Understanding Guitar String Height, or Action
A Beginner’s Guide
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Last Updated: January 4, 2020
We sometimes use a weird word to describe guitar string height:
It’s how we talk about how high (how far above the wooden fretboard) your guitar strings are. Some people say “action” while others say “string height,” but they both refer to the same thing, so use whichever rolls off your tongue easier.
You’ll also occasionally hear guitar players throwing the term “action” around to describe the overall playability of a guitar. Nothing wrong with this, just something to be aware of. So, when you hear someone say “Man, I love the action on this guitar”, they may or may not be specifically talking about the guitar’s string height. They could just be generally referring to how comfortable the neck is.
The higher your action, the harder it’s going to be to press the string down… because the string has further to go before it finally makes contact with the metal fret. The lower the action, the easier it’s going to be to press the string down, because it’s already closer to the fret and has less distance to travel.
If you’d like to learn exactly how to measure your string height, as well as see a listing of measurements for what constitutes low, medium, and high action, check out my other article:
The main advantage of low action is that the strings are easier to press down. This is great for reducing finger soreness, hand fatigue, and avoiding injury when you’re first learning to play and building strength.
As a beginner, you usually want the lowest action possible.
However, get your action TOO low and you’ll get a nasty, undesirable buzzing sound with every note or chord. I’m not talking about the kind of buzzing you get when you’re a beginner and can’t yet press the strings hard enough. That kind of “beginner buzzing” is normal and will go away as you gain skill and hand strength.
Buzzing that is a result of excessively low, on the other hand, action will happen no matter how great of a player you are, and it can be maddening.
String height or “action” is measured from the top of the metal fret to the bottom of the guitar string.
Another potential downside to having excessively low action is that it can lessen a note’s sustain–the length of time a note is audible after you pluck it. Some notes may also “fret out,” meaning they make no sound at all due to obstruction by other frets.
In both cases, these things happen because the string is hitting the metal frets while it’s vibrating.
Now, it IS possible to achieve extremely low action while avoiding or minimizing these issues, but it’s sort of the holy grail for guitar players. It’s not the norm.
Your guitar needs to be expertly set up by a true professional, and may also need a more dramatic (and expensive) procedure known as a “fret level and crown.” As a beginner, don’t worry about having your frets leveled right now.
I do, however, recommend getting your guitar set up by a pro. If you’re wondering what the heck a “set up” is and what goes into it, you can ready my article:
The main advantage to having high action is that your guitar will generally be free of that nasty buzzing I mentioned above. It also allows the notes to sustain freely and naturally, since the string is unobstructed.
With high action, having your guitar set up by a pro isn’t as critical.
However, if your action is TOO high it becomes extremely difficult to press the guitar strings down. Not only is this just plain painful, your hand will tire much faster and you can actually injure yourself.
With action that is too high, you’re more likely to get a lot of that “beginner buzzing” that is the result of not having the hand strength to press the strings down fully and firmly (especially when trying to make chords).
My StewMac String Action Gauge allows me to see precisely how high my strings are.
Very high action can also cause issues with something we call “intonation.”
Without getting into the specifics, suffice to say really high action can make notes and chords sound out of tune while you’re playing, even though you may have tuned the guitar perfectly.
This is where “intonation” comes into play. When your intonation is messed up, your guitar will sound out of tune only while you’re playing. It can be just as maddening as fret/string buzz.
This is the most common issue I find whenever I inspect a beginner’s guitar: the action is WAY too high when it doesn’t need to be.
It’s no wonder so many new guitarists get discouraged and quit. It’s so dang painful and frustrating that they assume they just can’t do it.
Additionally, most beginners use guitar strings that are way too thick, which just compounds the problem. This is why I always advise beginners use ultra light guitar strings, which I talk about in my article:
Fingers Sore From Playing Guitar? Don’t Give Up, Lighten Up!.
The short answer is: you usually want to be somewhere in between.
However, as a beginner you’ll want low action. You’ll want your strings low enough that you can press them down as easily as possible with as little pain as possible, but not so low that the strings buzz excessively or notes completely fret-out (make no sound at all).
Now, understand that some buzzing is normal, especially when you’re a beginner. Until you build up hand strengths and finger dexterity, you’ll have some buzzing as you struggle to cleanly fret notes and chords.
Skill and hand strength aside, guitars can differ in how well they’ll “tolerate” really low action. Some can be made to have very low action with little or no fret buzz, others can’t. So, depending on your guitar, you may get some buzz if you try to get your strings too low.
A skilled guitar tech, luthier (guitar builder), or repairperson will be able to evaluate your guitar and set the proper expectations for you. Just let them know that you’re hoping to get the lowest action possible without any (or much) buzzing.
I encourage you to learn to do your own guitar setups–which includes setting action. However, this is something that can be challenging for beginners. It takes a little time, trial, and error to get right.
So, in the meantime, take your guitar to a good guitar shop and tell them you want “a complete setup, with the lightest strings and lowest action possible, with minimal fret buzz.” They’ll know exactly what you mean and, as long as they know their stuff, will be able to have your guitar back to you in 1-2 weeks… playing and sounding as good as it possibly can.
