You are currently viewing Guitar Action Explained – What’s The Right Action?

Last Updated on March 3, 2024 by Teemu Suomala

Author: Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover.

Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music.

Whenever Santiago is not pouring all that experience and love for the instrument into articles, you can find him playing live shows supporting his music and poetry books as “Sandel”. If he’s not doing either of those, you can also find him gigging with his band, “San Juan”, writing, reading, or enjoying the Sun.

photo reveals owner of guitaristnextdoor.com

Editing & Research: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).


A guitar’s action is a deal breaker or a deal maker for most of us. Yes, picking up an electric guitar and struggling to play a C major chord because the strings are too high is a call for putting that guitar down. Moreover, this happens with electric guitars, acoustic guitars, and classic guitars too.

Yet, high action is not the only problem when it comes to the way electric and acoustic guitars feel when you play them. Extreme low action can generate string buzz. Can you imagine playing your acoustic guitar to a constant buzz? And I’m not talking about the 12th fret or first fret but the entire fretboard.

The good news is that you can change the action on your guitar fairly simply.

That’s why we created this masterpiece on measuring guitar action and adjusting your guitar’s string height so you can play flawlessly every tune you love.

Read on, learn, apply, and make your guitar the best-feeling instrument in the world!

What is Guitar Action?

Guitar action is the distance between a guitar string and the top of the frets. Most people talk about it as “string height”, which is the way we measure the action on a guitar. Yet, moving the bridge saddle, for example, to achieve low action is just part of setting guitar action.

reveals what Guitar Action means

How so? You might ask as you scratch your head with a pick. Well, a guitar setup process includes adjusting the truss rod so the high e string and low E string can be at your desired string height without buzzing, but it’s not only that.

In the case you’ve played a guitar with poor truss rod adjustment, you’ll know that, especially on the treble side, without the proper neck relief there’s no way you can have optimum string height because of the buzzing a convex neck generates.

This has nothing to do with your playing position; on the contrary, anyone who picks up such a guitar would realize it.

In case you want to know more about truss rod adjustments, check our ultimate truss rod guide here.

Are Guitar Action and String Height The Same Thing?

The answer to this question, when talking about electric guitar and acoustic guitar with a truss rod, is no. Adjusting a guitar’s action requires more than just string height; it’s also about having the truss rod properly set to avoid fret buzz.

photo reveals what action of the guitar means
The string height has been adjusted, but the action is still a bit off because the neck has relief.

This is because, for example, if you have a buzz on the low E string and move the saddle height (in a Fender-style bridge) you can adjust the string’s height, but if the neck has a big belly, you’ll have to make the string sky-high to avoid buzzing.

Therefore, adjusting the action on a guitar is more than just adjusting the string’s height. Also, measuring guitar action is more than just taking a look at how high or low the strings are.

How to Measure Guitar Action/String Height?

There’s only one way to measure string height regardless if it’s an electric, classic, or acoustic guitar. You need to measure the distance between the top of the fret and a guitar string. For example, many people do it using the high e string and the 12th fret. Moreover, some people use a capo on the first fret to measure it better.

Once measured, you can adjust string heights by moving each individual saddle height or either side on a tune-o-matic bridge (more on that later)

When measuring guitar action, though, you have to check the neck too. This is especially true in acoustic guitars in which you can’t adjust individual string height. If your guitar’s neck has too much relief, you’ll have high action in frets 5 to 12 and buzzing everywhere else.

Finally, the action you choose for your guitar must match your playing style. This means that if you’re a player with a heavy right hand, you’ll need your action a bit higher or you’ll cause the buzz with your own strumming.

Tools That Can Make Measuring Action Easier

Guitar action isn’t just something you can feel in a guitar; we all like different heights for our strings. Therefore, luthiers, builders, and guitar techs use tools to set guitar action precisely.

