What Action Is Right For YOU?

Gotta have low action, man. Gotta have low action!

The quest for lower action (the height your strings are from your frets) has long been an obsession of guitarists. We're all desperate to get that action down. 

Possibly, this is a hangover from a time when all guitars were made of tree-trunks and strung with fence-wire. Possibly, it's an ingrained thing from our early days as a beginner guitarist, where anything that made it easier to play was welcome. Or, perhaps we've just heard enough people talk about low action that we feel we need it too.

But, is chasing a low action the right thing to do?

Well, it depends. 

Like so many things in the guitar world, the right answer is determined by what you want the end result to be. Let's consider some, erm… considerations. 
 

Tone

A lower action will generally result in a slightly less 'full' sound and a little less natural sustain. This might be just fine if you play with a lot of gain but might not suit a cleaner player. 
 

Playability

Seems obvious but bears some thought. Again, for the metal-guys and the shredders, fret-hugging action means great playability and super-fast licks. There are plenty of players that prefer a more 'positive' feel of a higher action, though (and those who struggle to get their fingers under a string for a big bend with a low action).
 

The Guitar

A very low action on a vintage Strat can cause problems when it comes time to bend a string. The smaller fingerboard radius (7 1/4") means the bent string hits against higher frets and 'chokes'—the note dies off (there's a reason the super-speedy guys play guitars like Ibanez with a much flatter 16" radius). 

Of course, a Strat can lift the roof. Just ask SRV, Clapton, Beck, Gilmour, Rory, Jimi, etc. It may might not be super slinky, but that's the point—does it need to be?
 

Buzz

With less headroom to vibrate, a string has more potential to buzz off the frets with a low action. Now, I could write a whole essay about the obsession with fret-buzz but that's a job for another day. Suffice it to say, a little fret buzz isn't always a worry. 

For that guy doing the sweep-picking, lighting runs on his high-gain mega-amp, a little fret buzz may not be a concern. It might be a bit more of a problem for the clean-playing guitarist, of course. While we should avoid fret-buzz if possible, in a lot of cases, a little fret buzz that can't be heard through an amp is fine. Don't get hung up on it but do consider whether it's an acceptable compromise to get your action where you want it.
 

Frets

Having said all that, if your frets aren't in good shape, fret buzz will likely become too invasive and start to cause problems. In this case, those problems will be worsened as the action creeps down. 
 

The bottom line

Most guitars these days are capable of handling a pretty low action out of the box. Some will need a little setup or even fretwork to be at their best, action-wise, but it's generally possible to get almost anything super-low. 

But that might not be the right way for you. Have a good think about it. Play a few friends' guitars and see how they handle and sound. Try investigate the action your favourite pro-players use (you can sometimes get an idea from photos). I'd be willing to bet that, in many cases, it's not as low as you think. 

"Suit the setup to the player." That's a great mantra for a guitar-guy like me to live by. Tony Iommi detunes and uses super-slinky action that could probably play by itself while Joe Bonamassa told me he likes a guitar to fight him. You can't argue with either of these guys' tones but they're very different.

Suit the setup to the player. Think about your action. 

 Think critically about the action you want on your guitar or bass. It makes a difference. 

Think critically about the action you want on your guitar or bass. It makes a difference.