I've always been bullish on action. I mean, since I started playing acoustic archtops, I've believe that pretty high action was necessary to drive the top of the guitar, so that the maximum acoustic volume can be reached. I've had pretty high action for the last 10 years or so, as a result, and even put on extra heavy high E and B strings to try to make those strings even louder. I'd dealt with set up guys before, and many of them had been clueless the needs of an acoustic archtop - one particularly respected place in Los Angeles told me they did all of Lee Ritenour's guitars, and they could "put .011's on and make the action super low." Of course, it's not suprising to see guys with no appreciation or understanding for our style of playing and guitars.
Well, I had an epiphany the other day that really set me straight. I was at Westwood Music, here in Los Angeles, and picked up a 16" non-cutaway archtop made by a Nashville Luthier named Welker. While the guitar was pretty darn good, what really blew me away was how effortlessly it played and spoke. The intonation was spot on from nut to bridge and it required very little effort to make the guitar just sing. I asked the sales guy on the floor who set up the guitar, and he replied "I did." I of course asked if he would be able to set up my guitar if I brought it in, and he said he'd be happy to take a look, and that turn around time would be a couple of days tops.
Well, this was right before Camp Hollywood, and our 6 night 10th Anniversary run, so I didn't take the guitar in until about the three weeks ago.
When I finally brought the guitar in, I saw the same guy who was stoked to see my Eastman 605. He took a look at it and formulated a perscription. But then he said, "lemme get Dave to take a look at it." My first reaction was "Who the hell is Dave? Screw Dave. You set up that Welker - do the same to my guitar." Of course I didn't say that out loud, but the guy explained that Dave was the guy that showed him everything he knows, so he wanted a second opinion. Dave was really nice, and he basically echoed the other guys perscription, though he would take it one notch further. They asked if I had a couple minutes and they could do it right then - of course I took them up on it. I figured they had that nice Welker still, so I could play while I waited.
When the guitar returned not 20 minutes later, I was stunned. The guitar with the beefy action that I'd been wrestling (and mostly winning) for almost 8 years now played like a dream. The intonation, which had always been a bit compromised with my hybrid guage string set, was now spot on. The action was signifcantly lowered, although it was still high enough to get plenty of volume out of the guitar and not buzz when I dug into the guitar.
But, to be fair it wasn't as loud. And that bummed me out for a second - but then I realized the truth. My previous action was past the point of diminishing returns. I was so high that sustain was compromised, and they led to guitar that was harder to play and less impactful, even if it was technically louder. With such high action, the strings would die the second I released the strings even slightly. So, the guys at Westwood Music found that sweet spot where volume/sustain/playability/intonation all meet perfectly. My guitar has been so inspirining to play because of the set up, that I've been playing more guitar lately than I have in 10 years. Having the intonation be so spot on has inspired me to work more on chord-melody and Allan Reuss-style solos.
There were precursors to my epiphany, and I should've caught them then. Whenever I visit Old Towne Pickin' Parlor outside of Denver, Kit's archtops are always imacculately set up. He was very proud of his in-house luthier, but there was never time to have him work on my guitar while I was traveling for the gig. Also, last visit to Seattle, Dave Brown, our go-to bassist in town, lent me a reconditioned Epiphone Triumph that had been worked on a set up by www.archtop.com. That guitar was similarly inspiring to play, and I took the opportunity several times to play things on that guitar that I would have generally switched to my electric to play. Still, I didn't realize what I was missing until now.
I would highly recommend both www.archtop.com and Old Towne Pickin' Parlor to set up your guitar like an acoustic archtop should be set up. And if you're in Los Angeles, you must go to Westwood Music and ask for "Dave" - he knows his stuff!