Action, yeah that's the word were looking for. Motion! Activity! Testing limits. A fight.
Wait a second, I thought that this was suppose to be some kind of guitar based ramblings? Yes it is, so just like all of the concepts that we teach here at TGGI it must be connected to the guitar or it's worthless. The term "action" is a very common term within the guitar world and is generally accepted to refer to the height of the strings in relation to the fretboard. Simple enough. An inch is an inch in anybody's book. (Just open to page 234 in the handbook you were presented upon birth. It's about a third of the way down the page.)
A guitar can be fun to play or a bear to wrestle. It all depends on the action. Ya wanna' fight? Then make sure that your strings are set really high off of the fretboard. Do you wanna' play? Then get your guitar set up by a professional (Like myself. This has been a paid advertisement.) so the action fits your style of playing. Guitar strings are made of steel, unless they are nylon, and are stretched really tight. Hundreds of pounds of pressure. Now it's your job to push them down and increase the pressure with your fingertips. Kind of like your car tire. It's filled with air under pressure then it's your job to huff and puff and blow a few more pounds in by blowing into it. A challenge to be sure.
Let's just use some numbers I'm just making up to prove a point. Let's say your single guitar string is stretched to 100 pounds. If it is 1" above the fretboard. You may have to apply 10 pounds of finger pressure at the center of the string to make it meet the fretboard. Now let's move the string 1/64" from the fretboard. It just makes sense that it will take way less pressure to push down because you will only be stretching it a tiny bit, 1/10 of a pound, to achieve the same result. That's what it's all about. How much motion, activity or muscle strength will it take to achieve the desired result. A note that rings true with sustain and the least amount of buzzing from touching the next fret while vibrating.
We still need to attach this to our guitar more directly. The best example is the barr chord. You have to take your index finger and push down all of the strings first and then use your others to finish off the chord. As a teacher I hear it all of the time. Students hate to make barr chords because of the amount of pressure needed to apply to the strings with their index finger. that is until they get a guitar that is set up correctly with the lowest possible action. It is really amazing to see a face light up in both shock and wonder when they try to play a guitar for the first time that is set up correctly. It's always a mixture of "Why aren't all guitars like this?" and "Why didn't somebody tell me?" and "Why did I wait so long?". As a luthier it is a gratifying experience to see the pleasure that playing can be instead of frustration.
Sensible stuff, right? So you own a Les Paul style guitar with an adjustable bridge. There are the little round things called "thumbwheels" (Why "Thumbwheels"? You can't just move them with your thumb. You have to include a finger into the equation.) that sit under your bridge. They are made to raise and lower your string height. So all you have to do is spin them one way or another and then it's done, right? Not so fast. Remember that class from high school you had to take called Geometry? Yeah the one that you said was a "waste of time because nobody ever uses it in real life"? Yeah, that one. Anyway there are more variables involved then just the height of your bridge. We have to include the height of the saddle slots and the nut height and their slots and condition. Is the neck bowed? How about the frets? One high one sticking up can throw off the entire ball game. How about the geometry (there's that word again) of the neck to the body? If you have an acoustic guitar that can be a big one. How about the neck radius? That is the amount of curve the fretboard has from side to side. If the nut and the saddles do not match the radius then the inner strings will be low and the outer ones high or the opposite. How about your Strat style axe? We just added a whole lot more geometry if it has a vibrato.
What about your acoustic? The strings on a steel string acoustic have the highest amount of pressure then any other guitar. Therefore no other guitar will provide the most satisfaction when correctly adjusted. The one factor that can either make or break a set up before a single string is adjusted is the angle of the neck to the body. An acoustic has a big hollow box with small braces inside kept to a bare minimum so that all of the different woods can vibrate as best as they can for a body. Then you attach a long neck at one end of the hollow box. Then you put strings under a lot of pressure from the very end of the long neck to a very small place on the very top of the box. Like an archer pulling the string of a bow. No matter who made it, at sometime the neck's angle in relation to the box will become wrong. A cheap plywood $20.00 axe will more then likely need it faster then a $20,000.00 Martin. Still both will need the neck separated from the body, the woods reshaped and then reattached at the correct geometry at some point. It may be 30 or 40 years. It will still need it. This is not an inexpensive procedure and should be done by only a very well respected and experienced luthier. The question becomes is the $20.00 guitar worthy of the expense of a neck reset. The answer is probably no but every guitar is something to every owner and only you can make that decision. Please do not misunderstand what I have written here. I am not saying that every guitar needs to have a neck reset for a set up. Absolutely not! I have brought up the subject only because every instrument, electric or acoustic, need to be evaluated closely before any work is done to determine what are the limits the instruments condition dictates to achieve the desired result and what steps are necessary or even warranted considering the overall value of the guitar. It is just more common for an acoustic to have a body/neck angle problem then an electric and it is usually more difficult to correct. Therefore the action will only be corrected in relation to the factors present that may or may not be able to be adjusted.
Wait. I just bought this guitar and it is brand new from a respected manufacturer so this does not apply to me. Oh yes it does. Manufacturers ship guitars so that they will be suitable to the largest variety of players and their playing style. Some experienced players have only played guitars with high actions, have built up their muscles to play that way and are used to it. Some have an aggressive playing style and they strike the strings in a way that a low action will cause the strings to vibrate onto the next fret. Some players feel that a low action will not allow them to bend as far as they would like because of the radius of the fretboard. All of these reasons make the manufacturers ship their guitars with high actions. The beginner will really benefit from an initial set up with a low action on a brand new guitar. Another reason is the condition of the instruments that I have seen in my shop recently in regards to their fret condition and the amount of corrosion and general funk they are covered with that will make playing that much harder.
So please take action and have your guitar set up by a qualified luthier. Get reviews and try to ask other people who have used their services if they were satisfied. Ask them questions. What questions? How about, "Tell me what you are going to do, how are you going to do it, what should I expect when I get it back, when should I expect it back and how much is this going to cost me?". I always tell my customers that I want to have the instrument in my shop for a day or so just to make sure that the instrument is stable and then do a full evaluation and then I can answer the questions listed above. Be careful of the guy who quotes a price without ever seeing the instrument. The beauty of a guitar is that they are made of wood and steel and that every one will age differently so each should be evaluated individually.
A well set up instrument can be a joy to play and for many an eye opening experience so don't delay. Our contact information for the school here at "The Gundry Guitar Institute" is the exact same for anyone who wishes to take advantage of the services we offer and it would be a pleasure to chat with you to get your guitar playing as well as can be.
Trust me. I'm a luthier.
Written by Robert Gundry