When you hear the word action, you likely do not initially think about the string height on your guitar. This instrument feature, however, is one of the most important for its health and sound. If action is too low, for instance, guitars will have a buzzing sound.
Thankfully, there are many adjustments you can make to lower action on acoustic guitar strings. You can change the bridge saddle and nut or modify the truss road, for instance. It is up to you to determine the cause of the poor action so that you can get back to creating the quality music that you love.
What is Guitar Action: Definition
Guitar action is the height that the strings sit at above the fretboard, or neck, of the guitar. If they are too high or low, the sound from your instrument may appear distorted. Your guitar will also go out of tune frequently.
Most guitar players agree that if strings are too high, playing is uncomfortable and causes unnecessary pain. This excessive height also causes the instrument to produce distorted and unnatural sounds. There will be a lack of crispness and clearness.
Distortions also occur when the action, or string height, is too low, however. The guitar will create a buzzing sound that is unnatural. It has the potential of ruining your music, which is why it is so essential that you learn how to fix the action on an acoustic guitar.
Do know that most individuals state that the most accurate action on a guitar is around the twelfth fret. Some agree, however, that you can measure it anywhere from the eighth to the twelfth. It depends on what you are comfortable with and the fret easiest for you to access. So long as it is between these numbers, you should be fine.
Types of Guitar Action
This article concerns how to adjust action acoustic guitar methods. String height is slightly different on an electric guitar, however.
Electric guitar action can be lower than that on acoustic versions. You can even go as far as 0.15 inches less if the need arises, with most agreeing on around 1/16 inches. The reason behind this is because electric guitars do not require the forceful playing of the strings, meaning they do not need you to apply as much pressure.
The most common action on an acoustic guitar is around 3/32 inches for the bass strings and 1/16 inches for the treble. For either acoustic or electric instruments, however, you can make your preferences. It depends on the sound you want to create.
Consider other guitar-like instruments too. Bass instruments need a string height of 1/8 inches. Finally, classical guitars should have an action that is around 3/16 inches.
What is Considered Low Action on an Acoustic Guitar?
Make an acoustic guitar action adjustment when the strings are too close to the fretboard. Your string height is too low. As mentioned, you run the risk of sound distortion and buzzing with too short of action.
Most agree that low action occurs when the string height is at, or less than 3/32 inches, on the bass side and 1/16 on the treble. Though lower numbers equate to easier playing, your guitar is more susceptible to damage and distortion. Make adjustments as soon as possible to avoid further issues.
How to Adjust Your Guitar Action
Adjust the Nut
To learn how to lower action on acoustic guitar, consider adjusting the guitar nut. You can either fill the slots or sand them down, as mentioned in the steps below.
Fill the Slots
- Purchase guitar files.
- Gather your feeler gauges.
- Wobble the files in the nut slot so that they barely hit the sides.
- Test the strings using a blade against the first fret. If there is too large of a cap, choose a larger. You want it to touch the strings, not move them. Write down the number as this is the action.
Sand the Nuts
- Take off the strings.
- Unscrew the truss rod cover.
- Make scores around the edges
- Place wood or another solid material next to the nut and gently hammer it out.
- Mark where you need to sand on the nut.
- Use a sand paper between 150-250 grit.
- Put the nut back and reattach the strings.
- Measure the action height to ensure accuracy.
- Glue the nut in place.
If the nut is not the problem, you need to find other methods to lower action on acoustic guitars. A few ideas are below.
Adjust the Truss Rod
- Use an Allen wrench to bend back the fretboard to access the trus road.
- To make the action higher, turn the wrench counter-clockwise.
- To lower the action on an acoustic guitar, truss rod, turn the Allen wrench clockwise.
- Listen for buzzing sounds to ensure you did not make too many adjustments.
Raise the Bridge Saddle
- Remove the bridge saddle.
- Cut a strip off a playing card or of card stock.
- Lay the paper in the channel of the bridge saddle.
- Adjust the height until the paper lies flat.
- Re-string the guitar, putting the strings through the bridge saddle.
Sand the Bridge Saddle
- Remove the saddle.
- Gather 150-250 grit sandpaper.
- Sand in a light manner, as too much sanding can cause buzzing sounds and instability.
You will know your action is too low when your instrument starts to make buzzing sounds. These can distract from the music that you play on your guitar. The vibrations of the strings up against the fretboard are the cause of this unfortunate noise distortion.
