High versus low action

Construction and repair of Classical Guitar and related instruments
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kloeten
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High versus low action

Post by kloeten » Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:49 am

I am the happy owner of a guitar with 'high' action - relatively big distance between the strings and the fretboard.
I was hoping the Luthiers can help me understand why some guitars have high / some guitars have low action.
I can imagine that theoretically high action requires more force from the left hand. But there may be benefits as well?
I would like to understand what the typical tradeoffs are? What would be required to lower the action?
Many thanks for your insights!

Rutger

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Re: High vesus low action

Post by Guitar » Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:26 am

Some people do like a high action.

Lowering a high action starts with saddle work and/or bridge work. If you can't accomplish it at the bridge, you can make a fingerboard wedge.
If you can't get it done there and have to work on the neck, you're in for a serious undertaking since classical neck isn't made for resetting like a dovetailed unit is.

Here's more info on that.
viewtopic.php?f=11&t=59143

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James Lister
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Re: High vesus low action

Post by James Lister » Tue Dec 20, 2011 10:01 am

There's a bit more about action in the luthiers FAQ thread here:

viewtopic.php?f=11&t=64845

James
James Lister, luthier, Sheffield UK

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David Norton
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Re: High versus low action

Post by David Norton » Tue Dec 20, 2011 2:16 pm

A higher action (let's say 5mm bass and 4mm treble, @ 12th fret) generally allows for a more powerful right-hand attack without loss of tone quality. Since I personally don't have a strong right hand like that, nor do I need to play that forcefully, I prefer a lower 3.5 bass and 3.0 treble set-up.

I had a student some years ago who owned a mid-70s Ramirez guitar with exceptionally high action. I would guess probably 7mm and 5mm, maybe more. It was making it quite difficult for him to play connected phrases, because the strings were so high off the board that there was always a perceptible fraction of a second of silence as one finger released a note and the next finger came down. Yet when I suggested he lower the action (or have it lowered), clearly I was speaking blasphemy to him. Many years later, I saw the same fellow again. He'd given up classical, and was playing jazz on a Gibson archtop -- one with extremely low action!
David Norton
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rojarosguitar
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Re: High versus low action

Post by rojarosguitar » Tue Dec 20, 2011 2:26 pm

With the same guitar as a given, the higher the action, the stronger the torque onto the top. Somwhere there is an optimum, soundwise. Getting the action even higher could overdrive the top with sound detoriation as a consequence. With an action that is too low for a given guitar the torque could be too week to drive the top properly.

Lowering the action can be partly compensated by a higher string tension, but this has it's own consequences in terms of sound and playability. Also an action that is too low might introduce some unwanted buzzes when played at higher volumes ...

best wishes
Robert
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jaujau
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Re: High versus low action

Post by jaujau » Tue Dec 20, 2011 4:04 pm

it's important to mention that the highest the string is from the fret - the more pulling down you need to do and so the more strech is introduced to the string and as a result the pitch gets higher, and intonation will suffer.. the medium range of 4-3 mm above the 12th fret is probably optimal to maintain comfortable playing in all positions.
the torque on the bridge is something that the luthier must take care of in his design of the instrument, and not make this compromise of sound or playability - a master guitar features both...
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gauchita
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Re: High versus low action

Post by gauchita » Tue Dec 20, 2011 6:43 pm

Flamenco Guitars often have a low action. It is easer to play fast with less ,fretting hand , finger movements and pressure. The down side for some, is a less clean note ,bit more buzzing.It is not difficult to lower the action and normally only involves adjusting the saddle and nut hight .One danger to lowering the action is discovering you finger board or frets are not as level as they should be.

Alan Carruth
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Re: High versus low action

Post by Alan Carruth » Tue Dec 20, 2011 7:09 pm

Robert wrote:
"With the same guitar as a given, the higher the action, the stronger the torque onto the top. "

Right, in that raising the action height would require a taller saddle, and put the strings further off the top. For a given string height off the top the action will depend on the neck (or fingerboard) pitch, which is pretty much built-in on traditional classical gutiars. There are are a number of makers these days (Brune is one, and I'm another) using various versions of removable necks, which can be re-set relatively easily to correct for improper pitch. Some 'historical copies' use the Stauffer adjustable neck, which gets around the whole issue, and I have seen 'modern' guitars by Stanul and others with removable and adjustable necks.

It's entirely possible to make a guitar that has the correct neck pitch when it leaves the shop, and have that pitch change later. If it changes very quickly that's generally the builder's fault. ALL necks will pull up over the long term, though, no matter how stiff and stable the neck material, simply because the body of the guitar distorts over time. Traditionally this was taken into account by the use of a thick fingerboard, that would allow for some adjustment by planing it thinner at the nut. You get to do this once, or maybe twice, and then the fingerboard needs to be replaced, or wedged up.

