What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

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What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Paul Kincaid » Fri Apr 12, 2013 10:58 pm

I'm aware of many of the variables involved, but some instruments just seem to allow much lower action without getting excessive buzzing. Zon basses are likely the best example of instruments that I've personally played with hyper low action and still clean sound. So- if it's the same scale, same strings, same player, functional truss rod, same size of well leveled and dressed frets- then what else is there? I'm thinking that the stiffness and resonant frequencies associated with the neck are certainly part of it. The free length of the strings beyond the nut and saddle could be part of it as well. Any insights would be appreciated. Thanks in advance!
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Mark Wybierala » Sat Apr 13, 2013 11:04 pm

This question opens up a whole can of worms because there are many ideas about this. The fact is that it is a conspiracy of factors with some being more relevent than others. For discussion sake lets consider that the geometry issues are at their optimum and that the frets are optimally leveled.

My favorite theory involves what the guitar structure does with the energy of the strings. If the string vibrations that are transmitted into the structure become corrupted with inharmonic frequencies, this secondary energy at these non-associative frequecies feed back into the strings at the contact points and disrupt the vibrating strings creating a sort of standing wave or rouge waves in the string and these cause the string(s) to react with undesired deviations in vibration amplitude. The two, three or more unrelated frequecies create very wild and random swings of the string and it is these wild excursions of the string that are heard as string buzz. Often, you can hear that the buzz is almost a full second behind the initial picking of the string and the initial tone is clean for a moment.

My favorite example of this subject is a Gibson Les Paul. I find that for what ever reason, the recipe used to make this guitar provides, as a general rule, exactly what you are talking about. There are exceptions but typically, all other things in order, you can get the action way down without a problem and on many of these guitars, you can bring the action down so far that it is too low to play with familiarity.

That said, low action is not the holy grail of a guitar. Even if the strings don't buzz, an overly low action is a problem for many techniques. I don't own a Les Paul despite their general ability to get really low action and I've had plenty of opportunities to have one without busting my budget.

I have built a few Les Paul style guitars and have found that with sticking to the mahogany body and the mahogany neck and making a guitar that is similar, I get that low action attribute and a lot of the charactor of the Gibson. I can only suspect that the mahogany, the set neck, and maybe the shape of the headstock (don't rule anything out) is part of the conspiracy.

Les Pauls are heavy guitars so that has led many people to assume that the answer is all about mass. It isn't and there are countless examples of heavy guitars that don't lend themselves to really low action. I would generally say that the average recipe for building a stratocaster doesn't lend itself to low action but I have seen exceptions and all I can attribute this too is what I call mojo -- in other words, I have no idea. I suspect that it has to do with the individual slabs of wood that were randomly picked but then you run into some models of Jacksons and Charvels that are built out of the same species and they consistently have the mojo too. I'm thinking that some people know what to look for in a slab of wood.

I do have an anecdotal story of an American made strat that no matter what I did, it continued to have excessive fret buzz despite the geometry of the neck and fretwork being unquestionably correct. This manifested itself as I mentioned earlier with the initial note ringing clear and the offending buzz happening almost a full second later. I spent six or seven hours beating myself up on this guitar trying to discover why. I found a clue on the heel of the neck where I discovered four inspector stamps, one on top of the other. My guess is that the guitar failed at the end of the production line for exactly the reason I was dealing with it and it was bounced back a number of times before they finally let go out the door. I finally ended up putting another neck on the guitar and it was fine. When I put the offending neck on another body, there was no problem. My use of the term conspiracy seems to work both ways.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Dave Locher » Mon Apr 15, 2013 10:57 am

Wow. I really thought it was all about the neck? My guess was going to be that a perfectly straight and really STIFF and stable neck would allow really low action. I remember Carvin used to advertise something like 1/16 at the 24th fret with no fret buzz and attributed it to their neck construction. (Maybe they still advertise this - I haven't read a Guitar Player magazine since the late 1980s!)

