5 Easy Steps to Lower an Acoustic Guitar’s Action

lower an acoustic guitar's action

Action on a guitar is often described by most guitarist as its “playability”. Technically speaking, the action of a guitar is the distance between the string and the frets. If it’s too high, you need to lower an acoustic guitar’s action.

The lower the action (e.g. the closer the string to the fret), the easier to play. Here’s how to do it.

I’ve had to lower the action on some of my guitars many times and it’s really quite an easy process. It has happened most often with beginner guitars whose action is just a bit too high for comfort.

Hopefully my experience can help you out as you consider to lower an acoustic guitar’s action.

The Seagull S6, a great quality guitar for beginner acoustic players

What NOT to Do

First of all, I want to start with a quick note about what not to do when you lower an acoustic guitar’s action.

Don’t mess with the truss rod

It used to be when I first started playing guitar a couple decades ago that adjusting the truss rod was a smart move. Not anymore. More often than not the factory settings on your truss rod are going to be exactly what you need.

Advances in guitar manufacturing nowadays mean that making these kind of adjustments are for the most part no longer necessary.

Lower an Acoustic Guitar’s Action: Step by Step

As you prepare to lower an acoustic guitar’s action, the things you will need are

  • Sandpaper (mid grit is best for the job)
  • Nose pliers (to remove the saddle)
  • Ruler & pencil (to measure your action)
  • Possibly an extra saddle (they’re cheap, but hopefully it doesn’t come to that!)

The saddle is the guitar piece on the bridge of your guitar that initially raises the strings off the top of the guitar face. Good quality saddles are made of bone while others are a composite of sorts.

Step #1: Measure Your Action

At about the 12th-14th fret of your guitar, use your ruler to measure the distance between the bottom of your string and the fret.

Use the following numbers to guide what the heights should be and see how yours compares:

  • E6 – 2.38mm (this is your fat string at the top)
  • A5 – 2.28mm
  • D4 – 2.18mm (5.5/64 in)
  • G3 – 2.08mm (5.25/64/in)
  • B2 – 2.03mm (5.15/64in)
  • E1 – 1.98mm (5/64in)

You want to get as close to these numbers as possible, so do your measurements and make note of the difference.

Step #2: Loosen or Remove the Strings

The next step is to either loosen or remove the strings. Personally, I always love to take this opportunity to go ahead and change my strings.

Loosening the strings on the acoustic guitar

If you plan to just slacken the strings, make sure you have enough available string wrapped around the nut so that it won’t come flying off. You need to loosen them enough to get that saddle out.

Step #3: Remove the Saddle and Mark It

Sometimes the saddle pops out and sometimes you need the pliers to pry it loose. It will come out, though, so don’t be afraid that you’ll break anything.

The guitar saddle on an acoustic guitar

Once you have the saddle free, take your measurements from above and mark where you want to sand down the saddle to. My advice is to be conservative. You can always sand away more later; the alternative is either a shim or a new saddle!

Step #4: Sand Down the Saddle

One a hard, very flat surface, use the mid grit sandpaper you have to slowly sand down the saddle.

Carefully sand down the guitar saddle

Patience is key here, as you don’t want to accidentally chip off a part of the saddle. It’s also important that you apply equal pressure along the saddle while sanding so that you don’t come up with a crooked line.

Once you’ve sanded down to the mark you placed on the saddle, it’s time to try it out.

Step #5: Replace the Saddle and Tighten the Strings

As I mentioned above, don’t forget to install the saddle in the same position it was when you removed it.

Tighten the strings. It’s important to bring the guitar back to full tune, otherwise you won’t get a good reading on the action. Measure again to see how you did and play it up and down the fretboard to make sure there are no additional buzzes.

If there is a string buzz that means you filed down too much. You’ll need to either add a shim underneath the saddle (a strip or two of stock paper would do) or replace the saddle altogether.

Hopefully this isn’t the case though. If need be you can repeat the whole process if you think you can afford to take more off the saddle.

Enjoy a New Guitar!

If you do it right, I promise you that your acoustic guitar will feel like a whole new guitar! It will be easier to play, which will affect both your confidence and the sound that you create.

