The number one factor affecting your ability to play your guitar is action. Action refers to the height of the strings relative to the fretboard (or frets) as well as their overall tension.
But just because it’s easier to play on a guitar that has low action, doesn’t mean low action is preferred by all guitarists.
And just because higher action has its uses, doesn’t mean it’s ideal for every situation.
So, what is the best string height for your guitar? Here’s what you need to know.
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Why Is Action Important?
We assume you’re here because you’ve got at least a basic understanding of string height and action.
It’s possible you’ve even played a few guitars with varying string heights. In which case, you’ve got a good sense of how one instrument feels compared to another.
String height isn’t the only thing affecting how a guitar feels – the size and shape of the neck, the frets, and even the body can all affect your overall comfort level.
But when it comes to action, too much height is generally undesirable. Strings become difficult to press down against the fretboard, which as you know, is how you fret notes on the guitar. High action can put a lot of stress on your fingers and can even make playing chords a chore if not a virtual impossibility.
Too little height results in the dreaded “fret buzz.” This where while holding one note at a specific fret, the string buzzes against another fret. Fret buzz can even make it impossible to get a clean sound out of your instrument.
We must also keep in mind that guitarists sometimes use accessories like slides and capos. Slide players generally like (slightly) higher action because bad slide technique can result in all kinds of buzz and unwanted artifacts. Higher action can help prevent some of what’s difficult or impossible to fix with better technique.
Although string height may not matter as much to those using capos, the reality is it’s going to prove difficult to capo a guitar with high-tension strings at a substantial height. In simple terms, you wouldn’t be able to use a capo with action that’s too high.
Yet again, you would probably run into issues with strings set too low as well, as placing a capo at any fret with low action might result in fret buzz, making the instrument near unplayable.
If I were to whittle all this down, basically it means that there’s a balance to strike when it comes to string height. That “balance zone” is going to depend on the player as well as their playing style and preferences.
But don’t worry – if you haven’t figured out your ideal string height yet, you’ll probably start to figure that out through the rest of this guide.
How Should I Measure String Height?
Although opinions are somewhat split, most techs agree that you should measure string height somewhere between the eighth and 12th fret. We take the 12th as correct.
At the end of the day, measurements don’t matter as much as how a guitar feels. So, unless you’re a guitar tech or you’re adjusting someone else’s guitar for them, there’s no need to become familiar with measurements.
But since I do refer to some measurements throughout the guide, I’ll offer this:
Your string height can be measured using a ruler, feeler gauge, or string action gauge.
If you’re going to be adjusting yourself, then you’ll want one of these tools guaranteed.
How To Adjust String Height
I’ll be honest. Although I spent a lot of time turning every screw and knob on my guitar in my early days, at some point, I stopped adjusting string height myself.
The main reason for this is because string height can affect intonation, which means you’ve got to be able to balance string height and intonation simultaneously, which is about as tricky as it sounds.
Further, raising or lowering all strings an equal amount can be challenging depending on the bridge your guitar is equipped with.
That’s why I leave it to the pros on the rare occasions I need it. String height is not something I adjust all the time, because I’ve never had the need. If I need a setup, I will bring my guitar to a tech, and give them a few other things to do while they’re looking at the guitar (e.g. change the strings). After all, the work involved in changing string height could be minimal.
Also note that some of this is technical work. You can adjust the truss rod yourself but adjusting the bridge and nut can be considerably more complicated. And if you aren’t sure how your guitar should look/function after you’ve adjusted it, you could easily make mistakes.
That said, it’s not impossible to adjust string height yourself. It must be done carefully, and the more experience you have with it, the better results you will get.
Here I will cover the three main ways you can adjust string height on your guitar.
(Depending on your guitar, there will be a plate covering your truss rod access, which you will need to remove using a screwdriver. Best remove your strings beforehand as well.)
Most guitars come with truss rods. This is a steel bar running through the center of the neck that stabilizes the relief.
By adjusting the truss rod (usually done with an Allen wrench), you can basically adjust the angle of the neck, which affects string height.
Using an Allen wrench, you can tighten or loosen the truss rod. When you loosen it, the strings exert more force on the neck. When you tighten it, it relieves the strings of some tension while straightening the neck.
