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Guitar action is a crucial aspect to comprehend for any guitarist. It refers to the measurement of the distance between the strings and the fretboard. The instrument’s playability and tone are significantly impacted by this distance.
When considering the importance of guitar action, it’s essential to understand how it affects the overall playability of the guitar. The height of the strings can greatly impact the ease with which a guitarist can produce notes and chords.
A higher action requires more force to press down on the strings, making it more challenging for beginners or players with weaker fingers. On the other hand, a lower action allows for faster and smoother playing, but it may result in buzzing or fretting out if not properly adjusted.
In this Killer Rig article, we’re going for a deep dive into guitar action. Adjustments to the action can greatly enhance your playing experience and overall sound quality. And that is something we are all looking to achieve! Let’s get started.
- Guitar action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. It is an important factor in the playability and sound of the guitar.
- Measuring guitar action can be done using a ruler or an action gauge. Both methods provide accurate measurements.
- Adjusting guitar action can be done through various methods, such as adjusting the truss rod, saddle height, and nut height. It is important to consider the pros and cons of each method.
What is Guitar Action?
In simple terms, guitar action refers to the distance between the strings and the fretboard. It can have a significant impact on how the guitar feels and plays.
Understanding and maintaining an appropriate string height is crucial for achieving optimal playability, tonal quality, and overall musical experience.
The proper definition and importance of guitar action lie in its ability to create an ideal balance between ease of playing and sound production.
A well-adjusted action allows for comfortable fretting, smooth transitions between notes, and the ability to execute techniques with precision. Additionally, it contributes to the resonance and sustain of the instrument, influencing its tonal characteristics and projection.
Find your perfect guitar action by personalizing your setup through experimentation with adjustments. Every guitarist has unique preferences regarding their playing style and musical genre.
Finding that sweet spot involves trial-and-error until achieving optimal playability meets individual requirements.
High vs. Low Action on Guitars
While the ideal action often boils down to personal preference, understanding the distinct characteristics of high and low action can guide guitarists in tailoring their setup to their playing style and genre.
- Richer Tone: Higher action often results in a fuller, more resonant tone, especially noticeable in acoustic guitars.
- Volume: With more room to vibrate, strings on a high action setup can produce a louder sound.
- Reduced Fret Buzz: The increased distance from the frets minimizes the chance of fret buzz, even with harder strumming or picking.
- Slide Play: For those who play slide guitar, a higher action is almost mandatory to prevent unwanted contact with the frets.
- Playability: High action requires more force to press down the strings, which can be tiring and challenging, especially for beginners.
- Bending Difficulty: Bending strings on a high action setup requires more effort, which can affect the fluidity of solos.
- Potential Intonation Issues: The farther a string has to be pressed down, the more it can potentially go out of tune, especially on higher frets.
- Ease of Play: Low action setups are generally easier to play, especially for fast passages, intricate solos, or complex chord shapes.
- Faster Response: With less distance to travel, strings respond quicker to the touch, ideal for rapid playing styles.
- Less Hand Fatigue: With a reduced need to press hard, players often experience less hand fatigue, allowing for longer playing sessions.
- Fret Buzz: The proximity to the frets increases the likelihood of fret buzz, especially if the frets aren’t perfectly leveled.
- Tonal Compromise: Some guitarists believe that extremely low action can reduce the guitar’s resonance and fullness of tone.
- Limited Dynamics: With less room to vibrate, the dynamic range can be slightly limited, especially on harder strums or picks.
Personal Anecdote and Advice
Many years ago, before I developed the skills I have today, I purchased a vintage acoustic guitar with incredibly high action. Despite my attempts at adjusting it myself based on online tutorials, I struggled to find a suitable playing experience.
Eventually, I sought help from an experienced guitar technician, who accurately measured my instrument’s action using specialized tools. The technician identified excessive neck relief as the cause of the high action and made the necessary adjustments.
The difference was remarkable, and I could finally enjoy playing my guitar comfortably. This experience taught me the value of taking precise measurements and seeking expert advice when needed.
In saying this, I would also like to alert you to the other adjustments that should be checked before the action. I have written another article to help you for one of them here on neck relief.
Finding the right guitar action is like Goldilocks searching for the perfect porridge – too high, and it’s a finger workout, too low, and it’s a fret buzzing nightmare.
