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When talking with or reading / watching about professionals and their setups (acoustic instruments in particular), I found that there's a heavy tendency for using higher actions, in contrast with non-professionals where mid to low action is the norm. This extends to guitar-like instruments, like mandolins, vihuelas, whatever.

There's an obvious effect on the feel, but how is it affecting the tone? Does higher action accentuate the attack, the volume, or other dynamics? Is there an actual change in tone, or is it more of a feel preference? The later doesn't seem likely, since many of these people seem to be doing it "in the name of tone".

My understanding is that in electric guitars the tone is colored somewhat differently, so action is not as important in the tone, and is more a feel preference. Therefore, higher actions are more uncommon. But in acoustic instruments higher actions seem to be everywhere.

So, how is the timbre being affected that some people seem to be scarifying a little ease of play to achieve a different sound?

  • I am surprised to see that "pros" prefer high action. This is not what I am used to seeing. I think it's a personal taste. One thing for sure is that if the action is too high the instrument will go out of tune when fretted and this is not good. Too low and strings will be dead when bending (also not good). – ggcg Jan 8 at 17:50
  • @ggcg So, is the tone unaffected by the action? Is timbre agnostic to action? – Von Huffman Jan 8 at 17:55
  • @ggcg my experience is that players vary greatly in the action they prefer, but I don't know many real pros... – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 18:18
  • This is a very bizarre connection imo. Just because a higher action allows you to attack harder doesn't mean the action affected the tone (imo), it is still the attack that made the tone. Clearly you don't want dead strings beyond piano. But the functional difference couldn't be that severe. – ggcg Jan 8 at 18:36
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    @ggcg a low action can act a little bit like a distortion - it can 'clip' the vibrations a little when you play hard as the peaks of the strings' vibrations hit points on the neck, though it's admittedly a subtle effect unless the instrument set-up is poor. Often when I play an instrument with a horrible high action it does have an oddly 'hi-fi' clean tone! – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 18:52
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Higher action allows you to pick harder without getting fret buzz (or so much fret buzz). This includes not only the obvious fret buzz that persists through the sustain of the sound, but also short-duration fret buzz that affects the attack. As such, higher action often gives a 'cleaner' attack, and may allow you to play with more dynamic variation.

This is more relevant to the part of the string on the 'speaking' side of the fretting finger, between the finger and the bridge. You usually still want a reasonably low action at the nut, for ease of playing.

A disadvantage of higher action is that the extra tension on the string may throw your intonation out a bit.

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  • Some people suggest higher action because it increases sustain, perhaps because of the added tension, what's your experience with this? – Von Huffman Jan 8 at 19:56
  • @ByBw it's unlikely to be because of the increased tension - if the tension was increased so much that it affected sustain, it would be throwing your intonation so far out that the instrument would be unplayable. It's more likely to be just that you can play the note at a greater initial amplitude in the first place (as per my answer), allowing it to ring on longer. – topo Reinstate Monica Jan 8 at 20:48

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