What Guitar Action? Height, Evenness, Comfort, Tone & More!

What Guitar Action? Height, Evenness, Comfort, Tone & More!

Is your guitars action killing your tone? On the other hand, are you finding it difficult to play? If you are experiencing both these things then your guitar probably needs a good set up and the action will need adjusting.

What is action on a guitar? Action on a guitar is the distance between the strings and the fretboard. If there is low action then the strings are closer to the fretboard, and high action means the strings are further away from the fretboard. 

In this article, I will discuss action in more detail and cover the basics so you will understand just how your guitar is performing.

1. What is Action on a Guitar?

Action on a guitar is the terminology used to describe the distance between guitar strings and the fretboard. It is the height of the strings above the fretboard. There are generally, two things to consider when dealing with action and that is the height of the action (this can be broken down into low action and high action), and the evenness of the strings.

Height of the Action

You can measurer the height of a guitars action in two places on the fretboard. It is mainly measured from the 12th fret, but you can also measure it from the 1st fret. However, there will be some variation and I tend to use the 12th fret as I find it a more accurate indicator.

Evenness of the Action

Evenness of the action is a terminology used to describe the consistency of the action across fretboard. If a guitar is not set up very well then you may find that action is not parallel across the fretboard. It could have higher action on frets 12 and lower action on frets 1.

The ‘Action’ on a guitar can also describe the ease, feel and playability of a guitar. If you were to say your guitar had good action, then you would generally be stating that the action is ‘low’ (meaning it is closer to the frets). Whereby, if you were to state that the action was bad then you will be stating that the action is ‘high’ (further away from the frets).

However, these terminologies can be confusing because it is dependent on context. For example, if you were discussing the action of a steel acoustic (designed for slide blues) then a good action would mean the opposite. If playing slide guitar then a good action will mean a ‘high’ action.

Let us discuss more about this below…

2. High Action

Height of the action is the term used to describe a greater distance between the fret board and the strings. If you ever heard someone comment on a guitar with “high action” then they are most likely stating that the strings are too high off the fretboard.

Pros of High Action

High action does have it pros.

  • Practice – Firstly, high action is good for practice. It can strengthen your fingers and improve your playing ability. 
  • Slide Guitar – if you are playing slide guitar then having high action is necessary or otherwise the ‘slide’ will bang against the frets when playing.
  • More control – As there is more distance to travel between the strings and fretboard your fingers Dig into the strings more. This is perceived as providing more control when bending notes and general playing.    
  • Less Fret Slap? – Fret slap is the clanking noise you get by pushing down on the strings to hard. The clanking noise happens as you release your fingers from the frets. This is subjective as it said that by having high action you have less fret slap.

Cons of High action

  • Comfort – there is greater fret release (going from fretted to open) which makes the fretboard feel less smooth.
  • Studio Recording – you can hear interfering noises that is picked up by the microphones when changing finger positioning. These noises become more prominent when you start adding effect and mixing the track.
  • Harder to play – you have to apply more pressure, and the distance being greater makes it hard to play.
  • Release from the strings – there is greater release that can bring with it noise interference

3. Low Action

Low action is the most preferred preference. Low action means that the guitar strings are closer to the fretboard and the amount of pressure required to grasp a chord is very little. The lower you can get the action without fret buzz the better.

Pros of Low Action

  • Playability – Playing becomes easier and the feel s smoother and more enjoyable to play. Overall, a guitar with a low action feels more solid and robust.
  • Tone – I do not think action has too much of a noticeable difference in tone so long as the strings can still vibrate freely. However, you may notice a tighter sound if you are required to adjust the intonation. Also, it does make playing easier so it makes it easier to produce a sharper more precise sound.
  • Recording In A Studio – being able to produce a more precise sound makes it easier to mix in the studio
  • Less Fret Slap? – Fret slap is always a problem but I find that low actions it less of a creaking sounds (as what you get with high action) but more of a clanking sound.

Cons of Low action

  • Fret buzz – If your action is to low then you will experience fret buzz
  • Intonation – usually when altering the action you may have to adjust the intonation this can be tricky if you have never done it before and may require a professional.

There are generally two ways of calculating the distance to determine the action (by observation and feel). The feel method is usually the first method, you may observe with your eyes that the action is high but its only after you sit down and play you can really notice the difference.

4. Evenness of the Action

Evenness of the action is a terminology used to describe the consistency of the action across fretboard. If a guitar is not set up very well then you may find that action is not parallel across the fretboard. It could have higher action on frets 12 and lower action on frets 1.

This is common on cheaper guitar than have never had a proper set up, and it is controlled by the nut and the bridge. To even out the action you will be required to alter height of the nut or the bridge.