If you missed this link the first time around, here’s an article I wrote that shows you what all goes into a guitar setup:
Have you been playing long enough to know whether you prefer high action or low action? Or, maybe you’re somewhere in between? I’d love to know, so drop me a line in the comments section down below.
Does a new high-end guitar need set up or are strings set up at the greatest good for a intermediate player?
Hi Jim. There’s really no way for me to know whether a guitar needs a setup without actually inspecting and playing the guitar. Sometimes you get lucky, and the seller gave the guitar a good setup before selling the guitar to you. However, if you had the guitar shipped, it probably needs some minor adjustments to account for your regional temperature, humidity, or anything that might’ve been jarred during shipping.
If the action (string height) feels good to you, and you’re not hearing any excessive fret buzz, you’re probably fine with the guitar as-is.
Hi, GuitarAnswerGuy – I’m DaleBryTheScienceGuy!
I just gotten through a crash-course (self-imposed) in guitar setup. I’ve learned a lot, but not everything.
As far as string height, I like both the high and low E’s at about 1.7mm. This gives me a bit more grab and tactile feedback, but not as much sustain as I like.
Hi Dale. I’m right there with ya. My action is right around the 1.8mm mark.
Can I use your action image for a speech on acoustic guitars vs electric guitars for beginners. It’s for a speech class?
Hi Daniel, thanks for asking. Yes, you’re free to use my image, I only ask that you don’t remove the watermarks (logo and URL) that I’ve placed in the lower left and lower right of the image. It’s a bonus if you say something like “Image courtesy of guitaranswerguy.com” somewhere under/around the image when you use it, but that’s not 100% necessary.
My 12 fret is around 4mm, is it too high for me as a beginner? And how much does it usually charge to adjust the height?
Hi Jeff. I’m not sure which string you’re using to measure, but let’s assume you’re using the low E string. That said, 4mm at the 12th fret is WAY too high. Ridiculously high, in fact. On an acoustic guitar, you should be able to get your low E string somewhere between 2mm – 3mm at the 12th fret, depending on how good the fretwork is. Your high E should be slightly lower–somewhere between 1.8mm – 2.8mm at the 12th fret.
As far as how much it would cost to have your acoustic setup, well, it depends on how much work is involved. If the frets are nice and level and there’s nothing else wrong with the guitar, a basic setup will run you between $40 – $60. On the other hand, if your frets are in bad shape and you really want low action that is relatively buzz-free, you may need your frets leveled first, and this can run between $150 – $250. If something else is wrong with your guitar (an uneven fretboard or slightly twisted neck, for example), the costs can continue to go up from there.
The good news is that an evaluation is (or should be) free. Take your guitar to a shop and tell them you just want the guitar inspected and for them to give you an estimate for a complete setup with low, buzz-free action. They’ll either come back with good news, and tell you it’ll only be $40 – $60, or they’ll let you know if you have other issues and how much it’ll cost to make everything right. Don’t worry, as long as you tell them up-front that you JUST WANT AN ESTIMATE, they’re not going to proceed with any work without your permission.
This may be a dumb question, but is there a string height where setting the action any higher would not create more sustain?
When it comes to strings, a big factor that affects sustain is the strings hitting the frets as they vibrate. You’ll know if this is happening because you can hear it.
Essentially, regardless of string height, once you get your guitar set up to where you no longer hear buzz (or you hear very little or only hear it in a couple spots), your string height is no longer a major factor in sustain.
Often, with really low action, a certain amount of contact between he strings and frets is unavoidable. No matter how good your frets are and how good your setup is, if you have really low action and hit a string hard enough, it’s going to contact the frets at some point.
This is why we often generalize, and say that “sustain will suffer” if you have really low action. You’re either going to have fret contact that reduces sustain, or are going to have to pluck (or tap, hammer-on, etc) so softly–to avoid buzz–that the string just doesn’t have enough momentum to vibrate for very long.
So, good sustain isn’t necessarily a matter of just having high action. And it’s certainly not “the higher, the better.” Instead, it’s a matter of getting your string height to a place where it’s comfortable for you, with as little fret buzz as possible. That’s achieved by having good level frets, and a good setup overall.
Contact with frets is the real sustain-killer.
hi, im an absolute beginner with a cheap guitar i bought online(i know. bad idea) but ive been doing a lot of research on it and im sure my strings are too high especially the 12th fret. Would it be ok if i take it to the repair store to lower it? I dont wanna drive for one hour to know that they cant do anything because its a cheap guitar. I dont think mine even have the truss rod
It doesn’t matter whether your guitar has a truss rod or not–it can still be setup. Classical and Flamenco guitars that cost tens-of-thousands of dollars don’t have truss rods.
I don’t know what kind of guitar you bought, but if it is indeed a cheap “starter guitar” you may be limited as to how much improvement you’ll see. You really won’t know until the shop can look at the guitar and give you an estimate. I’m sure they can lower the strings, but the quality of the frets may limit how low the strings can go before they cause buzzing.
