Action! A Beginner's Guide to Understanding String Height

Action! A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Guitar String Height

Last Updated: September 9, 2018

“Action” … a weird word used to describe how high (how far above the wooden fretboard) your guitar strings are. Some people just say “string height” or “guitar string height” as well, which is a bit more specific. Also, you’ll sometimes hear guitar players throwing the term “action” around loosely–to describe the overall playability of a guitar.

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High Action vs. Low Action

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 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 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: Guitar Action – What’s a Good String Height.

Low Action – Advantages and Disadvantages

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 action will happen no matter how great of a player you are, and it can be maddening.

String Height or "Action"

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. I won’t try to explain these last two things, as it would only be understood by professional repair people and advanced guitar players (neither of which are probably reading this article).

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. 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 the latter right now. I do, however, recommend getting your guitar set up by a pro. If you’re wondering what all goes into a setup, you can ready my article Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One.

High Action – Advantages and Disadvantages

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 not having the sheer hand strength to press the strings down fully and firmly (especially when trying to make chords).

Measuring string height with my StewMac String Action Gauge

My StewMac String Action Gauge allows me to see precisely how high the 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!.

So, Should You Have High Action or Low Action?

You need to be somewhere in between, but as a beginner you’ll want to be near the lower end of the spectrum. You want your action low enough that it’s reasonably comfortable to play, but not not so low that the strings buzz or fret-out (make no sound) unnaturally. Now, understand that some buzzing is normal, especially on electric guitars, and especially when you’re a beginner. Many factors determine how well individual guitars will tolerate low action, and cheaper guitars tend to buzz more than their high-end counterparts (though there are always exceptions). A skilled repair person (what we call a “guitar tech” or “luthier”) 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.

What Should You, the Beginner, Do Next?

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’d like to see what all goes into a “setup” and how you can learn to do them yourself, check out my article: Guitar Setups: What They Are and Why You (Might) Need One.

Question:

Do you prefer high action, or low action? Or, maybe somewhere in between? Let me know in the comments section down below.

16 replies
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      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.

      Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      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.

      Reply
  1. Nina
    Nina says:

    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

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Nina:

      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.

      Reply
  2. Shawna
    Shawna says:

    Hi,
    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!

    Shawna

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      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:

      1. How to Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great: Covers electric guitar setups (which is basically identical to a bass) only
      2. The Guitar Player Repair Guide: A more in-depth book that goes pretty deep into guitar setups and advanced repair topics.

      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.

      Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      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.

      Reply
  3. Joseph
    Joseph says:

    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.

    Reply
  4. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    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.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      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.

      Reply

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