1. It’s Where the
When we talk about a guitar’s
“action,” we are primarily talking
about string height, but it’s a feel
thing that involves more than this simple
equation might imply. Higher strings will
make a guitar feel more difficult to play—
stiffer, slower, just harder work for your
fingers—even if every other aspect of the
instrument’s design and setup are exactly
the same. A guitar that might otherwise
be perfect for you can make a bad impression,
and may be rejected, simply because
the strings are set too high.
2. But Lowest Isn’t Always Best.
Still talking pure feel for the
moment, the absolute lowest
possible string-height setting
isn’t necessarily the best setting for all
players or playing styles. Certainly, for
total shred and pure speed, as-low-aspossible
is often desirable. For rootsier
styles, though, with lots of blues bends,
settings a little higher can give your fingertips
more bite in the strings, more of
that feel thing that is often described as
“purchase” or “grip.” If a super-low action
feels fast and slick, but not quite meaty
enough for your non-shred playing, try
raising the strings up a little and see if it
makes a difference.
3. You Can’t Slide on the Low Road.
Whatever string height you
prefer for your standard fretted
playing, if you like to throw a
little bottlenecking into your performance,
super-low strings just aren’t going to cut
it; you will find yourself knocking frets and
creating unappealing “clunking” noises,
and grounding out notes altogether. Most
guitarists who play purely, or mostly, bottleneck
keep their strings much higher
than is comfortable for standard playing,
and that height makes slide work a
breeze. If your style blends slide and standard
fretting on the same guitar, experiment
to find a happy medium.
4. Feel Aside, String Height Is a Major Component of Tone.
Keeping the strings as low as
possible can deaden your tone
in ways that might not be obvious. Even if
the strings aren’t noticeably buzzing, their
proximity to the frets with an extremely
low action can inhibit their vibrational
arc, impeding their natural resonance.
Hit the occasional chord with extra gusto
and they are likely to rattle against your
frets, too. Try this setup alternative: raise
your strings up too high, then lower them
gradually until they are just comfortable
enough to play. Give your fingers a chance
to adjust to this action, and see if your
tone hasn’t improved from the original
5. Magnetic Attraction Is Not a Good Thing.
Low strings can butt heads with
your pickups’ magnetic field.
The strong magnetic pull of the
neck pickup in particular—which is positioned
where strings vibrate in a wider arc,
and can therefore be influenced more—
can really interfere with string vibration,
and even pull strings out of tune if the two
are too close. Raising your strings might
mean a little less output from the pickups,
but often your tone will actually improve
because of the freer vibration this allows.
If you are lowering your strings, remember
to lower your pickup heights accordingly
to avoid any conflict.