Sunday, August 18, 2013

Proper string height (action)

A lot of folks ask me what the proper string height should be on an acoustic guitar, and on an electric guitar. I even get asked periodically what the proper string height should be on a bass guitar.
String height is also referred to as 'action' on a guitar.
The answer to this is....'it depends!!'
An optimum string height for an acoustic guitar should be about 1/8" at the 12th fret. For an electric, about 3/32" at the 12th fret.
Proper string height depends on a lot of things, and this is the way I look at it.
The first thing you want to check is, has there been any work done to the instrument recently, frets repaired, levelled or dressed and polished. Believe it or not, this can make a huge difference in the performance and action on your instrument.
I have had guitars come to me, both electric and acoustic that have had a few frets replaced. These are usually the first three or four frets closest to the nut. I have seen some major league 'hack jobs' where the fret wire is not even close to then original size. As a result, the string height had to be raised so the strings would clear the new frets. This made the instrument virtually unplayable, and was usually a nightmare to undo what misery somebody else had caused.
So this is #1 in our continuing saga of string height.
#2... is the truss rod adjusted properly so as to maintain fret clearance to the 12th fret?
This then, gets us back to the slight 'dip' that you should see in your neck, while looking down the fretboard from the headstock. Again, this is very important in maintaining proper action on your guitar. If you are unsure of what it should be, and you don't really feel comfortable adjusting a truss rod, then bring it to someone you know and trust with your instrument. Back to the place you bought it is usually the right thing to do.
When the strings are removed from your guitar and the neck is at 'rest', you should be able to place a straight-edge on the fret board, and it should be completely level, or very close to that.  If not, you have a problem. You never want to see a crown on your fretboard, as this could be a result of over tightening the truss rod.
I have had people come to me and told me they tried to adjust their truss rod, and 'nothing happened'. Well, something 'happened' alright. What usually happens in a case like this, is the truss rod was broken as a result of over-tightening.
The other thing that over tightening of the truss rod can cause is 'twisting' of the neck. When this happens, if left for too long, it is almost impossible to restore the instrument, at least without some major surgery. And that can become very costly.
#3...So, what else can cause problems with string height?
Here are a few:
New neck, neck components. Neck reset on an acoustic guitar. New frets. Fingerboard re-levelled.
New bridge components, saddles, pickups installed below the saddles on an acoustic guitar. A new bridge on your electric guitar that you thought should be a retro-fit because it came right from Gibson. 'Not!!'
I have been working on guitars for close to 50 years now. Seldom do I put any creedence in the terms "cross reference", "OEM", "Original Vintage Replacement"or "retro-fit". No two guitars are built alike, not even on the same day, and seldom are the components. So any of these items can be a problem for maintaining proper string height.
#4 Here is probably the simplest cause of improper string height.....did you just change, or have your strings changed by that professional fella down the street?
Did he install the right gauge set for the guitar?
I remember being in a store locally not so long ago. A gentleman came in and asked for a set of strings for his Ovation acoustic. The store owner, who should have known better, sold him a set of medium / heavy gauge strings. I caught the fellow on the way out and told him to go back and ask for a set of lights, or light mediums for his guitar. Reason being the heavier strings would drastically have changed his string height, as well as lifting the bridge right off of his lovely little Ovation due to the increase in tension.
So the right strings are always important on an electric and an acoustic guitar, and yes...even on a Bass. Longer scale basses like the Fender Jazz and Precision, require a longer scale set. They are usually a dollar or two more, but get the right strings for your bass. That is important.
Most modern bass guitars utilize a 'dual action' truss rod. This is like two rods in one. These are used on instruments with wider and thicker fretboards and are well known to bass players because of the longer scale of the instrument. They work quite similar to single action truss rods, but require very little adjustment comparatively to the others.
So keep all of these things in mind whenever you are setting the 'action' on your guitar.
An old fellow at one of the places I used to frequent when I was a kid once told me.....the action on your guitar should be as close to the frets as you can get it without a rattle or a buzz. If you get a rattle or a buzz, raise the bridge! Wise words! And really, that is the way it is.
We all have different tastes, feels and sounds. But really, string height should be what you want, and what you feel is right. There are things to watch out for with super-low action, but that will be another story. Rock on!!

Brett McNaueal

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