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The question is in the title, really.

I usually play electric guitar and I'd like to learn some finger style on an acoustic guitar. Many acoustic guitar I tried are much harder to play and I've been told that it's mostly because of the high action some of them have by default. While I know it can be adjusted, I'd like to know if there's a way to know in advance (on the internet) the default action of a given guitar.

For example, I'm interested in buying the Ibanez AW54 but the specs listed in the official site do not mention the action.

  • Really suggest going to a store and playing it first. I made the mistake online and just because you've played someone else's doesn't mean you will like a different guitar same model. The neck was warped it turns out, but Musicians Friend accepts swap outs on defect :) – Kolob Canyon Feb 16 '17 at 2:45
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There is an excellent, reliable, time-tested way to find out all about the action (and other important elements) of a guitar before you buy it: you play the guitar.

Yes that does present a challenge when buying online. When shopping online you have three options:

  • Make sure you buy from someplace that has a great return policy and you have the interest and ability to use it. E.g., make sure you have a favorite place to go to ship unusual packages so you can send back any guitars that don't have the feel you are looking for.
  • Instead, you could look to only buy guitars that have a decent resale value. If you can't send it back, you can send it forward. You might take a loss on those kinds of deals, but even when shopping in person there are costs to even consider buying something. When I bought my most recent amp, I drove all over Southern California trying out amps, and spent a lot on gas and meals.
  • Finally, you could accept whatever action you get, keep the guitar, and have a tech or yourself make all possible adjustments to make it as playable as possible.

Modern manufacturing makes the third option above more viable than you might think. Computer controlled milling has greatly improved the geometry of low end guitars, but only from companies that have made those investments, and only on guitars made in the last five or ten years. That means the cheapest possible Fender or Taylor acoustic could have a better action than a higher priced guitar from a smaller brand.

Speaking of Taylor, they actually invented a system where their acoustics have an adjustable neck angle via hidden screws. Their guitars are much more predictable in the area of action. Buying a low end Taylor from Sweetwater (a site that is great on returns) is an option that might work well for you.

  • This is the best answer here. I question the ethics of exploiting returns for this purpose but it makes sense if it is permitted. – xerotolerant Jan 16 '17 at 17:34
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    @xerotolerant Online music retailers who have such return policies generally have it because they understand that otherwise people won't want to buy guitars (or other instruments) from them. In the vast majority of cases, it's not exploiting the policy, it's using it as intended. – Todd Wilcox Jan 16 '17 at 17:38
  • I'd have thought that most companies' returns policies put the onus on the customer to pay for returns, or build that propensity into the price, just in case. Returning items which then arrive damaged back to their original sender leads to awkward situations. Trying and buying is the only option - for me. Then again, I don't buy new. Let someone else at least swallow the tax! However, the question was about the action before buying : impossible! – Tim Jan 17 '17 at 10:12
  • Thanks @ToddWilcox, even tho it's really hard to believe that for muss production objects like the guitars I'm talking about they cannot estimate the action with an error of +-1mm or less. – user36102 Jan 31 '17 at 14:50
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You can't, reliably and really, know what the action is on an unseen acoustic. It depends what strings are on it already, how much neck relief it has, how high the saddles are set, all of which are contributary factors and more importantly, variables, guitar to guitar. Two could come off the assembly line together, and have a basic set-up there and then, and be quite different.

Obviously, you could change the action, but you won't know fully the starting point before buying.

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I can't say that it would be possible to know with any kind of useful precision. Like with any mass produced product guitars are produced within certain tolerances and something like action is probably not something that is specifically looked it. This is because several things go into what the action height would be in the end. String brand, gauge, tension all factor in. Add the fact that guitars are expected to be "set up" to the player's desired action height and you realize that guitar manufacturers are not really motivated to publish something that they varies so significantly. So I would say from the internet alone it would not possible to find out for guitars in general.

If there is a specific model that you are interested in you might be able to ask around on a forum like The Acoustic Guitar Forum. However I suspect for a question like that you would get "try it in a store" then order it at best. And you can't know over the internet at all. I say this because that is the type of answer you get when you ask about violins and brands.

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