Guitar Action Guide: Measure and Adjust String Height 

Getting your guitar’s action set just right is crucial to playing your best. If the strings are too high off the fretboard, you’ll have a hard time pressing down on them. You’ll also be more likely to experience buzzing if the action is too low.

Guitar action is the distance between the bottom of the strings and the top of the frets. The measurement is made at the 12th fret. It’s best to adjust it according to your playing technique. The more aggressive the play style, the higher the action will need to be to prevent fret buzzing.

Anyone who plays with a softer strum and touch can benefit from a lower string height. This article will walk you through a few simple methods for perfectly adjusting the action on your guitar.

If you’re in a hurry, here are the key takeaways for guitar action:

  • It’s best to set your guitar action once the neck relief is within tolerance.
  • The average action on an electric guitar is .05″. Anything over .08″ is likely too high.
  • Aim for .09″ on an acoustic guitar.

What is Guitar Action?

Guitar action is the string height from the top of the frets. The higher the action, the harder it is to press the strings down. But if set too low, you may experience fret buzz. For these reasons, guitarists often adjust their action to find a good balance. This is usually a point between ease of play and sound.

If the action is too low, the strings may buzz against the frets and affect the quality of the sound. However, if it’s too high, it can be difficult to play chords and fret notes cleanly. Intonation might also be affected, as the strings must bend more to reach the frets.

The ideal guitar action is a matter of personal preference. It can vary depending on the type of music being played and the intensity. Most guitarists prefer an action that falls somewhere in the middle range.

A guitar neck showing the space between the strings and frets, also known as the action.

What is Considered High Action?

Not familiar with the idea of guitar action? Then you might be asking how to distinguish between excellent and poor height. Actually, it’s very easy!

There are a few signs that the action on your guitar might be too high. If you have to exert a lot of pressure on the strings, the action is high. Additionally, if your hands or wrists hurt during or after playing. If it’s extreme, your intonation will also be affected!

It may be challenging to play the guitar if the action is too high. The strings may be too far away from the fretboard and require more force to press them down.

This will make it uncomfortable. Especially when trying to use particular chords or playing techniques. Playing leads might be tough, for example. So finding the right action on your guitar is important!

Can it be too Low?

Are you experiencing buzzing or notes that don’t ring out at certain frets? Then there is a good chance that your action is too low. We all strive to have low action as players. But not at the expense of fret buzz or lack of sustain.

If it’s too low, then you will experience buzzing when playing open notes. However, this is extremely low and less common. Normally, you will just experience this when playing frets that are higher up the fretboard.

Lead players who play up around the 15th fret will experience this as dying notes. They don’t play well or sound dead.

Fretboard Evenness

Sometimes it’s not the action itself that is the issue. Often times it’s the neck that isn’t set up right. As a result, the bow could be drastic in either direction. This means the fretboard becomes uneven from the first fret to the last.

This is why we suggest that you make sure to have the neck set up first before looking into the action. If the neck is out of tolerance, then setting the action will only create other issues for you.

So when considering an adjustment like this, inspect the whole guitar! Consider things like the guitar nut too, as it’s responsible for the height at the head of the instrument.

How To Measure Guitar Action

With the correct tools, measuring guitar action is simple. But you need to have the right work space to get the best measurement. Below you will find the steps needed to take a good measurement!

1. Get the Right Measuring Tool

Selecting the right measurement tool for guitar action is very important. Ensure the scale begins right on the ruler’s edge. The scale must begin at the frets and accurately measure to the bottom of the strings. If the tool has some blank space, the measurement will not be accurate.

In this case, I suggest a tool made for this purpose. It’s called a string action gauge and can be obtained very easily. You can find it here if you need one. The picture below is the one we use and suggest it for you as well.

Feeler gauges can also work. These are thin, flat strips of metal that are all different thicknesses. They are precise and can help you set your guitar action. Simply select the thickness you want to use and place the gauge between the frets and strings. If they touch the feeler gauge, you have obtained the correct spacing.

