Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Setup can make all the difference

First a little background: I bought a guitar about a year and a half ago. It was one of the best sounding guitars I had ever played. It was very responsive. It had sweet complex overtones but it still had a nice focus to the sound. The action was close to 7/64" 12th fret E string. A tad high for my typical setup, but certainly not a problem to play. The saddle was tall, the nut action was close to ideal, the relief and neck angle was good. All it needed was a lower saddle and all should be well. It was middle of winter, it was a new guitar, and it sounded great, so I wasn’t in a hurry to change anything. Then I had some family health issues for most of last year and the guitar didn’t see much action for a while. When I went back to play it, it sounded much less lively. New strings helped, but I wasn’t finding that magic in it. I figured either it didn’t sound that good when I bought it (and I was just a bit nuts) or it “went to sleep.” From the start, it was a guitar that would improve significantly after a few minutes of warm-up time. I put a tonerite on it and it got better, but I never reached that magic tone I thought it had when I bought it. I figured I might have been just overly enthusiastic when I bought it. It was still a great sounding guitar, but just not as magical as I had thought.

Last night a question was posed about mando setup problems. I got out my measuring stuff to give an answer. One thing led to another and I decided to fit a lower saddle for the guitar. I measured before I started and it was just over 7/64" low E at 12th fret. Everything else was basically unchanged from when I bought it. I measured the old saddle and did some mental math on what I would need to do. I left the new saddle a little thicker than the old one for a snugger fit. My plan for lowering was to stop a smidge before I got to my target, then creep it down a bit at a time. When I got to my planned stopping point, the bottom wasn’t quite square, so I had to square it up (reducing the height a bit more). As a result, it was actually below my target a bit (a lucky mistake). I put it in and BAM! Just like that, the magic tone was back. And now the guitar played awesome as well. It now is a hair under 6/64ths at the 12th fret of the E string.

I don’t know what could make the tone change like that while going lower on the action. The only change was the saddle. It is a different chunk of bone, so it could be just better material. The break angle does look more ideal. The old saddle was a smidge looser, but there wasn’t any play previously… in short these were all good moves but there was nothing changed that I would have thought caused issues with tone. After I got it tuned back up I sat there for an hour past my bed time just listening to the guitar. I was back in love again. I am going to have a buddy who played it last week play it again to see his reaction before I change the strings. I want to see if maybe I am just nuts again.

Again, I can’t really explain the tonal changes, but just figured I would reiterate what has been previously said by many. It’s amazing how much difference a setup change can do.

There are so many things that can change when you replace the saddle. You mentioned a few:

[ul]saddle angle (vertical)
intonation (compensation)
saddle seat (the bottom of the saddle that contacts to the bottom of the slot)
saddle width (how tight it fits into the slot and how even that tightness is)
saddle height
saddle radius
saddle break angle (the way the top of each section of the saddle contacts each string)

It seems to me that there are only a couple of these things that may have changed since you first discovered the magic tone. Since you bought it in the winter, it could be that the saddle width may have changed slightly (as the wood of the bridge has changed due to humidity changes). It may be that the saddle break angle and saddle angle have changed slightly if the saddle has moved even a tiny amount due to changes in humidity.

It is this saddle break angle that I would be looking at most closely. I have seen the tone of a guitar go from incredible to okay with just the slightest change in this angle. If the top of the saddle changes slightly and the string is now connecting with the saddle inefficiently, you can lose huge amounts of tone. The fact that you cut a new saddle properly may explain that the magic has returned.

I recently set my Recording King RD316 up with a new saddle. I was able to get rid of any buzzing (minute as it was) which allowed the volume and tone to grow immeasurably. I have noticed that I need to re-crown the frets because their profile is too flat (a tone and volume robbing situation) which is causing a slightly dead tone from the 1st and 2nd string (E and B). A sharper crown will allow less energy to be lost to the top of the frets which should bring back a strong ring and snap to those strings.

When you are talking in tiny measurements of tone and volume, small changes can have huge results. :smiley:

Take care,


Hey Doc,
Great hearing from you! I had previously heard drastic changes in tone and volume by going higher on a saddle, but not lower. My first impression was that the snugger fit in the slot might be the most likely. However, I think you might be on to something with the break angle. On the bass strings, it was such a high angle, I wonder if the energy of the string was wasted in lateral pulling against the saddle instead of driving the top.

