Any good guitarist will tell you that the action of your acoustic guitar can be a make or break factor for how well you play. Depending on your preference and ability, it’s always important to adjust the action to what feels comfortable. Generally, high action is the optimal choice for acoustic guitars but many people don’t understand why this is important.
Acoustic guitars have high action to make them easier to play. High action means higher strings, and due to the build and playing style of acoustic guitars as opposed to low action instruments, higher action makes playing on the strings a lot easier.
The rest of this article will go into more detail about this topic, including the importance of action to all types of guitars, how to adjust your guitar action to find what’s right for you, and what can influence the action on your guitar.
Why Guitar Action Is Important
Guitar action is essentially the distance between the strings and the fret. It directly influences the feel, playing style, durability, and sound of your guitar. While there are ways to bypass playing on the wrong action, it would be far more efficient and comfortable to adjust your strings to proper action.
The wrong guitar action makes your guitar harder to play. This rule applies to both low and high action. Too low action creates fret buzz, ruining the quality of music you produce. Too high action makes the guitar harder to play by increasing the distance between the string and the fretboard.
Over time, it becomes apparent to guitarists that an optimal action is important if you plan to get the best out of your guitar. While a lower action will make your strings easier to play because of the reduced distance between the strings and frets, it also increases the probability that your strings will strike other frets on the board.
When this happens, you usually hear a buzzing sound that comes as you play. If you’re careful enough, there’s a chance you could avoid the majority of the buzz but regardless, having to walk on eggshells to play your guitar isn’t ideal.
Conversely, your guitar strings being too high from the fretboard is also not ideal. The problem is that the higher the strings are from the fretboard, the more energy you need to play your guitar. For extended and even medium-length sessions, you’ll start to feel the strain in your arms and fingers.
Hence it’s best to find the ideal action for your guitar.
Which Action Is Best for You?
The best action is a matter of some debate. Some guitarists prefer high action because it gives them a lot of room to play as heavy-handed as they want, while some prefer low action because they want to play with a minimal amount of stress.
The best action is the lowest you can play comfortably. Positioning your strings in this way gives you the best middle ground between ease and quality. While it might be hard to determine at first, you’ll eventually find a happy medium as you develop your playing style and sound.
However, one thing to note is that quite a few things can go into determining how high or low your action should be, and you should account for them accordingly. Doing this will make finding your preferred action as easy as possible.
Your playing style is one of the most important things for figuring out the right action for you. It’s affected by many things. Genre, preference, and the type of guitar you have all come into play to determine exactly how you play your strings. This playing style, in turn, has a significant effect on which action is best for you.
People with a more heavy hand and aggressive playing style will likely prefer a higher action on their guitar. For this style, a higher action gives you far more versatility and comfort. The harder you strike the strings, the higher the vibrational amplitude. The higher the amplitude, the more space your strings need to work their magic. Along with this, this sort of style also needs a higher action to avoid the annoying fret buzz as you play.
If you have a lighter touch with your guitar, a lower action will work better for you. A lower action goes with a more laid-back playing style allowing you to play what you want with minimal energy. For example, guitarists who prefer to pluck their strings gently usually mix better with low action. A lower action works here because you have to worry less about fret buzz, and it requires less energy to play than a higher action.
Type of Guitar
Which type of guitar you play will also be a deciding factor in what action you go with. Different types of guitars lend themselves better to different string heights, and knowing what guitar goes with which action will make things infinitely easier for you.
The general rule here is that electric guitars usually have lower action and acoustic guitars usually have higher action. There’s some nuance to how high or how low each should be, but this is generally true for most guitars across the board.
Capos and Slides
A capo is a great tool for beginners and veterans alike. However, using it can also alter the action of your guitar. This problem doesn’t make it a bad thing, but you’ll need to consider it if you’re trying to find the perfect action for you. Using a capo will lower the action of your guitar irrespective of what you set it to.
Hence, if you plan to use it often, you’ll have to set the action higher than you need it to account for the reduction in action it causes.
Similar to the capo, a slide will also be a factor in your guitar action. Using a slide allows you to achieve smooth sounds that mimic the human voice, but it also means you’ll need slightly higher action to avoid issues.
Measuring and Changing the Action on Your Guitar
If you’ve concluded that you need to change the action on your guitar, then here’s where you’ll find out how to. Changing your action can seem daunting at first, depending on how you choose to do it, but it can become a relatively easy task with a little bit of care and patience.
To change your acoustic guitar’s action, you’ll need to alter some or all of the following three parts:
- The truss rod
- The saddle
- The nut
Of these three options, it’s only recommended that you adjust the truss rod yourself. Although you can adjust the saddle and nut yourself as well, they require far more precise measurements and procedures to fix. While the truss rod is relatively easy to alter and reverse if need be, making a mistake with the other two could permanently ruin your guitar.
The truss rod is a metal bar inside the neck of the guitar that protects it from deforming. Unlike classical guitars, which use nylon strings, modern-day acoustic guitars use steel strings. Steel has a very high tensile strength, and as a result, the strings on the guitar pull with a large amount of force on its neck.
Without a truss rod to support it, the guitar’s neck would slowly deform over time until it becomes nearly unplayable. The effect of the truss rod on the guitar is known as relief and is essential in making your guitar playable.
Here’s how to adjust the truss rod:
- Measure the first and twelfth fret under each string to get a reference.
- Locate the adjusting point for the truss rod. You can usually find it at the peghead of the guitar or the soundhole.
- Once you’ve located the adjusting point, you can use a truss rod wrench to tighten or loosen the rod, depending on whether you want a higher or a lower action on your strings. Truss rod wrenches aren’t commonly found in every store, but this PAGOW Truss Rod from Amazon.com is affordable and usable outside of guitars.
- When you’re done with this, you can measure the string the same way to check if the adjustment has made enough change for you.
One thing to note is to first find out the exact type of truss rod your guitar has. It could either be single-action or double-action. Depending on the type of rod you have, the process changes slightly.
The above steps will serve you fine for a double-action truss rod, but with single-action rods, you can only adjust the neck in one direction, which tightens the rod. To loosen it, you’ll need to wait and allow the natural tension of the strings to pull the neck into position.
Overall acoustic guitars are great, and their high action is nothing to worry about. The need for a high action comes from the playing style and build of the acoustic guitar because it makes it easier to play. However, not all string instruments have the same action, and electric guitars especially have lower action than acoustic guitars.
Usually, adjusting the truss rod is simple enough and should solve most of your problems. Still, if you need more than that, it’s best to stick with a professional, especially with an expensive guitar that could be costly to replace.