Guitar string height, commonly referred to as action, is the distance from the top of the frets to the bottom of the strings. The action on a guitar is crucial for both playability and comfort; too high, and the instrument becomes difficult to play, too low, and you might hear unwanted buzzing.
Checking and adjusting your string height is an integral part of maintaining your guitar to ensure it plays well and matches your playing style.
To check your guitar string height, you will need a few simple tools such as a ruler, a feeler gauge, or a specialized string action gauge. These tools will help you measure the action accurately.
When measuring, the standard action height for an electric guitar at the 12th fret is typically about 6/64th of an inch (2.38mm) on the bass side and 4/64th of an inch (1.59mm) on the treble side. However, these measurements can vary depending on personal preference and the type of guitar.
Understanding String Height and Guitar Action
In this section, you’ll learn about the technical aspects of string height and action, and why setting them correctly is crucial for optimal playability and sound quality of your guitar.
Defining String Height and Action
String height, also known as action, is the distance between the top of the frets and the bottom of the strings on your guitar. Measuring this distance is typically done at the 12th fret, as it’s a central location along the length of the string that gives a reliable indication of the string’s overall height across the fretboard.
The standard unit of measurement for string height is either millimeters (mm) or inches.
- Low action refers to strings that are closer to the fretboard, making it easier to press the strings down. This can contribute to faster playability but may result in string buzz if set too low.
- High action means the strings are set further away from the fretboard, which can improve the clarity of the tone but requires more force to play the notes.
An action that’s either too high or too low can affect both the comfort of playing and the quality of the sound produced.
Importance of Correct String Height
Setting the correct string height is pivotal for a comfortable playing experience and achieving the desired tone. Here’s why the precise adjustment of the action is significant:
- Comfort: If your guitar’s action is too high, you will need to apply more force to the strings, making playing more physically demanding. Conversely, if the action is too low, you may frequently encounter fret buzz.
- Sound Quality: The height of the strings affects the vibration and, consequently, the sound and tone that your guitar produces. An optimal string height allows for clean bends, sustain, and overall tonal clarity.
Adjusting string height is a balance between personal preference and the structural considerations of your guitar to maintain good tone and playability.
Tools and Preparation
Before diving into the task of checking your guitar’s string height, you need the right tools for precise measurement and adjustments. Ensuring the guitar is properly prepared will set the stage for an accurate setup process.
Essential Tools for Measurement and Adjustment
- Ruler: A steel ruler with 1/64-inch increments is useful for general measurement.
- Feeler Gauge: A set of feeler gauges can help measure very small gaps.
- Action Gauge: A dedicated action gauge provides the most accurate string height measurements.
- Radius Gauge: For checking the curvature of the fretboard and matching bridge saddle radius.
- Allen Wrench: Necessary for adjusting the truss rod and saddle heights on most guitars.
- Screwdriver: Used for adjusting screws on the bridge, tuners, and various parts of the guitar.
Preparing the Guitar for Setup
Ensure your guitar is in playing condition with the following steps:
- Tuning: Tune the guitar to standard pitch; discrepancies can affect the string height.
- Capo: Place a capo on the first fret to stabilize the strings while measuring.
- Neck Adjustment: Pre-adjust the truss rod if there’s noticeable bowing; this affects string action.
Note: If your guitar has a Tune-o-Matic bridge, adjust the bridge height screws to match your desired action before fine-tuning with specific tools.
Measuring String Height
Measuring string height, or action, is a critical aspect of your guitar setup, especially for playability and comfort. Accurate measurement helps you ensure your guitar is optimized for your playing style, whether it be on an electric, acoustic, or bass guitar.
Steps to Measure Action at Various Frets
To begin, you’ll need a string action ruler, which is specifically designed for this task. Ensure your guitar is in playing position for accurate results.
- At the 1st Fret:
- Place the end of the ruler at the 1st fret.
- Measure the distance from the top of the fret to the bottom of the string.
- Note the measurements for each string.
- At the 12th Fret:
- Similarly, repeat the measurement process at the 12th fret.
- This commonly reflects the action for higher frets.
- Write down the measurements for both the bass and treble sides.
- Checking Along the Neck:
- Optionally, measure the action at various points along the neck to see if there are any inconsistencies.
- Pay special attention to areas where the strings may be too high or too low, indicating potential issues with neck relief or fretwork.
Interpreting Measurement Results
Once you have your measurements:
- Compare your findings to standard actions. For electric guitars, a common setup is approximately 2/64″ (0.8mm) on the high E to 4/64″ (1.6mm) on the low E.
- Acoustic guitars typically have higher action, around 3/64″ (1.2mm) on the high E to 5/64″ (2mm) on the low E, considering their robust build and string tension.
- For bass guitars, a starting point could be 5/64″ (2mm) on the G string to 7/64″ (2.8mm) on the E string.
- Remember these are starting points; your preference may vary depending on your playing style and the specific needs of your guitar. Adjustments can be made accordingly for comfort and playability.
Adjusting String Height
Proper string height, or action, ensures comfortable playability and optimal sound quality. This section will guide you through the precise steps to adjust your guitar’s action at critical points.
Adjusting at the Nut and the Saddle
At the Nut:
- Use feeler gauges to measure the gap between the frets and the strings at the first fret.
- If the gap is too high, carefully file down the nut slots with a nut file, checking frequently to avoid taking off too much material.