You don’t want to go to extremes, as too much loosening will result in forward-bowing, while over-tightening can result in a back-bend.
Ideally, your neck should remain straight. That’s the north star to aim for. So, there’s only so much adjusting you can do with the truss rod.
But small adjustments can make a big difference.
Changes in seasons can affect your guitar, and it’s not unusual to find your guitar’s action higher or lower than normal. This is generally remedied with a quarter turn of the truss rod.
Bridge Or Saddle
The bridge or saddle is often the first component people look to when they’re interested in adjusting their instrument’s action, and for good reason.
Here’s where things get interesting. Some bridges are easy to work with, while others are a real pain. It all depends on the bridge or saddle your guitar came with.
When it comes to electric guitars, most axes come with a Fender or Gibson style bridge.
A Fender style bridge is great to work with because the height of each string can be adjusted independently. The main challenge is keeping the action even across each string.
With a Gibson style bridge, you can’t adjust each string individually. You can only adjust the bass or treble side. To be fair, though, this can make it easier to perform adjustments as you’re less likely to make mistakes.
So far as saddles are concerned, their height can be adjusted (typically) with a screwdriver or Allen wrench. So, it’s just a matter of knowing what height you want to set the strings at.
And if you guessed that acoustic guitars were more complicated, you guessed correctly.
If you want to raise or lower the saddle, you must remove the strings and the entire saddle (you heard right). Then, you must sand the saddle down (if you want to lower it) or glue in a shim (if you want it higher).
It’s certainly possible to make this adjustment yourself. But if you’re dealing with a high-priced/vintage acoustic guitar, then we recommend bringing your guitar to a skilled tech for the necessary modifications. The adjustment shouldn’t cost you too much either.
(The beige piece holding the strings in between the fretboard and headstock is called the nut.)
The nut isn’t always considered as applied to string height, but it can have an impact, and it’s not impossible to modify or adjust.
In most cases, you shouldn’t need to adjust the nut, and I’m not going to lie when I say it isn’t the easiest job in the world either.
It should also be noted that nuts can wear down over time, which can make adjustments essential. Replacements are relatively easy to find, mind you, and if you’re looking for one of a specific height, you should be able to find what you’re looking for.
Most nuts can be removed with a small tap of a hammer. But that should explain why removing a nut can be a little scary (i.e. you don’t want to damage the neck or headstock). Also, if the nut sits in a channel, it cannot be removed using this method (critical).
There are different methods for raising and lowering the action at the nut. Raising often involves laminating matching material to the bottom of the nut.
To lower the action at the nut, you would need to use a file. If you aren’t confident with a file, this process isn’t recommended.
Given that you typically won’t need to adjust the action at the nut, in most cases, we suggest leaving it to the experts.
Okay, So What Should My String Height Be Set To?
This isn’t an exact science. As already noted, it depends a lot on how the guitar will be used and what your preferences are.
With that, here are some defaults to aim for:
- Electric guitar. At the 12th fret, aim for about 2.38mm at the sixth string (thickest), and about 1.59mm at the first string (thinnest).
- Acoustic guitar. At the 12th fret, aim for about 2.78mm at the sixth string, and about 1.99mm at the first string.
Don’t worry too much about getting this perfect, unless these just happen to be your perfect settings. You can keep adjusting until you’re 100% happy with the results, but it’s always helpful to have some guidelines to work with.
A lower string height is great for players who want the strings as close to the fretboard as possible without possible buzz (that’s my preferred setting), and others who play more aggressively, regardless of electric or acoustic, will generally want higher string action, so the strings don’t slip out of the nut or come off the saddle.
Why Do Seasonal Changes Affect My Guitar’s Action?
One day, I woke up to find my guitar’s action had changed.
At first, I thought it was just in my head. But the more I played it, the less I wanted to play it. The action height had increased. I went and grabbed another guitar whose action had remained unchanged.
Well, it turns out some guitars are a little more sensitive to seasonal changes and weather than others.
As noted earlier, the fix is usually simple – just a quarter turn of the truss rod with an Allen wrench.
The main reason seasonal changes affect a guitar’s string height is because wood contracts and expands with seasonal changes (especially changes in humidity).
