Achieve the perfect sound on your classical guitar by adjusting its action height. Learn what factors affect it and discover useful tips for setting it up correctly.
The perfect playing experience on a classical guitar involves a combination of factors, and the action of the instrument’s strings is one of the most important. Action refers to the distance between the strings and the fretboard, and it affects the feel and playability of the guitar. While some players prefer a low action for easy playing, others prefer a high action for more volume and tone. But how high should the action be on a classical guitar? This is a question that confuses many players, particularly beginners, and the answer depends on various factors.
The action height on a classical guitar is typically 3mm between the bottom of the first string and the upper end of the twelfth fret. Usually, the recommended height between the first string and the 12th fret is 2-3mm, while that between the sixth and 12th fret is between 2.5 to 3.5mm.
In this article, we will explore the importance of action, the pros and cons of different action heights, and how to adjust the action on a classical guitar to suit your playing style and preferences. Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced player, this guide will help you make an informed decision about the action height of your classical guitar.
How High Should The Action Be On A Classical Guitar?
At The 12th Fret
Normally, an action ranging between 3mm at the top E, which is the first string, and the 12th fret is considered neither too high nor too low.
At the Lower Part
Consequently, it is typical to have the 3mm action between the bottom of the first string and the upper end of the twelfth fret.
High E-String And Low E-String
- The 4mm action around the sixth string could be regarded as usual, with values of the third and fourth millimeters increasing for the strings in between.
- If one wants to lower action by 0.5 mm at the twelfth fret, then classical guitarists need to lower the saddle by two times at the bridge.
These numbers may vary but not more than 0.5mm either way. Typically, a 1 mm separation between treble and bass is recommended. However, it is upon the classical guitarist to decide where they intend to place their classical guitar’s action.
Factors That Determine String Action
- The materials used to make the strings could significantly influence the action of the strings. For example, classical guitars use nylon strings softer than steel; strings thus do not require a lot of force to pluck since tension is lower. Therefore, the materials used to make the strings impact the playability and quality of sound during a performance.
- The stiffness and mass of the strings would also qualify as a physical factor that could influence string action. Heavier strings result in friction and lower pitches that change how the overtones are distributed across different frequencies. The less the material is flexible, the less the string ends vibrate. That causes a discrepancy between the speaking and string lengths measured from the nut to the bridge. Correspondingly, this discrepancy will affect its intonation and compensation thus necessitating a change in the actual string length. Then again, attaching a string to a soundboard through a bridge could have significant effects on the string action.
- The soundboard’s materials and dimensions are also critical in determining the string action by using the process of attaching chords to a soundboard via a bridge. Bridges can be attached to a soundboard or mounted through the soundboard. Similarly, it can be maintained in place by the tension of the strings on some instruments.
- The size of the bodily cavity on the inside; will decide the interruption of vibrations traveling through the interior of the classical guitar at different frequencies, both destructive and constructive.
- How to fasten a soundboard to the classical guitar’s side, in addition to the material and specifications, such as thickness, will help influence how a soundboard would vibrate when responding to distinct frequencies. For instance, Chladni lines can reveal plate vibrations.
How To Measure The Action Height?
Using a ruler or an action gauge, one can gauge the height of a guitar action by placing the ruler’s end against the twelfth string. To maintain the required standard string action, one must measure the height between the guitar base and the fret’s top.
Steps on how to measure classical guitar action;
- Place the ruler or gauge for measuring string motion on the twelfth fret.
- Ensure the neck is level and make any necessary truss rod adjustments.
- Read calibrations of the ruler from the string’s bottom.
- If you want to check another guitar string, repeat these steps.
Is Your Action Too High? – Here’s How To Fix!
Suppose you look closely at one’s fingers and notice that they are uncomfortable and even have creases, which signify that the action on your guitar is too high with minimal rattling, buzzing, or dull thuds. One should tune their classical guitar well by moving its strings nearer to the frets.