  • Guitar Ruler – A guitar ruler is the first thing you need. What’s the difference between a regular ruler and a guitar ruler? Well, the main difference is that a guitar ruler has no gaps on either side. This is a must since measuring action on an electric or acoustic guitar requires measurements as small as a 10 thousandth of an inch. So, in a nutshell, a guitar action gauge offers very small measurements and has no gaps.
  • Guitar Feeler – Just like a guitar ruler can help you measure string height, you can use a guitar feeler to check guitar action. These tools have a precise thickness and you can slide them between the string and the fret to measure string height.
  • Straight Edge – No, I’m not talking about a popular movement in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; a straight edge is a long, perfectly straight, metal ruler that is good to check that your guitar neck is straight and level with the guitar’s bridge, and to check the neck’s relief.
  • Truss Rod Wrench – Different guitars feature different truss rods that are adjusted differently. Some need a special tool (hello Taylor, hi there Martin) and others require a simple hex or screwdriver. Whichever your guitar needs, you should have one.

When making these measurements, bear in mind that if you’re changing the string gauge, you’ll have to re-adjust the action. Yes, since you measure the distance between the strings and the frets, thicker strings make a big difference. Also, using a different string gauge will change their pull on the neck and you’ll need to re-adjust the truss rod.

Remember, a comfortable low action is the result of a proper setup of your guitar’s neck and string height.


How to Decide What is The Right Guitar Action for You?

In my many years as a session musician and teacher, I’ve encountered many different opinions on this topic. Furthermore, it’s something so personal there’s not even a right or wrong.

For example, I love the sound of spanking treble strings (the thinner strings) really hard when I play but if my guitar action is as low as it gets, I’ll get fret buzz. That being said, when I’m soloing with a Gibson-style, dual-humbucker guitar, I love low action; the lowest possible.

You can consider this an insider’s trick, an expert tip: low action is not always your friend.

So, first, you need to ask yourself these questions:

Are you a hard-hitter?

If this is the case (think John Frusciante, Jimi Hendrix, SRV) your guitar’s action should be, generally speaking, higher than what most people call low action.

Do you play complex chords?

If you play complex chords (think jazz, neo-soul), you need to adjust action as low as your guitar’s intonation allows you. This is because making pressure on the fretboard while stretching four frets and having to fight high action might be too much for a single player.

Do you play with a slide?

Players who use electric guitars or acoustic guitars to play with a slide (hey there Johnny Winters, hello Derek Trucks!) might want to have their action a little higher than the rest of us. This is because low action can cause your slide to hit frets as you move it. Don’t just take my word for it, the fine folks at Fender think exactly the same.

Are you a shredder?

If you play your electric guitar fitting 100 notes per minute, then the guitar you play needs to have high frets and low action. Some people have taken it to the next level by playing scalloped necks on their guitars (hello Yngwie!)

Just like most other guitar-related decisions, there’s no right or wrong way here. You should ask these questions as a shortcut to making your guitar’s neck the most comfortable place on Earth.


Standard & Ideal Guitar Action/String Heights

photo displays low vs high action on guitar

Let me give you a newsflash, besides accommodating your playing style, the action also affects tone.

Yes, if your guitar’s action is too low, you won’t only get fret buzz but also it will kill the tone. On the other hand, while it might not be the most comfortable thing in the world, higher action might translate into a better tone.

So, you have to walk that fine line through trial and error until you find the perfect balance, the one that works for you and matches your playing style.

That being said, let’s review a couple of good places to start by addressing the perfect string height for electric and acoustic guitars.

On the electric side, Fender Guitars ships instruments with 4/64” (1.58mm). This is for a guitar with a 9.5” fretboard radius, which means most guitars on the planet. So, that’s a great place to start with your electric guitar.

I would say the lowest your action can go on the high e string on electric is 1mm, medium is 1.4mm, and high is 1.65mm. For the low E string, it would be 1.25mm for low action, 1.4mm for medium, and 1.9 as high.

On the acoustic side, you can go for 1.5mm on the high e for the lowest action, 1.9mm for medium action, and 2.3mm for high action. On the low E string that can be 1.75mm for low action, 2.3mm for medium, and 2.8 for high action.