Close up of A Guitar action measurement tool

2. Place The Guitar On A Flat Surface

A Guitar Laying Flat On a Table

Once you have the tool, it’s time to take a measurement. Find a flat surface to place the guitar on. If you have a guitar neck support, this will be helpful. If you can keep the guitar level, measuring will be easier. Make sure to have enough space around you to work.

If you can’t look at the side of the neck, then you don’t have enough space. The measurement will need to be taken by looking between the strings and the frets.

3. Measure The String Height

Guitar action gauge sitting on the guitar neck

Place the measuring tool on the frets so that it rests flat. The string height at the 12th fret is what you want to measure. With the tool on the fretboard, you can now view the measuring scale on the side. Record the indicator number that the bottom of the string lines up with on the tool.

Do this with the first and sixth strings. This will help you to understand the overall guitar action of each string. The height of these strings need not be the same. If they are different, this is normal.

In the picture below, you can see the tool resting on the frets. The strings line up to the measurement scale. In this case, the measurement is .08″ which is a bit high.

Guitar action measurement being taken. It displays the tool on a guitar neck.

4. Determine If An Adjustment Is Needed

Once you have recorded the string height, it’s time to consider if an adjustment is necessary. You will want to compare your results to what the manufacturer suggests. This is normally a standard setting across guitar types. We have some general settings for you in this article. You will find both electric and acoustic settings.

Read on to find out what the best settings are for your guitar. You will need to consider your play style as part of the final setting.

Measuring Tips

If your guitar bridge can adjust each saddle, then you will need to take a measurement for each string. If the bridge only has 2 adjustment points, one on each side, then measure and record the high and low E strings only.

There are 3 things that need to be done beforehand to obtain the most accurate results.

  1. Make sure the neck relief is set right for your guitar.
  2. Tune all strings to the right pitch.
  3. Verify that the measuring tool is positioned correctly.

If this is all done correctly, then you will get great results and will be able to move to the next steps.

If you are not sure about neck relief, click here to visit our informative article.

What is the Best Guitar Action For You?

Now that all the measurements have been taken, it’s time to adjust the action to your preference. This will be a personal decision. While there are average recommendations, ultimately it’s up to you what feels best.

I suggest you start with the average settings, which can be found in the diagrams below. Then, adjust your guitar action to a string height that is comfortable. This is the best guitar action!

A few things to keep in mind when considering the right guitar action:

  1. If you play fast-paced music, you might want a lower action to facilitate speed. If you play fingerstyle or aggressive rhythm guitar, you might prefer a higher action. Make sure that the strings don’t buzz when they are plucked or strummed.
  2. Heavier gauge strings will require a higher action to avoid buzzing. A lighter gauge can be played with the lower action. This should be considered when changing string thickness.
  3. Each Guitar style is designed for different purposes. A Stratocaster, for example, isn’t built for speed like a Schecter Omen. As such, they will have different optimal string heights.

The electric guitar is also much different from an acoustic, and so this must also be taken into account.

How To Adjust Guitar Action

Now that you have your ideal action, it’s time to adjust your guitar. This will require some tools! You will need:

  • A set of metric Allen wrenches.
  • Action gauge measurement tool.
  • Flat Screwdriver.
  • String radius gauges.

Not every guitar will require these tools, it depends on the bridge and the type you are setting up. Also, make sure that you have verified that the neck relief is set up as it should be before adjusting the action.

Electric Guitar Adjustments

ActionLow EHigh E
Low0.050.04
Low-Med (Average)0.060.05
Medium0.0650.055
Med-Hi0.070.06
High0.0750.065

As you can see in the chart above, the low-medium setting is the average starting point for most people. Yet, it’s important to keep your personal music style in mind. Adjust the action according to that for the best results.

Start by following our recommendations if you’re unsure of what the ideal guitar action is for you. Once you have a chance to play, pay close attention to whether you experience any string buzz. If you get fret buzz, try raising the action.

