Guitar Action Setup Guide

 

Many guitar students complain that their guitar is hard to play or some of the strings are dead on some frets.
They usually blame it on their guitar because they think that an inexpensive guitar is not likely to perform well.
While this is true in most cases, even a “branded” and expensive guitar may likely to have some problems too.

What is Guitar Action?

Definition of terms:

Guitar Action – Guitar Action or simply action is the distance (gap) between the strings and the frets of the guitar. A guitar action is said to be high or low depending on how the guitar is set.

High Action – A guitar is said to have high action when the strings are far from the frets.
Low Action – A guitar is said to have low action when the strings and the frets are close to each other.

Guitar Action

Pros and Cons between a guitar with high and low action:

High Action

Pros:

  • A guitar that has high action sounds clearer and has more “sustain” than a guitar with low action. This is due to the strings vibrating freely.
  • It is suitable for guitarists using “slide”.

Cons:

  • It is difficult to play because you have to press harder against the strings.
  • Your fingers hurt easily.
  • It goes slightly out of tune (sharp) when played.

Low Action

Pros:

  • It is easier to play and more comfortable for the fingers because
    you only have to press slightly against the strings.
  • You can play fast licks easily.

Cons:

  • There may be some buzzing or dead notes.
  • The sound is a little bit constrained because the strings do not vibrate freely.

Which is better?

There is no definite answer to this question; it all depends on what the guitarist prefers and the style of his playing.
Now, referring back to the pros and cons of a guitar with high and low action setup, you need to compromise in order to get the best of both worlds. You need to setup your guitar so that it will play clear with more sustain, feels “fast” and easy without buzzing.

Materials list

*There are 2 great Guitar Tool kits called “GIGmate PRO Guitar Tool Kit” & Deluxe Guitar ToolGuitar Tools) which contain a lot of the tools you will need to work on your guitar.

*different guitars are built differently and when it comes to working tools such as Screwdrivers, Allen wrenches etc. checking what you need before buying will save you a lot of time and money .

Steps on how to setup your guitar’s action:

Guitar action is relative to the bridge and nut height. Basically, all you have to do is adjust the bridge (or saddles) or the nut either higher or lower.
Note: Generally, the bridge is adjustable on Electric Guitars but rarely on Acoustic Guitars; on the other hand, the nut (usually) is not adjustable.

Where to adjust on the bridge?

There are several bridge types and designs for electric guitars, however, I will only cover the 3 most popular types: the Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul and Floyd Rose.
Adjusting guitar bridge on Fender Guitar
Adjusting guitar bridge on Gibson Guitar
Adjusting guitar bridge on Floyd Rose Guitar

I. Adjusting the action by the bridge

Fender Stratocaster bridge:

The Fender Stratocaster bridge has two screws on each saddle. Use an Allen wrench to adjust the two screws on each saddle (tighten to raise, loosen to lower).

Gibson Les Paul

Rotate the knurled thumb adjustment wheel to adjust the action. The Gibson Tune-o-matic
bridge has two bridge action adjustments.
Tip: The saddles on the Tune-o-matic bridge can also be filed to lower the string height.

Floyd Rose bridge:

The Floyd Rose “locking” bridge has two pivot posts (studs) that can either be
raised or lowered to adjust the action. Use an appropriate sized Allen wrench for this job.
Caution: Some Floyd Rose (licensed copy) cannot be adjusted right away without loosening a set screw inside the stud assembly.

 

Note: Use only the appropriate Allen wrench size when adjusting. Allen wrenches comes with both the Metric and English gauges. Using the wrong size may ruin the Allen head on the screw.
Adjusting the action by the bridge

 

II. Adjusting the action by the nut

Floyd Rose locking nut:

The Floyd Rose locking nut is the easiest to adjust because it is held by screws.

Here are the steps to remove the nut:

    1. Remove the locking pads first before removing the nut.

Removing the locking pads

    1. Move the strings out of the nut to access the screws. Use an appropriate screwdriver to remove the screws.
      Note: There are locking nuts that are screwed on the back of the neck – in that case, do not remove the strings yet because they help in holding the nut and keeping it in place temporarily while you remove the nut screws.

Removing the locking nut

    1. If the nut is too low, put a shim under the nut. There are shims in different thicknesses sold commercially.
      Tip: You can use aluminum can, wood, plastic or even paper instead of the commercial shims.

Inserting a shim to raise the nut on Floyd Rose Guitar

  1. If the nut is too high, use a flat file or sand paper to remove some wood below the nut.
  2. Reinstall the nut assembly.

Fender, Gibson as well as Acoustic Guitar nuts

Here are the steps to adjust the Fender, Gibson or Acoustic Guitar nuts:

    1. If the strings sit too high on the frets, use a thin file or razor saw to remove some material on the slots.
      Caution: Do not overdo because this is not reversible.

Filing the nut slot

  1. If the strings sit too low, remove the nut and replace it. You can also glue a shim under the nut if a replacement is not available.
    Caution: Removing the nut can potentially destroy it (or even the guitar) – especially for the Fender nut.
  2. Re-glue the nut into place.
    Note: A replacement nut usually has no string slots.

General Instructions in adjusting the action – either by the bridge or by the nut

    1. Before adjusting the bridge or the nut, you need to loosen the strings so that the threads on the screws will not break. It is also easier to adjust if there is no resistance from the strings.
    2. Adjust the bridge (up or down) gradually.
    3. Always adjust the action one string at a time.
    4. Tune the string after an adjustment – this extra step ensures accuracy.
    5. Play a single note on all the frets (in playing position) and listen for buzzing or dead notes –this is also the best time to assess how the string feels according to your playing style.
    6. When the string doesn’t have dead strings, doesn’t buzz and feels great for you, take your ruler with 64th of an inch markings and measure the action where the body meets the neck (usually on the 17th fret on Electric Guitars and 12th or 14th fret on Acoustic Guitars).

Measuring the distance between the string and the fret

    1. Use the measurement you got and use it as a guide in adjusting the action on the remaining strings.
    2. After you are done with all the remaining strings, repeat step number 5.
      Tip: It is not compulsory for the strings to have equal actions, use your judgment to fine tune your setup when necessary.

When you followed the instructions thoroughly, everything’s going to be fine… or is it? If everything fails, maybe you need to setup the neck as well.

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