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I know this question sounds completely subjective at first sight, it even triggered the automatic "The question you're asking appears subjective and is likely to be closed" alarm, but please read further.

Action is the distance between the fret and a string at any given fret (in fretted instruments). Normally at the 12th fret, but some instruments have less than 12 frets, so the convention might be at the 10th fret for other instruments, or any other fret really.

Action on an electric gutar

"What's the best action" is completely subjective under most contexts. The lower the action the less force you'll need to press the string, but the more likely it is to buzz (touch a fret you are not fretting). It can also change stuff like tone and loudness (I don't know the actual acoustic basis of these changes, but that's for another question).

So the best action is the best balance between ease of play, good tone, good loudness. This is completely subjective, until you reach an edge case: action that is too high. If you can't finish a song, or a full performance, or get too tired, or feel too much pain, then you can say, objectively, that the action is too high.

If you are not using amplification, high actions might be more fitting. Or low actions for old guitars, or some specific guitar tones. Maybe a middle ground for recording. Some don't care, most will notice immediately an action that is too high.

And that can be a big game-changing problem. Sometimes you just need to make the gig / recording happen with someone else's instrument. Sometimes you are just playing an instrument you are not proficient at, but the circumstances called for it (last-moment changes in a band you direct, a favor, you are drunk). Maybe your hand is tired. Maybe you have less calluses than two months ago. There's an endless list of situations where action can come back to bite you, so knowing how to minimize its influence seems like a very useful tool.

That's where "On instruments that use frets, where's the best spot to press a string on?" stops becoming subjective. If said instrument happens to have too high an action, if it's high enough, you can risk not only fatiguing your hands and fingers before you can end the first song, but there's high potential for injuries and pain, both short and long term.

So, where can the string be pressed, so the least amount of force needs to be applied in order to touch the fret? Barely touching the fret is not enough, but maybe we can oversimplify that one? Or is calculating the exact extra force needed in relation to the force being applied with the strums / picking needed? I guess another way of viewing it is, where between the frets is there less string tension while pressed? Is it near the sharper part of the fret (assuming a non-ideal fret that has mass)? Or near the flatter part of the fret (sharper part being the one pointing towards the side in which pitch increases, flatter being the opposite direction)?

Or is it in the exact middle, between the frets? If it's not, why is it less tension near that fret, and not near the other, neighbor of the same string? There must be an actual objective, measurable, repeatable way to answer this, right? One that can use to optimize our technique, even if we are not struggling with action (that was just one example of many where this info would be very valuable).

Another situation where this is objective, relevant, and has the potential to prevent injuries, is in instruments and fingerings where stuff like "half barre" is used, like a barre chord but you need to let some strings that are located below the barre finger sound, so you need a kind of bridge shape, making your fingers do bends that your classically-trained teacher will faint at. Putting so much force on a finger that's so weirdly collapsed is a no-no (some try to prevent collapsed fingers at all). But for instruments where non-ergonomic positions are the norm, knowing exactly where to put that finger can make all the difference.

In other words, how can we know exactly where to press a string in order to apply the least force possible to reach the fret?

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    I was taught to hold near the corresponding fret. My tutor said you'd need lesser force, I also learned that lesser holding near Fret is better in terms of pitching too. Increasing Tension and Decreasing Effective Length from the Corresponding fret to bridge happens when Sstring is heeld too far behind the fret. I don't know about Fatigue or Injuries tho, My tutor said that I'd never get to call myself a guitar If I haven't had a cut in my finger yet. I don't think this has anything to do with injuries. Injuries happen if you posture is off. – RishiNandha_M Feb 26 at 11:26
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    @RishiNandhaVanchi I'm often told similar stuff, but have never been told why or figured it out myself. It might as well be false, in that sense. At least for the purposes of a non-subjective question. I can feel that it tends to be easier near the target fret (but not directly above it, why?), but is that the case for everyone? At all angles? (necks vary wildly in the angle they engage the body) Why, why not? – Von Huffman Feb 26 at 11:29
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    Directly above it pretty obviously distorts the sound. I'm not sure about why its not somewhere in the middle but I'm sure it's not near previous fret. 1. Previous Fret Restricts Pressing of String and Normal Reaction from Previous Fret will make you to Exert More Force to Press. (contd) – RishiNandha_M Feb 26 at 11:36
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    2. String is pressed so that the place where the fret is becomes a Node for the Vibrations in String so That Fundamental Tone and Frequency Changes, Primary goal is to hold string against corresponding fret. If you notice carefully, String will curve from the place you held, if distance b/w fret and hold increases, buzzing might happen as string might go too far from fret, When I started playing, I noticed that Holding too far from fret made the sound damped and only then I started holding near fret. – RishiNandha_M Feb 26 at 11:37
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    I'm having trouble with this question because you seem to be making a strict association between action and required pressure. I don't think that's the case. The pressure to get a clear note will depend on a number of factors; to me action is more about the speed at which you can fret and unfret, since action represents the distance you have to move the string until it contacts the fret. I don't think the answers you've gotten so far are incorrect, but I was a little thrown off by that. – dwizum Feb 26 at 19:13
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Producing a sharp angle for the string over the fretwire makes for a clear, clean sound. So just behind the fretwire will be a good place. It also means not having to press down on the fingerboard so hard - keep the same pressure on and move a finger around on a fret - lower, wider frets will show better, and you'll find more pressure is needed for a clear note at the back end of a fret - closer to the nut.

