If you’re looking for improved sound quality and a better playing experience, understanding what guitar action is and how to adjust it are essential skills for every guitarist.
This guide provides a thorough overview of what guitar action is, why it’s important, ideal action settings for different types of guitars, how to measure, and how to adjust the action on your guitar.
Get ready to take your playing up a notch!
What is action on a guitar?
Action is the distance between the strings and the fretboard of a guitar, and it is an important element in producing quality sound.
When an electric guitar has a higher action, there is more space between the strings and fretboard giving you more control over each note you play. However, this can also cause buzzing when playing certain notes.
On the other hand, if an electric guitar has a low action it can give off a nice crisp sound but it will be harder to play because there isn’t as much room to maneuver when pressing down on each string.
It takes practice to get used to both types of actions but understanding how they work together can help create beautiful music.
Is guitar action important?
Guitar action can make a vast difference in how well your guitar plays and sounds; it affects both tone and playability.
Here are some reasons why guitar action is important:
- The action affects the comfort on the fretboard, allowing for better note accuracy and less effort when playing chords.
- Properly setup action allows for better intonation, ensuring notes stay in tune during longer performances.
- Lowered action helps increase sustain, creating a bigger sound with greater resonance.
What is the ideal action for your guitar?
The ideal action depends on the type of your guitar.
Now we will examine the actions of different types of guitars so you can easily understand what is the perfect one for your instrument.
Ideal Action For an Electric Guitar
Choosing the ideal action for your electric guitar is an important step in optimizing your playing experience. To help you make the best decision, here are three things to consider:
What type of strings are you using?
Thinner strings tend to move more when they’re plucked and can cause more buzzing than thicker strings, so a higher gauge may be better for achieving a lower action without the notes going dead.
Compare manufacturer recommendations with shredders’ preferences
Fender recommends 1.6mm on both sides, while Ibanez suggests 1.5mm on the treble side and most shredders go as low as 1mm for the treble strings.
In the end, it really comes down to what you prefer
What works for one player may not work for another, so experiment with different actions before settling on one that feels right for you.
At the end of the day, finding an action that suits your style and provides comfortable playability should be your top priority.
Ideal Action For an Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic guitars generally require higher action than electric guitars because it benefits the sound of the instrument.
Martin Guitars set the action of their guitars with relatively high action and thicker strings (.12 gauge), while Taylors tend to come with thinner strings (.11/.10) and lower action.
Balancing playability and sound is key when adjusting the action on an acoustic guitar.
Too low of an action could lead to fret buzz, whereas too high could make it difficult to play. It’s possible to reduce the action without sacrificing tone; however, you may need to adjust other elements such as truss rod tension or bridge height to make this happen.
With careful adjustments, it’s possible for an acoustic guitar to achieve ideal playing conditions while still sounding great!
Ideal Action for A Classical Guitar
Low action is usually associated with classical guitars to ensure better playability, although this might result in a slight loss of tone.
To make up for this, strings used on classical guitars are typically lighter than those found on acoustic guitars – delivering an easier fretting experience without sacrificing volume or tone.
Although low action of your guitar may seem like the ideal solution, high action has its own advantages for classical guitars as well.
With high action, there’s no need to worry about tone loss since the sound of a classical guitar is already softer and mellower compared to an acoustic guitar. Furthermore, it often eliminates buzzing and string noise that could occur when playing with very low action.
High or Low Action: Which is Best?
Both types of actions can provide different benefits for guitar players, depending on their playing style and preference. It’s important to understand how both high and low action can affect your playing in order to make an informed decision about which type will be best for you.
High guitar action
Having high action on a guitar comes with both benefits and weaknesses.
Pros of High Action
- Enhanced Control: With more distance between the strings and fretboard, high action allows you to dig into the strings, providing greater control when bending notes and playing. This enables you to elevate your skills and explore new techniques.
- Improved Slide Guitar Performance: High action is beneficial for slide guitarists, as it prevents the slide from colliding with the frets while playing. This eliminates unwanted buzzing or interference, allowing for smoother and more precise slide movements.
- Reduction of Fret Slap: High action can minimize fret slap, which refers to the clanking noise that occurs when releasing your fingers from the frets after pressing too hard. By reducing this unwanted sound, high action promotes cleaner and clearer notes.
- Finger Strength and Skill Development: Playing with high action requires greater finger strength and dexterity. Regular practice on a guitar with high action can help strengthen your fingers, improving overall playing ability and technique.
- Elevates Guitar Playing: Overall, high action offers numerous benefits that can elevate your guitar playing to a whole new level. From enhanced control and improved slide performance to reduced fret noise and finger strength development, high action can be a valuable asset for advancing your skills and musical expression.
Cons of High Action
- Increased Difficulty in Playing: High action requires exerting more pressure on the strings, making it physically more demanding and potentially fatiguing for your fingers. The greater distance between the strings and fretboard can make it harder to press down on the strings and execute precise fretting.
