I know this is going to sound counter-cultural to those in tune with the guitar world at large, but here goes: raise your action.
I’m as much a fan of low, slinky action as the next guy, so far be it from me to make judgements and decrees like I’m the de facto leader of the free musical world. It’s just a friendly suggestion, one that I’ll detail below before anyone can throw wah pedals at my head.
Depending on your playing style, low action could be the order of the day. For example, playing fast licks in a metal band is usually well-served by having the lowest action possible on your axe. Most of us like our guitars to play like ‘butter’, as easy as it possibly can be so nothing gets in the way of our fingers. I’m that way, too.
Many of us look for low action as the sign of a good set up, but we so easily forget that strings need room to vibrate in order to make sound. The strings on our guitars vibrate much more wildly than we can see with the naked eye. Because of this, raising your action even slightly will allow notes to ring out with more body and fullness, and you might also find that sustain has increased. The benefits don’t stop there!
In the case of acoustic instruments, the bigger payoff might also be the increase in volume that comes from higher action. If you follow this blog (and I hope that you do) you’ll know that I was recently cast in a theatrical production of a show called This Land, a play not so much about the great Woody Guthrie as much as it is about what he saw and wrote about. In my humble and slightly biased opinion, it’s a beautiful show, and one in which I’m extremely proud to play a part.
The show is performed entirely acoustically, meaning there are no mics around to reinforce the sound we’re making on stage. This was initially vexing for me as my poor Gibson J-45, once crushed during an overseas flight, was having trouble keeping up. Since the accident, the guitar didn’t sound as good as it used to, with spongy response and terrible intonation. And, because the guitar suffered cracks and loose braces, the top had bowled up, making it nearly impossible to play comfortably unless the saddle was bottomed-out. Without that downward pressure on the saddle, the guitar sounded anemic and quiet.
During the first week of rehearsals, Music Director Edd Key asked me to take a solo in the song “This Land”. I played my heart out, but no one heard it over the banjo and other guitars playing along. This bummed me out to no end, and so I finally found the reason I’d been looking for to perform a neck reset on the guitar. I had been putting off the procedure for some time, but this was the only way to achieve playable action whilst retaining a tall saddle, which is key for projection and good tone.
Weeks later, when the neck reset was complete, I cut a new bone saddle for the guitar but made certain to keep it as high as I could without making the guitar unplayable. Even before I had chosen a final saddle height, strumming an open E chord yielded a huge increase in projection and dynamics, with all of the midrange fullness I had been missing.
I experimented for days looking for the perfect string height, taking the guitar home between performances to shave down the saddle, and once grafting on a tiny sliver of bone to the bottom of the saddle when I accidentally went a little too far. Now, where my guitar once was splashy and lacking detail, it’s loud and authoritative, with note definition and that low-mids thump I associate with great Gibson acoustic guitars. My guitar sounds livelier, more present, and now I’m happy to report that I have the opposite problem of perhaps having too much volume. I’m only using the guitar on three songs in the show now because I’m afraid of overpowering vocals or other instruments!
I’ve settled on an action that’s higher, but not too high. My low E is around .110″ above the 12th fret, and the high E is just a bit lower at .090″. This is just a bit higher than recommended by Gibson’s factory specs, and a huge difference from the .065″/.050″ E-e split I had going on before. When I was plugging in most of the time, I didn’t really notice the acoustic tone I was getting, so that worked out fine for me. I don’t mind a touch of buzz and I’m hard on the guitar, so I thought nothing of it.
The increase in action did give me some trouble initially with regards to playability. It took some time for my hands to get used to this stiffer action, but after a week of rehearsals (this is a 4-5 hour affair each night) I thought nothing of it. I’m getting around just as easily as before, but now I’m actually being heard! And it’s had a wonderful impact on my electric skills as well, enabling me to be a bit quicker and more precise. That’s a tune we can all dance to!
I told you this story to illustrate some of the benefits of higher action on acoustic guitars, but the same truths apply to electrics as well. The action on my electric guitars is considerably lower than on my acoustics, but even a half-turn of the thumb wheel on a TOM bridge can have a huge impact on tone, feel and sustain. Ever feel like your guitar doesn’t have enough punch in the lower register? Try raising your action by .010″ and see if it doesn’t help. Also, dialing in a bit of relief in the neck can help there as well.
Of course, string height also alters your setup, and if you stick with it you may want to adjust intonation and pickup height to taste. For now, give it a shot as-is, and see what you think. For me, this little change makes a huge difference. Once the show’s over I’ll likely take the action back down a tad, but for now the balance of playability and projection is top-notch for my needs, and I’m having a lot more fun with the guitar than I used to.
Maybe raising your action isn’t for you, but try to think outside of the low action=good guitar bias we all live with. You may find that tone you’ve always heard in your head waiting for you on the other side!
-Michael James Adams