There's also a couple of other factors involved here though. One is tuning. At the back end of a fret, a string will become slightly sharper - that's one aspect of 'classical' vibrato. So to be properly in tune, close to the fretwire makes more sense.

All this falls by the wayside somewhat when we consider chords (I'm on guitar here). Often, there's not enough space for optimum finger positioning, so compromises have to be made. That's just one reason why beginners struggle with barre chords. Collapsing fingers is necessary on some shapes - there's no other way to press strings sometimes.

On injury - most players manage to play without injuring themselves - there's a sort of warning, called pain. That works quite well, if attention is paid to it! There's probably more injury likelihood from pressing too hard, which often reveals itself in pain round the base of the thumb. That's sometimes due to bad action, but more likely due to the player not being aware of hand/finger (and arm) position. Partly, I suspect, the reason for the question.

Having said all that, on guitar at least, past fret 12, there's not much choice as to where to press! Bass is obviously different, and a lot of the time, only single notes are deployed. Get a mandolin and again, the question is academic.

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    I cannot envisage why an extra high action could be a 'good thing'. Unless it's slide - but not on nylons! – Tim Feb 26 at 13:07
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    And with a high action comes the propensity to stretch strings out of tune as they are fretted. Not good practice. And slowing down playing, due to greater stress, etc. Perhaps the question of optimum string height is also important. – Tim Feb 26 at 13:19
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    Not on all instruments, not on all designs! That's what I learned, some instruments are designed to sound optimal (or at least "as designed", or "as expected") on high action specifically. Weirdly really high actions sometimes even (again, thankfully, on nylons). It's just one other variable a luthier has to carve instruments, and in some regions and styles actions developed widely differently. Some nylons guitar-like instruments are optimzed for very low action, some for huge ones. – Von Huffman Feb 26 at 13:24
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    If a Guitar was made for High Action, It's Frets would be spaced accordingly so that effectively, the length of the string when Fretted matches Length of String in a Regular Action one. (just addingon your point @above) – RishiNandha_M Feb 26 at 14:40
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    I think adding a little more explanation (or link to other question) about the hand positioning might be nice. I know that was my reasoning in reading this question because I feel like I do barre chords wrong because I end up with aching hands afterwards. – Matthew Green Feb 27 at 15:36
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The proper place to fret a string is close to the fret wire. Your finger should be right behind the fret. You should not have to apply a lot of force to depress the string. A lot of beginners make the mistake of thinking that you can place the finger anywhere between the frets with the same result since the fret defines where the string stops but this is completely false. If you finger the string too far behind the fret the string slide back and forth along the fret causing slight pitch changes and buzzing. If you play forte like this the string will buzz horribly against the fret. Sometimes when playing complicated chords we need to make sacrifices and one string might not be depressed with the ideal technique but as much as possible the finger should be just behind the fret, even touching it, but not right up on top of the fret as that will cause the flesh of the finger to go slight over the fret and dampen the sound.

The second mistake people make is that the think they have to press down until the string touches the wood on the finger board. This is also completely false. You only need to press with enough force to get the string to hit the fret and not buzz and this is usually much less force than people assume if needed. Ideally the fingers need never touch the finger board. In my opinion this mistake is most often the cause of sore and tired hands. Learning the correct grip for your action is crucial for getting good sound and maintaining your hand (and instrument) health.