27 Responses to 5 Easy Steps to Lower an Acoustic Guitar’s Action

  1. Serge says:

    Good, precise and concise. Great advice about the truss rod. A while ago new guitars were supplied with the wrench, just in case. Not anymore. Good guitars don’t need any truss rod adjustments. The only comment I have is that on good guitars there’s no way to install the saddle backwards, it won’t fit.

  2. Jon says:

    Great guide. Have you ever had a guitar where you have sanded down the saddle but string action is around 3mm on bass string and has slight fret buzz. I don’t want to shave of anymore incase fret buzz gets worse but want to get it down to the magical 2.3mm. Is this where I adjust the trust rod. Guitar is a Martin DR.

    • Josh Summers says:

      Great question, Jon. Personally I wouldn’t mess with the truss rod, although you can give it a try. At this point you might consider bringing it to a tech to have them look at it. It’s hard to make a judgement call without seeing what’s actually going on.

      • Pietro says:

        Dear Josh,

        I would not be so against the use of the truss rod, it is there for a reason and it is a great invention! If used properly can help people to reach very low action without buzzing, a flat fretboard cannot possibly allow very low action especially at the nut. Please investigate further and more in depth the use of a truss rod and you’ll be surprised by the level of playbility that is possible to reach balancing the truss rod, nut slots and height of the saddle.

  3. Von says:

    Josh – Great walk through. It worked like a charm, Thank you! Bought a Seagull Entourage last weekend and fell totally in LOVE with it. Only trouble was this: after playing it all day yesterday, my finger tips were nuked! From surfing the web (and comparing it to my Alvarez), I knew the action was just a skosh too high. Called a local guitar shop about it. They dude was pretty straight with me and quoted a price of $15-$20 to work on the bridge. That’s all I needed to hear. Anything dealing with a nut or truss rod and I would be sweating bullets. But simply sanding the saddle? I can handle that… Sharpened a pencil, marked off 1.5 – 2mm, and laid our some 220 grit for the job. The only thing I would caution people on (and you already have) is to eyeball the bottom of the saddle frequently while sanding it to ensure it is remaining as close to 90 degrees as possible. My saddle started developing a bevel because I was being hasty (it doesn’t take much). Caught it in time and now the action is truly improved. It’s a 10-minute job, and just as simple as you described. Be well, bro!

    • Josh Summers says:

      Love it, Von! Thanks for sharing your story and I’m glad to hear that the process went smoothly for you and your Seagull Entourage.

  4. Joe Befumo says:

    Does the height of the saddle (or, more precisely, the distance of the strings from the sound hole) affect tone? I ask because my ’78 LoPrinzi LR-15 has had its saddle taken down as far as it can go, in lieu of a neck reset. It plays fine as it is, and the intonation is spot on, but I was told by someone that this either makes the guitar brighter or darker — don’t recall which. So, first question: Is it true? Second question, if it IS true, which way does it go? If I know that I’ll at least try to use strings that will tend to compensate. And finally, is it a really extreme effect. The guitar sounds great as it is, so I’m not real keen on messing with it, on the other hand, since I’m the original owner, LoPrinzi will do a neck reset for a very attractive price, but I won’t risk shipping it, and getting so drastic an operation if the improvement is going to be marginal.

    Thanks.

    Joe

  5. Jay says:

    Truss adjustment is a necessary part of basic instrument maintenance — at least in areas with wide seasonal weather changes. I suppose you are right if a guitar stays in a controlled environment all the time, but a working/traveling musician will need truss adjustments pretty frequently to maintain their desired action/feel.

    • Tom says:

      I agree. A change in string gauge may also require a truss rod adjustment due to the change in tension on the neck from a different gauge of strings. Also, when sanding down the saddle I always sand it against a small piece of word to keep the saddle at a vertical 90 degree angle to keep the bottom of the saddle flat.

  6. Tom says:

    Hi, great guide thanks,
    When I bought my acoustic, I took it to a shop to get it set up. I’ve since change the strings (same gauge) and they’re buzzing something awful, (height of only, 0.8mm on low E and about 0.6mm at 12th fret. You say you can build up the bridge, would it be wiser to replace the bridge entirely?
    Thanks.

