How to Lower the Action on an Acoustic Guitar

When your guitar’s action is too “high,” it simply means that the strings are physically too far from the fretboard. This makes the notes harder to play, and if nothing is done about it, the guitar can become uncomfortable to play.

If you need to lower the action on your acoustic guitar, the intonation might be off and you might find it difficult to fret the notes. This is why lowering the action on your guitar is so important. If you don’t do this, it may even result in bent strings while playing certain notes, causing the notes to sound bad because the pitch will be incorrect.

How to Lower the Action on an Acoustic Guitar

How to Lower the Action on an Acoustic Guitar?

Normally, there are three main reasons the guitar action is too high: the nut is too high, the bridge saddle is too high, and the truss rod is not adjusted properly. Other things can also affect it to a much lesser degree. These include the temperature and humidity, general wear and tear, and even changes in the tension of the strings.

Lowering the action on your acoustic guitar is a little more complex than changing the strings, but if you have the right tools it’s a whole lot easier. In this article, we’re going to concentrate only on the three main reasons people need to lower the action on their guitars.

The First Few Steps

The first thing you’ll need to know is the current height of your action. After all, you’ll likely have to take off of either the saddle or the nut, and you want to know the exact height first so you know how much to take off.

As a general rule, if your high E string is greater than 2.0mm and your low E string is greater than 2.8mm, you’ll need to make the adjustment. If this is the case, prepare for the adjustment by removing all of the strings so that access to the nut and bridge saddle are easier. Just make sure that the bridge pins are kept in a secure place while you’re working.

The first thing you should do is decide if you’re going to adjust the nut or the saddle. Keep in mind that:

  • Adjusting the nut is best left to the experts because it is a complicated job.
  • Adjusting the saddle leaves room for error and is therefore easier.

If this is the first time you’ve actually worked on an acoustic guitar, you’re probably better off making adjustments to the saddle instead of the nut.

Checking the Shims and More

One of the reasons why your guitar’s action may be a little high is because there are shims underneath, so you’ll need to remove those before going any further. At this point, you should check that first because if there are any shims that need to be removed, this alone might lower the action quite a bit.

Go ahead and use pliers to remove the saddle from the bridge, but be gentle with this step. Old guitars, and even some newer ones, may have the saddle in this very tight, so you may have to jimmy it a little to slowly work it loose. Never force it because something could break.

If removing the shims works, you can go ahead and restring the guitar. If it doesn’t, check the neck next. Guitar necks should be straight, but if you believe there’s too much relief (some relief is normal), the truss rod should be tightened.

Do this with a clockwise turn of the screw, but make small adjustments then check the results before going any further. Hopefully, you have an adjuster tool for the truss rod that came with the guitar for this task. If you do not, you can use a standard Allen key.

Finishing the Job

At this point, if the adjustments you’ve made haven’t worked, some permanent adjustments are necessary. The first thing you’ll want to do is shave the saddle. If you already know the exact amount needed to be shaved off, mark it with a ruler and a pencil. Put the saddle in a carpenter’s vise and make sure that the bottom is facing up.

If you don’t have a vise, put some sandpaper on a flat, firm surface and tape it down, then take the bottom end of the saddle (the end that slots into the bridge) and rub it into the sandpaper firmly. If you make a mistake, don’t worry because replacement saddles are usually inexpensive and easy to find.

Finally, you’ll have to file the nut slots. There are six grooves on the nut for the strings to rest upon, and you can deepen these slots with a file. Use a fine file and rub it gently into the nut slots, one at a time. Remove just a tiny bit then check it before going any further. If you get it wrong, you may have to replace the nut, and this will be a lot more costlier than having to replace the saddle. Do this step slowly and check the results frequently before moving on to the next step.

Conclusion – How to Lower the Action on an Acoustic Guitar

Lowering the action of an acoustic guitar is something that a lot of guitar players never do themselves, and if you always take your guitar to the pros to get the job done, you can rest assured it will be done right. Nevertheless, if you choose to do the job yourself, just take it very slow and make small steps so that you don’t overdo it and make the situation worse than it was in the beginning.

Also, keep in mind that it’s possible you might like your string height to be lower than 2.0mm to 2.8mm, which is perfectly acceptable. In other words, this process is not a “one size fits all” process.

Your preferences could be a little different than the average guitar player’s, but if you have any doubt about sanding and filing parts of your guitar, you might want to go ahead and take it to a guitar shop and let them do the work instead. That way, you won’t have the stress of possibly messing up your guitar beyond repair.

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