I know the one-piece mahogany neck on a '62 SG I used to own would flex around like crazy which made it impossible to have super-low action because holding it a certain way would raise the action slightly and holding it differently would lower it slightly so too low would bottom out in some positions. And I know the 3-piece maple neck on my '77 or so Marauder is nice and stiff but moves a fair amount with temperature fluctuation which, again, precludes super-low action unless you want to adjust it frequently.

But I will go along with the "mojo" theory because I've played dozens of the same brand/model instrument and no two of them feel exactly alike. It is not as simple as scale length, wood used, neck joint, body weight, bridge construction, or any other single variable. But I've met plenty of players over the years who will confidently name one factor and claim that to be "it" so there are bound to be a lot of theories floated around!

Mark, didn't you say in another thread that you use massive strings and that paradoxically allows you to have low action?
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Dave Locher » Mon Apr 15, 2013 11:48 am

I thought about it some more and I have one more factor that is important: the NUT! If the grooves in the nut are cut too high or too low it becomes nearly impossible to get really low action without buzzing.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Mark Wybierala » Mon Apr 15, 2013 11:37 pm

Thanks for the "wow" but what I post is just my own personal spin and its one of many here on this forum. I'm just a small fish in a sea of many folks with a lot more experience. The heavier strings issue is a thing that happens about half the time. I don't fully understand what is happening but this is what I have seen. I get a lot of young players who are looking for the holy grail of a guitar that plays easily thinking that such a guitar will make them play better. Sure, a defective guitar can cause problems and hold back a player but that isn't the case. The typical situation would be something like an Epiphone Les Paul and being asked to install a set of .009 to .042 strings or a decent acoustic guitar and installing extra light strings. The real offender would be the 1/2 size acoustic guitar and installing an extra light set when actually a shorter scale calls for a heavier string.
Personally I think that a Les Paul and many other guitars suffer from potential tone loss with light strings but I do know a number of players who feel otherwise and I can respect them because they actually do pull off a great performance without the slightest hint of a compromised tone. I believe that at a certain point, too low of string tension just makes the string unstable. It may be that when tension is low, the incidence of the inharmonic frequencies as I mentioned in the post above may be able to have a greater influence on the lower energy level of the light string causing a problem or decreased performance. I think its a shame to put ultra light strings on an otherwise well made guitar for the sake of making the guitar play easier or trying to compensate for a defect that can be fixed. Often the heavier string ends up working in a more controlled manner and the end result is a guitar pickup with a greater and cleaner output or an acoustic top that becomes alive as it was intended to do.
What I do know for sure is that a lot of times when I review a guitar at the front desk prior to a setup, I can often tell the client that I can take this guitar, install a set of standard tension strings and when I'm done I can just about guarentee that it will play easier and better in every respect than it did before with the light strings. This isn't at all in support of any mojo theory of heavier strings being better but rather that installing light strings on a poorly setup guitar is not a remedy for a bad setup.
Another thing to consider and confuse the issue even more is that some guitars can feel as though the action is high when in fact it is not. The hands and fingers can easily misinterpret what is actually going on and there are many things about a guitar neck that can lead to false impressions. Fret height from the fingerboard, the fingerboard material, and even the friction factor of the fingertips against the fingerboard can lead people to false impressions.
There is no singular science or firm fast rule for what ends up feeling like mojo but there are a lot of things that can lead you in a better direction or lead you astray.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby David King » Sun Apr 21, 2013 1:33 am

I'm going to come down on the fretwork side of things. I've seen guitars that had what looked like nearly perfect fretwork that seemed to buzz worse the more you raised the action. Once I adjusted the truss rod to make the neck flat and sanded the string path under each string while the neck was under full string tension I was finally able to drop the strings back down and ease off the truss rod. Fret work is usually handled with the strings off the neck but it doesn't always work out very well. Now I routinely do all my fret-leveling with the strings on. This has nothing to do with how I was taught but it seems to work better for me.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Thomas Dooher » Wed Apr 24, 2013 1:26 pm

Just read an article regarding how low is TOO low... megaspeed shredders like low action, and use lighter strings for the most part. Blues or other styles that do lots of bends and pulls like a bit higher to 'bite' into the string, and also are mostly heavy gauge. The heavier strings have more 'arc' when vibrating, so that's part of it, too. And, there's the pickup effect. low action, close to the pickup, causes changes in that arc. The ligher strings get pulled down more that heaver. Heavier strings, lower action, more buzz...