The evenness of the guitar strings is measured by calculating the distance between 1st fret and the strings, and the 12th fret and the strings. The variation will determines how even it is. It will never be exactly the same as the guitar neck bends from the 12th fret. A good evenness will have some variation but it will not be very noticeable.

The nut controls the height of the upper end of the fretboard whilst the bridge controls the height of the lower end of the fretboard.

Furthermore, when speaking about the evenness of the strings across the fretboard a bad action is always referring to an uneven action. This means the distance from the 1st fret and strings on the fretboard is noticeably different from the distance between the 12th fret of the fretboard. 

5. Why is Guitar Action Important?

Action is the most important part of any guitar setup. Proper action not only controls the comfort and playability of the guitar, but it also helps the guitar stay in tune and maintain intonation.

Guitar action is important for two reasons:

  1. Tone – By tone, we are speaking about the type of sound and resonance that the guitar produces when we play.
  2. Playability – playability of the action is the feeling of comfort we get from playing.

The action affects the comfort on the fretboard, being one of the most vital components for playing, as this is where the notes and chords are constructed.

Even though both tone and playability are described separately, they also somewhat coincide with each other as having high levels of comfort can make the instrument easier to fret. If you can fret your guitar better with less effort then the tone will inevitably improve tone as well.

The Compromise between Low Action & Fret Buzz

If you go ahead and have your guitar setup then you will find yourself at a compromise between lowering the strings that they buzz. Depending how your guitar was built and the neck release restrict how low you can get the strings before the buzzing starts.

If this happens then you will have to make the action higher and sacrifice playability.

How Acoustic Actions Differs from Electric Guitar

Generally, the action on an acoustic guitar is recommended to be slightly higher than that of an electric guitar. This is because acoustic string gauges are bigger and so to compensate they need more of a radius to vibrate. This means the action has to be higher or otherwise it will touch the frets and create fret buzz.

Every Guitar Requires a Setup

Yes, even expensive guitars require a set-up, without one the most expensive guitars will not play very well. If you are in a music store and you pick up an expensive guitar and find it is not very comfortable to play, it could be that the action is not properly set. Luckily, you can negotiate with most guitar shops and they will provide a free setup after purchase but you will have to ask for it.

6. What should be the Height of My Guitars Action?

Before there were amplifiers, classical guitar players would intentionally have high action, as it would project there sound to their audience. Whereas, nowadays we project our sound with amplifiers so this is no longer an issue.

I would say that it is personal preference.

  • When to use high action – If you’re an slide/acoustic player that likes open strings or has a preference for a slow droney resonance then I would say you would like a higher action, but not too high and you still want a level of comfortability.
  • When to use low action – if you’re a player that likes to play fast and adds distortion and just looking for really smooth play, with little effort to fret then I would say your preference would be low action.

However, this is just personal preference I would advise to mic some guitar up that you like and see what sound you prefer. When doing this take note of the overtones and fret slap as this will really stand out when you’re in the studio.

If you are getting to much fret slap then I would say you can’t record with it, if you’re looking for a really clean, crisp professional finish.

7. Action, Resonance & Tone

Action does influence resonance.

Higher action improves the resonance of the sound.

I have noticed that the higher action the tangier and open the sound is. Sometime this actually sounds nice, but sometimes it can be overpowering as the overtones bounce around and get in the way of its natural sound.

However, you do not always want a loud sound for a good tone. When you start adding affects like distortion then you need to find ways of dampening the sound.

8. Action & Practicing

As discussed, when you have higher action on your guitar it is a benefit when practicing. This is because the amount of pressure is takes to construct a chord is greater. This means you have to press harder to form a chord. If you are pressing hard then you are using more strength in your fingers.

This will vastly improve you playing ability as it builds your strength and muscle memory and overall you will see great improvement in your playing.

The good news is that you can buy any old cheap guitar off eBay, or a charity shop and the chances are it will have low action, and you can play it for five minutes every night and before you know it your playability will improve when going back to your primary guitar.  

9. Guitar Action & Studio Recording

When going into the recording studio you definitely need to go in with a guitar that is properly set up.  You may find that practicing at home is fine but when you get into the studio, you will hear the difference.

When recording in the studio with high action you will hear you fingers pressing the fret. This is what we call fret slap and I hear this more prominent with high action guitars.

What is fret slap? Fret slap is a horrible noise that is present when releasing you finger from frets. This usually sound like a clanking sound right at the moment you release the pressure of a chord or individual note.

This is picked-up in the recording studio and when you start layering guitar and adding effects then it will be very prominent and will make the track sound messy.

10. Guitar Action & Music Style

As discussed the general idea for a good action is getting the action as low as possible. Low action is preferred for comfort and the output of what you play will generally sound better across most styles.

However, slide guitar is a style of music that requires higher action. Slide guitar blues is a common style when high action is the preference.  Chords can be trickier to play, whereby slide guitarists often change the tuning of the guitar to open D or open C tuning to get around this issue.