Whatever the culprit, I couldn’t be happier.

As a side note, the blank I used was a Martin compensated bone blank. That was the first time I had tried a pre-compensated saddle blank. What a timesaver! The top part was already nicely shaped and polished. I used to prefer a more hand-shaped looking compensation than what they do in the factories, but based on my experience last night, I am sold.

Tools that are used to level frets and they are somewhat expensive and I would not suggest any one that is not well versed in doing it to do it, pay an expert it is a fine instrument and we want to keep it that way but I have an idea about a fret file that may save you some money and may not be worth the space on this post . But it seems to me that a level that is used to level frames and so forth might be an excellent tool to turn into a fret file . most levels cost about 15 bucks so that would be a huge savings . If any one knows about the flatness of a framing level please enrich us with that knowledge. As far as the weighted part of the file you could add some weight through many ways by taping some weight on the side you will not use . I have only used a fret file one time so I am not an experienced guitar repairmen. I replaced the first seven on my Takemine and it turned out well ,. I did not know where to find out how flat those types of levels are so I am asking here. I used a short fret file made for doing that job not a level but I need one longer so I may do that this winter on another guitar that is a cheapy , 99.00 bucks so if I mess up I have not messed up very much.

Good deal welder. I have done lots of fret level/crown/polish work, but the only time I removed frets was as a teen. I made a fretless bass out of a fretted bass. I made a mess removing the old frets. It all worked out, but I created some work for myself with all the chip out. At some point, I think I’ll probably do a refret of a cheapie guitar to see how it goes. On a guitar I just got back, I had a partial done with stainless. They should last a very long time.

As I mentioned above, I decided to go ahead and re-crown my frets with a fret crown (rounding) file with a tighter radius for medium small (thinner) frets. It fixed the problem I mentioned about not having as much ring to each of the top two plain strings. They ring clearly now without any dullness.

Just like Mike here, I have also been leveling, dressing and polishing frets since my early teens. I have a favorite fret crown file, but it is for larger (fatter) frets, so the radius is slightly wide. It works on thinner frets, but instead of getting a nice half circle at the top of the fret, you get more of a gentle curve. I suspect that when pressing down on the fret, you can end up with the contact at the top of the fret as being slightly behind where it should be and also lose a little tone (snap) with the flatter radius.

Anyway, I went ahead and lowered the saddle slightly to get just about 5/64 (.078) clearance on the high E and just over 3/32 (about .100) clearance on the low E. I did this on my RD316 since I use that to keep up with bluegrassers. It feels and sounds real nice.

As I have grown older and more tuned in to slight differences in tone and feel, I have found myself less and less tolerant of poor acoustic tone on a guitar. In my younger days, I would have been fine with an acoustic that played with electric action yet had no clean acoustic power to it (was buzzy). These days, I tend toward much higher action so that the tone remains when picked hard.

Hey Doc,
Glad to hear the RD316 is setup well for you. It sounds like our preferences for action are similar. It’s an interesting thought on the crown profile, and I could see where too gentle of an angle could cause a lack of a crisp break point. It made me think of something others do (I am thinking I read about it from Dan Erlewine)… instead of using a fret crowning file, he will sometimes hand bevel either side of the fret (using a triangular file with smooth edges) to make a “bus top” shape with a flat on top. I see that shape on P-basses. I tried doing it one time, but it didn’t seem worth the effort as it took me much longer than using a crowning file. However I guess if that shape worked well for someone, it would be much less prone to wear as there is some meat on top of the fret.

In re-reading, I think missed a question from Welder about using things for leveling. If I am doing a level on a martin, I have a radiused sanding block. I use that with self adhesive sandpaper. If I an working on something that has a different radius, I will typically use a file that has the edges ground smooth. I think basically anything that is flat could be used with self stick sandpaper. The nice thing about sandpaper as opposed to files is that you don’t get chatter marks. Anyway, back to the question about how flat something has to be… my radius block is wood, so it’s going going to change slightly with conditions and it has some give to it, but I have never had problems as a result. I suspect as long as it is reasonably flat, you’ll be ok.