A luthier is an artisan who builds or repairs stringed instruments such as guitars, cellos, violins, mandolins, dulcimers and banjos. The word luthier comes from the French word luth, which means lute. The term originally referred to makers of lutes and is now used interchangeably with any term that refers to makers of a specific, or specialty, type of stringed instrument, such as violin maker, guitar maker, or lute maker.
Some skills of a luthier include:
In-depth knowledge of instrument design and repair
Acoustic listening skills
Finishing (lacquering wood)
Knowing how to play the instrument (sometimes)
In addition to making guitars, a luthier can perform a “set up” on a guitar. Set ups can be performed both when an instrument is first purchased and after it has been played or stored over a number of years. A new guitar is not necessarily adjusted to conform to the purchaser’s taste and may need adjustment, even if it was an expensive instrument. Also, because guitars are made from wood, over a period of time the wood reacts to changes in temperature and humidity and expands and contracts. The guitar changes and needs to be adjusted. Constant string tension, environmental factors, and general use all combine to take an instrument out of its ideal form.
Luthiers also repair physical damage like dings or breaks in an instrument’s body. A luthier cleans, seals, patches, and refinishes the damaged area so that it is barely noticeable. He ensures that the wood is protected from further damage. Also, luthiers repair structural damage such as loose or broken necks, and clean and replace frets.
What is a guitar setup?
Most commonly, a guitar setup is the adjustment the guitar so that it is:
Intonated correctly – i.e. all of the correct notes sound at all of the correct frets;
Playing at its best – the neck is adjusted via the truss rod according to taste (the lower the playing action – distance between string and fretboard- the easier it is to play) and the bridge height and saddles are adjusted;
Sounding its best – issues with fret buzz can usually be fixed by adjustment of the neck.
Some steps in performing a set-up:
- Adjust the Truss Rod
Virtually every acoustic and electric steel-string guitar built after the mid-Seventies has an adjustable truss rod, which runs the length of the neck and counteracts the tension of the strings to help keep the neck straight. Loosen it and the strings pull the neck into a concave bow, resulting in higher action—i.e., the distance between the strings and the fretboard. Tighten it, and the neck bends backward—this is called back-bow—against the natural curve the string tension imparts, moving the strings closer to the fretboard.
- Adjust the Bridge Height
A guitar’s action can also be adjusted at the bridge. On an electric guitar, this is a matter of twisting the appropriate screws; on an acoustic guitar, the luthier may have to shim or sand the bridge saddle.
- Check the Electronics
Do the switches snap, crackle or pop? Checking a guitar’s electronics includes a battery check (and, if necessary, replacement). Also, all the nuts and screws that anchor the guitar’s electronics are checked and adjusted, if necessary
4. Change the Strings
- Check the Tuning Machine Hardware
- Clean and Polish the Frets
This is basic housecleaning, not major fret surgery, like a “crown and polish.” Afterward your guitar will look and play like new.
- Clean and Oil the Fretboard
- Inspect for Structural Problems
Just as string tension can hide loose tuning gears, it can hide loose joints and cracks. Bolt-neck electrics occasionally suffer from loose neck-joint screws, and braces within an acoustic guitar sometimes break or come unglued.
- Adjust the Pickup Height
This can really customize the response of your electric guitar. Bring the pickups closer to the strings if you have a very soft touch or if you want to compress your signal with a slightly fuller, more midrange tone. For players with a heavier touch or for those seeking wider dynamics and a more “airy” tone, lower the pickups slightly. Adjusting the height of each pickup also helps to balance the output between them. Angling the pickups—most often, sloping them down toward the low E string—may help to even out the response across the strings.
- Set the Intonation
Having correct intonation means that a string sounds at the correct pitch for each fret along its length. Intonation is adjusted at the bridge by increasing or decreasing the string’s length.
- Clean and Polish
Our skills and credentials
Tom Powers is a graduate of the Summit School of Guitar Building and Repair on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.