    • Josh Summers says:

      Hey Tom, I think it depends on how much you need to raise it. If it’s just by a hair I think you could build it up, otherwise I suggest buying a new bridge. Thankfully they’re not that expensive!

  7. Kevin P Moore says:

    So many guitar players have a fear of the Truss Rod. The factory settings could be off by a mile. Don’t be afraid to do a good set up on an old guitar and the new guitars. I have bought new guitars that were so poorly set up that I could barely play them.
    Guys will mess with a $30,000 dollar car but freak out with a simple $300 dollar guitar. Fix them your self.

  8. jay says:

    Josh,
    Do string to fret measurements also apply to an acoustic bass?

    • Josh Summers says:

      Hmm, good question Jay. Honestly I’m not entirely sure since I don’t deal with acoustic basses. I would talk with a guitar tech to find out for sure.

  9. Sam cook says:

    Hey Josh. Recently bought a new Seagull Entourage CW Qi. I love it. But it has had a buzz in the E and A string 2nd fret since the beginning. I’ve played cheaper guitars that didn’t buzz Like this. I took it back to where I purchased it and they said it was just a player thing. They reproduced the sound easily, but insisted it was no big deal. I’m wondering if the truss rod needs to be adjusted.. Any thoughts? Thank you.
    Sam Cook

    • SuperElectric says:

      Have checked the fret is the right height? Check it with a straight edge steel ruler, could be low on the top edge.

  10. Michael W. Mack says:

    Some of the stores will use it as it’s all in your mind to get rid of you, if not try shims under the bridge at the side it buzzes. Lighter strings can buzz if pluckted too hard.

  11. Rick says:

    been playing 40 years and have owned many guitars and the truss rod and saddle are major factors to string tension and height. You have to have the right neck curvature and string tension once that is achieved you will have a nice soft string tension and it takes many tries to get it right and even then the weather will effect it this tutorial is good for string height , but if you have a bowed neck inward or outward it will cause problems, learn how to adjust the neck find your guitars specs for that be patient

    • Derek says:

      Hi there folks. A good discussion about having a nice playable action on an acoustic but as someone who has built and repaired many guitars there is one thing that had been overlooked. The reason many factory guitars have a high action is because they don’t put a lot of effort into levelling and crowning the frets. So many times lowering the action will bring out fret buzz. The first thing I check on any guitar is the fret heigts relative to each other. Use short pieces of a steel ruler so you can always span three frets and this will show which frets are high.once you have no high frets the chance of fret buzz is mostly eliminated.I always like to see a little neck relief by just sighting down each side of the fingerboard from the peg head. I always use bone nut and saddle as the strings don’t stick in the grooves like some of the man made materials do.

      • Derek says:

        I didn’t mention in my post but I find drill bit shanks are an easy way to measure string to fret clearances and string to pick-up pole clearance. I am just building a j200 style acoustic and set my 12th fret clearances at 2.5mm for E A 2.0 D G 1.5 B E This gives it a nice easy playable action.

  12. Jeff robinson says:

    I’ve found that if saddle is over sanded, a shim can be easily cut from a beer or coke can. This keeps from damping the sound due to vibration absorbing by paper.

  13. Jeff robinson says:

    Also I have lowered action slightly too much on purpose and then adjusted neck curve slightly away from strings. Action is like my American strat neck on all of my acoustic guitars. Caution…this should only be done after you get good with action adjusting! If done wrong it takes a lot of time and work to get corrected.

  14. […] action is something that can easily be adjusted, if you still hear buzz in a store that’s usually not a good sign. They are incentivized to […]

  15. James says:

    What about if it has a pickup built into the bridge?

  16. James says:

    What do you do if there is a pick up underneath the saddle and the saddle is intertwined with the pick up?

  17. Heather says:

    Sure wish I could make head or tails of these measurements. How does one determine what 2.28 milimeters is? or 5.54/64ths of an inch for that matter? Not with an ordinary tape measure found in the U.S. I realize the U.S. kind of lags behind the world in its retrogressive refusal to adopt the metric system. But there it is.

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