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I own several acoustic guitars and am learning about setting them up because I live in the middle of nowhere and it is impossible to send my guitar in for set-ups.

I got some feeler gauges and have been taking some measurements of the neck relief of my guitars and usually the neck relief is around 0.010 which is comfortable to play but I find the tone is better with a bit more relief, especially if I am playing in open position and strumming with a pick.

At about 0.012 neck relief I get nicer tone from my guitars but they are harder to play. What would happen if I kept the higher 0.012 relief and lowered the saddle a little? Would that give me the nicer tone while enhancing playability?

Or should I set up a guitar specifically for playing open chords in 1st position? And maybe set-up another for more work up the neck? How would the set-ups vary on two different instruments like this?

  • All the measurements will be varied by what strings there are on the guitar, and what tunings may be used. As well as the individual guitar in question - and the feel/sound the player likes - as you are aware. – Tim May 14 at 15:29
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    To make your question more useful and easier to find by others who may "google" it in the future, I recommend changing the title of the question to match the actual question? Maybe "How can I adjust the relief to get better tone from my acoustic guitar while maintaining playability?" Further, since the Question Title should allow future users to find questions related to their own, your second question should be made into a new standalone question. Perhaps the title could be "How would the setup on an acoustic guitar differ between setting up for best tone and for easiest to play?" – Rockin Cowboy May 14 at 18:00
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    If you want to leave as one question - you could edit question title to something like "How does relief or "action" relate to playability versus tone on an acoustic guitar?" – Rockin Cowboy May 14 at 18:06
  • I already changed the title – armani May 14 at 18:21
  • Hi @armani - each post needs to focus on just one question. You can always ask that second one separately if you like, however I think it is probably too much based on opinion. – Doktor Mayhem May 14 at 19:17
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First let me distinguish between the term "action" and "relief". While they are related and relief will affect action, there is a distinction.

Action generally refers to how high the strings are above the frets. Relief also refers to how high the strings are above the frets, but relief more commonly refers to adjustment of the neck to prevent fret buzz. Both will be discussed below.

There is a tradeoff between setting the "action" for optimal sound and tone and for ease of fretting. Each individual guitarist must find that balance that works best for them personally.

If you lower your saddle, you will lower the relief between strings and frets at the same time.

It is worth considering that, while generally they go hand in hand, the string height above the soundboard and the string height above the frets potentially affect the sound in different ways. Raising the action above the soundboard is usually accomplished by increasing the height of the saddle above the soundboard which will increase the torque of the strings on the saddle, resulting in greater movement of the soundboard. Greater distance between the strings and frets will allow the strings to vibrate freely with a more aggressive attack allowing the guitar to be played louder. Also, if the action is set as low as possible for faster and easier fretting, a minor amount of unnoticeable contact can occur which (while falling short of audible fret buzz) will dampen the string vibration just enough to affect sustain.

On most acoustic guitars, raising the action by adjusting the saddle will increase both the string height above the soundboard as well as the frets. However, some acoustic guitars with removable necks could allow for an increase in the string height above the soundboard while keeping the strings closer to the fretboard (lower action) by altering the angle of the neck. Thus you could enhance the volume output from the soundboard by raising the saddle - while maintaining better playability by adjusting the neck angle to keep the action lower.

Some folks adjust the truss rod as a means of increasing the action. This is not the purpose of the truss rod and not the ideal way to set your “action" (string height above frets). In short, the truss rod counteracts the string tension on a steel string guitar to control how much the neck bends. It allows you to apply counter tension to keep the neck from curving too much. Loosening the truss rod will increase the relief in the center of the neck but won't raise the action as much on either end of the fretboard.

Ideally you want to keep your neck as close to straight as possible without fret buzz. You will want a very slight concave bend in the neck giving it more relief in the center. Otherwise the elliptical vibration pattern of the string will contact the frets causing "fret buzz". For more on truss rods and what they do click here

Once you have the truss rod adjusted to properly counterbalance the string tension with no fret buzz, you can raise or lower the action by adjusting the saddle. The height of the nut will impact the action as well, but the saddle is where adjustments to the action on an acoustic guitar is most commonly made.

After removing the saddle (which is held in place on the bridge with string tension) you can sand it down to lower your action or you can add shims to raise it. However, if you are raising your action to achieve better sound, I would start with a new saddle and sand it just enough to reach the desired increased height - because a shim could dampen the transfer of energy from the saddle to the soundboard.

With regards to the second part of your question – many guitarist (myself included) own multiple acoustic guitars set up for different applications. So if you wanted one guitar that was optimized for maximum sound and tone that you would play using mostly open and first position chords, and a different guitar that was more comfortable and easier to play using barre chords in the higher fret positions, you could alter the set up on each guitar for those two purposes.

For your open chord guitar, you can set the action higher with a taller saddle and perhaps use a heavier gauge string set. If you go with heavier strings, you will need to adjust the truss rod for the greater tension of the heavier strings. You will also want to be sure the larger gauge strings will fit properly in your nut slots.

For the easier to play guitar, you would do the opposite. You would want the action set as low as you can get it without fret buzz and you might want to go with lighter strings which will tune up with less tension. Again, a string gauge change requires a look at the truss rod adjustment and string slots in the nut.

Any guitar set up will be specific to the string gauge so you will want to have the desired strings installed prior to making adjustments to the truss rod or saddle height.

Since you have more than one acoustic guitar, it might make sense to set one up with a higher action to achieve nicer tone while playing open chords. If you are going to go that route, you might try to determine which of your guitars already has the nicest tone to your ears and which is already easier to play up the neck and let that determine which guitar to set up for which purpose.

Good luck and enjoy your guitars.

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  • Superb answer, as usual. I'd question para. 6. That is true for open strings only. Imagine fretting on the 7th fret - the greatest string movement is around fret 19. The midpoint of the stopped string - subtely different. I don't think we could adjust relief to compensate for that sort of thing! There just has to be more space around fret 12 - the middle of the open strings. – Tim May 15 at 6:51
  • @Tim I see your point about fretted notes. I read that about greater amplitude and it made sense. Wouldn't the oscillation envelope be larger on open strings and the first few frets and tighter when fretting closer to the saddle due to the shortening of the string? The max relief will be at the center point between either end of the truss rod, not in the center of the strings. But at 12th fret the saddle height is providing enough relief to prevent fret buzz - so the having the bottom of the neck curve where it naturally lands probably works out well. But my statement may not be factual. – Rockin Cowboy May 16 at 1:25
  • @Tim But for the sake of removing conjecture that might not be 100% accurate, I edited the paragraph you questioned. Thanks again for "keeping me honest" Tim. I appreciate all the dedicated and time consuming work you do to share your wisdom and knowledge by providing and improving the content on Stack Exchange Music. – Rockin Cowboy May 16 at 1:37
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    Thank you for your answer but the Relief is not the same as the action. The relief is the term for how much bow there is in the neck and the action is how high the strings are off the fretboard (usually measured at the 12th fret). So since we are being so picky about how questions are being asked then I would kindly request that the answer be revised too so it contains correct information as it seems to be based on the notion that the relief and action are one and the same thing. – armani May 16 at 12:08
  • @armani Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct. I apologize, I mistakenly believed you were referring to action when you said relief so I intentionally used relief where I should have used "action". Not everyone understands the difference. Apparently you do. I did edit my answer per your request because it should be written for the benefit of future readers. I believe the edits I made to distinguish between the common use of action vs relief has improved the content. Again I appreciate your encouragement and clarification on your understanding of the two terms. – Rockin Cowboy May 17 at 19:51

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