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Ilike2shred's Perfect Action Tutorial

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Here's a tutorial on my method to get perfect action.

This should be especially good for beginners.


I had some pics that help a little, but I can't upload them. If someone can figure out how to upload a word document, then I can post a link.

Hi everybody!

The reason that I am writing this tutorial is to give a guide to get perfect set-ups. I have seen many set-up tutorials, and they all give a set number or range of numbers for things such as action and relief. Not only are these things extremely hard to measure, but also there is not a perfect number that works for all guitars, as the relief and action hugely depend on playing style and string gauge. When I did my first few set-ups, I found it very difficult to even get remotely good action using the “recommended ranges” given by other tutorials. I eventually got frustrated and found a method that will give you the best possible action, without buzz, for your playing style and string gauge preference.

On my seven string I set up using this method, I was able to get less than 1 millimeter action on my high E (it was actually the thickness of a .88mm pick at the 24th fret) to less than 2 millimeters on my low B, and a little more than 1.5 millimeters on my low E with an 11-56 gauge string set.


Here’s how it works:

First all, you need to understand a few things about relief. Relief is the amount of forward bow in the neck. The purpose of relief is to compensate for the vibration of the string along the neck to prevent it from buzzing. The string moves back and forth more in the middle of the string, so it makes sense to have the neck dip down more in the middle. As you move up the neck, playing on higher and higher frets, the string becomes shorter, so the distance it vibrates becomes less and therefore requires less relief.

By adding relief, the neck conforms to the shape of the string.

So we know we want relief. But how much? That’s the big question, and I will tell you how to find exactly the right amount of relief, but first we must understand something else:

When we add relief, we are actually raising the nut up, so we not only curving the neck, but we are also effectively raising the action (sting height off the fretboard). When the action is raised as we curve the neck, the low frets will buzz less because the fretboard curves down very fast, as they are on the steep part of the curve. But up high on the fretboard, such as above the twelfth fret, the action is high, but it will still buzz. This is because the curve toward the end of the neck is now almost flat, so although we have high action, the string is still very close to the frets, which will result in buzzing.

So, if we have too little relief, the low frets will buzz. If we have too much relief, the high frets will buzz. What we need to do is find a happy medium.

My objective with my method is to find the perfect relief for a player by finding the amount of relief that makes the string buzz equally on the high and low side of the fret board, then raise the bridge height a tiny bit so it doesn’t buzz anywhere.

I will now begin to use the terms “up high on the fretboard” and “down low on the fretboard”. Anything “up high on the fretboard” is in the 12-24 fret range. Anything “down low on the fretboard” is in the 0-12 fret range. When I say either “side” of the fretboard, I mean either up high on the fretboard or down low on the fretboard.

When adjusting, use whatever strings you plan to keep on the guitar (a fresh set), and pick however hard you normally pick. Yes, this means you will end up with lower action if you pick lighter.

To start, adjust the truss rod until the neck is reasonably straight. Use the high E for your reference. You can check how straight the neck is by holding down the string on the first and 24th frets, then seeing if there is a space in the middle (around the eight fret). You should adjust the truss rod so there is a barely noticeable space.

Then we need to adjust the bridge height until either side of the fretboard buzzes. If you keep lowering it, you will find a spot where it either buzzes only on the high frets, or only on the low frets, unless of course it’s already perfect. Depending on which it is, we will adjust the truss rod accordingly.

If the string is only buzzing up towards the high frets, we want to take out relief. On most truss rods, this means turning it clockwise, normally about an eight turn.

If the string is only buzzing down on the low frets, we need more relief. On most truss rods this means turning it counter-clockwise, normally about an eight turn.

After adjusting the truss rod, lower the bridge height a small amount until one side of the

fret board buzzes.

Now all you have to do is keep repeating this process (i.e. adjust truss rod, then lower the bridge). Eventually, we will be able to tell that we’re getting close because we have to repeatedly turn the truss rod one way, then the other. This means that the “sweet spot” is somewhere in this small range of turning. From here on out, we will just make finer and finer adjustments (1/16th, 1/32nd of a turn) until when we lower the bridge, both “sides” of the fretboard start buzzing at the exact same time. This is the sweet spot. Now all you have to do is raise the bridge until it doesn’t buzz. This is the best action you can get. It doesn’t get any better, and assuming your frets are level, you should have amazing action.

Good Luck!

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hmmm.... how odd. I've never had any trouble with this method (which may not mean too much as I've only setup 3 guitars....). I drew it all out factoring everything I could and logically, my method seems like it should lead to the best result. But this is assuming that the arc in the neck is perfectly uniform (I used sections of perfect circles in my drawings). I have read through your thread about your dilemma with your guitar, and I wish I could help more. My best guess to the problem on your guitar is that the neck does not bow uniformly; although the frets are level when the frets are just leveled and on the same plane, your when the truss rod is adjusted, bowing your neck, the bow is different in different areas of the neck, causing buzz. This would especially explain how it just buzzes from 5-7 (or whatever you said), as if it was truly a fret leveling problem, these frets would probably all be different (in amount of buzz).

I have no idea how to fix a neck in this condition. I don't know if you even CAN fix a neck like this. But I still might be able to help. I know some members on here don't believe in relief (westhemann, I'm pretty sure). If you can get your frets level when the neck as perfectly straight, it may give you better action than WITH relief, as the neck will not even have a chance to bow in any funny way....

