Ask the Expert: Why Is the Action Suddenly High on My Guitar?
Action, or string height, plays a crucial role in how comfortable it is to play your guitar.
From the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY MAMIE MINCH
Q: I have a relatively new Martin dreadnought guitar, and I generally love how it feels and sounds. I don’t get as many chances to pick it up as I might like. After not playing it for a couple of months this spring, I pulled it out of the case and the action felt like it was a mile high. It’s really hard to play, and my left hand is getting a workout just trying. It wasn’t like this the last time I played it. What happened? Is it my fault for neglecting the guitar? How should I fix it? —Frank, Brooklyn, New York
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A: You sound like a lot of guitar owners that I talk to in our shop. You get busy, and end up not playing your beloved guitar for a while, only to find that when you pick it back up, things don’t feel as good. Before you turn yourself in to Guitar Protective Services, let’s think about what may have happened and why.
I’d like to take a moment to say that I’m not a tech who thinks that super-low action is a desirable state for most guitars. When your action is too low, it may be easier to press the strings down, but lots of tonal nuance, frequency range, and volume can be lost. When it comes to action, lower is not necessarily better. But I digress; back to the problem at hand. You said that all of a sudden, the action feels really high, and it’s difficult to play. Action, or string height, plays a crucial role in how comfortable it is to play your guitar. High action could be due to a lot of different reasons—some of them are easy fixes.
First, your neck may have bowed forward. Changes in temperature and humidity during the spring could have contributed to the wood of your neck pulling forward with string tension. Some measure of this is to be expected during a guitar’s life, and may have happened whether you were there to see it or not. It’s hard to say whether this applies to your guitar, but sometimes the wood used to make a guitar neck hasn’t seasoned long enough, and still has a bit of moving around to do. If your neck has bowed forward for any of these reasons, we’d adjust it with your truss rod. Hopefully that would take care of most of the problem. This could generally be done during a setup, and maybe your tech would also take some height off the saddle.
Next, the neck itself may have pulled forward just a bit. In the case of a newer Martin like yours, the neck is held on to the body with two bolts. This issue will be clear if there is a little gap at the bottom of the heel, but sometimes it is more subtle, and not severe enough to leave a visible gap. There is a plate stuck onto the neck block with your serial number on it, and to fix this problem, we would start by removing it. Under it, we can access the bolts. We simply tighten them all the way down and re-attach the cover plate.
It’s also possible that the neck pulled forward a lot. If the block has rotated forward some, and if that has pulled the arch built into the guitar’s back towards being flatter, the neck angle may need to be reset. This is a simpler affair when the neck is held on with bolts than when it is glued on with a dovetail joint. We would unglue the fingerboard extension, unbolt the neck, and re-carve the heel to fit at the correct angle. Once it’s re-attached, it’ll feel and sound better.
One more thing to consider is that your bridge could be pulling up. It’s possible that while your guitar was in its case this spring, the changing temperature and humidity contributed to the glue joint under the bridge failing. If the bridge did become unglued and pulled up off the guitar’s top any amount, your action could get higher.
Lastly, it could be some combination of these things. Only your luthier or guitar tech will be able to tell. Get thee to the repair shop so that you can get back to enjoying your guitar. As always, you can help minimize wood moving around by doing your best to keep your instruments in a stable environment. In a perfect world, we’d have homes that were 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity, year round. Of course, we can only do our best in that regard, but thankfully it’s usually enough to avoid involving GPS!
Mamie Minch is the co-owner of Brooklyn Lutherie and an active blues performer.
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