- Noise Interference: When changing finger positions on a guitar with high action, there can be increased noise interference. This becomes particularly noticeable when using effects or recording in a studio environment. The additional space between the strings and fretboard can lead to unintentional string rattling or buzzing, negatively impacting the overall sound quality.
- Limited Fret Release: With high action, the transition from fretted positions to open positions can feel less smooth and comfortable. The increased distance between the strings and fretboard results in less immediate release when lifting your fingers off the frets, potentially affecting your ability to execute quick position changes or legato playing.
Low guitar action
Low action on a guitar is generally considered an advantage because it allows for easier playing, greater accuracy, and faster execution of notes. However, there are some drawbacks.
To decide whether or not low action is right for you, it’s important to weigh both pros and cons carefully.
Pros of Low Action
- Easier and More Precise Playing: Low action makes playing the guitar easier and more enjoyable. It allows for sharper and more accurate sound production, giving you better control over your playing.
- Great for Studio Recording: Low action guitars produce a clear and well-defined sound, which is ideal for studio recordings. It helps in achieving accurate and precise sound mixing during recording sessions.
- Less Noisy Fret Slap: Low action significantly reduces the clanking noise that occurs when you release your fingers from the frets. This leads to cleaner and more professional recordings and performances.
- Smooth and Strong Feel: Guitars with low action feel smoother and more solid when you play them. The strings are closer to the fretboard, making it easier to perform techniques like bending, vibrato, and sliding.
- Clear and Vibrant Tone: Low action allows the guitar strings to vibrate freely, resulting in a clear and vibrant tone. It enhances the resonance and sustain of the strings, producing a rich and expressive sound.
Pros of Low Action
- Fret Buzz: One of the main disadvantages of low action is the potential for fret buzz. Fret buzz occurs when the strings come into contact with the frets due to their close proximity to the fretboard. This can result in an unpleasant buzzing sound that hampers clean and clear playing.
- Intonation Challenges: Adjusting the string tension on a low action guitar can affect the intonation, which refers to the accuracy of the guitar’s pitch. Achieving proper intonation may require adjustments that can be challenging, especially for those who are not experienced with this process.
- String Rattling: With low action, there is a higher likelihood of strings rattling against the frets or other parts of the guitar. This can produce unwanted noise and interfere with the overall sound quality, particularly when playing aggressively or using certain techniques.
- Increased Risk of String Slippage: Low action guitars may have a higher risk of strings slipping out of tune or unintentionally being muted. The lower string height can make it more difficult to maintain proper string tension and stability, requiring more frequent tuning and adjustments.
- Potential for Limited Tone and Projection: Extremely low action can sometimes result in a loss of tone and projection. The reduced string action height may limit the natural vibration of the strings, affecting the overall richness and volume of the sound produced.
How to measure guitar action
You can measure guitar action with a specialized guitar ruler, feeler gauge, or even some DIY items you have lying around the house.
With these tools in hand, you’ll be able to accurately measure the height of each string from the fretboard and make necessary adjustments to get the perfect action for your playing style.
Measure guitar action with a ruler
With a specialized ruler, you can easily measure the distance between your frets and strings for precise action. To use it, you just need to place the long side of the ruler upright on the frets, perpendicular to the fretboard and parallel to the strings.
Then you’ll be able to measure from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string. This will give you an accurate measurement of your guitar’s action. The black squares on these rulers are also very helpful in measuring action as they come in different sizes so you can get exact readings.
Just remember that metric measurements are usually better for guitars since it’s easier to make small and precise calculations with them.
Measure guitar action with a feeler gauge
The feeler gauge offers an easier measuring method for those who struggle with small numbers. Using a feeler gauge involves placing different thin steel plates of varying thicknesses between the fret and string, one at a time, without pushing the string up.
This process helps to read whether both the string and fret touch it.
We recommend using both a ruler and a set of feeler gauges to get an accurate measurement of guitar action.
Here’s how to do it:
- Position the feelers between the strings and frets.
- Check if both string and fret touch it.
- Take other measurements like nut slot width or neck relief.
Using this combination ensures that you get the most optimal action for your guitar as possible. Feeler gauges are easy to use while providing an efficient way to measure up accurately even on guitars with complex shapes or hard-to-read parts such as nuts and saddles.
Measure guitar action with DIY items
You can measure the guitar action with DIY items if you’re unable to or don’t want to spend money on feeler gauges.
You can use picks of different sizes, string clippings, and pieces of paper as makeshift gauges.
To get the right size measurements, stack the picks and strings together or use paper with known thicknesses from their packaging.
As long as you know what thickness each item is, you can accurately measure your guitar action.
Adjusting Your Guitar’s Action
Adjusting the action on your electric, acoustic, or classical guitar can be a daunting task, but with a little bit of knowledge and patience, you can easily adjust the action on any guitar.
How to adjust the action on an electric guitar
Adjusting your action is one way to customize your playing experience and ensure that your guitar plays as comfortably and accurately as possible.
