Understanding Guitar String Height, or Action
A Beginner’s Guide
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Last Updated: January 4, 2020
We often use an unusual term to discuss the height of guitar strings: Action.
It’s how we describe the distance between the strings and the wooden fretboard. While some people prefer “action,” others use the term “string height.” Both phrases essentially mean the same thing, so feel free to use whichever you like.
Further, you may occasionally hear guitarists using the term “action” to describe the overall playability of a guitar. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it’s important to be aware of.
So, when someone exclaims, “Man, I love the action on this guitar!” they may or may not be specifically referring to the guitar’s string height. Instead, they could simply be happy with the overall comfort and feel of the guitar’s neck.
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:
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.