Altering the neck pitch itself requires 'slipping the heel' on a guitar that was built on a solera. The back binding is peeled away to about the wide part of the shoulders, the glue joint between the back and the heel and sides is carefully loosened (hope they used hide glue!), and the neck pulled back slightly to adjust it's pitch before the back is re-glued. This is not a repair for the faint of heart: I've never done one myself, and don't look forward to my first one!

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Alexandru Marian
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Re: High versus low action

Post by Alexandru Marian » Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:02 am

I wonder if 'slipping the heel' is ever done successfully on a fine guitar, or is it just a myth. Unless I am missing something, slipping the heel will result in a gap between the heel end and the back, unless it gets clamped down, which would make a nasty dip in the back; or, a wedge can be glued on the heel, but that would be quite tricky with the back in the way.
Also, the back will become slightly longer than the body and the body will get wider. The upper binding will need to be trimmed down - uneven thickness binding is aesthetically horrible. There will also be a bit of a gap forming towards the wider part of the upper bout, and a lot of stress added towards the waist area.

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Re: High versus low action

Post by Alan Carruth » Fri Dec 23, 2011 6:56 pm

Alexandru Martin wrote:
"Also, the back will become slightly longer than the body and the body will get wider. "

If you pull back on the neck to raise the fingerboard projection at the bridge to correct for a low saddle, the back will get shorter. You'll need to re-cut the binding rabbets . I'm sure there are some stresses involved (aside from those the repair person feels!) but if the correctino is 'small' the stresses should be small as well.

As I say, I have never done this repair, but I've seen references to it in a number of places, and have no reason to doubt it's been done from time to time. Compared with cutting down (shortening the body of ) a viola this one is a piece of cake, and i've seen my share of cut down violas.

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Alexandru Marian
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Re: High versus low action

Post by Alexandru Marian » Fri Dec 23, 2011 7:36 pm

Ugh, my 2 neurons are having a hard time at midnight after working a 16h day. I knew the neck must be pulled up, but in my mind I was pulling it up while looking at the back of the guitar which of course would lengthen the back. Still, I think the internal gap issue is still valid and filling gaps or having uneven binding and structural stresses is kind of ugly. I'd rather saw the neck off! :D

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Re: High versus low action

Post by Gil_Wade » Sun Dec 25, 2011 11:01 pm

High action does several things: 1) Increases the loudness of the guitar, 2) increases the range from the Loudest to the softest the guitar will be able to play, 3) gives one more variance in tonal quality, and 4) increases the bass and mellowness possible for the guitar. I takes more practice than most seem to want to give to their craft to play a high action guitar as smoothly as a low action guitar. Seeing that most players play much softer than the guitar is capable of and seldom if ever push their guitar to its fullest, they are willing to give up extra benefits of high action for "easier" playing. There seems to be a big myth about one can play a low action guitar longer than a higher action. This may be true when one first starts to play a high action guitar but it quickly disappears when they practice on a consistant basis. If your teacher, or your friend, doesn't play a high action guitar, you will probably never learn how to play one correctly.
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rojarosguitar
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Re: High versus low action

Post by rojarosguitar » Mon Dec 26, 2011 8:30 am

Gil_Wade wrote:... High action does several things: 1) Increases the loudness of the guitar, 2) increases the range from the Loudest to the softest the guitar will be able to play, 3) gives one more variance in tonal quality, and 4) increases the bass and mellowness possible for the guitar. ...
I agree with that, with one remark: what is high and what is low depends on many factors inherent in the guitar.

Among them: neck angle, neck profile (relief), the quality of fret work, and, most important, the top construction. If the top tends to make big excursions one would need a higher action from the beginning.

I think, for any guitar there are lower and higher settings possible. The lower ones are limited by the onset of too much buzz. The higher action also has certain limits, where the sound begins to detoriate and the playbility also beginns to really suffer. So a kind of golden middle way has to be found according to the sound ideal on wants to realize.

best wishes
Robert
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kloeten
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Re: High versus low action

Post by kloeten » Mon Dec 26, 2011 12:38 pm

Many thanks for all the insightful and elaborate responses! I think I now understand the virtues of the high (just a bit higher than I was used to) action of my dearest new guitar.
Best regards
Rutger

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Re: High versus low action

Post by Guitar » Mon Dec 26, 2011 1:30 pm

There's a great Heinlein quote: "Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal". It's too easy to wind up with an uncomfortable instrument, then scurry around trying to find excuses as to why it's shortcomings are really virtues.

There will always be some remotely plausible sounding narrative to justify anything, no matter how disconnected from logic it may be. Some players *do* prefer higher actions- and they have their own reasons for why- but I think a lot of it breaks down to a personal preference sort of thing more so than having some practical basis in technical theory.

To put it more succinctly: If we made a list of players who preferred a tall action versus players who preferred a short action, there would be amazing players on both lists (a personal favorite of mine, Jimmy Rosenberg, likes a notoriously high action) but those preferring the shorter action would drastically outnumber those preferring a taller action. Most of the dynamics some cite for a taller action being 'better' than a shorter action would not be apparently deficient in the great players employing a shorter action.

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