Advantages of High Action on a Classical Guitar
The biggest benefit of having strong action on the classical guitar is to be free of the unpleasant buzzing discussed earlier typically. Additionally, because the string is uncontrolled, it enables the sounds to sustain naturally and freely.
Disadvantages of High Action on a Classical Guitar
It becomes incredibly challenging to push the guitar strings downward if the action is Very high. That is excruciatingly unpleasant. Again, one’s hand may tire far more quickly, and you risk hurting yourself.
Is Your Action Too Low? – Here’s How To Fix!
One can determine the position of classical guitar action, particularly if it is too high, by observing if your fingers have developed sore and have a line. A classical guitar with well-pulled strings should have its strings closer to the frets to avoid causing any dull thuds or buzzing.
Advantages of Low Action on a Classical Guitar
Low action has the major benefit of making it simpler to push the strings down. It is advisable for new classical guitarists with the least experience in guitars to begin with, low action to help them develop skills such as avoiding low finger discomfort and arms fatigue.
Disadvantages of Low Action on a Classical Guitar
If you lower your action far too much lower, each chord or note will sound like an unwelcoming buzz. An extreme buzzing caused by excessively low action would occur regardless of how good a classical guitarist you could be, which can be annoying.
More Options To Adjust The String Action
Get A Set Of Low Tension Strings
If you are an avid classical guitar enthusiast, you have probably noticed that the right set of strings can play a significant role in the overall tone, playability, and feel of your instrument. One of the most popular choices among musicians is a set of low-tension strings. Low-tension strings, also known as light gauge strings, offer several advantages when compared to their medium or high-tension counterparts.
They are not only easier to play, making it simpler for beginners to develop their skills, but also enable advanced players to improve their fingerstyle techniques. Low-tension strings exert less pressure on the guitar, which in turn reduces potential complications, such as fret buzzing and neck warping.
Additionally, the softer touch provides a warmer and more delicate tone, ideal for traditional classical pieces or intimate performances. Furthermore, this type of string is highly sought after by musicians who want to maximize the resonance and sustain of their guitar, as well as those who want to prevent finger fatigue during extended practice sessions.
In summary, investing in a set of high-quality low-tension strings for your classical guitar can open up new tonalities, enhance playability, and ensure a comfortable playing experience. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned guitarist, incorporating low-tension strings will undoubtedly enhance your musical journey and provide you with an unparalleled sound that is truly tailored to your instrument.
Take Your Classical Guitar To A Luthier For Re-Fretting
Classical guitar players understand the importance of an optimal string action, which refers to the height of the strings from the fretboard, in order to deliver a delightful playing experience. A high-string action can make it strenuous for your fingers to press down on the strings, impeding your performance and possibly causing finger pain. If you are facing this issue with your beloved instrument, it’s time to consider taking it to a professional luthier for re-fretting.
Re-fretting is a meticulous process that involves carefully removing the old frets and replacing them with new ones. A skilled luthier will keep the unique characteristics of your classical guitar in mind while adjusting the frets to achieve a balanced string action that suits your playing style.
Moreover, they possess the expertise to meticulously level and crown the frets, ensuring the perfect curvature and maintaining the intonation of each individual string. Not only will re-fretting by a luthier result in a comfortable string action, but it will also rejuvenate the overall performance and longevity of your classical guitar.
Though the re-fretting process might come at a certain cost, it is well worth it to ensure that the essence of your guitar’s unique sound is preserved and that your playing experience is nothing short of seamless harmony. So, don’t hesitate to entrust your classical guitar to a seasoned luthier and experience the joy of effortless playing once again.
Why Adjusting The Action Is Important?
Avoid Potential Fret Buzz Issues
Adjusting the string action on your classical guitar is essential in order to avoid potential fret buzz issues that can impact your sound quality and playing comfort. The string action refers to the height of the strings above the frets and can be adjusted by either raising or lowering the saddle, depending on the desired effect.