If the repair shop is an hour away, I would recommend calling them first. Tell them what kind of guitar you have and what you would like done (ex: a “complete setup and lower action”). They should be able to give you a price quote, and a realistic picture of how much improvement they think they can make on your type of guitar.
If this is a really cheap guitar ($100 or less), you have to think about whether paying $30 – $75 (the typical range for a full setup) is worth it to you. It’s really hard to advise you without knowing what kind of guitar you have and what your repair shop’s capabilities and prices are.
I’ve just started trying my hand at tweaking my electric basses and guitars myself, instead of taking them to my long time luthier. The guitars are:
Musicman Stingray 4-string bass, Warwick Fortress 5-string bass and a Gibson Les Paul Studio.
The various setups are going pretty great (for a novice) but, it’s the same with each instrument, I have fret buzz on every single one of them. ARRRGHHH!!!
The most maddening part, is that I don’t feel like the action is extremely low. I mean it IS low, but it’s now SUPER LOW. I’ve definitely seen and played guitars with lower action.
I’ve followed all the steps I’ve learned from my luthier and online. I set the neck to have a little forward bow, then I check string height and the radius of the neck vs. bridge, then intonation, then pickup height. They sound pretty good intonation and pickup wise, but they all buzz way too much for me and like I said the action just doesn’t seem extreme enough to warrant buzzing. I know basses tend to naturally “rattle” a bit with the looser strings.
Can you offer any suggestions? Point me toward some other sites or publications that could further my knowledge of this subject. I feel like I’m so close to figuring out the real secrets of guitar setup! Thank you SO much!
There are two books that I always recommend to people wanting to learn to do their own setups, both by guitar repair guru Dan Erlewine. These are the books that I originally learned with, and I still refer to them to this day:
If you’re mainly wanting to learn how to do your own setups, I’d recommend the first book. Only get the second one if you’re wanting to get deeper into care, maintenance, and repair.
If you still can’t seem to get the buzz to go away (or at least get it down to an acceptable level), it’s possible that you may need a fret level-and-crown… also known as a “fret job.” Many guitars and basses come from the factory with very slight unevenness in the frets. Usually, it’s not much of an issue, but if you’re wanting low action with minimal (or no) buzz, a fret level can get rid of those minor height differences and allow you to get really nice, low action.
A little late to this party, but for anyone still reading this, if the action, intonation and truss are all adjusted and you still get rattle or buzz, the nut may be an issue, cheaper materials like plastic tend to buzz more, harder materials like bone and ceramic are great at eliminating nut buzz. Also, as stated in this comment, loser strings also tend to be more prone to rattle since their vibration path is wider when looser, going up a gauge with your strings means you will tune tighter to get the same tuning pitch, giving your strings less room to move when vibrating, reducing the chances of fretting out. Of course going up too high in gauge means you may have to slightly raise the action to accommodate the bigger strings, all in trial and error.
Good points Sean, and I talk about some of these things in another blog post: “8 Mistakes Guitar Players Make That Cause String Buzz.” Also, in yet another one of my blog posts, check out Myth #8 where I explain the vibrational arc of guitar strings: “9 Guitar Care Myths – Explained.”
What’s up, just wanted to say, I loved this blog post.
It was helpful. Keep on posting!
Thanks Hayley! Keep rockin’ \m/
I recently bought a new 7 online, and am working on setting it up myself. I saw one of your posts on SSO.org, and followed the link to your site.Thanks to folks like you willing to share your knowledge, the task is not as daunting.
Hi Joseph, nice to see a fellow SSO-er on here. Thanks for the kind words, and congrats on the new 7-string! Which model did you buy?
I recently took my guitar to the music shop and was told that it was a classical guitar and that the bridge was too high. They suggested that they lower the bridge to reduce the action, and I can pleasantly confirm that it sounds much much better. I didn’t know that my guitar was considered a classical guitar, what does this exactly mean. It was a gift when I was 11 years old and I’ve kept it in the case for many many years only to bring it out a few months ago and relearn.
Sounds like your shop knows their stuff. While lowering the bridge won’t necessarily improve the sound, it definitely will make it easier to play–because it brings the strings lower. Sometimes, depending on the situation, they’ll also lower nut (the thing the strings pass over on the headstock) if needed. Usually though, just lowering the bridge does the trick nicely.
Your Classical question is a great one–and I’ll be writing a blog post on that topic. To the untrained eye, the most obvious difference is that “Classical” (sometimes called “nylon string”) guitars have nylon strings instead of metal for the higher/skinnier strings. There are many other differences as well, but they start to get a bit technical. Classical guitars tend to have wider/thicker necks, a flat fretboard, and a number of unseen construction details that differentiate them from their steel string counterparts.
Now, not ALL guitars with nylon strings are necessarily “Classical.” You can put nylon strings on a standard/steel-string acoustic guitar, and in fact some folk acoustic guitars are specifically made for them. However, NEVER go the opposite way: NEVER put steel-string acoustic strings on your Classical guitar! It can’t handle the higher string tension and you may ruin/warp the neck.