My best guess to what caused this problem is that maybe your wood is NOT good. :D

Just because your guitar doesn't play good doesn't mean that you made it badly, but you were just unlucky in your wood choice. :D

If you can get some accurate string height and relief measurements, and maybe any other useful info, I'd be more than happy to do everything I can to help.

And about scrapping your guitar, I am not sure this is the best idea. I personally would feel very defeated just giving up. If nothing else, I am sure whatever conclusion is reached could help out future builders with a similar problem. However, I will respect your decision regardless of what you decide on.

Please allow me to do my best to help though, as this tutorial is supposed to give you perfect action, and seeing how it has not accomplished that, I feel no less than obligated to do everything in my power to help.

Good Luck, and don't give up!!!

EDIT: I read through your thread one more time, and I noticed that you said how the fifth fret buzzed more than others at one point. This is a sign of unlevel frets, but seeing as you have leveled them twice more, it is probably not an issue any more. However, if you want to check the levelness of frets, I have a good method (well, at least it works for me....)

How to check if Frets are Level

What you need:

1 small led light (I actually use a small led light-spoon with the spoon part taken off that came out of a cereal box...)

Good straight edge at least 3 frets long. (mine is 6")

Now all you have to do is turn off the lights and place the straight-edge across the fret you want to check and the surrounding frets. Then shine the light from the opposite side of the straight edge, just behind the fret you are checking.

If the fret is level, you should see a small black dot at the peak of the crown. If there is not, you're fret is not level.

Edited by Ilikes2shred
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So, if we have too little relief, the low frets will buzz. If we have too much relief, the high frets will buzz. What we need to do is find a happy medium.

Great tutorial. That one sentence above would have saved me some grief when I was starting out :D I worked it out by trial and error myself - eventually :D

I would just like to add that I don't "go all the way" to achieve the absolute best. I usually end up with a touch more relief than optimal, but that suits me because I do most of my heavy strummin' using chords in the low fret region (below the 10 to 12th fret) because I don't like the sound of bar chords any higher than that. I only play lead up higher than that. Hence the bias for being able to hit the strings harder in the lower part of the neck suits me.

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Well, despite the flames I will probably get for this, I do not think its absolutely imperative to have a precision straight edge. I just use a plain old aluminum I beam level with sandpaper attached to it with double sided tape, and have not had any problems yet.

That said, don't trust an ordinary meterstick from home depot or walfart to be straight. I have two, and they are both FAR from straight. They are probably off by more than 1/100th of an inch in some places (HUGE in leveling frets).

I have an old stainless steel rule that is 6" long and marked in 1/100th and 1/64" graduations from a long time ago that I use for any small measurements. It also happens to be perfectly straight, or at least when I check it against anything that I think is straight (aluminum level, guitar string tuned to pitch, poured pane glass [despite what has been said...]), so I also this for checking the levelness of frets.

What exactly is your fret leveling tool?

Are you aware that the frets have to be PERFECT (talking 1/1000's of an inch here)?

How do you know when you are done leveling? I have found some techniques inadequate here.

Have you tried leaving the neck straight?

How dry is your wood?

Is the neck originally straight, or do you have to adjust the truss rod to get it straight?

Are you properly crowning the frets after each leveling?

How long has this guitar been finished for? (has the wood stabilized?)

To be honest, I've had a VERY similar problem to yours. I finished the guitar (it had a laminated 5-piece Maple/walnut/m/w/m neck, all perfectly straight and well seasoned), leveled the frets, I strung it up, and I could not get the action low without buzzing. About a month or two later, I tried to lower the action, and the frets were buzzing in certain areas of the neck... like from 10-13 across the fretboard, 15-17 on the high e, and 20-22 on the low e and a. There was a little in the 5-7 area of the a and d strings too. So I unstrung it and leveled it again. It took a HUGE amount of leveling to get it perfect.

I am not sure what the problem exactly was. But I have two theories:

1. When I first leveled it, I checked to see if it was level by placing black marker across the fret tops. When it was all worn off, I stopped. However, I know that they were not truly level--the sandpaper had just touched them lightly. On the next time leveling, I did the same thing, but stopped to check if they were truly level by using the straightedge and led method. They were NOT level, or even close. So from there on out I always leveled until I had nice flat spots on each fret.

2. The neck could have moved and settled into its final place. I don't think this can be prevented, and am starting to thing it may have something to do with the poor setups foound on even some high-end electrics.

Either way, after leveling the frets again it was fine. Now the action is beautifully low with no buzz.

So if nothing else, let her sit for a month or two and see what happens.

Once again, Good Luck! :D

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  • 2 months later...

Agree with every word you've written! :D

Although since I've been doing the same kind of setup on folks guitars for about 15 years I just setup actions on the fly without much thought.

I also agree on the lack of need for a precision straight edge - I actually use a piece of ironwood about 18" x 1" x 3" that I put over the jointer and squared up all 4 sides. I use my ±.0015" spirit level to ensure it's still straight - yes a plain old german produced 3ft spirit level that is just as accurate as the Stumac 'precision' straight edge but way cheaper!

Edited by SJE-Guitars
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