All of this is measured at the 12th fret of course.

As a personal suggestion, I would say move within those numbers at first and find what suits your playing the best. For even better results put a capo on the first fret before moving saddle height.

Standard Electric Guitar Action

Displays an Electric Guitar

Action on electric guitars, as we said before, depends on the neck relief, which should be checked by a guitar tech. That being said, if your electric guitar has perfect relief, the guitar’s ideal action at the 12th fret should be as follows:

  • 1.6mm for the high e string
  • 2.4mm for the low E string

 Remember you should measure and fine-tune it depending on your style and playing ability.

Standard Steel-String Acoustic Guitar Action

Most acoustic guitars need a higher action than their electric counterparts. This is because the acoustic guitar needs resonance to make the body vibrate. Thus, extremely low action would kill its tone. While the guitar plays like butter, it sounds dead and dull. On the other hand, if strings vibrate more freely because of higher string height, the acoustic guitar sounds full, round, and powerful.

So, when you measure guitar action for acoustics, forget about extreme low action and aim for a guitar action that won’t kill the acoustic guitar tone. While at it, check string tension and have a technician adjust the truss rod properly.

  • 2mm on the high e string
  • 2.5mm on the low E string

Standard Classical Guitar Action

displays Classical Guitar acoustic guitar bodyshape

Unlike acoustic guitars, most classic guitars don’t have a truss rod to adjust the guitar’s intonation because the strings don’t pull hard enough to bend the neck. Yes, especially the nylon treble side offers little pull. So, when talking about classic guitars, minding a few exceptions, we don’t talk about neck relief or truss rod adjustment but just string height. This is also one of the reasons why you should never ever use metal guitar strings (like the ones you’d use on an acoustic guitar) on a classic guitar.

Measure the guitar action, take out the guitar’s strings, and adjust the guitar action from the bridge and nut.

  • 3mm for the high e string
  • 4mm for the low E string

How to Adjust the Action of Electric Guitars

We talked about electric guitar adjusting with concise electric guitar action numbers. But how do you adjust the action on your electric guitar?

First, get a fresh set of guitar strings before you set your guitar’s action and install them properly. Remember that the gauge you use for your guitar setup defines string tension which is very important for keeping the action low on electric guitars.

In case you don’t know what kind of bridge your guitar has, you can check the ultimate guitar bridge guide here.

Fender-Style Bridges

displays Hardtail Bridge String Height Adjustments screws

Fender-style bridge guitars are, by far, the most common in the world. When we talk about Fender style, we talk about Stratocaster and Telecaster bridges.

Normally, every Fender-style bridge offers the player two worm-like bolts on each bridge saddle. This means you can adjust every string individually. Although it might look like a detail, this is paramount for the proper adjustment of the middle strings, for example.

So, after having the neck of the guitar properly adjusted, using your feel gauge or guitar ruler, measure the height of the strings. Then, by lowering or raising each bridge saddle adjust the guitar action to your desire.

Remember what we said about extremely-low action.

Repeat the measurement until you reach the 12th fret.

Tune-o-Matic Bridges

displays TOM Bridge String Height Adjustment screws

Contrary to Fender-style bridges (vibrato or hardtail) a tune-o-matic bridge doesn’t offer single-string adjustment (thank you, Leo, you rock). On the contrary, the tune-o-matic bridge features dual pole pieces where the bridge meets the guitar body.

Tune-o-matic bridges are very common in Gibson-style guitars and while they offer individual string slots to adjust intonation, you have to raise or lower the bottom or top strings together. This is done by moving the little wheel on each side.

Some tune-o-matic bridges can be adjusted with your fingers and others will require a screwdriver.

Floyd Rose Bridges

displays Floyd Rose Bridge String Height Adjustment screws

There are few things more intimidating than a Floyd Rose bridge. These are intricate, high-tech pieces that require a NASA degree to manipulate. Just kidding, a Floyd Rose bridge is as easy for adjusting your guitar action as a tune-o-matic bridge.

