Beginner’s guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

If you’re a beginner looking to improve the playability of your acoustic guitar, this guide is for you. Lowering the action, or the distance between the strings and the fretboard, can greatly enhance your playing experience. In this article, we will explore different techniques and tips to help you achieve a lower action on your acoustic guitar, allowing for smoother fretting and easier chord changes. So grab your guitar and let’s get started on this journey towards better playability!

1. What is guitar action?

1.1 Definition and importance

Guitar action refers to the distance between the strings and the fretboard. It greatly influences how a guitar feels and plays. The action can be categorized as either high or low. High action requires more force to press down on the strings, making it harder to play. On the other hand, low action allows for easier and faster playing, as the strings are closer to the frets. Striking the right balance between low action and avoiding string buzzing is essential for a comfortable playing experience.

1.2 Standard action for acoustic guitar

The standard action for most acoustic guitars is typically higher than that of electric guitars. This is due to the thicker gauge of acoustic strings and the need for a stronger projection of sound. The acceptable action range for an acoustic guitar usually falls between 3/32 of an inch (2.38 mm) and 7/64 of an inch (2.78 mm) at the 12th fret, measured from the top of the 12th fret to the bottom of the string.

2. Signs that indicate action adjustment is needed

2.1 Buzzing strings

One of the most common signs that your guitar’s action needs adjustment is when the strings produce a buzzing sound when played open or when fretted. This buzzing can occur when the strings are too close to the frets, causing them to vibrate against the frets when played. If you notice buzzing, especially on certain frets or strings, it’s a clear indication that your action may need adjustment.

2.2 Difficulty in playing chords

If you find it challenging or uncomfortable to play certain chords, particularly barre chords, it could be an indicator that the action on your guitar is too high. High action requires more finger strength and exertion to hold down the strings, making it more difficult to play chords cleanly. Lowering the action can greatly improve the ease and fluidity of chord playing.

2.3 High string tension

Another sign that your guitar’s action needs adjustment is if you notice the strings feel excessively tight or require a significant amount of effort to press down. High string tension can be caused by high action, which increases the distance between the strings and the frets. Not only can this make playing uncomfortable, but it can also lead to hand fatigue and affect your overall playing technique.

Beginners guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

3. Tools and equipment required

3.1 Guitar setup kit

To effectively lower the action on your acoustic guitar, you will need a guitar setup kit. This kit typically includes tools such as screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, and other specialized tools required for various adjustments.

3.2 String height gauge

A string height gauge is an important tool for measuring the action on your guitar accurately. It allows you to measure the distance between the strings and the fretboard at specific points, ensuring precise adjustments.

3.3 Screwdrivers and Allen wrenches

Screwdrivers and Allen wrenches are essential for making adjustments to certain components of the guitar, such as the truss rod and bridge saddle.

3.4 Bridge saddle file

A bridge saddle file is necessary for filing down the bridge saddle to lower the string height. This specialized file ensures a smooth and even adjustment to avoid any unevenness in the saddle.

3.5 Sandpaper or fret leveling file

Sandpaper or a fret leveling file is required for leveling and dressing the frets if uneven frets are impacting the action. This ensures a smooth surface for comfortable and accurate playing.

4. Preparing to lower the action

4.1 Loosen the strings

Before making any adjustments, it’s crucial to loosen the strings of your guitar to relieve tension. This prevents any damage to the neck or other components while making adjustments.

4.2 Inspect the guitar neck and frets

Take the time to inspect the guitar neck and frets for any signs of damage or unevenness. Look for any visible wear on the frets that may be contributing to the high action. If you notice any significant issues, it’s advisable to consult a professional guitar technician.

4.3 Protect the guitar body

Using a soft cloth or a protective cover, carefully cover the guitar body to prevent any accidental scratches or damage during the adjustment process.

4.4 Measure the current action

Using a string height gauge, measure the current action of your guitar by placing the gauge at various points along the fretboard. This will give you a baseline measurement and help determine how much adjustment is necessary.

Beginners guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

5. Adjusting the truss rod

5.1 Understanding the truss rod function

The truss rod is a metal rod inside the neck of the guitar that helps counteract the tension from the strings, thereby providing stability to the neck. Adjusting the truss rod can affect the neck relief and subsequently impact the action of the guitar.

5.2 Evaluating neck relief

Neck relief refers to the slight curvature or bow of the neck. To evaluate the neck relief, press down the first and last fret of the low E string simultaneously. Look at the gap between the string and the frets around the 7th to 9th fret. If there’s too much gap or no gap at all, the truss rod adjustment may be necessary.

5.3 Adjusting the truss rod correctly

Using an Allen wrench appropriately sized for your guitar’s truss rod, make small adjustments in quarter-turn increments. Turn the wrench clockwise to tighten the rod, which will reduce neck relief and potentially lower the action. Conversely, turning the wrench counterclockwise loosens the rod, increasing neck relief and raising the action. Make gradual adjustments and recheck the action until you achieve the desired height.