How to Measure Guitar Action
When it comes to playing the guitar, knowing how to measure the action is crucial in achieving optimal playability. In this section, I will guide you through two methods of measuring guitar action:
- Using a ruler: With a ruler, you can get a basic measurement of the distance between the strings and the fretboard.
- Using an action gauge: On the other hand, an action gauge provides more precise measurements, allowing you to adjust the action to your desired preferences.
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.
Not many people have feeler gauges, and so I’m not going to focus on them in detail. Just know that you can use them if you own a set.
Now, before we take any measurement, it’s absolutely critical that the guitar be clean and in tune. The string tension must be where you normally play it for the best results.
Now that you have that completed, let’s dive into the details and discover the perfect guitar action for your playing style.
Measuring with a Ruler
Measuring the height of a guitar’s strings with a ruler can provide valuable information about its action. By using precise measurements, you can determine if your guitar’s action is too high or too low, allowing you to make any necessary adjustments.
Here is a 5-step guide to measuring guitar action with a ruler:
- Place the ruler perpendicular to the fretboard, resting it on top of the 12th fret.
- Measure the distance between the bottom of the ruler and the top of the 6th string (the thickest string).
- Repeat this measurement for all six strings, writing down each result.
- Compare your measurements to recommended guidelines for guitar action.
- Based on these comparisons, determine if your guitar’s action needs adjustment.
It’s important to note that measuring with a ruler may not provide as accurate results as using specialized tools such as an action gauge. However, it can still give you a general idea of your guitar’s setup and whether further adjustments are necessary.
When using a ruler to measure guitar action, keep in mind that factors such as playing style and personal preference can influence ideal action height.
Therefore, it’s recommended to experiment with different measurements and consult professionals or experienced players for guidance in finding the right balance for your comfort level.
Measuring with an Action Gauge
A precision gauge is an essential tool for accurately measuring guitar action. It allows for precise measurements to be taken, ensuring the optimal setup of your instrument. But if you are in a pinch or just can’t get one, download my free printable guitar action gauge here.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to measure guitar action using a precision gauge:
1. Place The Guitar On A Flat Surface
Once you have the guitar action gauge, 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.
2. Take a Measurement
Place the measuring tool on the frets so that it rests flat. The string height at the 12th fret is where you want to measure. This is because it’s roughly halfway between the nut and bridge.
With the tool on the fretboard, you can now view the measurement scale on the side. Record the indicator number that the bottom of the string lines up with on the tool.
Do this with each string, recording your readings. 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.
This method provides accurate measurements, allowing you to determine if your guitar action is too high or low. By utilizing an action gauge, you can confidently assess and adjust your instrument’s setup to achieve optimal playability and performance.
Understanding if Your Guitar Action is Too High or Low
To determine if your guitar action is too high or low, you need to consider certain factors. By understanding the characteristics and effects of different action heights, you can make an informed decision about adjusting your guitar’s action to achieve the desired playability and tone.
Here is a guide to help you understand if your guitar action is too high or too low:
- Evaluate string height at the 12th fret: Measure the distance between the bottom of the strings and the top of the 12th fret using a ruler or an action gauge.
- Check for buzzing or rattling sounds: Play each string individually, paying attention to any buzzing or rattling noises. This could indicate that your action is too low.
- Assess ease of playing: Notice how comfortable it feels to press down on the strings. If it requires excessive force or causes discomfort, your action might be too high.
- Analyze intonation: Play open chords and check if notes played higher up the neck stay in tune. Poor intonation could be a sign that your action needs adjustment.
- Consider play style and preferences: Different players have varying preferences when it comes to action height. Take into account your playing style, finger strength, and desired tone when determining if your guitar action suits you.
- Seek professional advice if unsure: If you are unsure whether your guitar action is too high or low, consult with a skilled technician who can provide expert guidance based on their experience and knowledge.
In evaluating if your guitar action is too high or low, remember that personal preference plays a significant role in finding the right balance between comfort, ease of playing, and desired tone.
Experimentation may be necessary to find what suits you best. But it’s also important to recognize that each guitar type is also different in terms of the string height. Let’s look at this in more detail:
It’s all about that low action with electric guitars. Typically, they’re favored for fast, detailed playing. With a lower action, nailing those rapid melodies and solos becomes a breeze.
However, a word of caution: lower the action excessively, and you’re in for some pesky string buzzing. It’s all about finding that sweet spot!
As you can see in the chart below, 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 electric guitar string height according to that for the best results.
|Electric Guitar Action Height||Low E||High E|
Acoustic guitars are much different. They typically have higher action than their electric siblings. That’s because they count on string vibrations for sound.