Here’s a list explaining different types of guitar bridges and their effects on electric guitars action:
- Tune-o-Matic bridges: These bridges have adjustable saddles, which means you can change the height of each string individually. This allows for precise intonation adjustment (getting the guitar in tune across all frets) and setting the string action (how high the strings are from the fretboard). Tune-o-Matic bridges come in two versions: 6-saddle and 2-saddle.
- Hardtail bridges: These bridges allow for higher string action without compromising tuning stability or accuracy. They are suitable for heavier music styles where players prefer more sustain from their guitars. With hardtail bridges, you can set the strings higher off the fretboard while still maintaining good tuning.
- Fender style vibrato bridges: These bridges have tension springs that help maintain the strings at a desired tension level, even when using the tremolo bar (whammy bar). Fender style vibrato bridges provide a wide range of sounds, from subtle vibratos to wild whammy effects. The tension springs contribute to the stability of the bridge and keep the strings in tune.
- Floyd Rose style bridges: Compared to traditional locking tremolos found on Fender Strats or Telecasters, Floyd Rose style bridges offer increased tuning stability and improved sustain. They feature a double locking design, which means you can make radical changes to your guitar’s tone without going through the entire setup process every time. Floyd Rose bridges are known for their ability to hold tuning even with extreme tremolo use.
- Other tremolo systems like Hipshot’s “Tremsetter”: Apart from the aforementioned bridges, there are various other tremolo systems available. Hipshot’s “Tremsetter” system is one example. It works by suspending the strings over a spring-loaded arm rather than attaching them directly to the guitar’s body like most traditional systems. This design helps prevent unwanted noise or buzzing caused by improperly adjusted tremolos while still allowing for full use of its functions, such as raising or lowering the pitch.
Read more on how to adjust the action on electric guitar.
How to adjust the action on an acoustic guitar
Adjusting the action of your acoustic guitar is a bit different than adjusting an electric one, so make sure you take your time and get it right.
- To start, take off all the strings from your acoustic guitar.
- Find the bridge saddle, which is a small piece made of plastic or bone. It determines the height of each string as it passes over it.
- If you want to decrease the string height (lower the action), take a screwdriver and carefully turn each bridge saddle screw in a counter-clockwise direction. Make sure to adjust all the screws equally.
- To increase the string height (raise the action), use the screwdriver to turn each bridge saddle screw in a clockwise direction until it reaches the desired height. Again, adjust all the screws evenly.
- Once you have adjusted the bridge saddle screws, it’s time to put new strings on your guitar.
- After installing the new strings, tune them up to the desired pitch.
Your acoustic guitar is now ready to be played again with the adjusted action.
How to adjust the action on a classical guitar
To adjust the action on a classical guitar, several distinct elements need to be considered. Here are four steps to take in order to make the necessary adjustments:
- Check the neck relief: Use a ruler or straight edge and place it across the fingerboard near its center. Gently press down on the string one octave above middle C with your other hand and observe the gap underneath the straight edge.
- Adjust the truss rod: Unscrew the truss rod nut until you can turn the rod freely with a small wrench or Allen key (depending on the model). Turn clockwise to decrease relief, counterclockwise to increase relief, and recheck neck relief after each adjustment.
- Set the bridge saddle height: Loosen the strings and turn the screws at the base of the saddle until the desired height is achieved. Use a feeler gauge for accuracy if necessary. Retune the strings afterward and check intonation from the 12th fret harmonic clear up the entire fretboard range, rather than just open strings.
- Check the nut slot depth: Check the low E string 1st fret clearance with a feeler gauge. If it’s too high, file the slots deeper using nut files or sandpaper wrapped around a thin wooden dowel for better control and even filing motion. Use a light lubricant like graphite powder for smoother operation afterward!
In a nutshell, guitar action is all about finding that perfect balance between comfort and sound. It refers to the height of the strings from the fretboard, and getting it right can make a world of difference in your playing experience. By measuring and adjusting the action with care, you’ll be able to customize your guitar to suit your style and preferences. So, don’t be afraid to experiment and find that sweet spot that feels just right for you. Happy strumming!
How do I know if my guitar action is too high or too low?
To determine if you have too high or too low action, check the distance between your strings and fretboard.
If the gap is wider than 3 mm, then your action is considered high; if it’s less than 2 mm, then it’s likely low.
In addition, you can also test the playability of your guitar by playing a few notes and chords on different frets – if they sound muffled or require more effort than usual to press down, then it could be an indication that your action is off.
Does the type of wood used for the guitar neck affect the action?
Yes, the type of wood used for the guitar neck can have a significant impact on the action.
Wood has a unique ability to absorb and release energy over time, which affects how it vibrates when strings are strummed.
Harder woods like maple and ebony tend to create less resonance than softer woods like cedar and mahogany, resulting in higher action.
On the other hand, softer woods will allow greater string vibration which usually results in lower action.