Way back in the day, when he was playing little clubs, I met Stevie Ray. We were talking about guitars and styles, he handed me (not sure which one, but wasn't Lenny) his guitar. HEAVY gauge strings with kind of high action...I almost couldn't play it. He said that he did that for feel, tone (backed away from the pickups a bit), and could do some slide. He said he tried lowering it, got buzing, mixed up some string gauges, didnt' like the tone, so back up and heavy he went.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Mark Swanson » Wed Apr 24, 2013 2:55 pm

Cool Thomas...but one thing you said- that heavier strings have more arc, and the opposite is true. The heavier strings have less of an arc when vibrating, the lighter the string, the more arc it has as it vibrates. You can actually get a lower action with less buzzing with a heavier string.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Thomas Dooher » Thu Apr 25, 2013 7:56 pm

Not if you pound on it like SRV.. :D .

Maybe I mis-remembered the article...will have to see if I can find it...
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Greg Robinson » Fri Apr 26, 2013 4:05 am

Sorry to pile on Thomas, but Mark is correct.
Think of it this way: The heavier string has more mass, so with the same vibrational energy, its arc will be less than a lighter string, while delivering the same power. This means that you can put more energy into the string (strum harder) before you get strange inharmonicity (have you ever plucked really hard and noticed the string go sharp and then flat before resolving, and having nasty overtone content while it's in this process?).

I think I'm the one that Dave mentioned above, I prefer to use a custom string set 0.010"-0.070", tuned in E standard. Quite a few people have played my guitar that's setup like this, as it sits in my workshop, and clients are always shocked when they notice how thick the strings are, and always assume I'm tuned down to something ridiculous like drop A or the like, but when they play it themselves, find that it is almost effortless, and the action is extremely low, most commenting it's the lowest they've ever seen. I don't have to have my action set quite that low (although with jumbo frets it's still ok for bends), but I do this more to showcase what is possible.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Mark Wybierala » Fri Apr 26, 2013 11:44 am

Its wonderful listening to others discuss this issue. As we build and repair many guitars over the years we develop a belief system for things that seem to follow some sort of hard to describe rule(s). It is so very hard to prove anything because there are so many interactions happening at once. I have heard many things about SRV and his style of playing is generally my gole for the solid body guitars that I build. My perception is that he wrestled with his guitar to yield the ultimate emotion from it. Had he been playing a guitar with minimal action or, if there was no physical battle going on between him and his guitar, the result would have been thin and much less dynamic. I often call his type of playing Stratobatics. To get this style of mojo requires a lot of hard work from the player and his gear. I think its the same for most musical instruments. When you hear a sax player pushing the limits, there is a lot of physical effort -- the same goes for just about any impressive performance art I guess. Its not supposed to be easy.
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Chad McCormack » Sat Apr 27, 2013 8:11 am

Right on, Mark!
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Re: What factors allow lower action on some guitars than others?

Postby Shawn Ball » Thu May 30, 2013 9:55 am

My opinion (take it how you will, and maybe with a grain of salt) is that it's a balance of neck/bridge geometry and fretwork. I just picked up a cheap Gibson Les Paul Special at GC, and the fretwork is immaculate. Looks like they finally got their Plek machine dialed in, because I dropped the strings until they touched the frets, then raised them to just over 1/16" at the 22nd fret and it plays like a dream with no buzz. I could go lower if I didn't dig in so hard with the pick. There's just over 1/64" relief in the neck.
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