The Playing Condition of your Guitar—How to Determine

Aaron Shearer

It is important to carefully examine the playing condition of the guitar you are considering for use in learning to play. If the fingerboard is not level or if the strings are set too high above the fingerboard, the guitar can be difficult or impractical to play. The few minutes spent determining the playing condition of the guitar may save much disappointment, expense, and countless hours of unrewarding practice.

Before you can satisfactorily determine the playing condition of a guitar, the instrument must first be tuned to standard pitch. The subject of tuning is discussed in The Preface, p. vii.

See Preface, “About Tuning the Guitar ,” p. vii

Testing the Playing Condition of the Neck

Test a guitar for a bowed or warped neck in the following manner:

  • Press the E or string ① against both the 1st and 15th frets simultaneously. Held firmly in this manner, the string should almost touch each intervening fret.
  • Then do the same with the E or string ⑥.
  • If either string does not almost touch each intervening fret, the neck of the guitar is bowed making the guitar unfit for learning to play. You should obtain another guitar that conforms to the specifications given below.

Determining the “Action” of a Guitar

The distance of the strings above the frets is commonly referred to as the “action.”

The guitar’s action strongly affects its playability. If the strings are set too high, you’ll find it difficult to press them firmly against the frets; this is referred to as a “high” or “hard” action. If the strings are set too low, they’ll vibrate against the frets and produce harsh buzzing sounds, an indication that the action is too low or “soft.” A guitar with inaccurately adjusted action can be impractical or even impossible to play.

Your guitar should have an action that’s neither too high nor too low — the strings shouldn’t be too hard to press firmly against the frets, yet they must produce a clear tone with maximum volume. Excellent materials and craftsmanship don’t necessarily indicate that a guitar is well adjusted. Many new guitars —even quite expensive ones — aren’t in the best playing condition because they haven’t been properly adjusted. But any well-constructed guitar which doesn’t have a warped neck can usually be adjusted by raising or lowering its bridge saddle, its head nut, or both.

The following is an accurate method of determining whether the action is in reasonably good adjustment:

Step One: Checking the Bridge Saddle Height

    • With the E or string ① held firmly against the 1st fret, this string should be no less than 3/32” above the top of the 12th fret.
    • Measuring in the same manner, the E or string ⑥ should be no less than 1/8” above the top of the 12th fret.
    • Strings ②, ③, ④,and ⑤ must be on a level plane between the first and sixth.
    • Because of their wide vibrations, the heavier gauge strings should have a higher action.

    Step Two: Checking the Head Nut Height

      • Use a standard automotive gap gauge to measure the distance between the strings and the 1st fret.
      • In open position, the distance between the top of the first fret and the first two strings should be .025”.
      • The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth strings should be .030” above the 1st fret.
      Playing condition of Guitar

      Gap Gauge

      If your guitar requires an adjustment of its action, take it to a reputable stringed instrument repair shop for correction. 

      The following specifications produce a medium-low action, suitable for the average student. As your playing ability and knowledge of the guitar develop, you may desire a slightly higher action measured as in Step One:

        • String ①: 1/8” (instead of 3/32”)
        • String ⑥ : 5/32” (instead of 1/8”)

        You should eventually determine the fine points of action adjustment in accordance with your individual preference and the characteristics of your particular instrument.  You should avoid setting the action lower than specified in the previous procedure; if set too low, the strings will produce an unacceptable buzzing sound against the frets.

        ……..Aaron Shearer