Raise Your Action: A Plea

Finding the balance: low action = easy playability, higher action = great tone.

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.

*Deep breath*

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.

Even though I’ve done this many times, there was still an “Oh, shit!” moment waiting for me once I had the neck off of my guitar.

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

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4 thoughts on “Raise Your Action: A Plea

  1. Katharine says:

    Thank you for that. I have only been playing a few months and have just bought my own new guitar (have been playing a borrowed guitar with low action). I chose my own guitar based on the tone but since i got it home have found it hard to play due to high action. I will stick with it though (and yes it is also much louder!)

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Katharine! Thanks so much for reading this post–it means a lot! And congrats on getting started with playing guitar, which is probably the best choice I ever made. I love it!

      It’s true that there’s a tonal payoff with higher action on a guitar, especially acoustic models. Still, if you feel like you’re struggling too much, don’t be afraid to go lower. At the “learning phase”, it’s far more important to enjoy the instrument and learn, rather than punishing yourself!

      However, if you’re not struggling too much (and your action isn’t mile-high), then the rewards you’ll reap are far greater than the initial trouble you might find with the strings slightly jacked up. Not just tone, but your fingers will also get stronger, faster. Think of it sort of like training for a marathon!

      Carry on, and let us know if you need help or advice!

  2. This is an electric guitar story mostly, in an acoustic perspective. I got my Kramer Voyager ’81 7-8 years ago in a terrible condition. My main concern back then was the sound was never too lively, as-much-as-twanky as I wanted, the attack was largely missing in some low-mid freqs and couldn’t get it right with equalization. I couldn’t accept that this guitar could do so little. I made tons of tests, down to spectrum analyzer levels, tested 4 or 5 competely different pickups, action, intonation etc all these years.

    After a fair amount of testing time I considered the factor of action height, it must have been two years ago. One day I started playing with the floyd rose height by the stud inserts and suddenly the guitar got to play much better acoustically and resonated much better. I started testing different settings and still am pretty sure the action is the missing link. In my experience I believe that if an instrument sounds acoustically great, it will sound great in an amplifier too and I have confirmed it in many cases with many different guitars.

    In higher action the guitar tends to have great tonal characteristics but if you get it too high you may spoil the harmonics and the guitar will start sounding dull again. Unfortunately due to tool & material limitations I haven’t manage to bring out the right outcome for my taste. When I purchased the guitar the neck pocket was already manually sanded in a terrible way. I need to shim the neck pocket to add a little bit of angle in the future or sand the neck in the contact point for the same purpose to get the right setup.

    I also own a Washburn ’75 acoustic and can confirm the same effect. When I lowered the action the guitar sounded dull even with proper setup, In a higher action the guitar sounds perfect and lively. The angle is bigger, the tension is higher and the sound is louder, awesome in general.

    I believe on the effect of higher action, not too high though because you may spoil the sound qualities. Of course it also depends on the guitar types & materials but there are small mods that can affect the tone 100%.

    Thank you for sharing the info, most talks on net about guitar action are wrapped around the playability & rarely the tonal effects.

    Thanos

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