What’s Guitar Action? Detailed Answer and Steps to Set Up

If you’re asking the question, ‘what’s guitar action’, you’re about to discover an essential element that significantly impacts your guitar’s playability. This comprehensive guide will provide you with step-by-step instructions to assess and adjust your guitar’s action, ensuring a setup that’s tailored to your personal playing style and needs.

What's Guitar Action

What’s Guitar Action? – Understanding Guitar Action

The term “guitar action” might sound complex, but it’s a straightforward concept that’s vital to the playability and sound quality of your guitar. Essentially, guitar action is the term used to describe the vertical distance between the strings and the fretboard.

It’s a key factor that influences how your instrument feels when you play it, and it can also affect the sound that emanates from your guitar.

When the action is set correctly, your guitar will not only feel comfortable to play, but it will also allow you to produce clean, crisp notes without any unwanted buzzing or muting. It’s important to realize that there’s no one-size-fits-all setting for action—it can vary depending on your playing style and the genre of music you prefer.

High action, where the strings are farther from the fretboard, requires more pressure from your fingers to press the strings down to make contact with the frets. This can lead to faster finger fatigue and can make intricate fingerwork or fast-paced playing more challenging.

However, some players, especially those who play slide guitar, may prefer a higher action for its cleaner tone and the ability to play louder without the strings rattling against the frets.

On the other hand, low action means the strings are closer to the fretboard, making it easier to press them down. This can be particularly advantageous for beginners or players with a lighter touch, as it requires less effort to fret notes and can facilitate faster playing.

Yet, if the action is too low, you may encounter fret buzz—the annoying sound that happens when a string vibrates against a fret as a note is played, which can be a nuisance when you’re aiming for a clear sound.

Adjusting your guitar’s action is a delicate balance. It involves not just personal preference, but also the mechanics of your instrument. Factors such as the straightness of the neck, the height of the nut and saddle, and the condition of the frets all play a part in determining the optimal action for your guitar.

Understanding and perfecting your guitar’s action is a fundamental part of maintaining your instrument and ensuring that you get the most pleasure and the best performance out of your playing experience.

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Whether you’re strumming chords, picking out melodies, or bending notes, the right action will help you play with ease and express your musical ideas clearly.

Examining Your Current Action

The first step in mastering your guitar’s setup is to take a close look at its current state of playability, specifically the action. A good place to start your assessment is at the 12th fret, which acts as a common point of reference for measuring action height.

Why the 12th fret, you might wonder? It’s the midpoint of the scale length of your guitar, and adjustments here can have a significant impact on playability across the entire fretboard.

When you inspect the strings at this fret, you’re looking for a height that allows for comfortable play without the strings being excessively high or low.

An action that’s too high above the fretboard can make your guitar feel like a challenge to play, requiring more force to press the strings down to the frets, which can be tiring and potentially painful over long periods. Conversely, action that’s too low can lead to the frustrating buzz of strings against the frets when played.

To get an accurate measure of your guitar’s action, arm yourself with a ruler that shows 64ths of an inch. You can usually find a suitable one at a music store or online, specifically designed for guitar measurements.

Place the ruler perpendicular to the strings right over the 12th fret and measure the distance from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string.

For the high E string, a measurement falling within the range of 3/64″ to 4/64″ (approximately 1.2mm to 1.6mm) is often considered standard and offers a balance between playability and tone.

For the low E string, a slightly higher action is standard, with a typical range being between 5/64″ to 6/64″ (approximately 2mm to 2.4mm). These measurements provide a starting point, but standard action can vary depending on the type of guitar and the preferences of the player.

It’s important to remember that these measurements are guidelines rather than strict rules. Players with a heavy touch may benefit from a higher action to avoid buzz, while those with a lighter touch or who play more lead lines may prefer a lower action for easier bending and faster playing.

By understanding and measuring your current action, you can make informed adjustments to create a guitar setup that’s customized to your individual style and needs.

Get more answers to your guitar questions here – Common Guitar Questions: Guide to “What” Guitar Questions

Tools You Will Need

Before adjusting your guitar action, ensure you have the right tools. You’ll need a set of hex keys or a screwdriver compatible with your guitar’s bridge, a ruler for precise measurement, and potentially a capo to check the neck’s relief.

