Reasons Do Cheap Guitars Have High Action At The 12th Fret?

Why Do Cheap Guitars Have High Action

Cheap guitars are produced from low-quality components, cheap woods, and are often set up wrong.

This is because the only path to make these instruments profitable, but affordable, is by cutting corners, employing unskilled laborers, and undertaking low-quality control standards.

While often the sound on the cheap guitars may not get affected too much (depending on your own preference), the playability does.

Check out the video below where two guitars are compared. One guitar cost $50, whereas the other one ( Seagull S6 Original ) cost over $400. Can you tell the difference between the two guitars?

In general, one of the ways manufacturers cut corners is by setting up a cheap guitar with high action. This is because to lower the action requires skill and time to slice the nut and adjust the neck and bridge. Something that manufacturers’ do not want to spend on or they will not earn profits.  

Still another reason for the high action in the cheap guitars could be the changes the wood will undergo because of humidity during shipment.

Inexpensive guitars are built en masse in Asian factories, then shipped in massive quantities worldwide.  

As guitars are still (for the absolute most part) built from wood, the change in humidity from the factories to the shipping containers to their final destinations will affect the wood.  

Wood subtly changes shape based on fluctuations in humidity.  

This doesn’t imply that guitars will drastically warp and melt like a Dali painting. Still, these minor fluctuations in the guitar’s neck and body shape can affect the instrument.

Guitar action is normally measured in tenths of a millimeter.  

That means minor changes in the shape of the wood can have significant consequences for the guitar’s action.  

If the guitar’s wood expanded too much, it would cause the action to become too low, causing dreaded “fret buzz. ”

Because the guitar needs to be at the very least somewhat playable upon arrival at a music store, a number of the factories deliberately set the action high to reduce the effect of the wood warping.  

Action on a guitar is the distance between the guitar’s strings and the fretboard. This distance plays a significant role in the instrument’s playability, especially for beginners, as the action determines how easy it is to sound a note through the use of pressure to the string.  

In terms of action on a guitar, a few millimeters difference, and even a tenth of millimeters, affects playability enormously.  

Guitars with high action are harder to play requiring:

  • more finger strength and,
  • more significant pressure to sound an email.  

As a result, beginners using guitars with high action often complain of finger pain and finding it too hard to play the songs they like.

High action can also affect the tuning stability of your guitar.  

Having to press the string further to play an email will stretch the string, potentially throwing it out of tune.

All of this is not to express that you need extremely low action!  

In fact , if the action is too low, the string will hit frets other than usually the one you’re playing, causing a dead, muted, buzzing sound. There’s a low-action “sweet spot” that you need to hit to maximize your guitar’s playability.

To optimize the sweet spot on your guitar, you can either have your guitar  set up by a professional   or set up the guitar yourself.

In my article “ how to do your own guitar set up , ” I will illustrate step by step how you can set up your low priced guitar to be more playable for you.  

A very important factor to note is that guitars should be set up regularly to keep them top-notch. Check out our article “ How Often Should A Guitar Be Setup ” for more detail with this.

Good action on a guitar depends entirely on your playing style. The “sweet spot” is low enough for easy playing but high enough to prevent fret buzz. Generally speaking, this is at 4/64″ (1. 6mm) on the high E string and 6/64″ (2. 4mm) on the low E string.  

Acoustic guitarists usually prefer higher action than electric guitars. This is to improve string resonance. The action in acoustic guitars is typically set at around 5/64″ (2. 0mm) on the high E string, and 7/64″ (2. 8mm) on the reduced E string.

Before deciding if your action is good or bad, you should consider your playing style and amount of ability.

Players who prioritize lightning-fast runs and ultra-light playing can typically get away with far lower action than those who bash away at the guitar with powerful strokes.  

Both styles have their benefits, but they require different setups.  

More intricate playing causes the strings to vibrate far more, meaning they are more likely to accidentally graze the wrong fret. Whereas lighter player causes lighter vibrations, reducing this possibility.  

Perhaps the best exemplory case of this in popular music is the famous rock band AC/DC.

Malcolm Young, the rhythm guitarist, almost exclusively played chords. He periodically dabbled in solos and melodies early in the band’s career. Still, Malcolm spent most of the years 1980 to 2010 playing chords before the seventh fret. That he tended to hit your guitar extremely hard.

On the other hand, his brother Angus played lead guitar. His playing style was characterized by aggressive vibrato, speedy licks, and guitar solos.  

The best way to picture the contrast within their playing is the song  “Thunderstruck. ”

The lightning-fast sixteenth notes throughout the intro are Angus’ parts. The chugging B chord underneath and the meaty power chords through the chorus are all Malcolm.

Angus Young kept his guitar’s action relatively low. He needed this to facilitate his fast-playing, accentuate his lighter strokes, and ensure that his vibrato was wide and audible with zero buzzing.