How high is high action? It's really hard to judge. My classical has very high action relative to my electrics yet it is no harder to play. With high action you will need to move more to release the strings and move from one note to the other which in the long run may make speed more difficult but I'd say that if you practice proper hand placement you should be able to hold a chord with a relaxed hand (without a string grip).

They way I was taught grip was to out the finger on the string in the correct place with NO force, start playing that note over and over. As you play slowly press the string until you get a clean tone with no buzzing. This is all the force you need. The tricky part is training yourself to apply only this much force as you play fast and move around. That's decades of practice.

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  • Why is it easier to press near the target fret, vs near the opposite fret? Both are pretty similar frets, right? Is it the angle? – Von Huffman Feb 27 at 0:42
  • I didn't mean to imply its easier but if you finger at the opposite fret it will buzz. If I understand you correctly – ggcg Feb 27 at 0:48
  • Yeah you got it! Makes a lot of sense. – Von Huffman Feb 27 at 0:57
  • Tried playing my steel string acoustic with relatively low action and light strings without the string touching. Even with my fingers right behind the fret on the thinnest strings, the string always touched the wood. – pro Feb 28 at 21:54
  • @pro, not sure what to say to that. The real question is does it need to to not buzz? It is common to want to do this, and many guitarists do myself included sometimes. But I can get very clean full sound without going that far, especially on the classical. Are your frets very low? – ggcg Feb 28 at 22:08
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The question is in no way subjective and the result can be found out very simple by experimenting and testing the sound.

  • If you press the string too close to the fret end or right on the fretwire the string vibration will be inhibit and the sound becomes dull and dumb.
  • If you press right behind the bend where the string is laying on you need the minimum of strength and the sound is perfect.
  • When we press in the middle between two frets we may need less strength - referring the law of lever act - but the string starts to vibrate and to clank above the iron fret.
  • At the end close to the next lower fret all action is useless as we are too for from the bridge which is built by the fret that divides the string.

I’ve never been taught Guitar playing. But you can test this physical experiments by yourself and the facts are quite logical.

As a supplement: the string is pushed down just behind the collar so far that it has a clearly defined support. Then it can swing freely and sounds good. If you press too hard, it gets tiring, the playing speed slows down and - the notes are often not quite correct anymore, because the string is stretched too much when it is pressed down onto the wood until you hear a clear tone. If you press too lightly, the string hums. If you press too hard, you won't last long because your fingers become "tired". You have to find a middle ground and train. Your fingers will hurt at the beginning. But that stops as soon as the cornea has formed.

The italic text is an answer from here:

https://www.gutefrage.net/frage/gitarrensaiten-durchdruecken-oder-finger-nur-auflegen

There must be an actual objective, measurable, repeatable way to answer this, right? One that can use to optimize our technique, even if we are not struggling with action.

I suppose you have already made the similar experiences as I but you are interested in the physics and the perfect point.

A fisher, a boatman, a mountaineer, a bell ringer ... they all know that the longer the longer one side of the move moment is the less strength we need.

enter image description here

But the trouble is: the longer we are distant from the point it starts to linger. So you have to make a compromise.

So there is no ‘perfect’ point - but an optimal place:

enter image description here

On the basis of the locations of fulcrum, load and effort, the lever is divided into three types. It is one of the six simple machines identified by Renaissance scientists. A lever amplifies an input force to provide a greater output force, which is said to provide leverage. The ratio of the output force to the input force is the mechanical advantage of the lever. As such, the lever is a mechanical advantage device, trading off force against movement.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lever

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  • You say it's just facts and logic, so there's no need to prove anything, but you also say things that contradict other answers! Some say less tension in the middle, some say less tension near the target fret, some say less tension near any fret. – Von Huffman Feb 27 at 0:39
  • I say: this is all correct, also what you say what others say. You can test it yourself :) – Albrecht Hügli Feb 27 at 6:26
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If you're playing a guitar, somewhere behind the fret is best. It depends on whether you're playing chords or single notes, but somewhere from the middle to just behind the fret works well.

If you're playing an electric bass guitar then pressing directly down on the fret is best. If you press between the frets then you will need to provide more force which may injure the joints of your fingers. Trust me, I know. I did it the wrong way for years and paid the price. The slight loss of sustain really isn't noticeable in the bass guitar.

If you're a skeptic about the suggestion for the bass guitar, then I suggest you check out Peter Murray's "Essential Bass Technique: The Definitive Technique Manual for Bass Guitar" which helped me greatly improve my right and left hand technique.

