How to Adjust Guitar Action

Action Guide: How to Adjust Guitar Action

If you want to make it easier to fret each note or reduce the buzz, you must know how to adjust guitar action. So, how do you measure and change the action?

The best way to measure action is to measure the distance, by using an action gauge or ruler, between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string for the high and low E strings. Adjust action by sanding the saddle or by adjusting the truss rod.

Measuring and adjusting action on guitars is difficult, but we are here to help you. There are many more details to know about how to do this correctly.

What is Action on a Guitar?

Guitar action is the distance between the bottom of the strings and the top of the frets.

The action on a guitar determines how the guitar is going to be played. High action often defines the more considerable distance between the string and frets, while low action is a lesser distance between them.

High action is often used for beginners during practice because it allows for more control. It is also typically used for certain types of guitar playing, like a slide guitar. High action is known for being more challenging to play than low action.

Low action is often used in bluegrass guitar playing and when the guitarist wants a smoother play. The tone will also be a slightly different sound than high action. It will produce a tighter sound and will likely be easier to play.

How High or Low Should My Action be?

As mentioned above, action on a guitar can help you play the guitar in unique ways. It all comes down to preference and how easy you want the playing to be.

Low action is considered more accessible because it requires less pressure to press down the fret. Meanwhile, high action has more distance, meaning it requires more pressure. Both can also create different sounds.

If you want more control (and more work) during play, we suggest having a higher action on the guitar. Low action might be better if you want to play with a lighter, smoother tone.

We would suggest testing a couple of guitars with different action levels to get the best sense of how you might want your action to be on your guitar.

How to Measure Action

  1. Put the guitar in the “playing position.”
  2. Get an action gauge or a ruler. If you use a ruler, ensure there is no space between the measurement lines and that the ruler goes directly to the measurements. Rulers that have gaps before measurements will cause your measurements to be off.
  3. Use the ruler or action gauge by placing the tool flat on the 12th fret on the low E string. Then measure the distance between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. Once you have that measurement, repeat these steps for the high E string.

How to Adjust Action on Acoustic Guitar

Adjusting the action on acoustic guitars is a bit more complicated than you might think. It requires careful work not to harm the guitar or take off too much action.

Lower Action: Sanding Down the Saddle

One of the ways to lower the action on a guitar is to sand down the saddle to a desired length. Before beginning this process, be aware that if you take off too much on the saddle, you cannot return and put more on. So, we suggest doing it little by little or having a professional do it to not damage the guitar.

  1. Remove the saddle from the bridge and note which way you took it out, so you can put it back in the same way after you are done.
  2. Take a pencil and mark a line on the saddle to indicate how much you want to take off. You will take off double the amount you want to take off. So, after measuring your action, if you wanted to take off 1/20 (0.05), you would remove double that. You may even want to make a few lines leading up to the desired length so you don’t take off too much.
  3. Find a completely flat surface and place some sandpaper on top of it. Ensure your flat surface is completely flat; otherwise, you may have an uneven saddle. Some people use a slab of strong glass under the sandpaper because glass is thin and has no rough parts to it.
  4. Place your saddle on the sandpaper, and begin to sand off some length by making long strokes in one direction on the paper. Only go one way when sanding, do not go back and forth. This will prevent bumps in the saddle.
  5. Sand down to each line you marked. You may have to put the saddle back in the bridge multiple times to test the guitar. You never want to take off too much when sanding down the saddle.

Lower/Raise Action: Adjust the Truss Rod

This next process can either lower or raise the action on your guitar. This one is a bit easier than sanding down the saddle and can also be fixed.

  1. Find the truss rod on your guitar. It is usually on the neck of your guitar or the inside of the guitar (in the hole).
  2. Stick an Allen wrench inside the truss rod.
  3. For a higher action, turn the wrench counter-clockwise. For a lower action, turn the wrench clockwise.
  4. Make sure not to turn the truss rod too much. Otherwise, it can make the guitar buzz when played.
  5. To reduce the chances of this happening, play the guitar as you adjust the truss rod. Testing how the guitar will play will help you be more confident with how much you turn the Allen wrench.

Raise Action: Using a Shim

If you want to raise the action on your guitar, consider using a shim. Shims are added to the guitar to increase the strings’ height on your guitar. This is a little less scary than sanding down the saddle, but it still needs to be done carefully and well.

  1. Obtain a shim that will make the action at the desired length. There are different lengths for shims, so be aware that you have chosen the right one.
  2. Next, you will need to take the neck off of the guitar. You can have a professional do this if you are hesitant about doing it yourself.
  3. Place the shim in the space where the neck was removed on the guitar.
  4. Screw your guitar neck back on the guitar, and you are done!

Raise Action: Total Saddle Replacement

This following way of raising action on your guitar can be done by a professional or not, but it needs to be done right.

  1. Remove the strings on your guitar carefully.
  2. Take off the bridge from the guitar.
  3. Put in a new saddle to the desired length.
  4. Restring your guitar.

How to Adjust Action on Electric Guitar

Adjusting action on an electric guitar is much easier than on an acoustic guitar. Electric guitars have certain knobs to raise and lower the action without sanding down or replacing things on the guitar.

The best part about this is that you can constantly re-adjust the amount if you take off or add too much action. This makes adjusting action on electric guitars way less scary than on acoustic guitars.

Lower/Raise Action: Adjust Truss Rod

Adjusting the truss rod on your electric guitar is the same as adjusting the truss rod on the acoustic guitar. Here are the steps to do so on your electric guitar.

  1. Find the truss rod on your electric guitar. It is usually on the top of the guitar’s neck.
  2. Stick an Allen wrench inside the truss rod and turn the tool according to how you desire the action to be.
  3. For a higher action, turn the wrench counter-clockwise. For a lower action, turn the wrench clockwise.
  4. Make sure not to turn the truss rod too much. Otherwise, it can make the guitar produce a buzzing sound when played.

Lower/Raise Action: Adjusting Action Screws

Electric guitars have action screws that acoustic guitars do not have. This is a super easy way to lower or raise the action on your electric guitar.

  1. Find the action screws on your guitar. They are typically on the guitar’s bridge saddle, but it depends on the type of guitar.
  2. Depending on the type of guitar you have, you may want to loosen the strings first to not break the strings on the guitar.
  3. By taking an Allen wrench, turn the screws clockwise for lower action and counter-clockwise for higher action.
  4. Test the guitar during this process to ensure it’s how you want!

Can Action Change by Itself?

Yes, some guitars, over time, will get dull and begin creating a not-so-great sound because of the action being too low. So, if you play your guitar a lot and it begins to sound dull, then it might mean you need to change your action and follow the desired steps above to fix your guitar.

Based on the model of your guitar and how old the guitar or strings are, the action can change in ways by itself. Action can even change the way you play the guitar. This is something that you can notice by the sound your guitar is producing. Be aware of your guitar’s sounds and be prepared to change the action according to the desired sound.

Can I Keep My Action How it is?

It just depends on your preference. Most beginning guitarists typically will not measure or adjust the action on their guitar just because it’s extra steps that are not necessarily necessary for quality playing. If you want to play specific music on the guitar, like bluegrass, changing the action on your guitar might be required to get the desired sound and play.

The main answer to this question, though, is yes. You can keep your action as it currently is if the sound, tone, and playability are where you would like them to be. You will be able to play your guitar well and have a great time without changing the action on the instrument. Otherwise, you can change it, but the guitar will play beautifully.

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