So, your fingers are just a bit too tired every time you pick up your guitar and you think a low-action guitar might help? Or perhaps you are simply looking to learn a little more about action on the guitar, regardless of how much you already know?
Whatever your reason for happening upon this here article today, we will be helping you to explore the low action guitar and the high action guitar from all angles – the advantages and disadvantages of each – as well as showing you how to measure your own action and string height and how to adjust it to your own liking.
What is Action?
Though we might easily confuse the word action with a whole host of other things, we will have to get to the bottom of what it means in the context of the guitar if we are ever to understand low guitar action.
The action of a guitar is closely related to string height and guitar string spacing, those being the relative distance between the strings and the fretboard, and latterly the amount of space in between the strings as arrayed traditionally on a guitar, from the body up the guitar neck and tethered to the headstock.
Thus, the action on a guitar is really the amount of distance between the fretboard and the strings stretched above it, which will either result in a low action (which is inherently slack and what is referred to in the biz as ‘hoppy’), a high action (far tighter and with less room for movement on the part of the strings), or somewhere in the middle (which is oft believed by aficionados and other professionals to be the sweet spot).
So, the higher the action of the instrument, the harder it is going to be to manipulate strings since there is a larger distance between string and fretboard, whether that be in the fretting itself or whether that be in extra points of expression, including but not limited to bends, hammer on’s, pull off’s, glissando, etc.
Likewise, these things will operate on the inverse if it is a low-action guitar, with strings being easier to press down and manipulate after the fact of plucking, owing to the shorter and sometimes non-existent gap between string and fretboard.
These seeming benefits, however, do come with their own fair share of downsides, such as a reduction of sustain, etc, though we will get into the pros and cons of each in due course. You may wonder when do you need to adjust the action on an acoustic guitar, and
Low Action Guitar Advantages vs Disadvantages
Low Action Guitar Advantages
With the strings easier to press down as a result of a smaller gap between string and fretboard, there are a whole host of extra benefits that come with low action guitar.
Finger soreness is greatly reduced, owing to the obvious lessening of effort required to make a note sound out as it should or as the player desires it to sound. Similarly, hand fatigue is significantly reduced for all the same reasons, making this a perfect choice for guitarists struggling with conditions that make this a significant problem, such as rheumatism, arthritis, and/or carpal tunnel.
It is not altogether uncommon for people with arthritis to choose to take up an instrument like the guitar, a necked, stringed, and/or fretted instrument that they might use to exercise the muscles that ail them, so they might gain a foothold against this most ravaging of ailments.
Many of the central benefits of low action guitar, do in fact have to do with the ease that it bestows upon guitarists, hence why it is more common for beginner guitarists to use a lower action guitar and thus lower the guitar’s string height so that their fingers are better able to acclimatize to the new instrument and way of using their fingers.
However, this is not to limit its uses to those just starting out, for there are just as many rock guitarists who still use low-action acoustic guitars for the benefits listed above, as well as for the simultaneous effect it can have on bending.
With a lesser string tension, it opens up the playing field for guitarists to bend wildly and to their heart’s content, something that simply could not be done on a guitar with an oppositely tense guitar tension and string height.
Low Action Guitar Disadvantages
Inversely, there are a whole host of disadvantages that come alongside all those seemingly glittering benefits of low-action acoustic guitars.
For all the help with bending and ease of play that comes with a low-action guitar, there are just as many problems with the quality of the notes that appear as a result. Indeed, if a guitar’s action is too low, then the notes will buzz and sputter and not sound at all as they should.
This is, I suppose, not a problem if you are more experimentally inclined, as this can almost mimic some parallel explorations of treated pianos and/or microtonal peregrinations by composers like John Cage and La Monte Young, and Tony Conrad.
However, this will simply be no good if you are looking to play cleaner-cut music that aligns more with the standards of western classical music. This is not the kind of buzzing that arises from not fretting the notes properly, such as those that abound when one is first learning guitar and still attempting to judge the right amount of pressure needed to play a note without overexerting the fingers.
Likewise, the sustain of these notes is going to be significantly altered if a guitar’s action is too low – so, the length which the note lasts after it has been plucked and sounded out will be less than it might otherwise be.
The note could even ‘fret out’, a term in the biz that refers to a note not even sounding out when it is plucked, occurring when other frets elsewhere on the fretboard get in the way of the proceedings.
If you do intend to use a low-action guitar, then you would do best to have it set up by a professional, who might even need to alter considerably the fret buzz and string height.
High Action Guitar Advantages vs Disadvantages
High Action Guitar Advantages
Many of the advantages of having a guitar with high action actually mirror those of low action guitar, for obvious reasons seeing as they are the mirror image of each other.
So, in having a high-action guitar, the playing experience is going to be rid of the buzz that can occur with a low-action guitar, wherein the frets from all over the rest of the fretboard interfere with that of a note you might be attempting to fret, creating a caustic tension between all of the notes.
