Getting a low action on your acoustic guitar

A lot of customers ask me to make the action really low on their acoustic guitars. Generally, when they bring the guitar down to the shop, the action is exactly where it should be but guitarists tend to want a lower action because it’s easier to play and you can also play a lot faster with a low action. Sadly, very few guitarists are impressed by the slow melodic sound, for which the acoustic guitar was designed.

The trouble is, when you lower the action, it tends to buzz all over the place and no guitarist wants that. If you want to really enjoy a low action, you should probably buy an electric guitar but I’m guessing that’s not going to do it for you if you’re an acoustic player. So what are your options?

Well if you’re in the market to buy an acoustic guitar, Faith and Walden are definitely worth a look:

Faith Guitars, for example, have a really low easy action for an acoustic but you have got to pay a little more, probably around £700. That said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that paying more will get you a lower action. Take Martin guitars, the average Martin is set at 2.75mm on the 12th fret which is really a medium setting.

Waldens also have a low easy action and they’re pretty reasonable priced; so do Taylors in general (although not quite so reasonably priced). As a guide £400 will get you a Walden with a low action; £700 will get you an entry level Taylor.

If you’re looking to buy in the £100-200 range, you’re going to find it more difficult to get a low action as standard but there are a couple of things that can help and these will also apply if you want to get the action down on an acoustic you already have in your collection:

-          Get your guitar professionally setup – a professional technician can fit the guitar to your requirements, well ‘up to a point’; this will probably cost you around £60.  If you’re buying new, and you go to a reputable guitar shop, the setup should be included in the price of the guitar, although if you’ve bought it mega cheap online, there’s a good chance it won’t be – most discount merchants ship their guitars exactly as they came from the manufacturers – well you did get a cheaper guitar!

-          If the action is still too high, using lighter strings can help a bit but remember if you’re changing from heavier strings, your guitar will need adjustment or the strings will be touching the first fret.

Whilst I said that paying more for an acoustic doesn’t necessarily guarantee a low action, paying less nearly always ensures a high one.

In my experience, the main difference between £100 and £400+ guitars is build quality and how much effort was put into manufacturing the guitars. Quite often, the people making lower priced instruments aren’t guitarists so they don’t know what’s good or bad.

To allow for this, manufacturers do what’s called an ‘approximate factory setup’. What this means is they tighten the neck to ‘about right’ and put a stock saddle in the bridge that’s probably a couple of millimetres too high (to allow for professional adjustment at some future date – post purchase).

On most of the lower priced guitars that people bring in, the nut is also rarely slotted correctly but the biggest issue I see, as far as the action’s concerned, is different fret heights; if you’re frets are not all the same height, when you lower the action, your strings will catch on any high frets making your acoustic impossible to play.

There are also other factors that can affect how high the action is on your acoustic, such as how the neck is fitted and how the truss rod has been adjusted.

Fortunately, all of these things can be improved on, even with a £100 guitar, but it’s always going to take a bit of work and cost you more money. My advice, particularly to any beginners out there is ‘buy your guitar from a reputable shop that sets up all the guitars it sells’. At least that way you won’t have to spend more money putting your guitar right.

If you live near High Wycombe in the Bucks, Berks area, you can always drop into BBZGuitars shop for advice; we offer a complete guitar set up and repair service plus all of the guitars we sell have been professionally setup before the go on the wall. We also provide a one-year free setup warranty on all new guitars and basses we sell which means you can bring your guitar back twice during the first twelve months and have it set up again free of charge.

About Steve Busby

Growing up in Surrey England in the 70s, Steve was drawn to playing guitar by his love for the Blues as played by (local heroes), Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton but especially his 'favourite EastEnder', Peter Green. Since then, Steve has been acquiring, collecting, gigging and maintaining an impressive array of guitars, basses and predominantly valve amplification. Steve plays a wide range of music styles himself, including Jazz, Blues, Rock, Punk, Metal and Pop.
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