If you still feel like it’s too high, lower the strings until you find your preferred playability. Sometimes it’s a fine balance between fret buzz and comfortable height.

Be sure to use an amplifier when playing your electric guitar, so you can hear all noises. If you start to hear fret buzz while playing, you’ve likely found your setting. Just make sure to stop at that point to avoid over-adjusting the strings.

Keep in mind that there are different bridge designs that you may come across. Depending on which bridge your electric guitar is equipped with, the adjustment is different. After each adjustment, be sure to tune the strings to get the most accurate readings.

Tune-O-Matic Bridge

Tune-o-matic style guitar bridge

If you have a Tune-o-Matic bridge, there are typically two screws that adjust the action. The height adjustment screws are on either side of the bridge. They can be adjusted with a hex wrench, screwdriver, or knurled disks.

To lower the strings, turn the screws clockwise until you reach the desired distance. To raise or increase height, turn the screws counter-clockwise. You will want to be careful not to strip or damage these screws, so be sure to use the correct tool.

Adjustments should be made one side at a time. Then use the tool to gauge the string height. Now that both sides have been adjusted, all six strings will be set.

Fender Style Bridge

Fender style guitar bridge

If your electric guitar has a Fender-style bridge, the process is a bit different. Each saddle must be adjusted one at a time. There are many bridges like this that are also a part of the hard-tail family. This requires more work but will result in better accuracy.

There are 2 Allen screws on each saddle used to raise or lower the string. Each string will need to be measured to get the right height based on your desired spacing. It’s also important to remember that the strings must match the neck radius.

This is where radius gauges can be a big help if you don’t mind putting in the extra time. You can find the tool here. If you choose not to use the tool, then adjust the strings until you have the right action without any fret buzz.

Floyd Rose Bridges

Location of the Floyd Rose Guitar Action posts

These bridges are frequently found on guitars designed for tremolo use. The Floyd Rose system is designed to keep the string tension constant when using the tremolo arm. Yet it’s surprisingly easy to adjust the guitar action.

The lock nut must first be loosened before tuning your strings to pitch. Are you setting your action because you have changed the string gauge? Then you need to make sure the Floyd Rose system is balanced by adjusting the spring tension.

Once you have your action measurements, it’s as easy to adjust as turning the 2 posts on either side of the bridge. You will need a 3-millimeter Allen key to do so, but it really is that easy. Make sure you tune after each adjustment and be careful not to damage the screw posts.

Acoustic Guitar Adjustment

ActionLow EHigh E
Low0.070.06
Low-Med 0.080.07
Medium (Average)0.090.075
Med-Hi0.100.085
High0.110.09

Using the chart above, you will see that medium is the average setting for an acoustic guitar. If you are a more aggressive strummer, then use medium-high. These acoustic guitar suggestions will work great as long as the neck relief is correct.

Just keep in mind that if you use a capo often, then the action will need to be tested with it as well. Because a capo lowers the string height when applied, this will also need to be considered. This will be the same with slides.

Saddle Modification

You’ll need to modify the saddle’s thickness to alter the string height. It may take longer and be more difficult to complete this process. Therefore, it’s crucial to have patience! It might be a good idea to hire a professional if you are unsure of your competence to handle this one.

The saddle on an acoustic guitar can be removed by lightly tapping it free. First, the string tension must be loosened. This will allow you to either sand down the bottom of the saddle to lower the action or add shims to raise it. In some cases, a new saddle will be required in order to raise the action.

Before making any adjustments to an acoustic guitar, make sure the bow in the neck is correct. In most cases, the action will return to a comfortable position when this is set correctly.

Close up of an Acoustic guitar saddle

Saddle Adjustment Tips

When performing the adjustment on an acoustic guitar, here are a few suggestions.