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Adjusting the String Height at the Bridge

If you’ve assessed your guitar and concluded that the string action isn’t quite to your liking, the bridge is typically where you’ll start making changes. This is the part of your guitar that anchors the strings to the body, and it plays a crucial role in determining string height.

For electric guitars, this process is often quite straightforward. You’ll find small screws on the bridge saddles—the individual pieces of the bridge that support each string.

By turning these screws with a suitable screwdriver or Allen wrench, you can raise or lower the action. Clockwise turns usually lower the action, while counterclockwise turns raise it.

For acoustic guitars, the process is a bit different and can be more delicate. To lower the action, you may need to sand down the bridge saddle, which is the strip of bone or synthetic material that the strings rest on. This requires removing the saddle from the bridge and evenly sanding the bottom surface.

It’s important to proceed with patience and precision, removing only small amounts of material at a time to avoid taking off too much, which would require a replacement or professional repair.

Neck Adjustment for Action Control

Close up image of guitar

At times, the solution to achieving the perfect action lies in adjusting the neck’s relief, the slight curvature of the neck that’s necessary for optimal playability. This is managed by tweaking the truss rod, a metal rod running along the inside of the neck.

Adjusting the truss rod affects the bow of the neck, which in turn influences the string action. If the neck is too concave (bowed), the strings will be higher off the fretboard, and if it’s too convex (back-bowed), the strings may be too close, causing buzzing.

Adjusting the truss rod is a sensitive operation. To tighten the rod and straighten a too-bowed neck, turn the adjustment nut clockwise; to loosen it and allow for more bow, turn it counterclockwise. These adjustments should be made in very small increments, often no more than a quarter turn at a time.

Always check the action and the relief after each adjustment to ensure you haven’t gone too far. Excessive adjustment in one direction can potentially damage the guitar, so if you’re uncertain, it’s best to consult a professional luthier.

Checking Intonation After Action Adjustment

Intonation refers to your guitar’s ability to stay in tune across the entire fretboard. After you’ve adjusted the action, it’s possible that the intonation may be off, leading to a guitar that sounds in tune in one position but not in another. This is particularly crucial for musicians who play all over the neck.

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To check intonation, you’ll want to compare the pitch of the string when played open to the pitch of the string when fretted at the 12th fret (an octave higher). If there’s a discrepancy, you’ll need to adjust the length of the string by moving the bridge saddle.

If the fretted note is sharp, the string length needs to be increased by moving the saddle away from the neck. If the note is flat, shorten the string length by moving the saddle towards the neck.

Just like with action adjustments, these changes should be made incrementally, and the tuning should be checked after each adjustment until the intonation is correct.

Maintaining Your Setup

After you’ve invested time and care in setting up your guitar action just the way you like it, it’s important to ensure that it stays that way. Guitars, being largely made of wood, are susceptible to environmental changes.

Fluctuations in humidity and temperature can cause the wood to expand or contract, which might alter the guitar’s setup, including the action.

To maintain the stability of your guitar’s action, try to keep your guitar in an environment with consistent humidity and temperature. Extreme changes can not only affect the action but can also lead to more serious issues such as warping or cracking. A good rule of thumb is if it’s comfortable for you, it’s likely comfortable for your guitar.

Use a hygrometer to monitor the humidity level where you store your guitar. If you find the humidity levels fluctuate, consider using a humidifier or dehumidifier to stabilize the environment. For temperature, avoid leaving your guitar near heaters, air conditioners, or in a vehicle for extended periods.

Regular check-ups are just as important. Periodically check the action, intonation, and neck relief. It’s much like taking a car in for a tune-up; even if nothing seems wrong, these routine inspections can catch small issues before they become big problems.

Additionally, string changes can affect your action. New strings can pull differently on the neck, and different gauges can require slight adjustments to the setup.

Whenever you change your strings, especially if you’re switching to a different type or gauge, take a moment to check your guitar’s action and make any necessary tweaks.

Conclusion: What’s Guitar Action?

Understanding and adjusting guitar action is a vital skill for any guitarist. A properly set action can greatly enhance your playing experience. While the process may seem daunting at first, with patience and careful adjustment, you can achieve an optimal setup that suits your personal playing style.

Remember, every small tweak contributes to the playability and comfort of your instrument, so take your time and get it right.