- If the gap is too low, a shim may be needed under the nut, or a replacement nut may be warranted.
At the Saddle:
- Measure the current string height at the 12th fret using a ruler or a specialized string action gauge.
- For an acoustic guitar, sand down the saddle if you need to lower the action. Be cautious and sand in small increments.
- On an electric guitar or bass, turn the saddle height adjustment screws to fine-tune the string height. Most will require a small hex key or screwdriver.
Bear in mind: Changing the saddle height may affect intonation, so you should check and adjust this afterward.
Setting Up String Height for Different Guitar Types
- Aim for a string height of approximately 6/64th of an inch (2.38mm) on the bass side and 4/64th of an inch (1.59mm) on the treble side at the 12th fret.
- Adjust the bridge height using the provided screws or knobs, depending on your guitar’s bridge design.
- Typically, acoustics have higher action than electrics. Adjust the saddle and nut as described previously, aiming for comfortable playability without buzz.
- Similar to electric guitars, adjust at the bridge. Bass strings require a bit more height due to their increased vibration width.
Each guitar type will require attention to neck relief; adjust the truss rod to correct any concave or convex bowing. Relieve tension for up-bow and tighten for back-bow, but proceed with quarter-turn increments to prevent neck damage.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
When it comes to guitar setup, precise measurements are crucial to avoid common issues like fret buzz and intonation problems. Regular maintenance, along with understanding the role of the truss rod and fretboard radius, helps in maintaining ideal string height for optimal playability.
Resolving Fret Buzz and Intonation Problems
Fret Buzz: If you’re experiencing fret buzz, it may indicate that your strings are too low. This can be resolved by adjusting the string height at the saddle.
You can raise the action slightly and check if the buzz subsides. If the buzz persists, the problem might lie with the truss rod adjustment.
The truss rod controls the relief — or curvature — of your guitar’s neck. If there’s not enough relief, the strings will buzz against the frets. To correct this, you’ll need to loosen the truss rod slightly to add more relief.
Intonation: Accurate intonation ensures that your guitar stays in tune along the entire fretboard. If you’ve ruled out string buzz but notes still sound out of tune as you move up the neck, it’s time to adjust the intonation.
This typically involves moving the saddle forward or backward. A good rule of thumb is: if the note is flat, move the saddle forward; if sharp, move it backward.
|Increase action or adjust truss rod
|Raise saddle or loosen truss rod for more relief
|Adjust saddle position
|Move saddle forward if flat, backward if sharp
Maintenance to Prevent String Height Issues
To prevent issues with string height:
- Regularly check the neck relief by pressing down on the first and last frets and observing the gap at the 8th fret. A small gap indicates proper relief, while no gap may lead to fret buzz.
- Inspect the fretboard radius and ensure your string height matches the curvature of the fretboard for consistent action across all strings.
- Keep your guitar in a controlled environment to avoid wood expansion or contraction, which can throw off string height.
Fine-Tuning Guitar Setup
Once the guitar string height is set to a standard measurement, your unique playing style and personal preferences will dictate the final adjustments.
Precision in the fine-tuning process ensures your guitar plays comfortably and responds well to your touch.
Adjusting for Playing Styles and Personal Preference
To modify the action to your playing style:
- For a lighter touch: Lower the action to facilitate easier fretting and faster play.
- For a more aggressive strumming: Raise the action to avoid fret buzz which can occur when strings are struck with more force.
Use an action gauge to measure the string height. For the low E (6th) string, a common starting action at the 12th fret is around 2.38mm (6/64 inch), and for the high E (1st) string, around 1.59mm (4/64 inch). However, you can adjust from this point to match your comfort.
Final Checks and Balancing String Tension
After you’ve set the action:
- Verify that your adjustments have not altered the string tension significantly; it should remain balanced across all strings for even playability.
- Test each string: Play them open, at various frets, and check for buzzes or dead notes.
Remember to retune your guitar if any significant adjustments were made, as these can affect the instrument’s overall intonation.
Professional Setup and When to Seek Help
Adjusting your guitar’s string height is a delicate process that can significantly affect playability. While many guitarists manage their own setups, there are times when it’s wise to contact a professional.
Recognizing When to Contact a Professional
If you encounter the following issues, consider a professional guitar setup:
- Persistent Buzzing: If, after adjusting the string height yourself, there is still buzzing that you can’t resolve.
- Complicated Adjustments: When the truss rod needs adjusting or the nut and saddle require precise work, a specialist’s touch is needed to avoid damaging your guitar.
- Lack of Tools: Specialized tools like radius gauges, feeler gauges, or action gauges are often required for proper setup. If you’re without these, a professional is your next stop.
- Major Changes: If you’re planning significant modifications, such as changing to a drastically different string gauge, a professional can recalibrate your guitar accordingly.
Benefits of a Professional Guitar Setup
Investing in a professional guitar setup offers distinct advantages:
- Expert Inspection: A guitar technician or luthier will adjust the action and thoroughly inspect your guitar for any underlying issues.
- Precision: Professionals rely on years of experience and fine-tuned skills to achieve precise adjustments for optimal string height and tension.
- Time and Cost Efficiency: Although there is a cost involved, it ensures that your guitar is perfectly set up, potentially saving you from future repairs due to improper adjustments. Typical setups might range in price but can prevent more expensive issues.
- Enhanced Playability and Comfort: Correctly set action improves the overall feel and playability of your guitar, making it easier and more enjoyable to play.