Having a proper string action height allows for optimal resonance and tonality while also ensuring that the instrument is comfortable to play for extended periods. Fret buzz, a common issue faced by guitarists occurs when the vibrating strings come in contact with the frets, resulting in a muffled, buzzing sound. This can have various undesirable effects on your guitar playing, such as reducing the sustain, adversely affecting the tonal quality, and causing general discomfort while playing.
Furthermore, fret buzz can lead to damaged strings or frets over time, incurring additional costs in repair or replacement. By regularly checking and adjusting the string action on your classical guitar, you can prevent fret buzz and maintain the instrument’s performance and sound quality.
As a player, it’s important to familiarize yourself with your guitar’s unique characteristics and adjust the string action accordingly to cater to your specific needs and preferences. In addition, consulting with an experienced luthier or guitar technician can provide valuable guidance and assistance in achieving the perfect string action for your classical guitar, ensuring that you continue to enjoy a buzz-free, harmonious sound while playing your beloved instrument.
Avoid Difficulties While Playing Rhythm
Secondly, adjusting the string action on your classical guitar is an essential aspect of maintaining optimal playability and comfort, particularly when focusing on rhythm playing. String action refers to the height at which the strings of the guitar are positioned above the fretboard.
This height is influenced by various factors such as string gauge, tension, and neck relief. A well-adjusted string action ensures that fretting hand movements remain fluid, and can prevent unnecessary fatigue or strain on the hand and fingers. When the string action is too high, it becomes difficult to press the strings down onto the frets, making it challenging to maintain a steady rhythm while playing chords or fingerstyle patterns.
This can cause playing to sound uneven and even create unwanted buzzing sounds. On the other hand, when the string action is too low, the strings can make contact with the frets even when not being pressed down, resulting in fret buzz and diminished tonal clarity.
Finding the perfect string action for your classical guitar is a personal process that takes into account both your playing style and individual preference. To adjust the string action, skilled players or technicians will typically adjust the truss rod, which controls the curvature of the neck, as well as the saddle height and nut action.
By maintaining a comfortable string action on your classical guitar, you will be able to execute intricate rhythm patterns, ultimately leading to improved overall musicianship.
Avoid Difficulties While Fingerstyle Playing
Adjusting the string action of your classical guitar is a crucial aspect of maintaining optimal playability and overall performance. The string action refers to the height of the strings above the fretboard and directly impacts the ease of fingerstyle playing.
High-string action often results in players having to exert more pressure with their left hand to press and hold down the strings, leading to hand fatigue and discomfort. Simultaneously, it can create significant challenges in achieving clean and accurate fingerpicking with the right hand due to the strings’ excessive distance from the fretboard.
In contrast, an excessively low string action may cause unwanted fret buzz and hinder the guitar’s resonance and tonal quality. By finding the right balance and properly adjusting the string action, players can enjoy a comfortable playing experience, which enhances their ability to navigate complex fingerstyle techniques while minimizing physical strain.
It is important to consult an experienced guitar technician or luthier for guidance in achieving the optimal setup for your particular guitar as various factors, such as fret leveling, neck alignment, and the guitar’s design, play a significant role in determining the ideal adjustment.
Regular attention to the string action will ensure that your classical guitar remains a pleasure to play, allowing you to fully explore and enjoy the versatility and expressiveness that fingerstyle playing has to offer.
String Action Isn’t The Only Important Factor
Other factors are of more importance than string action in a classical guitar, such as the quality of the material used to make the classical guitar’s body and the positions of the strap locks since they also directly impact playability.
For example, the classical guitar’s top is thinner than an acoustic guitar’s due to less stress applied by the nylon strings. However, that does not imply the instrument won’t need the same care if its strings start to buzz. In addition to the action, other factors that may contribute to this include the fretwork, plucking style, length of strings close to the nut, and neck relief.