As a result, the strings need to be thicker than the electric guitar. The only issue is that with thicker strings comes more tension. This presents a mechanical issue with acoustics because they can also only handle so much tension before bad things happen like bridges being ripped off of them.
And so we end up with an acoustic guitar string height that is higher. And if you move to a smaller gauge string, you will lose volume. So it’s a bit of a trade-off, but most people will choose the added volume from thicker strings.
Using the chart below, you will see that medium is the average setting for an acoustic guitar. If you are a more aggressive strummer, then use medium-high.
|Acoustic Guitar Action Height||Low E||High E|
And then you’ve got classical guitars. Played with fingers instead of a pick, these beauties generally have the highest action of them all. The benefit?
A whole palette of dynamics and tones to play with. But remember the rule: too high an action, and playing your guitar might just turn into a workout.
These pointers should help, but they’re just that, pointers. The best action? That’s going to come down to your style and what feels right for you. You’re going to have to experiment to find that. It’s something you need to feel to get right.
How to Adjust Action on an Electric Guitar
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.
- 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.
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.
And once you have found your setting, be sure to check the height of your pickups. Sometimes when a guitar action adjustment is made, the pickups are no longer within spec.
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.
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 fretboard 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.
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.
How to Adjust Action on an Acoustic Guitar
Adjusting the action on an acoustic is much different. In fact, this procedure should be done by a professional who knows exactly what to do. But, if you feel confident, it’s possible to do. But proceed at your own risk.
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 Height 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.
Saddle Adjustment Tips
When performing the adjustment on an acoustic guitar, here are a few suggestions.
- 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.
- Remove small amounts of material at a time. Don’t take off too much, or you might have to replace the saddle.
- 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.
- 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.
As we come to the end of our discussion on guitar action, it is essential to conclude with understanding how to find the right guitar action that suits your individual preferences.
Personalization and experimentation play crucial roles in this pursuit. By exploring various guitar actions and adapting them to your playing style, you can discover the perfect balance between playability and sound quality.
Ultimately, finding the right guitar action involves a journey of trial and error, as you experiment with different setups and adjustments to achieve your desired tone and comfort.
Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to guitar action, so embrace the process of personalization and let your musical expression flourish.
Why did my action change?
Sometimes, your guitar’s action might shift without you meddling with it. This sneaky change can come from variations in temperature or humidity.
These environmental factors can mess with the wood in your guitar, making it shrink or puff up a bit.
On top of that, the relentless pull from the strings might cause the guitar’s neck to arch just a tad, throwing off your action. Regular check-ups and tweaks can keep your guitar’s action steady.
Does Higher Action Give you a Better Tone?
A higher action will change the tone, but there is no guarantee that it will make it better. Moving the strings farther from the pickups will lessen the output and the sonic response. This could be good, but it might also be a worse sound.
The same is true with the acoustic guitar. By moving the strings away from the soundboard, the tone will change slightly. But whether it’s a good change or not will only be realized by trying it.
The only time making the action higher is truly better, is when the strings are buzzing against the frets and are simply too close!
Why do cheap guitars have high action?
Cheaper guitars usually have a higher action because it makes the manufacturing process less complicated.
High action hides issues like wobbly frets or a bent neck, which you’ll often find in cheaper guitars. But don’t fret (pun intended), a little tweaking can bring down the action on a cheap guitar, making it easier on your fingers.
Does Low Action Help with Playing Fast?
Many players assume that lower action will help them play faster. And they would be right, this is in fact true. But first you have to determine what is low action and what is too high.
If you find that the strings require a lot of effort to push on in order to fret them, then yes, the string height is too great. Your technique will then suffer due to the extra time required to press strings farther.
Lowering the action will help you increase your speed across the fretboard. The motion should be more of a glide across the strings, with little to no effort pressing the strings.
Is Bending Easier with lower Action?
Low action isn’t necessary for string bends. Any guitar set to factory specification or even a tad lower will work perfectly fine. The only time bending strings will become difficult is when the string height is too high.
This will make bending hard because the string will want to move in two different directions. Normally this means it will slip over the top of your fingers, which ruins any good technique quickly.
Do I need to measure the action of every string?
If your guitar has a Floyd Rose or Tune-O-Matic bridge, you only need to measure the action of the high and low E strings. For Fender type bridges where string height can be adjusted individually, you will need to measure the action of each string.