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Last Updated: April 22, 2018
In a previous article, “Action! A Beginners Guide to Understanding String Height,” I introduced the concept of string height, or “action” (the two terms are used interchangeably throughout this article). However, in that article I didn’t say exactly what constitutes a “high” or “low” action. What does it feel like? What are the measurements?
So, it’s no wonder that one of the questions I get a lot from newer guitarists is:
“What’s a good string height for my guitar?”
Totally valid question, because when you’re new to guitar you really have no frame-of-reference for what a “good action” is or what it feels like.
Over time you’ll naturally develop a personal preference for what action feels right for you. Until that time, I’ll give you some actual measurements here that you can use to know whether your guitar is currently set up in the ballpark of low, medium, or high action.
How to Measure Your Guitar’s String Height
In this section, I’ll first list the tools you need (not many) to measure string height. Then, I’ll tell you where and how to measure string height. Lastly, I’ll give you a listing of common measurements for low, medium, and high action, so you can compare your measurements and know where you are in the grand scheme of things.
When it comes to measurements, the guitar world seems evenly split right now between imperial (inches) and metric (millimeters). Still others like to use fractions.
Here, I’ll be giving all measurements in millimeters and decimal-inches, because that’s what I’m most familiar with. Also, that’ll allow you to use the String Action Gauge that I recommend in this article, regardless of whether you choose the version that’s in millimeters or inches. If you’d like to use fractions, you’ll need to do the conversion to find your values.
Tools You’ll Need
We’re going to be dealing with very tiny, precise measurements here, so you can’t use those cheap plastic rulers you used as a kid. Here are the things I use to measure string height (useful for other guitar measurements too):
- String action gauge in millimeters or inches. I use the StewMac Metric String Action Gauge. If you’d rather use a ruler, you’ll need a precision-ground metric ruler graduated to 0.5mm.
- Feeler gauges (optional). You’ll need these if you decide to also measure your string height at the 1st fret. If so, I recommend the Hotop 32-Blade Feeler Gauge Set.
Measuring String Height at the 12th Fret
Really, this is the only measurement you need when we’re talking about action, but later I’ll discuss the option of measuring at the 1st fret too. You’ll take this measurement at the 12th fret with the strings open (unfretted). We only measure string height under the two outer E strings (thickest and thinnest strings). There’s no need to measure the middle 4 strings. Here’s what you do:
Note: Some people (and guitar manufacturers) measure string height at some fret other than the 12th. Some measure action with a capo at the 1st fret. I don’t do any of that, but it’s important for you to know this so you can ask your guitar tech how THEY measure. That way the two of you are speaking the same language when/if you take your guitar in for a setup.
Optional: Measuring String Height at the 1st Fret
When you’re just checking your guitar’s action, it’s not really critical to measure at the 1st fret too. Usually, we only measure the 1st fret if there’s a problem we’re trying to diagnose, like bad intonation, open string buzzing, or strings that are too hard to press at the 1st fret. However, in case you’re curious, here’s how it’s done:
1. Just like we did before, hold the guitar in the playing position.
In reality, I don’t actually “measure” string height at the 1st fret anymore, nor do many experienced guitar techs or luthiers. Instead, I use the “3rd fret press test” which is demonstrated perfectly by luthier Frank Ford on his website here.
Common String Height Values
What the heck is a “low action” on guitar? What is a “high action”?
Now that you know the proper way to measure your guitar’s string height, let’s talk about some actual numbers. When taking your guitar in for a setup, you should always give the repair tech actual measurements when telling them how you want the action set. Vague terms like “low”, “medium”, and “high” are open to interpretation and may not get you what you’re expecting, depending on who works on your guitar that day.
The following measurements are approximate, not “official.” You’ll get slightly different opinions on these measurements depending on who you ask, or where you search on the Web.
Electric Guitar String Height
Electric guitars generally can achieve a lower overall action than their acoustic or Classical counterparts.
Steel String Acoustic Guitars
Steel string acoustic guitars tend to require slightly higher action than electric guitars, so you’ll see higher measurements here.
Classical guitars will have some of the highest action measurements.
Now, you not only know how to measure your guitar’s string height or “action,” you finally have some idea of where your guitar falls on the spectrum of low, medium, and high action. Of course, you can break this down further and talk about medium-low, medium-high, etc. but don’t worry about all that right now. Obviously, there are spaces in between the measurements I gave above, but those should at least give you an idea of where you stand.
So What’s a “Good” Guitar String Height?
Unfortunately, there is no correct or official answer to this. The fact is, a “good” string height is whatever feels good to you. In other words, the goal isn’t always to have your guitar strings as low as possible. There are drawbacks to really low action, as I point out in my other article. Some players like medium action, and some like it high.
That said, I generally recommend the lowest possible action for beginners just starting out. That way you can focus on learning rather than physically fighting the guitar, at least until you build hand strength and dexterity. As you get better, you can begin raising your action a little (or a lot) if you’d like to.
On my electric guitars, I actually don’t like really low action (not as low as what I list above). I’m somewhere between low and medium, which I find better for bending, and feel I get overall better tone and sustain. Just my personal opinion/preference though. On my acoustic guitar, however, I get those suckers so low that it’s probably illegal in some states.
What is your guitar’s action? Now that you know how, measure it at the 12th fret and let me know what it is in the comments section down below. Don’t forget to tell me what kind of guitar you have (electric, acoustic, or Classical).
Sources & Resources
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I recommend one or both of these books. They were a huge help in writing this article, and they’ve been my guiding lights since I purchased my first editions many, many years ago:
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