  1. Mark the saddle with a sharpie before removing it from the bridge. This will allow you to see how much material is being removed when filing.
  2. Remove small amounts of material at a time. Don’t take off too much, or you might have to replace the saddle.
  3. When testing the modified saddle, make sure to tune the acoustic guitar up to pitch and test the action. Listen for any buzzing sounds and measure the string height.
  4. If you removed too much material and now have buzzing, you can add small paper shims under the saddle to raise it. Adding more to one side will also help fix the radius errors.

What Makes Guitar Action Change?

So why would the action change? This is a question that normally comes up with players. If the guitar is set up, it should just stay that way, right? The answer is no. And here are a few reasons why the action will change.

Humidity and Environment

A guitar may be significantly affected by a change in humidity. For instance, where I live, the temperature and humidity drop drastically in the winter! This seriously dries out the wood, which means some pretty drastic changes in the neck. The action is one of those things that gets affected.

String Thickness

Another factor that can affect the action on a guitar is the string gauge. Using heavier gauge strings may cause the action to become lower. This is because of the extra material of a larger string diameter. If using lighter gauge strings, the opposite will happen. It will cause action to become higher.

Alternate Tunings

A guitar is normally set up in standard tuning. The action is perfect when this is done. But when alternate tunings are used, this can affect the string tension. If the tension is lowered, the strings will flop around more. If the action was low to begin with, then this could cause fret buzz.

And so if you really lower the tension, then it could cause guitar action issues! You won’t find this to be an issue when increasing your tension, however. Just be careful not to tighten the strings so much that they snap!

Age and Use

The age of the guitar, the quality of the frets, and any alterations or repairs made to the instrument can affect the action. It’s important to keep these factors in mind when setting up or adjusting the action on your guitar. They can have a significant impact on the playability and feel of the instrument.

New Guitar Parts

There are a lot of players that like to modify their guitars. Sometimes the guitar nut gets replaced and is not set right. The grooves in the nut set the action on one end of the guitar. If the grooves are not cut right, this will cause string height issues.

The bridge can cause the same issue. If you have replaced parts like the bridge, then you can expect that the guitar action will no longer be set up right.

Conclusion

These are some easy steps to setting your guitar’s action. Set it so that it’s nice and comfortable with no buzzes or other issues. Just remember to take things slow and make small adjustments until you get the right height! If you rush things, you might end up doing more harm than good! But anyone can do this job with a little practice.

FAQs

Does action affect tone?

Yes, the guitar action has an impact on your sound. For electric guitars, the action also affects pickup height. If you adjust the string height, it will impact the magnetic strength on the strings. This will affect your tone if you don’t also adjust the pickup height.

With acoustic guitars, the body is a resonant chamber. If the string height is changed, the way the body responds will also be different. It’s not as drastic, but it does change your tone and is worth mentioning. I find the sound to be brighter when the strings are farther from the body.

Why would you want high action on a guitar?

You might raise the action on your guitar for a few different reasons. The most common reason is to avoid fret buzz. If the action is too low, the strings can start to buzz against the frets. This can be a big problem for most guitarists.

Another reason is that high action can make the guitar easier to play. Especially when using capos and slides. You just need to find the right balance.

Why is guitar action lower on electrics?

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the string tension is much different. An acoustic guitar set has 36% more tension. The acoustic guitar neck has to deal with this extra tension. Usually, it means higher action.

Next, electric guitars don’t play the same way an acoustic does. Yes, the fundamentals are the same, but when you play leads, it’s not on an acoustic! This means that in order to really perform well on an electric guitar, the design is different.

So great care is taken to make sure the action on an electric is as low as possible. And so in most cases, it’s lower than acoustic guitars. But an acoustic that is set up well can also have good action.

Does lower action make bending easier?

The lower action on a guitar can actually make it easier to bend the strings. When the action is high, it’s more difficult to get a proper grip on the strings. This is because there is less accuracy with so much string movement vertically.

If you play quite quickly, then this is even harder to do with higher action. Not only will you need to press harder, but the way they feel will be much different too. Lower action not only makes them easy to press, but easier to find under your fingers and bend too

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!