The string height on a guitar can vary based on many factors including brand, electric or acoustic guitar, string gauge, etc. But does string height affect tone and intonation?
Tone and intonation are affected by the string height, also known as action. A higher action allows a note to have more sustain because the contact between the frets and the strings is lessened by the increased distance between them. Although a high action can lead to intonation problems due to the excessive stretching of the string when fretting a note.
Continue reading to find out how string height can affect tone and intonation for better and for worse.
What is Tone and Intonation?
Tone is the way a guitarists sounds while playing. There are parts of an instrument either highlighting or cancelling out a number of overtones and harmonics that create the outputted sound. With a guitar, it is not only the single vibration of a string over the pickup that creates the tone/sound output. Instead it is also the multiples of those frequencies that the string also vibrates. The string vibrations in tandem with the hardware on the guitar: neck, pickups, strings, etc. is what creates the tone.
Intonation is the accuracy and pitch of notes on a guitar. With guitars, frets are used to divide up the fretboard at the locations where notes should be. The correct pitch of note actually being at the fret is dependent on correct intonation. A fretted string vibrates from fret to bridge. If either the fret or the bridge happen to be in the wrong place or has an issue then the pitch of the note would not be expected, thus the intonation is off. Adjusting the bridge so that each string plays in tune all the way along the fretboard is what it means to set the intonation.
Guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmy Vaughan have spent the majority of their lives chasing the perfect tone. This is one of the reasons why achieving SRV’s tone can be so difficult because his was extremely dialed in. Other guitarists, most often pop, do not chase tone as heavily. Blues guitarists are particular in the way their setup needs to sound, buying various pedals and changing their guitar setup often. I am a victim of chasing the tone dragon.
Does String Height Affect Tone and Intonation?
String height does affect tone and intonation. The higher an action is, the more room that strings have to vibrate without the chance of hitting against further frets. The result of raising string height is a fuller sound with longer sustain and nicer resonance.
Action Effect on Tone
String height can have a significant effect on tone. With a high action, notes are able to sustain longer and give off a fuller and more complete sound. This is why many studio guitarists will use high action to eliminate any sort of buzzing from the guitar. A low action is more playable but runs the risk of fret buzz and less sustain.
A low action may be easier to play, but often times the tone can sound “thin” and it runs the risk of bended notes not sustaining as long as they could. That being said, a higher action giving off a fuller tone also runs the risk of the tone becoming too bright at times. Tone can be perceived in different ways. Some guitarists do not notice subtle differences in tone that string height may be bring. Although the difference in sound clarity that comes with raising the action is unarguable.
“it was the action, the height of the strings. I used to adjust the screws down at the bridge to raise the height, and I would run out of thread – I couldn’t make the strings any higher.”Rene Martinez, SRV Guitar Tech, Music Radar Interview
One quick disclaimer: Tone is mostly impacted by your fingers, adjusting action height, strings, etc. can only get you closer but ultimately it is your literal playing that determines your tone.
Higher Action Better Tone?
A higher action does result in a better tone. This is because there is less of a chance that the fretted strings will be impacted by string buzzing giving the note a fuller sound. When the action is high, there is more distance between the frets and the strings. This allows the strings to fully ring out without the chance of coming in contact with the frets. This gives off a much fuller sound but comes with the con of being harder to play.
Action Effect on Intonation
String height can have a negative effect on the intonation of your guitar. A perfect intonation means when you fret the 12th fret, the note is neither sharp nor flat. As strings age they can naturally lose some intonation over time. This is because a perfectly uniform new string slowly gets battered by use. Instead of a perfectly uniform string across the entire length of the scale, you have points on the string that are different than others causing it to resonate differently. This causes the string to intonate differently at different positions on the fretboard.
A higher action can expedite this process. With a higher string height, the distance between the fret and the string is greater. This means that you are having to push down harder and further on the string. This increased distance stretches the string more than a low action would. Causing the string to become uneven because it is elongated constantly.
Guitar High Action Vs Low Action Comparison Summary
Let’s compare the advantages of using a high action versus a low action and vice versa.
|Pros of High Action||Pros of Low Action|
|Fuller sound / tone||Faster playability|
|Less chance of fret buzz||More comfortable|
|More sustain on given note||Perfect for sweep picking|
|Build finger strength faster||Easier to learn on|
|Better for raking||Less chance of intonation issues|
Find Out Why Your Guitar is Buzzing and How to Fix it Today!
What is a Good Height for Guitar Action?
The average action height for an electric guitar is around 4/64″ (1.6mm) on the high E string and 6/64″ (2.4mm) on the low E string. The average action height for an acoustic guitar is around 5/64″ (2.0mm) on the high E string and 7/64″ (2.8mm) on the low E string. Source: Guitar Gear Finder
There are a number of factors that determine what a good action height is for you. Depending on how the guitar is setup, bridge setup, and how the neck is attached to the body just to name a few factors. Although, it is ultimately up to personal preference. Some players enjoy low action like Eddie Van Halen and some like it high like Stevie Ray Vaughan.
If you want to be a fast guitar player, it is recommended to use a low action height so you do not need to press down very hard and can move around the neck with ease.
If you want a thicker and full sound while sacrificing some initial speed and ease of play, then a high action is for you.
Ultimately, it is all about finding what action is good for you. If you have a light playing style and/or primarily fingerpick, then a low action would be just fine. Playing rock and blues in the style of Hendrix or SRV, then a higher action would be best to avoid string buzzing on those heavy rakes. If you are somewhere in between both styles, then take it to a guitar tech and they can help find the best action height for you.
How to Adjust Action / String Height on a Guitar
To adjust the action on your guitar, follow these steps:
- Before adjusting, make sure the neck is adjusted, you are using new strings, and the guitar is tuned to pitch.
- Ensure the neck is straight by adjusting the truss rod.
- Place a capo on the first fret.
- Using the string action ruler (linked below), measure the high E string and the low E string on the 12th fret.
- If you have a Fender, use an allen key / hex key to adjust the bridge saddles to the desired heights.
- 4/64″ (1.6mm) on the high E string and 6/64″ (2.4mm) on the low E string.
- Use a radius gauge to evaluate the other 4 strings and if you need to raise or lower them. If the other 4 strings are higher or lower than the gauge when it is sitting on the high E and Low E, then you will need to adjust the strings height relative to the outside strings.
- Retune your guitar.
To ensure you adjusted your guitars action the appropriate amount; we will use a string action ruler. You can also use this printable string action gauge as well. If you want your action to be the perfect height for your playing style, I recommend taking it to a guitar tech as they have many years of experience and can adjust your action for a low cost.
The difference between a low and high action is a slim margin. They’re not that much different but they’re different enough to make a difference.
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