So why does this person want to do such a thing? Because he has wide fingers and the 1 11/16” nut width means it’s difficult to play without a finger or fingers touching adjacent strings. This is something I see all the time. But I see other issues too. Mostly they fall along the lines of, man, this guitar is so hard to play! What can be done?
Back in the 1970s I ordered a guitar from a local guitar maker named Jim Boyce. He is long gone now and mostly forgotten as a guitar maker; his output was only perhaps 50 or so guitars and he preceded the “boutique guitar” movement of the last 20 or so years. The guitar I wanted was a mahogany body/spruce top, slope-shoulder jumbo. It was to have the standard 1 11/16” nut width of course and Jim never put adjustable truss rods in his guitars so I would be stuck with the action as he created it. In one of our first discussions about the guitar he said:
“You know what I hate? When someone says they want the action as low as it can be without buzzing!” Jim was a character, to say the least.
I kind of gulped and swallowed my words, which were about to be exactly what he didn’t want to hear. That guitar is long gone now, mostly because at the time I was into V-shaped necks and that one was built with a sharp V.
This gets to crux of the matter. We all want our guitars to be as comfortable as possible for our fretting hand. These days there are a multitude of neck shapes from wide and thin to deep and with semi-V profiles. More and more makers of guitars in all price ranges are going to 1 ¾” nut widths as standard. I think these are good starting points.
Where is gets tough is a simple fact: most recreational players will buy just one guitar in hopes they won’t have to buy another. Some realize that it’s a classic “you get what you pay for” scenario and decide to upgrade when they realize both comfort and sound improve as you spend more money. Most of the time, anyway. I’m really talking about the player who wants the instrument they are playing to just get a bit easier. There are a few things you can do.
First and foremost, if you are fortunate enough to have a well-qualified guitar tech in your area (I’m lucky – there are now two good ones close to where I live), go to them for a “set up.” This may be a simple thing and the results can be remarkable. One guy who I’ve used for decades, Fran Ledoux of Bay Fretted Instruments is truly a magician when it comes to adjusting my guitars; I’ve known him so long that he knows exactly what I like and yes, he can get the action incredibly low with no buzzes unless I strum really, really hard. We also have a new guy in town, Ron Bolduc of Fretwerk’s. I’ve only used his services a couple times and he does stellar work. If you live in Southern Massachusetts (or Connecticut in the case of Ron), drop me a PM through my contact page and I’ll get their contact info to you.
The first thing you’ll want to do is look down the neck of your guitar along the edge from the body to the headstock. It is a commonly held belief that guitar necks are supposed to be straight. This is untrue for the simple fact that the strings move more radically in the middle than at the ends and a perfectly straight neck with low action is sure to have buzzes from the middle of the neck on up. All guitar necks must have a tiny bit of “relief,” which is almost imperceptible curvature. There is a way to measure this using a flat edge device like a steel yardstick and I urge you to check out You Tube for detailed instructions. If you need to adjust the neck you will find a small, round hole in the brace inside the sound hole on the neck side. A wrench is inserted to join with the end of the truss rod at the neck joint. You will most likely need a hex head wrench and unfortunately there is no standard size; you should do some research online to find the appropriate one for your guitar. Some guitars come with them. In the case of Martins (my favorites, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while!) you may want to purchase one directly from the company via their 1833 Shoppe.
Some guitars may even have too much pressure from the truss rod i.e., a “backwards” bend. That is absolutely the first thing to eliminate before going any further. As you hold the guitar on your lap or laid flat on a table, turning the truss rod adjustment nut clockwise straightens or eliminates relief; turning counter clockwise increases relief or curve in the neck. This should always be done with at least a few of the strings on the guitar, although it is easier to do with them all off. That way you will get a more accurate idea of the amount of relief due to the string pressure on the neck. If you opt for removing all the strings you may have to do this a few times to get the guitar to the point you want. And don’t be surprised if there is a slight change a few hours later as the neck gets used to the new amount of pressure from the truss rod. It’s wood, after all! FWIW, I adjust the truss rods on my guitars at least twice a year, in the last Spring and Fall, to compensate for different levels of humidity and temperature where I live.
If you’ve never done it before on your guitar – and it’s never been done on that particular guitar – don’t be surprised if it takes a bit of elbow grease to get the nut to turn. Sometimes a disconcerting creak will be heard. In any case, take it slow, only a fraction of a turn at a time, and if the nut refuses to budge or is at its maximum or minimum range of movement, best to take the guitar to a guitar tech for further adjustment. Sadly, some guitars (less expensive ones especially) just won’t respond to this process at all, or develop nasty bends at certain points in the neck. Again – this is a job for a guitar tech.
What else can you do? Well, some simple things. First, change your strings! While there was a time that medium gauge strings were the norm, light gauge is now far and away more common. You could opt for extra light gauge or even “silk and steel,” which are low tension and easy to press down. But going that route will certainly diminish the tonal response from the guitar. If you can live with that you will find extra lights or silk-and-steels easier on your fingers, for sure.
You can change the saddle height, either by buying a new saddle from a company like Stewart McDonald or sanding the saddle you have. Saddles should be easy to remove from their slot in the bridge; they never should be glued in. If you try sanding, be sure to sand the BOTTOM of the saddle. It is imperative that the bottom is perfectly flat. I have a wood block onto which I glued some 120-grit sandpaper and this allows me to keep the saddle flat as I carefully sand a bit, replace on the guitar, string it up, check the action, and then repeat as needed. Remember to take your time, sand lightly and check the height frequently. Some guitarists keep a few saddles of different heights so they can swap them out as the action changes seasonally or their playing style requires different string heights.
Sharp fret edges can be an issue and are annoying at best and painful at worst. Stewart McDonald offers a variety of fret files to deal with this. Be sure to mask off the edge of the neck and the fretboard before trying to file and use the correct file. Again, take your time. You Tube has plenty of videos on how to do this adjustment.
One thing I do not recommend is filing the nut slots. Although there are plenty of videos on how to this – and specialized nut files are an absolute requirement – there are way too many ways to mess this up and the result will be buzzing or muffled tone. Leave this one to a qualified guitar tech unless you are very brave and patient. Sometimes the best course of action is having a guitar tech install a brand-new nut, cut at the correct height. This can also improve the tone because good techs often use bone rather than the plastic that is often used on less expensive guitars; this improves tone and sustain.
A brand new nut made and installed by a guitar tech will also have the exact and correct distances between the strings and to edge of the fretboard. I’ve seen and played many less expensive guitars (and recently a quite expensive one by a premium import maker that was very disappointing) that have the strings kind of squashed together, making them virtually impossible to play cleanly and some that had high and low E strings so close to the fretboard edge that they slipped off when a string was depressed. These things are totally unacceptable and require a new nut.
So there you have it. Sorry for the long post but I feel it’s vital that a guitarist not struggle with his or her guitar any more than is absolutely necessary, especially the beginner. Said it before, I’ll say it again: In almost five decades of teaching I’ve seen bad guitars do more to discourage players from continuing than all other causes combined.
Peace & good music,