Many guitar players want the action on their instruments to be lower because they are easier to play. If you choose this option, be careful. Avoid allowing a buzzing noise to distract your audience. Do not allow your guitar to become more susceptible to future damage.
If the action is too high, the guitar will be borderline unplayable. It will be more uncomfortable for you, and you may be in much more pain when applying pressure to the fretboard. You will also find that pitch issues seem more relevant, and there are more errors. The intonation and your comfort levels mean much more than you realize.
High action will also present itself in that there will be a significant gap between the strings and the fretboard. This space may not be obvious enough for beginners to notice, however. If you have a loved one with more experience, they will see the gap and the signs of trauma to your fingers from excess pressure.
On the treble side, acoustic guitars typically have an action of around 5/64 inches. On the bass strings, the height is a bit more at 7/64 inches.
If you want to know why the bass side has a slightly higher action, it is because of vibration. As mentioned, too much vibration right against the fretboard is not healthy for your guitar as it can cause buzzing. You do want some, however, so that you can achieve clarity in your music. When you strum a chord, you should only feel some vibration, no matter the strings you touch.
Action can be lower if you use a capo on your acoustic guitar too. When you place it on a high fret, you will have a shorter string height. A capo clamps down the strings on a specific portion of your guitar, so it only makes sense.
You should also note that classical guitar players can perform with the lower action. When you strum chords, you need more of the vibration that comes with a slightly higher string height. It is up to your playing style and your preferences.
The higher your guitar’s action is, the more difficult it is going to be to play. You have to apply more pressure to get the string to hit the fretboard so that you can make a sound. As mentioned, this causes a higher degree of pain and trauma to your hands and fingers.
When the action is low, it is close to the fretboard. You, in turn, have to do less work to get the strings to hit the guitar’s neck. Less pain and trauma will happen to your hands. In turn, it is easier to play, and many musicians prefer a lower action.
Low action is better for beginners also. It can allow them to learn how to play without assuming they always have to use maximum pressure. These individuals do not need to face an injury during their first week of studying the guitar. It could turn them off from ever picking up the instrument again.
Make sure you do limit how low you allow the action to get, however. You do not want the buzzing sound that will immediately distract your audience from the son you want to present. It is not worth it, and you do have to do some work to play the guitar.
When your guitar’s strings sit higher, they will produce a much clearer sound. It will almost sound eerie, open, and hollow. If you do not want to go for that vibe, you will appreciate the crisper tone produced in any case.
You can achieve a beautiful tone if you do not mind the injuries associated with using high action. It does require that you put maximum pressure on the strings and, as mentioned, deal with some trauma to your fingers.
Guitars with high action are also harder to play, making them better for those musicians with a greater degree of experience. These experts will love the clean sound that comes from a tall string height too. Many guitarists in the studio even use this high action to get a clear sound on their audio recordings.
The best decision for most, however, is to balance out the action of a guitar. Make it the perfect blend of both high and low so that you can achieve a clear sound that does not require intensity in the act of playing the instrument. Everyone has a preference, which is up to each musician to decide for themselves.
Some guitarists have evidence that cheap guitars have higher action than others and require adjustments right away. The companies behind these instruments want to save on costs in whatever way possible, which often comes with performing the job as quickly as possible.
The manufacturers want to perform the jobs quickly so that they can make more revenue. They often do not devote the time required to adjustments that many more well-known guitar manufacturers do. They do not want to spend the money necessary to test the action, leaving many musicians unhappy. They force these individuals who only want to play guitar to waste time adjusting acoustic guitar action right after purchase.
The manufacturing center is not the only cause, however. These guitars likely do not have the care put into them during the shipping process as others do. The heat and humidity that exist on a plane or a boat may change the wood on the guitar, leaving with it natural adjustments to the string height.
If the wood expanded, for instance, there would be lower action. The fretboard would grow closer to the guitar strings. Some manufacturers try to avoid warping the wood by starting with a high string height at the warehouse.
Learn how to heighten and how to lower acoustic guitar action so that you can play beautiful music on your beloved guitar. When your string height is too high, your instrument will be difficult to play, making your music appear low-quality. With low string height, however, you run the risk of dealing with buzzing noises.
Start by adjusting the truss rod until you have neck stability on your guitar. Move on to sanding the bridge saddle or nut if the former option did not work. Finally, avoid purchasing from an inexpensive manufacturer, no matter how much of a good deal you think you will get.