Asked/Answered: What Is 'Action' and How Low Can It Go?
Too high? Too low? Diving in to the action debate.
By Mike Duffy
Is your guitar’s action too high?
Perhaps your fingers are easily slipping under the adjacent strings when you’re bending notes, or maybe you find yourself having to push too hard on the strings to fret notes.
That seemed to be a recent problem for Reddit user dgaldeus, who asked the r/Guitar forum whether their action needed to be lowered.
First, however, a note about action.
"Action" refers to the height of your strings as they sit above the fingerboard.
“Action is totally a personal preference," said Fender Electric Product Development Manager Allen Abbassi. "The lower the action, the easier it is to push the string down to the fret, but it also makes it more possible that your fret will buzz. There’s a tradeoff there. It’s a fine balance between getting super-low action and not buzzing when you’re playing.”
Action can be determined by measuring the distance from the peak of the 12th fret to the bottom of the strings. Generally, Fender electric guitars with a 9.5” fingerboard radius come out of the factory with 4/64” between string and fingerboard.
“That’s generally considered medium action, even though some people will consider that on the higher side,” said Abbassi. “We feel that’s a good starting point. Most people don’t go higher than that.”
Some have. Stevie Ray Vaughan famously had his action set very high (in addition to heavy gauge strings) to go along with his strong attack. Many slide players who don’t usually fret the guitar with their fingers also prefer high action because the slide can move past the frets uninterrupted.
Still, having the strings further away from the fretboard means they must travel farther to the fret, making the player bend the string more, which can lead to intonation issues.
Lowering the action could help remedy dgaldeus’s issue, and that can be accomplished by adjusting the saddles and the bridge until the preferred action (low, medium, high) is reached.
But it is important to know that changing the action could lead to other adjustments and possibly an entirely new setup.
"The lower the action, you may have to adjust your pickups because your strings will be closer to the polepieces. That can make the pickups get louder and the magnets can pull on the strings. If you lower your action quite a bit, that might necessitate a pickup adjustment.”
At the end of the day, a guitar’s action is yet another key ingredient in everyone’s personal tone recipe. It's all part of the journey in finding what works best for the individual player.