By having an open tuning, you are forming a chord by strumming open (this is without fretting) and it makes the process of playing with higher action a little easier. 

11. What Causes High Action on a Guitar?

There are certain factors that can affect action on a guitar. If you are going to the trouble of sorting your guitars action out, and get it right then you will want to know what factors will make it change unintentionally.

Let us look at a few of the factors that cause the action to change and when it needs to be reset.

Temperature and Humidity

The first major influence on our guitars action is the temperature and humidity. It is important to note that a guitar is made from wood and wood changes shape with the climate.

For example, if wood gets wet or there is high humidity it will soak up the water droplets in the air and expand. The opposite is also true in hotter conditions as the wood can dry then shrink.

Both temperature and humidity can cause your neck to bow and warp that can make your guitars action lower or higher.

Changing Tunings

When a guitar is properly tuned, it will put a sizable amount of tension on the guitar neck. If you start messing with different guitar tunings, you are changing the tension on the neck. These changes of tension can alter the actions slightly if the relief of the neck when it changes.

Changing from a high to low or a low to high-tension string can cause back bow or relief in the neck.

Changing String Gauge

Another way you can alter the relief of the neck is by altering from the default tuning. If the guitar has been setup, it will have been setup in accordance with the gauge string.

By switching from the default gauge will change the tension. If you increase the gauge then the tension will increase, which by changing from a high to low or a low to high-tension will cause bow or relief in the neck.

Use and abuse

General maintenance of a guitar is inevitable.

Because of the constant tension on the neck, guitar components will naturally change/weaken (such as the wood will expand and machine heads can become weaker) over time. As a result, the intonation might adjust slightly which can have knock-on effect of the guitars actions over time.

Furthermore, heavy playing, banging and even carrying the guitar (such as travelling) can speed up this change process. For examples, by banging it you can upset the intonation, and the more you play, you will wear down the nut and/or saddle pieces slightly.

Overall, these factors can affect a guitar action.

12. Adjusting Saddle or Nut Heights

Adjusting the saddle or nut heights is the primary reason that affects the action. The Nut and saddle should be adjusted in parallel together, whereby if you increase the height of these parts then it will either increase or decrease the action.

If these parts are not adjusted in parallel then it could lead to uneven across the fretboard. However, if a guitar has not been setup well then only one of these components may only need adjusting to even the action out.

Further, you have to be careful when altering either the nut or the saddle because it can mess with the intonation. As the intonation is set, and increase the height of the nut or saddle, when you press down on any fret the distance will because greater whereby as you press down you are lengthening the string and this will sharpen the note. Therefore, if you raise or lower the saddle heights or string heights, you will need to re-intonate.

13. Does Intonation Affect Your Guitars Action?

When changing the Intonation on your guitar it will affect the action. It may be only affect it ever so slightly that you cannot notice it but there are times it can be more noticeable.

What happens when you change the intonation of the guitar you are either tightening or loosening the strings (effectively making the strings shorted or longer in length). As you adjust the intonation, you are either adding more or less tension on the neck. This will adjust the Bow or relief of the neck.

As the neck changes its axis, it will change the action.

When setting a guitar up you will find yourself going back-and-forth. As you alter one component, it will have a knock-on-effect to the other components.

Intonation is affected by action but this is a bi-product/side effect and must not be used to improve the intonation. Overall, if the intonation is changed then the action must be checked and vice versa. 

14. Altering the Truss Rod For Better Action?

While adjusting the truss rod does affect the playing action, you should not use the truss rod to do so. Even though the truss rod does affect the action, this is a bi-product and not the purpose for the adjustment.

The truss rod purpose is the set the relief of the neck.

As a general rule, once the nut and truss rod is set, all action adjustments are done at the bridge, by raising or lowering the saddle.

Overall, the purpose for the Truss rod is for setting the relief of the neck (angle / bend of the neck) not raising or lowering the action. The action height will change with a proper truss adjustment; however, if the action is too high lower it at the saddle.

Conclusion

In this article, we looked at the basics of guitar action and why it is important consideration. We discussed the following topics in detail:

  • What is Action on a Guitar?
  • High Action
  • Low Action
  • Evenness of the Action
  • Why is Guitar Action Important?
  • What should be the Height of My Guitars Action?
  • Action, Resonance & Tone
  • Action & Practicing
  • Guitar Action & Studio Recording
  • Guitar Action & Music Style
  • What Causes High Action on a Guitar?
  • Adjusting Saddle or Nut Heights
  • Does Intonation Affect Your Guitars Action?
  • Altering the Truss Rod For Better Action?

Generally speaking if your guitar has high action then you want to go and get a good set up as having a higher action. However, high action is not all bad and you can use if for practice. It will strengthen your fingers and improve your playing faster.

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