6. Adjusting the bridge saddle

6.1 Removing the saddle

To adjust the action at the bridge, the bridge saddle needs to be removed. Depending on the type of guitar, the saddle may be held in place with pegs or screws. Carefully release the saddle from its position, ensuring not to damage the guitar’s finish or any electronic components.

6.2 Filing the saddle

Using a bridge saddle file, file down the bottom surface of the saddle evenly. Start with small increments and test the action frequently. Aim to maintain a smooth and consistent angle across the saddle to ensure proper intonation.

6.3 Reinstalling and testing the saddle

Once you have achieved the desired action height, carefully reinstall the bridge saddle, ensuring it sits securely in its position. Tune the strings back to pitch and test the action by playing various chords and notes. If the action feels comfortable and the buzzing is eliminated, you have successfully adjusted the action.

Beginners guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

7. Shimming the neck pocket

7.1 Assessing the neck angle

In some cases, the neck angle may be the primary cause of high action. To assess the neck angle, sight down the neck from the headstock to the body. If the neck appears to have a forward bow or backward bend, shimming the neck pocket can help correct the issue.

7.2 Adding a shim

A shim is a thin piece of material, typically made of wood or metal, that is placed between the guitar’s neck and body. The shim adjusts the neck angle, consequently altering the action. Using the appropriate material and thickness, carefully insert the shim into the neck pocket until the desired neck angle and action are achieved.

7.3 Rechecking action and playability

After adding a shim, recheck the action using a string height gauge. Pay attention to any improvements in playability and determine if any further adjustments are necessary. Remember to test the action at various points on the fretboard to ensure a consistent height.

8. Fret leveling and dressing

8.1 Identifying uneven frets

If adjusting the truss rod and bridge saddle did not resolve the high action issues, uneven frets may be the culprit. Look for any signs of wear, dents, or unevenness on the frets. This can be particularly evident when certain notes or chords consistently buzz.

8.2 Using a fret leveling file

To level the frets, use a fret leveling file or sandpaper attached to a flat, rigid surface. Carefully move the file or sandpaper across the frets, ensuring that it makes even contact with each fret. This aids in removing any high spots and creating a level playing surface.

8.3 Smoothing the frets with sandpaper

After leveling the frets, switch to a finer grit sandpaper to smooth out any rough edges or scratches left by the leveling process. Gently and evenly rub the sandpaper lengthwise along each fret until they feel smooth to the touch.

8.4 Rechecking action and intonation

After fret leveling and dressing, recheck the action using a string height gauge. Test the playability by fretting different notes and chords, paying attention to any buzzing or fretting out. Additionally, check the guitar’s intonation by comparing the 12th fret harmonic to the fretted 12th fret note. Make any necessary adjustments to ensure accurate intonation.

Beginners guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

9. Replacing the strings

9.1 Choosing the right gauge

When replacing the strings, consider the gauge that suits your playing style and the desired action height. Lighter gauge strings generally require less tension to achieve lower action. Experiment with different string gauges to find what feels and sounds best for you.

9.2 Restringing the guitar

Follow the standard restringing procedure for your acoustic guitar, ensuring the strings are securely attached at the bridge and properly stretched to minimize tuning instability. Take care not to change the action inadvertently by applying too much pressure or tension while restringing.

9.3 Stretching and tuning the new strings

After restringing, stretch the new strings by gently pulling them away from the fretboard, being careful not to pull too forcefully. This helps to minimize any future tuning issues. Tune the guitar to the desired pitch, ensuring proper intonation and a comfortable playing experience.

10. Regular maintenance and care

10.1 Checking action periodically

Even after successfully adjusting the action on your acoustic guitar, it’s important to check the action periodically to ensure it remains consistent. Factors such as temperature, humidity, and string wear can affect the action over time. Regularly measuring the action with a string height gauge and addressing any changes or issues promptly will help maintain optimal playability.

10.2 Cleaning and conditioning the fretboard

To keep your guitar in top condition, it’s essential to clean and condition the fretboard regularly. Use a fretboard cleaning solution or lemon oil to remove dirt and grime from the fretboard. This helps prevent buildup that can affect the action and overall playability of the guitar.

10.3 Keeping the guitar in proper humidity

Acoustic guitars are sensitive to changes in humidity, which can cause the neck to warp or the action to fluctuate. Use a humidifier or dehumidifier as necessary to maintain the recommended humidity level for your specific guitar. Consistently keeping the guitar in the right humidity range prevents potential damage and ensures better action stability.

10.4 Protecting the guitar during transport and storage

When transporting or storing your acoustic guitar, it’s crucial to use a proper case or gig bag to protect it from bumps, temperature extremes, and excessive humidity or dryness. Proper handling and storage prevent any accidental damage that could lead to changes in the action or other issues.

By following these steps and taking the necessary precautions for adjusting the action on your acoustic guitar, you can achieve a comfortable playing experience tailored to your preferences. Remember, if you’re unsure or uncomfortable making these adjustments yourself, it’s always best to seek assistance from a professional guitar technician.

Beginners guide to lowering the action on acoustic guitar

About The Author