Does Guitar String Height / Action Affect Tone?

Does Guitar String Height / Action Affect Tone?

Your guitar string height—commonly referred to as action—has a big effect on how your guitar feels and plays. But what does it do to your guitar’s tone? Let’s talk about it.

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What’s up everybody, I’m Scott from Stringjoy Guitar Strings coming at you today with a short video talking about whether or not the guitar string height, or the action, affects the tone of the guitar. Let’s dive in.

So, the string height or action of a guitar can vary pretty wildly from instrument to instrument, depending on how the guitar is set up, how the neck is attached to the body of the particular guitar, what sort of bridge setup you have, and a number of other factors.

Basically, it comes down to personal preference. Some players like rather high action—Stevie Ray Vaughan pretty famously liked his guitar string height to be really high. Some players prefer really, really low action—a lot of times metal players, or shredders, or really any genre that requires a lot of speed will favor really really low action. This makes it so that you don’t have to work very hard to press down a particular note, making it a lot easier when you’re playing flurries of notes all across the neck of the guitar.

But, does guitar string height affect more than just the guitar’s playability? Does it have an effect on the tone? In my opinion, yes it does. Higher action tends to sound a lot more open, especially if you’re strumming chords or something like that. This is because there’s more distance between the strings and the individual frets, making it so they can fully resonate without coming into any contact with the frets.

In the extreme, we call this buzzing, but it can be happening in a much more subtle way, with lower action, where you wouldn’t really think there’s something wrong with the guitar, but you’re really not getting the same amount of sustain out of a given note that you would with higher action.

A lot of studio guitarists over the years have used rather high action for this very reason, they like to get that very full, open sound, and eliminate any sort of buzzing or contact between the strings and the frets. The trade-off, unfortunately, is playability. When you have higher action, you have to press down harder to fret a given note, it makes things like hammer-ons and pull-offs quite a bit more difficult, and if you’re trying to do things like sweep picking, it can and get really, really tough.

So the trick is to just remember that it’s a bit of a balancing act. The lower your action, generally, the better the playability for your guitar. The higher action, the more openness you’re going to have with your guitar itself. So it’s important to remember that whichever direction you move in, you’re going to be compromising something, and the trick is to really just find what the right action is for you, that’ll give you all the playability you want, as well as the tonality that you’re looking for out of your instrument.

So, where do you line up? Do you like very, very high action? Do you like your action as low as possible? Let us know down in the comments.

17 Responses

  1. A few years ago I bought the Ovation Legacy 12 string and would appreciate your input regarding strings. I’d like dropping tension a bit for a better sustain and ring —
    Thank you!

  2. Definitely on the low side and with 09’s I get low 2.0 mm on the low E, 2.5 mm on the low E. I play PRS Custom 24

  3. Really depends on the guitar and and your style. I’m an all around player on the acoustic, everything from finger pick to hammer on on one instrument in the same set. I played a Bourgeise with ridiculously low strings ( no buzz) and had all the tone and resonance I needed, but then again the guitar cost $3K!

  4. I prefer to lower action on my guitar as low as possible without buzz and then bring it back up just a bit. Playing a 78 Gibson SG Standard gives me a tailpiece that can be adjusted up or down to adjust string angle across the saddles which in itself can be used to alter your tone and playability.

  5. Good reason to have more than one guitar!
    I have one ready, set low for “surf” tone and just a cool “buzz” , and another for slide, and the acoustic guitar for fingerpickin’…then a backup in case I break a string. It’s not work to carry them around. It’s what makes the music work.
    Celebrate your talent. Twang !

  6. Just had my Strat set up for being tuned down a step with .105’s. (Scot recommended this string set for the set up) . Set up is just barely high enough to not buzz. Going from .009’s I did notice quite a bit warmer tone. I have to crank up the treb a bit more than before but they play and sound great especially through the Marshall cab with vintage 30 speakers.. Gives my Les Paul a run for the money. Next time I might go a little heavier on the bottom end but these seem to do the job nicely and don’t kill my fingers on bends and such. Thanks Scott for the advice.

  7. Yes 100 % correct. String height absolutely affects your tone, and exactly as you describe.
    Also true is the fact that many famous players prefer string heights way above what most of us would feel is “correct”.
    Check out the Sturart MacDonald site. They have an awesome library of actual set ups from many famous players the likes of Jeff Beck, DEV, and BB just to name a few that can give you some real insites into crafting your tonem

  8. I like my action sort of on the low side as I play country and steel bends are much easier with a lower action as well as triads w/ hammerons and pull offs.

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