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    That's a new one on me. Press down on the fretwire? Might depend on style of playing. Certainly no vibrato would be available that way - but it would aid transition across to fretless... – Tim Feb 27 at 9:04
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    @Tim I think it's debatable though. I like with some cute melodic lines on the acoustic bass to play sometimes on the fret, even fingers crossing a bit the line to the right to produce a smooth sound, however when playing with my metal band, the loss of sustain would be totally noticeable (not only sustain, sharpness too), so keeping it just behind the fret is needed. Never completely between the frets though, I agree on this. – Kaddath Feb 27 at 10:34
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    If what you say is true, and common, just about every bass guitarist should be at risk. In 40+ yrs playing between the frets, am I just lucky? – Tim Feb 27 at 11:03
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    @Tim well it depends on your physiology, past life and instrument. I have a long scale bass with fattest strings I can buy. I don't have weak hands but injured both thumbs in other activities. Now I can't play more than 2h/2h30 long with this bass without pain, if I use another bass I can play longer – Kaddath Feb 27 at 11:10
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    @Kaddath - very small hands. 5 string - .040 - .120" strings, but beautiful actions. I tend to play SGC Nanyo Bass Collections. 34-35" scale - and don't press hard with thumb - or anything! Surely fat strings = more pressure needed? – Tim Feb 27 at 11:56
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Luckily, you can answer this yourself, objectively, with the exact instrument you're wondering about.

Get a capo with adjustable tension. Or, rig a clamp or some other method to press the strings with a consistent and adjustable pressure. Place the capo in a given position relative to a fret, and add tension until a normally-plucked string stops buzzing. Record the tension (i.e. the number of turns or whatever adjustment you've used). Try again with a different position, and compare the results.

Ultimately, this will confirm what Tim's answer describes - pressing immediately behind the fret will give the clearest sound for the least pressure.

As a further answer to something indirectly related to your question, you spent a lot of time in your question talking about action, and the effect that action has on required pressure to fret a string cleanly. Specifically, you said:

The lower the action the less force you'll need to press the string

You can use this same method to test that, as well - set the action low, test the pressure required, then repeat with a high action. I'm confident you'll find that action doesn't substantially change the pressure required to get a clean note - the pressure needed to move the string from it's resting position down to the point at which it first contacts a fret will be trivial compared to the pressure needed to bend the string over the fret far enough that the note is clean.

Action impacts speed more than pressure. With a high action, it simply takes more time to press the string down into position, so it takes more finger speed to change notes quickly, which can be perceived as requiring pressure - and, indeed, some beginners try to compensate for slow fingers by pressing harder, which - ironically - is really the opposite of the true solution (pressing just barely hard enough to get a clean note will allow you to move faster). Beginners may also perceive that a higher action wears them out more quickly, but again - that is more due to attempts to compensate for speed than for pressure required.

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  • You are saying in the comments and this answer that action impacts speed more than pressure, but all the new calluses, the bigger calluses that grew on top of the old calluses, the fatigued hands and fingers, and hips, can't lie. It becomes obvious that there's an important and very significant tension difference when you do stuff like barre and half barre chords. +1 for the first part, but I think the last paragraph is not only completely wrong, but has it backwards. Action in a classical guitar ranges from 2mm to 5mm. That's it, 3mm of difference. – Von Huffman Feb 27 at 0:27
  • I guess I'm confused about how you are able to attribute the calluses to requiring more pressure on the string due to a difference in action. Are there no other differences at all between the two instruments? You seem to be describing the results of changing between specific instruments/setups, which makes it difficult to extrapolate to general statements because none of the rest of us know exactly what change has happened. I don't think what you've said here means my last paragraph is wrong, but I do think we're not understanding each other fully. – dwizum Feb 27 at 14:30
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    When fretting near the nut, the pressure needed is tangibly higher for a high action than for a low action. – Wayne Conrad Feb 27 at 18:50
  • You are confused about some pretty basic stuff. Do you play string instruments? – Von Huffman Feb 27 at 19:56
  • I've been not only playing, but also building stringed instruments (acoustic and electric guitars, tenor guitars, basses, and ukulele mostly) for nearly three decades. I have a list of clients who've played and recorded on instruments I've built from scratch who would vouch for me not being confused about the basics. If anything, I suppose I should apologize for not writing in a clear enough style for you to understand what I'm saying. I'd be willing to bet that if we sat down in person and looked at your instruments together, we could have an intelligent conversation about this. – dwizum Feb 27 at 20:01

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