Electric or acoustic, most guitars use wood liberally (though there are guitars made of every material imaginable – plastic, pencils, cardboard, matchsticks, cement, fiberglass, carbon fiber, metal, and more – it’s quite fascinating, and there are even some builders on YouTube showing off their creations).
So, just as wood out in nature would, wood in a home environment still “breathes,” contracting and expanding depending on weather, season, and humidity conditions.
But also note that wear and tear can affect your guitar’s action, and so can saddle height shifting.
What’s The Difference Between Acoustic & Electric Guitars?
So, if you play guitar of all types, you’ve probably noticed that the action on acoustic guitars is a little higher, while action on electric guitars is generally lower.
Now, do keep in mind that string gauge can play a part in this. Electric guitars generally come with nine- or 10-gauge strings, while acoustic guitars typically come with 12- or even 13-gauge strings. The difference is noticeable.
Nevertheless, it’s true that the action on electric guitars are set about .05” to .15” lower than acoustic guitars.
There are a couple of factors at play here.
First, electric guitars are usually played less aggressively than acoustic guitars. That means there isn’t a need to set the action as high.
Second, when an electric guitar is plugged in, you simply don’t hear as much fret buzz. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
These are the main reasons electric guitars have lower action than acoustic guitars, but of course, there are always exceptions.
You can have high action on electric guitars and low action on acoustic guitars if that’s what you prefer. Some players like it that way.
String Height Also Affects These Things
It might seem like the only thing string height affects is how easy it is to play your instrument. Although this is a key factor, and quite possibly the most important aspect of action, string height can also affect:
- How the guitar feels. It’s always nicer to play on a guitar that “feels right.” This varies from player to player, but it’s fair to say action will make a difference in how the guitar feels to you.
- How the guitar sounds. When it comes right down to it, there are many factors at play here. But just to offer one example, let’s say you have an electric guitar with low action. Naturally, the strings will also be closer to the pickups, which can make your signal hotter. String height can affect how your instrument sounds in other ways too.
- How aggressively the guitar can be played. Some players play more aggressively than others. But in general, acoustic guitar players are used to playing harder than electric guitarists, simply because the strings can take it or because they need more volume. With a low string height, playing aggressively can lead to strings slipping off the nut or saddle, and other unwanted results.
Why Would Slide Guitarists Prefer Guitars With Higher Action?
Slide guitar is a bit of a lost art. There are still players out there who can do it, and even do it well, but most aren’t as prominent as the personalities we see on YouTube all the time.
Here’s the thing:
Generally, it takes time to be able to play the slide well.
First, you must put your slide on one of your fretting fingers – middle, ring, or pinky are most common.
Slides are made of different materials, with glass, metal, and ceramic being the most common. Either way, the slide adds some weight to your finger, which can feel uncomfortable unless you’re used to it.
Further, because slides are round, they can feel kind of bulky on your finger. This also takes some getting used to.
Finally, playing with a slide requires a different approach than playing without. Instead of fretting notes, you want to glide the slide above the strings (while applying some pressure, but nowhere near as much as you would with normal fretting).
Of course, with a slide, you also slide between notes instead of fretting them. So, playing in tune can be another challenge.
What all this amounts to is that higher action can be a little easier to work with. If the action on the guitar is too low, fret buzz is inevitable. If it’s a bit higher, though, and you can get the pressure right, you’ll never run into this problem.
Slide guitarists will sometimes play lap steel, pedal steel, or resonator guitars instead. Lap steel and pedal steel guitarists are meant to be played with slides exclusively, and for the most part, aren’t meant to be fretted at all. And you could certainly say they have high action.
If you’re thinking about playing slide or have just started, then it’s certainly worth experimenting with varying string heights to see what works best for you.
Guitar Action: What’s The Best Guitar String Height? Final Thoughts
Although we can’t tell you what the best string height is, you should now be equipped with all the information you need to decide.
If there’s anything else to add, it’s that your instrument can also play a part. Some instruments have been designed with a specific string height in mind and tend to play best when they’re set up as such.
So, be mindful of your instrument as well.
We hope you enjoyed this guide and are now an expert when it comes to action.