Yes, once the truss rod is perfectly set up, you need to use bridge posts to raise or lower the entire tremolo.

The one thing to bear in mind is that a Floyd Rose bridge is a floating tremolo system, held in place by these posts and the guitar strings’ pulling force.

To achieve perfect tuning stability while keeping a low action, make sure you make even adjustments on both sides or you’ll encounter major tuning issues.

Other Types of Bridges

Before we get to acoustic guitar intonation, let’s check how to change the string height on guitars with bridges that are neither of the above.

  • Bigsby – A Bigsby vibrato is one of the oldest versions of tremolo for electric guitars. To adjust the action on a guitar with a Bigsby vibrato system, simply adjust the tune-o-matic bridge before it minding fret buzz to achieve the optimum low action. This also works with Mustang, Jaguar, and Jazzmaster bridges.
  • Stop tail & wrap-around – Stop tail bridges are what you’d find in an early ‘50s Les Paul or some PRS guitars. These bridges go into the guitar body and don’t feature a separate stop tail behind the bridge (like a tune-o-matic would). To adjust the action, you have to lower or raise either side.
  • Kahler – Back in the day when the Floyd Rose wasn’t the absolute king of floating tremolos, some brands used Khaler bridges. A notable guitar with one you might know is Jerry Cantrell’s (Alice in Chains) G&L Rampage. Kahler bridges offer a single screw per string so you can adjust each separately.

How to Adjust the Action of Acoustic Guitars and Classical Guitars

While electric guitars vary from brand to brand, 90% of the acoustic and classical guitars in the world work the same way. Yes, acoustic guitar adjusting starts with the truss rod to adjust neck relief and string tension.

Once that is done, you can change string height modifying nut height and saddle height.

Check our full acoustic guitar action adjusting guide.

Adjusting the Saddle & Bridge

displays a Acoustic guitar bridge

Did you see the white plastic in your acoustic or classical guitar bridge? Well, that is a removable part called the saddle. To lower the string height, you need to remove and sand it to your desired height.

So, first, install fresh guitar strings and measure your guitar’s action at the 12th fret on all the strings making sure you have no fret buzz. Keep in mind that a little fret buzz on a classical guitar might be desirable, especially if it’s not amplified.

Once you’ve measured the distance between your desired action and your current action, mark that difference with a sharpie on the saddle and sand down until you reach the mark.

Expert Tip: For your guitar to play great regardless of your playing style, use the sharpie to mark the height and also on the bottom of the saddle so you sand it evenly. An uneven saddle will bring you endless tuning issues. I know, you’re welcome.

Adjusting the Nut

displays Acoustic guitar nut

Although classical guitars and acoustic guitars have nuts that are made of the same material as the saddle, going DIY on modifying nut height isn’t the best idea. They are cut precisely with tools that are too expensive to own. It’s the same as the case with electric guitars and truss rods.

So, to lower guitar action on a classical guitar or to reduce the string height or action on an acoustic guitar, start with the bridge and, if that doesn’t do it, take your guitar to a guitar tech to fine-tune the guitar action by lowering the nut too.


FAQ

Can You Adjust The Action With A Truss Rod?

A guitar’s truss rod is a requirement to achieve optimal string height. Truss rods modify the neck relief; a convex neck will never give you a low action. Likewise, a neck that’s too concave will give you super-high action in the middle and fret buzz everywhere else
The truss rod is very important to adjust the action on an acoustic or electric. Once that is done, you need to adjust the string height.

Bear in mind that most classical guitars don’t feature a truss rod.

What Can Change Guitars Action/String Height?

Most guitars are made of wood (hello White-Stripes-era Jack White!) which is an organic material that is modified by weather conditions and humidity. Humidity and heat make wood swell and cold and dryness do the opposite. So, if the neck moves, it changes the guitar action and you need to compensate with the guitar’s truss rod and string height.

