In this installment of TECH TIPS, we’re going to take a look at a simple factor of any guitar’s set up, but one that newer players often approached from too a narrow standpoint. When a learner first picks up the electric guitar, he or she is often most drawn to an instrument that has the strings as low to the fingerboard as is functionally possible, because this is easier on tender, unfamiliar fingers, and makes that guitar feel more comfortable in the beginner’s hand. From this point on, our “feel preference” is often set, and we take this “low action=great guitar” bias with us from guitar to guitar, throughout our playing career, imposing it forever after on guitars that we set up ourselves.
Certainly low action makes a guitar easier to play, and for some styles it really is a necessity. What I would like to address here, though, are the high incidences of guitarists who perpetually chase “the perfect tone”, while continually focusing on string height purely as a function of playing feel, rather than as a factor of tone, which it most certainly is. The old set-up rule that you “get your strings as low as you can without buzzing” seems to make perfect sense. Set up to that criteria, however, while your strings might not buzz noticeably, their vibrational arc is more than likely still inhibited by the proximity of the frets. Also, play harder than usual — which, if you’re like me, you will often find yourself doing in live situations, even if you’re not aware of it — and that set up does also lead to a little unwanted buzzing, though your amp settings, the energy of the live gig, and any effects in the chain might help to mask it.
Just for fun, try taking this inverted approach to setting string height: instead of getting them as low as you can without inducing serious buzzing, set your strings as high as you can have them and still be able to play with some reasonable facility. Doing this correctly might also require adjusting string intonation at the bridge saddles, because their angle and distance across their speaking length is now changing slightly, too, but for now just try it as is, in case you choose to return your action to point one. (Note that raising string height at the bridge might need to be coordinated with a tweak of neck relief at the truss rod, although I will leave that to your own best judgment as there is plenty of debated between the flat-neck/slight-relief crowds, and this determination will depend upon your own preferences.)
Play your guitar a while like this, and notice how much more ring, richness, and sustain you get out of it. The strings should now vibrate for close to the full potential of the instrument (which, of course, also depends upon factors such as nut and bridge type and condition, body style, neck and body woods, and so forth). Put simply, your tone is likely to sound bigger and fuller, and to bloom with a broader voice and a longer note decay than previously. If this as-high-as-you-can-hack-it setting is a little too much for every-day playing, try backing the strings down a hair at a time, and hopefully you can find a height that offers a healthy compromise. Sure, it’s also possible you preferred it the way it was before you adjusted it at all, and if your playing style involves a lot of speed riffing, hammer-ons and pull-offs, or extreme bending, you might simply require that as-low-as-it-goes actions (and will very likely mask its drawbacks with some judicious high-gain tone). With any luck, though, you’ll have discovered an easy means of achieving a fatter tone, without purchasing or modifying a single thing.
Higher strings can potentially induce some drawbacks that you will need to minimize. Before settling on your new action, you want to determine that strings don’t go out of tune in any fretting positions up and down the neck. You also need to ensure that using a capo, if you ever play with one, doesn’t throw all strings out of pitch too badly. Also note that if this experimentation results in raising your strings considerably from their previous position — and your guitar remains playable after doing so — you might also need to adjust your pickup height slightly. But, note that lowering the pickups further from the strings can often also help the strings to vibrate more freely, so leaving the pickups lower might be adding a double bonus to your new playing set up. Play with the options and see what works for you, and that will yield the “best right answer” for each individual player — and once you have achieved it for you, be sure to check and change your intonation, as necessary. If low action floats your boat, great, but it’s worth knowing that there’s a wealth of tone hiding in that thin slice of air between string and fingerboard.
Originally written by Dave Hunter