This results in a note that either sound somewhat compromised and unclear, or is more akin to a treated piano than a guitar, occupying that uncanny valley between percussion and melody known as pitched percussion.
In a similar vein, the notes plucked properly will sound out for longer, sustaining further for the same reasons as the above, that the note whose fret is currently being fretted will not be interfered with by other notes as a result of the low action leveling the playing field of the fretboard as a whole.
The string will be as unobstructed as possible, resulting in a note that is going to sustain for as long as it can, the higher the action is (to a point of course).
Furthermore, with a high-action guitar, there is going to be less of a need to involve a licensed professional, be they a guitar technician or a luthier, as it is easier to achieve a sanctimonious guitar setup for a high-action guitar than a low-action guitar, mostly owing to the issues already described with fret height, where certain frets from other points of the fretboard can become a nuisance.
High Action Guitar Disadvantages
Just as there are disadvantages to low action guitar, so too there are moot points for the use of a guitar with higher action, and these will simultaneously mirror the parallel advantages of the use of a low-action guitar.
If a guitar’s action is too high it can become increasingly difficult to even play the notes and/or fret them, owing to the increased distance between the guitar strings and the fretboard which in turn harbors a necessity for more force to be applied to the guitar strings in order to make a pitch sound adequately.
In this way, the hands and fingers can tire out far faster than they might otherwise, not to mention the bundles of pain this can cause in the short and long term.
Not only will your hands and fingers be temporarily fatigued, but it is in unnecessary strain like this that conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome first take their root, eventually leading to extreme pain in the wrists and forearms, which could even mean a future inability to play any instrument, let alone the guitar.
And, though a low action guitar will encourage buzzing, a guitar with action too high will likewise foster a buzzing of its own, that more akin to beginner guitar buzz that might occur when a guitarist is figuring out the right amount of pressure to exert on the strings.
Sure, this is a different kind of buzzing, but it is one that is going to affect the overall quality of the note plucked regardless of how advanced a guitarist one is, for with such a high string action the guitarist in question is inherently being set at a disadvantage.
Problems With Intonation
If the action of a guitar is too high it can even result in issues with a guitar’s intonation. ‘In music, intonation is the pitch accuracy of a musician or musical instrument. Intonation may be flat, sharp, or both, successively or simultaneously.
‘Several factors affect fretted instrument intonation, including depth of the string slots in the nut, bridge saddle position, the position of the frets themselves, the bending stiffness of the string, and the technique of the musician.
‘On fretted string instruments, pushing a string against a fret—aside from raising the string’s pitch because its effective length is reduced—also causes a slight secondary raise in pitch because pushing the string increases its tension.
If the instrument doesn’t compensate for this with a slight increase in the distance from the bridge saddle to the fret, the note sounds sharp. Playing style has some effect on intonation but some amount of intonation variability may be uncontrollable.’
A high action can have an especially detrimental impact on the intonation of a guitar. Since a guitar is going ever so slightly out of tune every time the string is pressed down into the frets to be played aloud.
This is gravely exacerbated by a higher action; with a larger distance between string and fretboard, the amount that the string is inherently going to detune will be far larger and will thus be far more noticeable, even to the untrained ear.
This is especially obvious when fretting chords, something already rendered more difficult on a guitar with higher action. This is one of the primary reasons a lot of guitarists complain that their fingers hurt from guitar, with the excess pressure needed to fret notes and especially chords causing severe strain, on the muscles of the wrist and of the fingers and on the callouses on the tips of the fingers.
Measuring Guitar Action
So, you ought to see by now that action is quite a big deal and can drastically affect the way you play your guitar and how that playing feels holistically. And yet, despite how difficult it can be to attain a proper low-action guitar without the help of a licensed professional luthier or guitar technician, it is something that you can even measure and adjust yourself at home.
All you will need is a ruler that does not have any space between the zero measurements and the end of the ruler, though this prerequisite is not entirely necessary if you know your way around a ruler and measuring in the first place.
Since you are measuring an incredibly small space, you will, however, do much better by using a ruler that can measure in degrees of an inch as divided into 32 segments. You can, alternatively, just use a guitar action gauge, out of your own pocket of course.
How to Measure Guitar Action
Time needed: 5 minutes.
How to Measure Guitar Action in 4 Simple Steps
- Secure Guitar
Hold the guitar in your typical playing style position or, if this is not comfortable enough, use a neck cradle to lie the guitar down during the measuring process.
- Tune the Guitar
Tune the guitar however you like it before you begin the process.
- Take Measurements
Measure from the 12th fret for the most accurate result. Place your measuring tool between the top most string and the latter string. Lower it so that it touches the fret. Slide the measuring tool up to touch the top string without moving it, making sure the tool is straight. Measure from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string.
Repeat for the rest of the strings.
How to Lower the Action
Good medium action on an acoustic guitar will be 2.8 mm on the thickest string and 2 mm on the thinnest, that being between those strings and the adjoining fret. Likewise, this will be represented on an electric guitar with a gap of 2.4 mm between the thickest string and its adjoining fret, and then by a gap of 1.6 mm between the thinnest string and its adjoining fret.