Another reason could be changing the string gauge. Yes, thicker strings pull harder on the neck, which might make it bow. The opposite is also true, if you use lighter strings to play faster on your electric guitar with super low action, you need to compensate with the neck relief and string height.

How to Know if Your Guitars Action is Too High?

The only way to know if your guitar action is too high is to measure action with a proper tool.

We talked above about the ideal guitar action in electric and acoustic guitars. That being said, there are a few reasons to have higher guitar action like playing slide guitar or styles like flamenco or funk.

Although low action feels great, your acoustic guitar will sound better with a slightly higher action. So, in a nutshell, if it “feels” too high but sounds great, measure it and then make a decision knowing it will affect tone too.

How to Know if Your Guitars Action is Too Low?

If you measure string height and it’s within the limits above but you’re still getting fret buzz, then it’s time to check the truss rod and measure guitar action again.

Your action is only too low when it affects either the tone (the guitar sounds dead, dull, or with low volume) or you get fret buzz. So, if you love low action, take it to the limit and see how your guitar reacts.

Is Lower Action Easier to Play?

The answer to this question is yes, in most cases.

For example, if you play slide guitar, low action is your enemy, you need proper string height for your slide to move effortlessly. That being said, if you’re a shredder or play complex chords, adjust your truss rod so you can set your guitar action as low as possible.

Why Do Cheap Guitars Have High Action?

Cheap guitars, whether they are cheap acoustic guitars or cheap electric guitars have a reputation for having sky-high action and very poor playability.

Cheap guitars not only travel inside a box from one corner of the planet to the opposite but also receive a very poor factory setup. The good news is that if that cheap guitar has a working truss rod, you can adjust the guitar action and have a low action. Yes, a working truss rod can help you set the neck relief properly to avoid fret buzz.

In other words, don’t worry; a good guitar tech can make that right for you.
Here’s proof you can do a 113-date arena tour with a $40 Strat.

Does Higher Action Have Better Tone?

Let me tell you a story to prove this point. I was working for the Fender dealer selling electric guitars and acoustic guitars to pro and semi-pro musicians all day. Every guitar in the store, especially the expensive ones, had perfect guitar action. I sold a Fender SRV Signature Stratocaster to a great blues player who, as I found out later, loved low action.

He came back the following week furious telling me I sold him a dead guitar.

He had taken the great-sounding guitar we sold him to his trusted guitar tech who left the action super low. That, on a strat, for a heavy-hitting bluesman is sacrilege!

So, to make a long story short, we raised action a little and the guitar came back to life.

The moral of the story is that action affects tone, and if you go too low you can kill tone.

What Types of Guitars Have Lowest Action?

A guitar’s action can be fine-tuned to the player’s taste. That being said, the electric guitar that offers players the lowest guitar action is the one that is aimed at shredders or jazz players. Indeed, you’ll find low action across the board in brands like Ibanez, Charvel, Jackson, and ESP to name a few, and in guitars such as super starts.


Conclusion

Playing guitar regardless of acoustic guitar or electric guitar is a physical experience. Yes, your fingers touch your guitar neck and the steel and the wood generate a feel. That’s why pressing down a string to fret a note when your guitar’s action is lower generates pleasure.

That being said, the counterpart of effortless playing is tone and the archenemy in this adventure is the evil fret buzz.

So, you need to walk the thin line that divides comfort from tone (especially true with acoustic guitars) and always measure guitar action as the sum of those elements.

Don’t go too low as to drown your guitar’s tone and don’t go too high as to hate playing your favorite instrument.

Find that sweet spot that feels like home, plays like a dream, and sounds like heaven.

Happy playing!

Santiago Motto

Aka. Sandel. Pure Telecasters and all-mahogany Martins lover. Besides that, Sandel is a professional writer, guitar player, confessed guitar nerd, and all-things-guitar consumer. He has been playing for 25 years which makes him a nineties kid with serious low-tuning youngster years, and a pop palate for melodies, ballads, and world music. You can connect with Santiago on LinkedIn or just email him.
5 1 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments