Part 3: Guitar String Action
Here is where we get into the finer details of a professional setup.
The term "action" is what guitar players use to describe how high or low the guitar strings sit above the fretboard. This is really important to the overall feel and playability of your guitar.
Determine your style of bridge.
Now that you have your neck set the way you want it, its time to move onto the bridge adjustment.
The bridge is the metal piece that anchors your strings to the body of the guitar.
There are many types of bridges, but the main three are:
Fender Strat/Tele Style
Floyd Rose (FR)
I personally own all these types of bridges. Each bridge style has its strengths and weaknesses.
For example: The Fender Tele Style bridge is great for setting individual string height and easy to work on. The ash tray style gives the guitar a distinct tone that is hard to duplicate. This style bridge is not capable of manual tremolo, however the Floyd Rose bridge is.
Another example: The Floyd Rose bridge is a floating tremolo and is great for "dive bombing". It is known for maintaining the guitar's tune. However this bridge requires a totally different process for tuning the strings. It is also difficult to set it's intonation without a specially designed intonation tool.
Most guitar players are going to prefer a low action with no string buzz. That is our goal here. Low action, no buzz.
All bridges are designed to enable two types of adjustment.
String height at the bridge (Individual Saddles or Uniform Bridge)
Individual string length (for setting the guitar's intonation)
In this step we are only dealing with number 1, String Height at the bridge.
String height at the bridge is adjusted to change the angle of the strings from nut to bridge. This is how we fine tune the action of our electric guitar. Here is what that looks like.
Fender Style Bridge
So, if you are adjusting a Fender style bridge you will be adjusting individual saddles with two allen head screws per saddle. Before you start, its important to note that you want to maintain a string radius that matches the radius of your fretboard. (If your saddle radius looks messed up, go here for help setting it up).
Guitars are setup with the suitable saddle radius from the factory; Take note of the radius and try to maintain that curve throughout this process. Notice the D and G saddles are equal height, A & B saddles are fairly equal, E & e saddles are fairly equal.
(Note: Sometimes string buzz can be caused by the string vibrating against the pickups, look for this and lower the pickups if need be.)
Start with the D string. (D and G string saddles should be kept at equal height to maintain string radius and playability.
Begin by lowering the two saddle screws a half turn counter-clockwise at a time. The saddle will move closer to the body.
Retune the string and play up and down the fretboard to check for buzz and deadspots.
If you are hearing string buzz, the saddle is too low. Raise the saddle a half turn, retune, and fret notes all the way up the neck to check for buzz.
If there is no buzz and you want the action lower still, then repeat this process until you are satisfied with the D string's action.
Repeat this process for each individual string, moving outward on either side of the D string.
Remember to try to maintain the factory radius.
It is, no doubt a tedious process, but ultimately worth the effort. Congratulations by the way! Don't get frustrated, this is a learning process and you will likely have to adjust it several times until it is just right. The end result is a custom action, just for you.
Gibson / Tune-o-matic Style Bridges (Bigsby Tremolo Included)
If you have this style of bridge this process will be easier for you. It is a much simpler bridge. You don't have height adjustable saddles but rather a one piece bridge that can be raised and lowered via 2 bolts on either side of the bridge. (Bigsby style bridges bolts will be thumb adjustable). One for the bass side, one for the treble side. This means your radius will always be the same, so no need to discuss radius.
The key here is to find the sweet spot between lowest bridge height and string buzz. (It is common practice to have the treble side a bit lower due to the smaller string diameter, meaning you can have nice low and comfortable action.)
Start by lowering both bridge bolts ½ turn clockwise.
Retune and check for string buzz.
Fret each note up the neck to find any potential dead spots. If there is no buzz and you still want lower action, repeat this process until you are satisfied.
Congratulations, you set up your action.
Floyd Rose Style Bridges
Floyd Rose bridges are great for metal and rock players, they can do amazing things. I love mine. That being said, they are a lot more work and require a lot of attention to detail.
So Floyd Rose style bridges, when it comes to adjusting action, are very similar to Gibson/Tune-o-matic style bridges. They both have a single piece bridge and adjust up and donw via a bolt on each side of the bridge.
Start by lowering both bolts ½ turn clockwise.
Check for string buzz and dead spots by fretting each note all the way up the fretboard.
If you want even lower action, repeat the process until satisfied.
If you encounter buzz or dead spots you have gone to far; Back the bolts out a bit a check again. (Note: Sometimes string buzz can be caused by the string vibrating against the pickups, look for this and lower the pickups if need be.)