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How To Setup Your Electric Guitar Part 2: Setting Action


In Part 1 of the Guitar Setup Series we learned how to adjust the truss rod to set the neck relief. In Part 2, we will show you how to fine tune your string height so your guitar is perfectly tailored to your playing style.


 

Guitar neck showing strings and frets

ACTION

The term action refers to the distance between the top of your frets to the bottom of your strings. This distance plays a key role in your setup because it determines how easy it is to fret each note and how aggressive you can play the instrument before causing fret buzz. There are some target numbers that you’ll want to keep in mind when measuring action, but ultimately your playing style and personal taste will determine the string height.

Low action, no buzz

Our #1 request for a custom setup is “low action, no buzz.” This is always tough to tackle because what’s low for us, may be high for you. Also, the lower the strings are to the frets, the more likely you are to have buzz. This is why setting the action is always a compromise between getting it as low as possible and avoiding fret buzz.

Since the focus of these articles will be on electric guitars, we will always want to verify how much buzz is actually translating through the amplifier. Most of the buzz you hear while you’re sitting on your couch and strumming your guitar will not be heard through an amp. Keep this in mind if fret buzz is a deal breaker in your setup.

How to measure action

1. Tune the guitar to pitch and ensure that your neck relief has Guitar Tech Measuring the Action of an acoustic guitar with a ruler. been properly adjusted.

Tip: Some Luthiers will install a capo at the first fret in order to prevent the nut height from being a factor in their measurements. If you opt to do this, be sure that you repeat this on your next setup as well. The capo will give you a lower measurement when installed so you’ll want to be sure you have it in place at every setup once you’ve figured out your desired action.

2. Place the ruler on the 12th fret so that you’re getting an accurate measurement of the gap from the top of the fret to the bottom of the low E- string. Be sure that the ruler is square to the frets so that your ruler ticks are parallel to the string path.

3. Now you’ll need to make the decision to raise, lower or leave the action alone. Everyone’s setup preferences are a little different. For example, Jeff Beck prefers low action (3/64ths) whereas Stevie Ray Vaughn prefers a higher action (7/64ths) to accommodate his more aggressive technique. You may want to experiment and determine what’s best for your playing style.

Click here to learn more about how to measure the action of your electric guitar.

Adjusting Your Action

Most guitars have either a Fender or Gibson style bridge. The Fender style bridge allows you to adjust each saddle height individually. When adjusting these, it’s up to you to maintain or adjust them to the proper radius. A Gibson style bridge has two bridge posts that allow you to adjust only the bass and treble side of the bridge. The radius of the saddle slots on a Gibson bridge should already be set when the bridge was initially installed.

The Fender Bridge

  • Allen wrench adjusting the saddle of a Fender StratFirst, adjust your Low E-string height by raising or lowering the saddle. Always ensure that you’re using the correct wrench size.
  • Adjust both set screws, re-tune your guitar to pitch and take another action measurement at the 12th fret. You may want to play that string a little to see if the playability has improved for you. If so, accurately measure the action height and adjust the rest of the strings to that same distance. This will give you the correct radius.
  • Many of the Technicians here at Sweetwater prefer to have a slightly lower action on the treble strings since the vibrational pattern of these strings are tighter and require less clearance. If you’d like to try this, set the action of your high E string (1st) 1/64th of an inch lower than your low E string (6th). You can either cascade your measurements from tallest to lowest, or, you can more accurately set your strings to the proper radius by verifying with a radius gauge.

Tip: Increasing the saddle height will also increase the string tension. Strings are easier to bend with less tension, so set the height to best suite your playing style.

 

The Gibson Bridge

Screwdriver adjusting the bridge of a Les Paul GuitarThe radius of a Gibson Tune-o-matic bridge is set at the factory and should not need to be changed.

  • Measure the action at the 12th fret and determine whether you’d like to raise or lower the string height.
  • Adjust the bridge height by turning the slot-head screw on the bridge post, or by whichever method would be applicable to your bridge style. Always be sure to tune your guitar back to pitch before taking any further measurements.
  • We like to set our treble side action about 1/64th of an inch lower on the treble side but feel free to experiment and find the height that best suits your playing style.
  • While there are no specific rules to setting the height of the stopbar tailpiece, you may wish to fine tune it while setting up your guitar. Keep in mind that lowering the stopbar will increase the string tension and make them a little harder.

Tip: Be sure that the stopbar is not causing the strings to make contact with the back of the bridge. This will inhibit vibration and reduce overtones.

 


Now that you have set the action and fine-tuned your guitar’s playability, click on here to check pitch accuracy and set the intonation of your guitar.


 

Helpful Links

Guitar Setup Part 1: Adjusting the Truss Rod

Guitar Setup Part 3: Intonation

Guitar Setup: How do I measure the action on my electric guitar?

Guitar Setup: The Right Tool For The Job

Guitar Setup: How do I use a radius gauge?

Guitar Setup: The Tap Test

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