How To Maintain Your Classical Guitar After Adjusting The Action?
One should implement several strategies when maintaining their classical guitars after adjusting string action, such as protecting the guitar from atmospheric agents such as humidity and handling and storing techniques.
If well-adhered, these maintenance practices would help enhance your classical guitar’s safety. Classical guitarists should practice these maintenance tactics to avoid incurring high maintenance costs.
From Atmospheric Agents Like Humidity And Climate Change
Never hang a guitar on a wall because the dampness that collects there can affect the guitar. A high humidity level might weaken the adhesive and separate the wood. Additionally, hanging a guitar on a wall exposes it to temperature fluctuations and potential accidents, such as falling.
It is best to store a guitar in a case with a humidifier to maintain constant temperature and humidity levels. If you must display the guitar on a wall, use a dedicated guitar hanger that supports the neck and body securely, and avoid placing it in direct sunlight or near heating and air conditioning vents.
From Dust And Scratches
Preserving the pristine condition of your classical guitar is essential for both its longevity and tonal quality. To protect your instrument from unsightly dust and scratches, use a soft microfiber cloth to routinely wipe down the surface, invest in a padded gig bag or hard case for storage, and consider utilizing a guitar stand to avoid leaning it against walls or furniture where accidental scuffs may occur.
When traveling with a classical guitar, ensuring its protection is crucial to maintain its sound quality and aesthetic appeal. Invest in a sturdy, well-padded hard case specifically designed for your guitar’s dimensions.
Additionally, regularly check the humidity and temperature to prevent warping, and loosen the strings slightly to reduce tension during transport. With these precautions in place, your classical guitar will remain in peak condition throughout your journey.
While Handling And Storing
How you store the classical guitar could significantly determine the quality of the string action. During winter, avoid mounting your classical guitar on a wall surface. The air on the inner side will be warmer than on the wall.
Thus temperature differences between the top and rear could cause the wood to develop cracks, thus tempering the quality of string action. Similarly, while traveling, one should ensure that they carry their classical guitars inside their casing to avoid any potential scratches or dusting entering the fretting board, which could impact the string action.
Q. How high should the action be on a flamenco guitar?
The fact that flamenco guitar strings are shorter than classical guitar strings is well known. The explanation relates to how flamenco is played and the effect and sounds that they seek to create when you play. In flamenco, a cleaner, more explosive, and more aggressive sound is preferred. The recommended action on a flamenco guitar is 3mm at the low E and the high E. Correspondingly at the first fret, a 1mm low E and 1mm high E.
Q. How high should the action be on an acoustic guitar?
An acoustic guitar’s average action is approximately 5/64′′ (2.0mm) at the high E chord and 7/64′′ (2.8mm) at the low E chord. The modest rise in action length allows the acoustic guitar strings to resonate more freely. You get a cleaner tone, and you can strum chords without getting into a buzzing mess.
The action on a classical guitar should be appropriately set to avoid any issues regarding string action. String action influences the sound of chords played, and if it is not well-set could negatively impact the quality of playability.
Understanding how to appropriately set action on your classical guitar helps one avoid destroying their instruments. There are several fundamental areas that a classical guitarists would need to understand for them to know how to set the action in their instruments correctly.
For example, how high action should be set in classical guitars; what physical factors influence string action, and what is the required length for action? Understanding these topics would help build a detailed and comprehensive perspective of action in classical guitars.
Therefore, action is an essential component that critically influences the quality of playability and sounds produced during a performance and, as such, should be maintained at the required recommended standards to enhance the quality of playability.
James B. Laskowski was born and raised in Fresno, CA. He has been working as an acoustic and classical guitar expert at Instrument Insight for over 5 years. In this time, he has gained a great understanding of acoustic and classical guitars and gears, their materials, build quality, playability, and versatility. James also has an in-depth knowledge of the history and origins of many acoustic and classical guitar brands.