#8: Setting the action on your guitar.

In response to a recent request for this information, my general procedure is as follows – based on the fact that most of us view “Low as good.”  Bear in mind however – it’s all a matter of taste and style.

Bear in mind that the string vibrates in a curve between the point where you fret the note and the bridge.  the widest vibration will be 1/2 way along this distance.  So the action needs to be higher nearer the bridge rather than near the nut.

The tension of the strings will cause the neck to bend upwards, so the neck will tend to have a little curve away from the stings  – this is controlled by adjusting the truss rod – and I’ll deal with this in another article. – this is your “friend” and needs to be got right as it allows minimum height with the action of the strings.

All that said – it depends on some other factors too:

  • If you want to string bend  – you might need it higher.
  • If you’re using detuned guitars – you might need it higher.
  • If you’re using vintage Fender styled guitars with a low fretboard radius, you might need it higher if you do anything other than play chords….

Firstly – most of us start off by Googling recommended string height for our guitars.  Bear in mind that these are “production measures” that the manufacturer can guarantee that their guitar will play OK when released from the factory.  This allows a certain amount of leeway however as just like “sell by” dates on food they’ve got to be safe.  Equally the adjustments are so small, and virtually immeasurable – so…

Generally I only ever measure the string height if there’s a problem & I usually do this:

  1. Set the guitar up with new strings (Have a look here…. for Gibson style, or here for Fender style)
  2. Tune to pitch.
  3. Lower the thumbwheels (or screws on a Fender) down, until the strings start to buzz on the frets.
  4. Raise the thumbwheels (or screws on a Fender) on the bass side until none of the frets “buzz” on the low E string
  5. Raise the thumbwheels (or screws on a Fender) on the treble side until none of the frets “Buzz” on the high e string
  6. The bridge saddles on a Gibson Style Tune-O-Matic are then curved to the radius of the fingerboard, so the rest of the strings should be OK.
    • If you’re on a Fender style bridge the profile of the saddles, when adjusted, should match the radius of the fingerboard.  You can get radius profile measures from Stew Mac, but TBH you’re best doing it by eye/ear
  7. Retune to pitch.
  8. Check that none of the strings buzz
  9. make minor adjustments to the thumbwheels/saddle pieces as necessary
  10. retune – check – repeat….

It takes a while, but usually works OK.
You also need to check neck relief (article to follow), and intonation after you’ve done this.

It will also need you to be adaptable if you – bend strings a lot, or play in detuned tunings – both of which require a slightly higher action – or if you significantly alter the gauge of strings.

Have fun setting up your guitar, small changes can make a big difference to how it feels to you, and the worst that can happen is that you break a string – everything else is reversible!

As for the string height question. Have a look at this:

or here for Fender:


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