How to Set Up Your Electric Guitar Action for Optimal Playability

Achieving optimal playability on your electric guitar requires careful setup of the action. The action determines the spacing between the strings and fretboard, impacting the ease or difficulty of playing. This crucial factor can make playing your instrument either effortless or challenging. If the action height is too high, pressing down on the strings may prove difficult and result in a distorted sound. Conversely, if the action height is too low, you may encounter buzzing or fretting out when playing specific notes or chords. Achieving the ideal balance is essential to maximizing playability on your electric guitar.

Properly setting up your electric guitar action requires specific tools such as a ruler or feeler gauge, a screwdriver, and potentially allen wrenches based on your guitar’s bridge type.  If you lack comfort in making adjustments on your own, it’s best to seek a professional for setup.

Adjusting your truss rod

The first step in this process of setting up a nice action is to adjust the truss rod for a slight amount of relief. Relief refers to the slight curvature of the neck, which is necessary to prevent fret buzz and to ensure proper intonation. If you throw a straight edge on the neck, you will see a bow in the neck or a dip. Just a tiny gap.  The opposite is a backbow or a hump in the middle of the neck.  A guitar neck with a backbox is unplayable.

You only need a very slight amount of relief. I use a fret levels and shine a light behind the neck and adjust until just a little light is escaping in the middle of the neck.  Once you set the relief, you can go on to the next task.

If you need to adjust your truss rod, do it slowly and carefully. Only do 1/4 turns at a time so you don’t change the stability of your guitar.   Most guitars use an allen wrengh though some guitars have a special tool.  To add relief to your neck you turn the truss rod counter clockwise.

Adjusting Height of Strings

Now measure the current distance between the strings and the fretboard by positioning a ruler or feeler gauge under each string at the 12th fret and gauging the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. The ideal height of guitar action at the 12th fret varies from player to player, and can depend on factors such as playing style and personal preference.

However, a general guideline for a comfortable and playable action height is between 1.25-2.5mm for electric guitars and 2.0-3mm for acoustic guitars. This allows for proper string clearance and optimal intonation, while still allowing for comfortable fretting and minimal buzzing.

Ideal String Height

An average, most players set the height is 1.50 to 1.75mm.  But there are players that like it higher. You need a high action if you play slide guitar often.  So its not uncommon to see blues players with higher actions. Stevie Ray Vaughan used a high 2.5mm action. Thats just how he learned to play.  So here’s an easy trick.  Use a quarter as its 1.75mm.

I personally play at 1.25mm and sometimes I don’t have issues with any buzzing frets.  It’s worth noting that on  an electrical guitar,  its not uncommon for lead guitarists to set an action really low with a few fretz buzzing when played acoustically.  You can’t notice it when plugged in.  I’ve tried going down to 0.75mm to 1.00mm but I just don’t like the feel. Hammer ons and pull offs don’t seem right to me.

Adjusting action height

If your action height is too high, you will need to lower it by adjusting the bridge saddles.   Saddles can have different type of screws that adjust but the most common is a small allen wrench.  Many guitars have a big screw that you can adjust by hand.

Again, make small adjustments and recheck your action height after each adjustment.

Adjust a Floyd Rose

Just sell all your guitar if it has a Floyd Rose.

I’m kidding of course.

But this is another topic that is a bit more complex. It takes a bit longer to adjust a Floyd Rose and it can be a pain.

To properly set up your electric guitar action for optimal playability, you need to adjust the height of the strings and the bridge. This can be done by adjusting the truss rod, saddle height, and intonation. It is important to find a balance between low action for ease of playing and high action for better tone and sustain. It is recommended to seek professional help if you are unsure about how to make these adjustments yourself.

Rob Z

Got my first guitar in 1987, took lessons and played nonstop. Spent some time in hard rock and metal bands in the 1990s. I eventually switched to acoustic guitars only and rarely played for years. I got back into electric guitars when my daughter began playing in 2018. I now collect way too much gear.
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