Malcolm, alternatively, used higher action. This meant he could hit the guitar extremely hard without the strings accidentally buzzing from the higher frets. This allowed the strings to vibrate powerfully and freely, creating a louder, more authoritative sound than softer strokes could ever accomplish.

Each different amount of action complemented the style of each guitarist.

If you’re just starting out, you’ll be playing a variety of techniques. Because of this, lower action like Angus Young is probably best. It will reduce steadily the pressure you need to obtain a good sound. What this means is you’ll develop calluses faster and will make getting better in your crucial first year easier.

Before you try your guitar with any tools, know that most guitar modifications and setups are best performed by trained professionals.  

Guitars are susceptible to minor changes, and it is possible to damage your instrument when trying to improve it.  

Cheaper guitars, which are the ones most in need of adjustment, are usually manufactured from softer wood, which will warp, bend, or break if you try to muscle through resistance.

Making adjustments to your guitar requires some specialized tools, which you may not have access to as a beginner guitarist.

As a beginner, it’s worth taking your guitar to a luthier and asking them to do a beginner’s setup.  

They will learn how to lower the action and maximize playability without risking damage to your precious instrument.  

However , if you’re interested in learning just how to lower your guitar’s action yourself, here are some simple steps you can follow. Just remember: always measure twice, and make all adjustments gently and slowly. If it becomes strenuous or challenging to make the adjustment, stop immediately which means you don’t damage your guitar.  

Step 1: Measure Your Action

Measure the guitar action with an action ruler gauge at the 12th fret

Your first step must be to measure the action on your own guitar. For this, make sure your guitar is tuned and the truss rod is straight if you have a steel-string guitar. Otherwise, a bowed neck will affect the action.

Measure the distance between the fretboard and the bottom of the guitar string at the twelfth fret of each E string.

Note:   Conventional rulers and tape measures won’t work for this. Instead, you need an action gauge ruler, such as the  Baroque Action Ruler Gauge   or the  FretGuru String Action Gauge .

Step 2: Loosen Your Strings

Detune The Guitar from the tuning keys

You shouldn’t remove your guitar strings entirely to lower the action. However , keeping the strings on, and slackened, wil dramatically reduce tension on the neck and allow you to make adjustments more easily. It will also reduce the possibility of breaking your strings.

To loosen your strings, simply detune the guitar a little bit.

Step 3: Adjust The Bridge

Depending on what type of guitar you play, your bridge will adjust differently.  

Acoustic guitars tend to require you to lower the guitar’s saddle and/or nut to reduce the action.  

Before you adjust the bridge on your electric guitar, have a look at what type of bridge your guitar uses (tune-o-matic, Floyd Rose, or Stratocaster-style). This is because each bridge will need to be adjusted differently.

Let’s review each of the bridges:

Step 3a: Adjust The Tune-O-Matic Bridge


The  tune-o-matic bridge  is commonly found on Gibson-style guitars.

They have two flathead screw poles that you can use to adjust your guitar’s action. Once you’ve measured the action on your low and high E strings, adjust the heights of these two posts.

If your low E string is excessive, lower the post on that side. Perform one-quarter turn of the post at a time. Re-tune your guitar and measure the action after each quarter turn. If it’s still too high, repeat these steps. Exactly the same applies to the high E string.

If you feel such as the action on your middle strings is too low, you need to boost the action on all of the strings to address this.

This video  can help more with this!

Step 3b: Adjust The Floyd Rose Bridge


Floyd Rose bridges  are commonly found on “shredder” guitars.  

Floyd Rose bridges are similar to tune-o-matic bridges, with two posts for adjusting your guitar’s action.

However , rather than a flathead screwdriver, you’ll need an Allen wrench. A 3mm wrench should do the trick.

Floyd Rose bridges need to be resting in a low position before you adjust the action.  

Please note that if your guitar’s bridge is raised, as in the picture below (a Strat-style bridge, but a similar issue for demonstrative purposes), you’ll need to fix that first.

If that’s all in order, adjust the pole pieces with your Allen key a quarter turn at a time, just like you would on a tune-o-matic bridge.

This video   can help more with this.

Step 3c: Adjust The Stratocaster-Style Bridges


My guitar, pictured below, has a Stratocaster-style bridge.

This provides the most individual get a grip on over action, but inaddition it requires the most work.  

Each string could be individually adjusted, using a 1 . 5mm Allen wrench on the 2 screws in the saddle.  

You’ll have to measure the strings individually to properly try this, and adjust both screws for each string to the same height. Adjust the action for both E strings first, and then B and A, and finally D and G.  

Tune the guitar and measure the action between each adjustment.

This video   can also help with adjusting the Stratocaster-style bridge.

Action is among the most essential factors in the playability of your guitar.  

Cheaper mass-produced instruments frequently have higher action, requiring setup and adjustment, preferably by a professional. However , if you want to discover ways to do it yourself, this handy guide helps get you started.

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