There are few things that can make improving your guitar-playing more difficult than a poor set-up. I can't tell you how many times I have sat down for a lesson with a student, taken a look at their fingers while they played and said, “Something doesn't look right. Let me see that thing.” Sometimes what they hand me is a guitar that is so out-of-whack I can barely play it. The neck is shaped like a banana, or the strings are two or even three times as high as they should be. Ten minutes later, I hand the guitar back and watch as everything they were struggling with suddenly becomes easy.
There are four sets of measurements and adjustments that must be made to provide a good set-up (intonation, relief and nut height are the others), but “action” is probably the easiest for a layperson to experiment with on an electric guitar.
Action is the height of the strings from the frets. I always measure this at the twelfth fret without using a capo.
To illustrate how needlessly confusing the concept of action can be, and how meaningless some of the discussions about it can be, here are some quotes I just found while searching the web:
“I never liked a really low action. For some reason I find it harder to bend strings when they are that low. So a medium action is just fine for me and I have a feeling it helps sustain as well.”
“I like mine as low as possible without a lot of buzzing.”
“I love high action. Seems that the string ring better for a truer tone.”
So, to sum up, Person A likes “medium”, Person B likes it “low”, and Person C “high.”
There are some nuggets of wisdom in each of these quotes. It is indeed a bit harder to bend strings when the action is too low – too low, that is, for it to be easy enough to bend strings. It is possible for the strings to be so low that the notes have a too-large noise component (i.e. buzz). It is true that if the strings are too low, sustain will be compromised.
It is also true that some players will play their best with low action, some with medium, and some with high action.
So, with all of the wisdom contained within, what is my complaint about the above sentiments?
If I was to measure the action on each of these three guitarists' favorite guitars, I would not be at all surprised to find out they were set up precisely the same.
Also, even if the player who claimed to “love high action” actually had what I consider to be “high action,” they may find they sound just as good, and are able to play somewhat better, with medium action.
I cannot recommend highly enough to every guitarist that they purchase a ruler to measure their action. It should be six inches long, and have lines for 64ths of an inch along one edge, and it absolutely needs to begin at zero, with the first line exactly 1/64” from the end.
How to Set up the Action on Your Guitar
Now, I have a belief - based on the knowledge of having set-up hundreds of guitars for students and musicians - that nearly everyone would be perfectly satisfied and able to play their best with the following action. Let's call it Medium:
Medium action, electric guitar: 6th string: 5/64”
1st string: 4/64”
Notice that the 6th string should be higher than the 1st. The 6th through 1st strings should gradually reduce in height.
To find the perfect action for you, start by setting your guitar to Medium and playing it that way for at least a few hours. If it feels too high, lower every string by 1/64”. If it feels too low, raise every string by 1/64”. Experiment and have fun. Write down your observations so you don't forget - that's how I settled on my preferred settings.
I am very much hoping that those of you who are electric guitarists will measure the action on your favorite guitar(s) and please comment below with the following information, so we can learn together:
the action measurements (include details such as 5-and-a-half 64ths, if applicable)
do you play slide on the guitar?
does it have a small (7.25”) radius and/or vintage-style frets?
the brand and model of the guitar
your favorite style of music to play
do you play melodies (runs) that include fast notes, i.e. sixteenths at 120 bpm or faster?
anything else that may be relevant
Thanks for reading and participating. Happy practicing.