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Low vs. High action

Discussion in 'Hardware, Setup & Repair [BG]' started by JWC, May 4, 2001.

  1. JWC

    JWC Banned

    Oct 4, 2000
    What are the pros and what are the cons??
  2. Gabu


    Jan 2, 2001
    Lake Elsinore, CA
    I suppose it's that if your action is low, your are more prone to fret buzz, accidental slapping sounds , etc etc...

    if it's high, harder to fret, yeilding slower performance... other than that, me no know.
  3. I have the action on my basses set very low. I dun get any buzzing cuz its all setup good. I play very fast music with a pick. Since I dun slap, or even finger that often, I can have my strings that low. If yer strings are really low you can sometimes bang them into the pickups when playing fingerstyle.
  4. JWC

    JWC Banned

    Oct 4, 2000
    But wouldnt real low action make finger plucking a bit easier and less tense.
  5. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    In over 20 years of playing many different basses and setting different actions for myself, I am fully convinced that low action does make fingerstyle playing easier and facilitates faster playing. I have also read similar advice given by Mike Dimin, Jeff Berlin and Gary Willis in answer to queries like this on the net. i.e. - if you want more speed then go for a lower action and light playing.

    I'm not sure about the "less tense" part; but I have talked to the person who does professional setups at the Bass Centre in London, and he explained to me how adjusting the truss rod can make the strings more or less "tense" in different parts of the neck.

    The only thing about all this, is that I have also found from trying different basses, that some can be set with lower actions than others - or maybe it would be better to say that some suit lower actions than others. So a Ken Smith with a wide flat neck seems to suit a lower action than say a vintage Precision bass. But some people will prefer the sound of the P bass and be happy to compromise for this.
  6. SuperDuck


    Sep 26, 2000
    I think the biggest con of a low action is that you can't really "dig in" to the playing, if you know what I mean. I've been playing around with the setup on my fretless, and you can go really low on a fretless, because you don't have to worry about fret buzz, but you have to play with an ultra-light touch to avoid fretboard buzz as well. If you constantly have to play with a light touch, IME, you sound won't be as punchy, because you won't have as strong of an attack. Of course, you could just turn your amp up louder, yes, but the notes will still be played softer, and will still sound like that. Personally, I go medium/high for my action. But that's just me.
  7. Ryan L.

    Ryan L. Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Aug 7, 2000
    West Fargo, ND

    I agree fully. I have also found that playing with a lower action makes playing fingerstyle MUCH easier and quicker.
  8. seamus


    Feb 8, 2001
    Agreed, another fan of low action here. You can get to the notes quicker, and navigation is better.

    It causes less fatigue, so you can play for a long time at a stretch. Plus it's great for those times when a soft touch is what's needed.
  9. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    I have never "got" this idea. Now, I have a low action over the fretboard, but I am never plucking over this - I am always playing beyond where this stops. So I have no problem getting my fingers under the strings and "popping" or plucking forcefully, when required. If I did get a lot of buzz I would adjust the action, but I think it's more about accuracy when playing softly with low action and if you play more aggressively, then the noise is all part of the sound.

    I have found no disadvantages in terms of technique limitations, with low action at all - but I can understand that some people like the tone you get with certain basses and a higher action; but this is just subjective.
  10. Josh Ryan

    Josh Ryan - that dog won't hunt, Monsignor. Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2001
    -I agree, it does help with endurance, and the ability to get a wider range of attack sounds.
  11. SuperDuck


    Sep 26, 2000
    That's what it's all about, right? Whatever you feel is the best is the right way. If you like low action, cool beans!

    As it happens, I was looking through my stacks of BP for a review of the Hartke HA400 head, when I flipped a few pages and saw Rick Turner's article (you know, the super cool one they don't run anymore), and it was dealing with this very topic! To quote the might Rick Turner:

    "As with neck relief, there are no absolutes about proper bridge height; correct string height will depend solely on how you play and what you expect to get out of your bass. I've set up basses for players such as Bunny Brunel and Brian Bromberg where the action was so low I could barely play the instruments. This low action, though, allows these players to absolutely blaze[i/] on the instrument. Then there are players like John McVie, who favors manly action (his words, not mine- SuperDuck) for solid pocket playing. Higher action gives you far more tone variations and a wider dynamic range, while low action allows faster playing at the expense of more fret noise when you dig in."

    I guess if anyone knows about this, it would be Rick Turner. (Or any other well-known luthier, but you get what I mean.) :)
  12. eli

    eli Mad showoff 7-stringer and Wish lover Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 1999
    NW suburban Chicago
    On a fretted bass, a low action setup will yield a somewhat brighter, lighter sound. Strings vibrating wide and strong will give more tonal depth -- to a point, then they get honky when you REALLY yank on 'em.

    If you want boomy, you gotta go high action to give the strings room to move. But as has been stated above, you pay with WORK. But hey -- no pain, no gain.

    (Me, I cheat and push the LOW BOOST button so's I can loaf on a low setup. Much more enjoyable.)
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Well I have heard this sort of thing many times before and I might set some store by it, were it not for the fact that the guys who promote low action - like Gary Willis, Anthony Jackson etc. are the ones who seem to have more tonal variation and dynamic range in their recorded and live output.

