Adjusting String Height



5929_1126236768876_7601830_nThis seems like a simple thing, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t want to tackle adjusting the “action” on their guitar. The “action” is basically string height. Hey, it’s our guitar. Why shouldn’t I tell it what to do? There are some people in this world that equate high action with big tone but I’ve strummed Vince Gill’s Tele, strummed the mythic “Disraeli Gears” Clapton SG, even strummed Toby Keith’s generic Takamine acoustic—and they’re all set up to go as low as you can go before the onset of buzzing. Big tone? ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons uses “.008s” and has low action and nobody has accused him of wimpy tone. So…this is about getting low string height. All it takes is an Allen wrench.

One word of warning: Some “buzzes” are caused by anomalies in the neck and they can’t be fixed by adjusting string height or neck bow. I’m talking about raised frets that got unseated somehow. I’m talking about humps in the wood on the fret board that make a fret or two too high. Occasionally, a metal part will vibrate, causing a misleading buzz. All these things can be cured but not by the stuff in my guitar pages. Nuff said.

There are a few things that come into play as far as play-ability go. Certainly, we want our “bow” adjusted correctly (see “adjust your bow” page), we want correct intonation (intonation page), and new strings are always good. If you’re going to adjust your string height, put on new strings, adjust your bow, adjust your string height, and then adjust your intonation. You don’t have to do it in that order, but it yields the BEST results.

First, the bad news: if you’re an acoustic owner, there’s few things you can do to change string height outside of a neck reset which is a procedure that even pro guitar techs refuse to do. About the only thing you can do is sand the underside of the plastic bridge piece (you know, the puke-yellow sliver that the strings rest on) and you can only sand it so far. I’ve done it bunches but there is a limit to how much you can do. Down too far and you have strings buzzing on the frets and have a loss of sustain and tone. Don’t let that scare you off. Any acoustic could have a 1/8th of an inch shaved off and be fine. Just don’t get carried away. Don’ts: Don’t sand the top, curved side—sand the straight side. Don’t sand too far, and sand equal. Any sandpaper will do. I like to mark the bottom of the plastic bridge with 1/8th of an inch of felt-tip pen and when I see that mark disappear—I’m there. You’d be amazed at what 1/8th will do. If you screw up? New bridges are super-cheap—you just have to get the right size for your guitar. Here’s for the intelligent guitar-wacker: buy one or two new bridges, shave them down, and substitute them for your original. No harm-no foul if you don’t like the results. Here’s one thing that’s true: many acoustics, having fixed intonation, play a hair sharp up the neck. Lowering your bridge helps cure this a little bit. The other factor in string height is nut height. I’ve yet to see a bad nut (except for Richard Simmons) but you can file the underside of your nut too, but only the tiniest amount. It’s almost not worth it but maybe you got one of those First Act guitars (shame on you) where the nut is higher than Robert Downey Jr. on a bad day. Remember: a crappy playing guitar is…a guitar no one wants to play. Especially you.

Nut glued in tight and you want to forget this adventure? Microwave a wet towel till it’s 4-seasons spa hot, drape it over the nut, and let sit for a few minutes. It won’t hurt the finish and the glue should loosen. Once you’ve monkeyed with your nut (no jokes, please), lightly glue the nut back in place with Elmer’s.

On to electrics: 99.9% of electrics have two allen-wrench “legs” that the bridge pieces stand on. We want to turn them counter-clockwise to lower the bridge piece. (well, I’m assuming you don’t want to raise the bridge piece—but if you lost a leg, or the adjustment “fell” down or whatever—replace the screw-leg and turn clockwise). Obviously, the law of diminished returns says you can only go so far. Tune your guitar to true pitch. Lower the big “E” a smidge. See if it buzzes. No? Lower them ALL that much. Retune. Play. Still cool? Lower them all a bit more. Tune and play. It will be obvious when you’ve reached the max you can go. Test-play in the upper frets because that’s where buzzing will occur first. Don’t be too hung up on the curve of your adjustments matching the curve of the neck. If you do a little bit at a time, you’ll naturally end up with the best curve/buzz/height match. On the two Allen-wrench legs for each bridge piece, adjust them equally so your bridge piece doesn’t sit crooked. Some things are obvious: if your “legs” are gummed up, you’re going to have to WD40 them and work a bit. You have to have the right size Allen wrench. The smallest size they make is usually the right one. Those of you with locking vibrato systems—stay tuned for future posts, as I will go into your special needs.

Such a simple thing…that does so much. Hope this helped. Happy strumming!


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