If you are looking to attain this standard string action on your own instrument, or perhaps are looking to adjust it to your own preferences, then follow me.
Acoustic Guitar Method
Since there are three points of adjustment on the acoustic guitar (the truss rod, the bridge/saddle, and the nut), you will need to acquaint yourself with each.
Firstly, you will want to adjust the truss rod so that the play neck is as straight as it can be. The truss rod is an adjustable rod set within the bounds of the guitar’s neck. One end is open to the user and can be hand adjusted through the sound hole, with the other end set against the headstock so that there is something to bend against.
Secondly, check the radius of the bridge of the guitar, otherwise known as the curvature. For this, you can either use your own eyes or can buy a set of gauges specifically designed for the job for a relatively low price.
The radius ought to be roughly the same as that of the fretboard. If it is bigger than the fretboard, then you will likely need to file it down to match the fretboard. Likewise, if the radius is too small, you will need to buy or fashion for yourself a saddle that has it at the right size.
Finally, you will be adjusting the action at the nut at the top of the fretboard. Measure again the height of each string, this time at the first fret, and deepen each individual string slot depending on its relation to the others, for you will want them all in alignment. You can purchase dedicated tools for the job, or use those that you have lying around the house, depending on your own dedication to the job.
Electric Guitar Method
The process of adjusting the action of an electric guitar will depend on the guitar being adjusted and/or upon the bridge installed on the guitar. A good place to start in just about any instance, however, is with the adjustment of the truss rod, which can either be done on the surface or by disconnecting the neck from the body of the guitar.
Since there is not likely to be a sound hole on an electric guitar, you will need to find the truss rod elsewhere, though in roughly the same spot at the base of the neck.
Each guitar model and brand will be fitted with a different bridge, so the following parts of the process will depend on the particular bridge installed on the guitar in question, though some common bridges include (but are not limited to): the Gibson Tune – O – Matic bridge, the Fender Floating bridge, and the Paul Reed Smith Stoptail bridge.
In contrast to an acoustic, the bridge tension and the intonation of the individual strings can be adjusted without the need to file any part of the mechanism down, only requiring a screwdriver of sorts.
The final step, of filing down individual trenches in the nut for individual strings, remains the same for adjusting the acoustic guitars and electric guitars unless the guitar in question is installed with a locking nut (such as those that come alongside Floyd Rose vibrato systems).
So, as with the acoustic guitar, you will simply want to deepen the individual string trenches in the nut depending on the position of the strings in relation to their placement with the fretboard. The more aligned the strings are with each other and with the fretboard, the better.
Well, there you have it! Hopefully, you are somewhat wiser about the low-action guitar, the pros, and cons, how to measure your own guitar’s action, and even how to adjust it to your own preferences, regardless of the kind of guitar you prefer to use.
It is our hope that you feel somewhat better equipped to tackle these things out in the world yourself, whether you began here today barely (if at all) knowing anything about the action on a guitar, or whether you came here today with more advanced knowledge of string tension and the like.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Though the action has a multitude of meanings in the real world, within the lexicon of guitar and instruments in general it serves a rather singular purpose, though one that is synonymous with string height and string tension, being a composite of both. If a guitar has a higher action, it stands to reason that the tension is going to be higher, much as the string height will be, meaning there will be a larger distance to cover when attempting to fret any of the notes. Likewise and inversely, a low action guitar will have a lower string height and string tension, meaning less of a distance to cover to fret a note. Each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
The low-action guitar certainly has its perks and is good if those perks are what you desire in your own guitar string action. There will be an overall lessening of the strength needed to press down each note, of major significance to those just beginning their guitar journey as well as to those who are otherwise experiencing pain while they play, whether because of conditions like carpal tunnel, rheumatism, and arthritis or not. Inversely, however, a low-action guitar is especially hard to attain properly without a whole host of defects, and so requires the expert help of a licensed professional in most cases.
A guitar’s action can be too low, and in fact, it often is, owing to the difficulty of setting up a guitar with a properly low action that does not host a bunch of defects. One of the more significant of these defects is a buzzing sound which, depending on how badly the guitar is set up, will affect just about every note on the fretboard. This is from where the action of other frets will be interfering with that of the fret attempting to be fretted, in which case a licensed professional will need to individually adjust the string heights (a not inexpensive task). This same problem can even cause notes to not sound out altogether, or to sound as though they are an extra from John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.
Quite simply, it is because it is far more expensive to install and set a cheap guitar up with a low action than it is to do the same with a higher action. In order to properly fix a guitar up with low action, each of the individual frets will have to be worked on and sculpted, and each will have to have a height determined so that they do not affect the action of the other frets. This is an all too common occurrence on a low-action guitar, and the holistic reason why it is more difficult and expensive to achieve, is wherein other frets are at the same height as that which you are fretting, resulting in the buzzing and unintended overtones and undertones.