at a very highly respected tech) cost me £65. Will your first attempts be as good as a pro setup? Of course not. But I’m pretty sure that with Billy’s guide, and a willingness to give it a go, it’ll be damn close and every time you do it, it’ll get that bit closer. Even if you don’t do your own setup, just following chapter one’s service schedule when you change your strings will mean that your guitar is kept in tip-top shape and will be all that it can be. Now in my book that represents value for money. Heck, I’ve wasted ten times that much on the latest snake-oil or silver bullet to improve my Telecaster. Do yourself and your guitar a favour.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; I have no connection with Billy Penn or 300Guitars. I have not (and will not) receive any sort of reward or recompense for any of the above. I have no vested interest in stroking Billy’s ego or earning him any money. It is my opinion and nothing more.