The act of pressing down on the strings to make contact with the neck is the single most painful aspect of playing the guitar. Until fingertips get calluses and the overall strength of the fingers and hands improves beyond what is needed in everyday life, getting a clear, clean tone from each string is a huge challenge. In fact, I have had a few students who quit trying to play in a few short weeks because they just couldn’t deal with the pain. Most do fine of course and after a month or so it’s reasonable to expect the sound will clean up and those annoying buzzes and muffled notes will gradually disappear.
Technique has a lot to do with this and that’s part of my job: to make sure the student is pressing down correctly, in the right places. But there is no reason to struggle with the guitar because the strings are too high. Adjustments can be made to the instrument to make things easier.
Sometimes those adjustments can result in too much of a good thing, however. Many guitarists seem to be under the impression that a perfectly straight neck is optimum condition. This is not true. Think about the way a guitar string moves when played. The farther away from the dividing points – a fretted note and the saddle, or in the case of open strings, between the nut and saddle – the more upward, downward and side to side motion there is when the string is played. When a string is pressed down on a perfectly straight neck it is lowered toward the fingerboard. If there is not a tiny bit of curvature in the neck, known as “relief,” it’s likely the vibrating string will bounce off one or more frets higher than where the player is pressing. The result is that annoying buzz. Guitar necks MUST have a certain amount of relief to play without buzzes.
The danger of very low action is that even with some neck relief, buzzes can still happen. Almost all guitars produced today are equipped with adjustable necks. Without getting into the mechanics of how this is accomplished, what the adjusting nut does when turned is impart more or less relief in the neck. Some players wrongly think the adjustment is raising or lowering the neck and this is not the case.
So how much relief is right? The generally accepted way to check for the correct amount of relief is to place a straight edge such as a yard stick on its side with one end on the first fret and the other at about the 18th fret. At about the 9th or 10th fret you should be barely able to slip a business card between the fret and the bottom of the string. This is not a perfectly exact measurement; if you want the relief adjusted perfectly, take your guitar to a qualified guitar tech for a good set-up.
There are other variables of course. If the nut slots are too high or the saddle is too high – or both – the relief can be perfect but the strings will still be too high above the neck. This is much less common than it used to be with inexpensive guitars but I still see it from time to time. Fixing this condition is another job for a guitar tech but if you search the Stewart McDonald web site you may be able to find a video that outlines the procedures for cutting and replacing a nut or filing the one you have.
Lowering a saddle is easier. Remove it from the bridge and sand down the UNDERSIDE of the saddle. Do a little bit and then restring the guitar to check for the correct string height. If it’s still too high, remove the saddle and repeat. It’s crucial to have patience in this procedure and check and re-check frequently.
So what is “perfect action”? Most players would reply a set-up in which the strings are as close as possible to the neck without the strings buzzing when the guitar is played. Just remember that your perfect action may change on the seasonal basis as the humidity where you live changes and the guitar expands and contracts with the relative humidity. Also, how hard you play will definitely factor in to the amount of relief your guitar neck has – if you strum hard there is no choice but to set the action and relief fairly high. Finger style players can keep the action quite low without buzzes happening.
So take all these factors into account when judging a guitar. You don’t want to fight with the thing but very low action is not always the answer.
Peace & good music,