Let's talk about action a bit. There are several types of playing styles and it's important to know what style you are, especially since I'm not there to see you play. Be very honest with yourself as to what type of player you are- evaluate yourself for what you are, not what you want to be, unless you're willing to change. Most importantly, remember that there is a definite compromise between playability and buzz protection. "Playability" includes a lower action, and a lower action demands more finesse and right hand control. You cannot play a low action as hard as you can play a higher one. I've been asked to "make it play better" and then gotten the comment "it buzzes when I hit it as hard as I can". Well, yes! That's the trade-off. But a lower action doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose volume- a very precise, controlled right hand attack can produce as much volume as a sloppy, imprecise right hand. A lower action may allow you to advance as a player. Please keep in mind your playing situation, too. If you're playing in front of a mic, do you really need sheer volume? I thought that's what the mic was for? If you're a beginner, you may find it difficult to play harder or up the neck passages with a higher action and you may want to compromise volume for playability until you progress a bit. There are a lot of things to consider. Just be aware that if you ask me for an easier action, you will get an easier action!
Now a word on buzzing and action. In my experience, there are 3 basic action heights. There is the really low action. Oddly enough, this action sometimes will not buzz, and my educated guess is the string is actually damped by the frets and doesn't really have a chance to "buzz". When you hit a string, its vibrating arc is greatest immediately after you strike it, and then it settles down into a lower arc. Step out to a clothesline and see for yourself. To create a buzz, the string has to just kiss the fret and go "bzzzt", usually right on the initial attack. Then, it settles down, clears the fret, and doesn't buzz. On the low, low action, the string never gets a chance to vibrate and you don't hear the "bzzt..". If you listen closely, you might hear actual fret slap, but fret slap can sound surprisingly good. You may also feel that the guitar is "punchy" and this is because it's not sustaining, due to a dampening effect by the frets. If you play this type of action harder, however, you will not get an increase in volume and again that's due to the dampening effect of the frets. But for players who plug-in or use mics exclusively, this ultra-low action can be a dream. I call this the dampened action.
Take this ultra-low action and start raising it, and before long, you'll start hearing buzzes. What's happening, IMHO, is that the string is now vibrating rather than being dampened, and the intial attack is causing that "bzzt..." This is the buzz-point action If you drop this action a little, it'll enter the ultra-low dampening mode discussed above. If you raise it a little, most of those "bzzt..."s will go away, until you increase your attack a little more. When you increase your attack, you'll hear them again, maybe just on one string or at one particular fret. What you need to do at this point, is decide how hard you're going to play. You need to be willing to refrain from thrashing in exchange for this sweet action. If you want to play just a little harder, then you're going to have to raise your action just a little higher. If you're using 80/20 strings, you might also be able to switch to stiffer phosphor bronze strings and keep the same action.
Suppose you just really feel the need to dig in and DRIVE that guitar. Well, you're going to have go to the high buzz-free action. With this action, you can play just about as hard as you can and it won't buzz. At some point, though, you can play so hard that your tone will go down the drain, so even this action is limited to some extent. To keep the tone, you'll have to go to heavier strings which resist your attack. If you have strong fingers and know exactly what you're doing, you can flatpick this guitar, but don't expect to play Mark O'Connor's "Dixie Breakdown" on it (unless you are Mark)! A higher action is very unforgiving of hesitations and thus is harder to improvise on for most of us. It's also harder to tune and the saddle may very well have to be relocated to get accurate intonation.
I work mostly in the middle region. The dampened action is a very critical action for very specific players, and the buzz-free action is not really a "setup". So my main question for you, once you understand how I think these actions work, is "how much are you willing to limit or control your attack?". Read the following descriptions and see which best fits you. All of these actions are measured with feeler gauges between the top of the fret and bottom of each string.
The Rhythm Player:
you play mostly rhythm, probably use a thick pick (1.2 mm and up), and play hard and loud. You don't play much lead and when you do it's not likely to be an extended solo, but just a quick break, mostly in the first 5 frets. You don't want any buzzes. You probably play unamplified much of the time. In this case, I'm likely to give you a higher action all the way around with particular emphasis on the bass. I'd likely set your action to something like this:
E = .110, A = .105, D = .100, G = .100, B = .095, E = .090
This action would be hard for me to flatpick, but it will give you some good buzz protection. You can play the action as hard as you'll ever need to. If you make this action buzz, I'd suggest you have your right hand attack evaluated- you're probably plucking the string instead of brushing it, or pulling it away from the guitar instead of making it vibrate parallel to the face of the guitar.
The Bluegrass Player
Here's a guy who plays mostly rhythm, but also takes some leads, and maybe some pretty "hot" leads. The main difference between this and the "Fiddle Tune" player below, is that this guy plays with banjos and in a full bluegrass ensemble and needs a little more volume and power. They also use a capo on the 2nd and 4th frets fairly regularly, maybe more so that playing in open positions. I've measured an action very similar to this one on Tim Stafford's Lashbrooked Guild and Richard Bennett's custom guitar at IBMA 2000:
E = .105, A = .100, D = .095, G = .095, B = .090, E = .085
The Fiddle Tune Player:
You like to play lead on fiddle tunes, still play pretty hard, usually in an acoustic situation (no mics), you go up the neck sometimes, and have pretty good overall right hand control. You're willing to trade a little bit of buzz potential for increased playability. You probably play lead mostly on the treble strings, only occasionally drifting to the bass strings, and you play open about as much as you do with a capo. I keep one of my personal guitars setup like this.
E = .100, A = .095, D = .090, G = .090, B = .085, E = .080
The Lead Guitar Player:
You play lead on everything, go up the neck a lot, have excellent right hand control and finesse, and demand playability. When playing rhythm, you brush the strings, never dig in, and are very consious of dynamics. You're very willing to trade some buzz-potential for an extremely well-playing guitar. You're playing totally acoustic much of the time with some behind-the-mic work. Here's where I'd set you:
E = .096, A = .093, D = .090, G = .087, B = .084, E = .080
You'll notice that the treble strings in the "lead guitar" action are close to the "fiddle tune" action, but the bass is lower. Lead guitar players usually like the lower feel of the bass strings, but also tend to like a little higher action in the trebles so they can hit them a bit more. Thus the overall action doesn't drop, just part of it.
This next action is my most common setting, by far. If you're really confident in your right hand attack, want even better playability, and are less concerned about volume, we can get even a bit lower. I keep an action like this on one my personal guitars, and it gives a litte more of a "slinky" feel than the "lead guitar" action. It's a small difference, but it can feel a little better if you like to play leads on the lower strings. I measured an action very close to this on David Grier's Nashville Guitar Company guitar in 1999. This action will buzz if driven hard or if "dug into", but if you really want your guitar to play nice, here's where you want to be:
E = .093, A = .090, D = .087, G = .087, B = .084, E = .080
The last is probably the lowest action I'd ever go to. This is a very "buttery" action. It will buzz if you over play it, and you must keep your frets in tip-top condition. Changes in humidity will change your action and may cause buzzing. I've set this action only on guitars that I know are very stable and whose owners are willing to modify their right hand attack. A precise, controlled player can flat-out rip on this action, though. I measured an action even lower than this (about .005" all the way around) on Sean Watkin's Collings many years ago..
E = .090, A = .087, D = .084, G = .080, B = .075, E = .070
With all of these actions, any additional information you can give me will help tremendously. Do you have or have you played another guitar that plays well for you? Get the specs and let me know- it'll give me a ballpark at least.
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