    Whereas, someone like John McVie is to my ears - a good solid player, but someone whose basslines are distinctly lacking in dynamic range and tonal variety. Ok - he gets a nice sound, good for the song etc. - but it doesn't leap out at you and has very little variation. My feeling is that the high action thing, in his case is more out of habit or the comfort factor - he's always played basses like that - since the 60s - and is used to it - it feels right to him and is comfortable, but doesn't give him any playing advantage - but then he doesn't need this as he never attempts anything fast or flashy!

    Now of course there is a place for everything and a lot of people would prefer a bass player like John Mcvie and he has been very successful. BUT - the question was about the pros and cons of high or low action in terms of playing - not about habit etc.
    In my experience, there is no advantage from a playing point of view, to having a high action - OK that's what you might be used to and the sound you want - but as Eli mentions you can always use EQ or sub-bass effects to approximate this. But from a pure question of playability, then I would say that low action always facilitates this.
  14. SuperDuck


    Sep 26, 2000
    It all basically comes down to preference and how you play. I like my med-high action, and I like to play in the pocket and just groove. I'm not a big fan of flashy bass playing in general, but that's just me, and therefore, I like the feel and tone of a higher action. (And I'll admit that I'm not very GOOD at playing flashy bass. I haven't been playing for more than a few years.) And, in time, speed will come with enough practice and work on a high-set bass. I read that Bill Dickens set his bass as high up as possible when he practiced so that when he lowered it he flew like a zephyr across the fingerboard. Maybe some day I'll lower my action. It's not set in stone where I play. I'm also young yet, so I'm sure over time my preferences will change as I grow on the instrument.

    I think to say that there are NO drawbacks to low action is a little overboard. Even if you EQ it all day long, I just don't hear the same punch in the attack of the strings. But, again, seriously, that's in my ear. However you do your thing is cool. IMVHO, there are drawbacks to BOTH sides. It's just whatever you want to do.
  15. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Welll I didn't say that - what I did say (and what you quoted) is that there are no advantages in terms of playability to having a high action - there may be in terms of tone or just how it feels to you, but my view is that high action always makes it harder to play.

    Now this is not "good" or "bad" - you may well want to make yourself play less notes and concentrate on the tone and the right part for the song as I have no doubt that John McVie does, for example - and this is a worthy aim. "Busy" bass players are often frowned upon.

    I'm just saying to anyone who wants to play faster or easier - that high action will not help and that as a rule, lowering the action will make it easier to play - as your story about Bill Dickens serves to illustrate.
  16. Check out an instructional video called "Fingerstyle Funk" featuring Rocco Prestia done in 1993.
    His action is so high it looks unplayable, yet he is considered a VERY busy player.
  17. I've never set up my bass, I just kept it the way it was, it sounded fine, and I don't want to mess anything up. Anyway, I don't know how high my action is, how high is high? Can someone tell me a measurement?

    My old acoustic guitar has really high action, the fun part is watching other people try to play it, I learned on it, so it doesn't bother me.
  18. Dave Castelo

    Dave Castelo

    Apr 19, 2000

    i think the low action is great... but i have this MIM Jazz and i´m still learning to set it up... but i have to play with high action because that way i avoid fret buzz... :(

    still, when i get my first high end bass í think i´ll have it in low action...

    BTW: i have this weird theory that if I practice good with high action, i will do it even better with a low action... so far it´s true (tried some low action basses, I´m still learning, i have played mostly high action),
  19. Tom7

    Tom7 I'm so bright, my mom called me son! ;-)

    Jan 31, 2000
    Eagle River, Alaska
    Jaco said that when he wanted to play very fast he'd play closer to the bridge. Close to the bridge, the string is less "bendy" and so you can move faster.

    Also, close to the bridge you can pluck harder with a very strong attack and not buzz your low action setup.

    On the other hand, moving your hand up by the frets changes your tone and attack, making string buzz more of an issue.

    I have a very light touch and have had the hardest of time getting much tonal variation. I'd work on it in practice, but I never had the sound my favorite bass players had.

    Then I let a guy talk me out of my fat strings and a high set up. I hated it; every note buzzed and I felt like I was going to break strings slap/snapping. The strings were so soft my fingers were getting caught under them and "tripping."

    But lacking the funds to get my bass back how it was ended up to be a blessing. I got used to it and lo, suddenly my hands were controlling my sound far better than ever before.

    I have a bass I use primarily for practice, to work my "chops." It has a higher setup and bigger strings. I love that bass, but when I switch back to my main bass, suddenly everything feels easy and sounds better.

    Oh, and finally, sometimes I like to buzz the strings on purpose, kind of like a sax will growl sometimes in a solo.
  20. Personally for me:


    *If I feel like it, I can play cleanly, then hit the string harder to make it buzz (if the mood seizes me)
    *My strings are low tension
    *I'm strengnening my left hand by the need to press the strings down so far (will only help in the future)


    *I can't vary from clean to buzzy as easily
    *easier to push down
    *easier to slap (and double thumb)
    *easier to play solos

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