To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

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BellyDoc
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To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by BellyDoc » Tue Feb 13, 2018 6:21 pm

I come to you with the zeal of the recently converted. I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT!

2 years, now, into my newfound passion for guitar, I have begun to work on multiple things with barres, and a few things with some interesting stretches. Some of these are quite challenging for me, and I started to wonder if I was working against unnecessary impediments.

About 6 months into my studies, I upgraded from an entry level instrument (Cordoba C5) to a beautifully crafted guitar that I love very much, an Armin Hanika 56PF, which has been a joy to play. However, I could immediately see that the action on the Hanika was visibly higher at the 12th fret than the Cordoba and at one point I actually measured it with a digital caliper to verify that it wasn't just my eye. It wasn't. There was a height difference. However, I couldn't detect a difference playing the two instruments, and so I decided to do nothing. I figured that to alter the action at that point would risk getting it wrong since I didn't have a reason to do so yet, and at a minimum it would rob me of the later ability to learn what a difference in "playability" might actually be. It fell to the back of my mind for months and months.

I still play the Cordoba, though, mostly when I travel. I still find it's notes beautiful, even if I can't get as clear a vibrato out of it, and some notes sustain more than others. However, I *DID* notice, on it's last trip with me, that I was having a better time with some of these barres and reaches than I had before. I thought that was interesting.

I figured it was time to address the action. Maybe that was the difference.

I discussed this with my teacher, who is also a formally trained luthier and does some of these small jobs for his students. He examined the clearance under the strings up at the 12th and also down at the first and second frets. "We can take this WAY down.." he said. He marked the saddle where it slotted into the bridge with a pencil, detuned all the strings and then slid it out. He marked off what looked like a REALLY AGGRESSIVE amount to remove, and I'll admit it, I thought it was going to be too much. I was a little nervous. Out in his shed, he took it down to his line with a bench top belt sander, keeping the new base plane perfectly parallel to the old one. It took only minutes, slid right back in and tuned right back up. I took a breath and mentally prepared for ordering a new piece of saddle material.

Although the height loss at the bridge was significant and visually obvious, the change at the 12th fret was already down to half of that and much more subtle. At the low frets, the difference was undetectable. The first thing I tried to do was to get a fret buzz with really attacking the notes using heavy strokes. It was fine. No problems. The next thing I did was to experiment with some of the pieces that I can play smoothly, except where I often stumble on the barres.

My first run through the Romanza was the cleanest I'd played it by far. The difference in "playability" was NOT subtle. I felt like Forrest Gump when the leg braces came off and he could run! I was giggling like a school kid, and I played for hours. Since then, I've made major progress on some of the things that I've been working on that are beyond my current level of capability. Villa-Lobos' first etude and BWV 999 the "little prelude", for example, are coming together in very encouraging ways.

This was the right upgrade at the right time.

I'm posting this because this forum has been so helpful for me not just regarding technique or guitar tech, but also and more importantly it has been helpful in the human dimension of people encouraging each other to explore their passions for making music, often like me as adult beginners.

So, to my fellow beginners, I say: If you're like me, and you're hitting a plateau in your progress with regard to barres and reaches, and if you're working with a guitar that has been unmodified in terms of it's action height, it COULD BE that your guitar is capable of helping you in ways that it currently is not.

Consider your action. Talk to a luthier. You may be ready to play better than you think!
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." -Sir Isaac Newton

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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by rpavich » Tue Feb 13, 2018 7:29 pm

Do you know what height he went to from the bottom of the bass string to the top of the 12th fret in mm?

Mine is 3.7mm and it plays nice; that's pretty normal for Classical about 3.5 to 4mm is sort of normal for the bass side.
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Andrew Pohlman
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:03 pm

I am of the school that demands 2.5/3.0 mm at the 12th fret - meaning 2.5 mm from top of fret to bottom of 1st string, and 3mm from top of fret to bottom of 6th string. Not all classical guitars can get you there, and it certainly requires high tension strings. The faculty and students at SF Conservatory, for the most part, prefer or demand these dimensions too. In fact, it was a luthier who serves many in the SF Conservatory who informed me of this.

The ONLY reason to go with high action is because you like low tension strings. I'm sure many traditionalists here will throw rocks at me for saying this, but low tension strings create a fake out of easy playing. They are easier to play on the lower frets. But due to necessary high action at the 12th fret to accommodate the larger vibration diameter, they are actually harder to play across the entire fretboard. High action also negatively affects intonation.

I'm totally glad you discovered the benefits of low action on classical guitars! Keep up the good work ! Learning to set action on your own guitar is another story... :D
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by petermc61 » Tue Feb 13, 2018 8:48 pm

It’s a perfectly rational choice to play with a ‘normal’ action, as is your position. The action you describe is ‘low’. (I would describe ‘high’ action as anything beyond what is reasonably necessary to avoid buzzing. Typical that is more than 4-4.5mm E6 and 3mm e1.

I think ‘generally’ lower tension strings make vibrato easier and sometimes a better/sweeter tone.

I think your guitar works because it is designed with low action and higher tension strings from scratch, and voiced with those design parameters in mind.

BellyDoc
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by BellyDoc » Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:25 am

I'm kicking myself that I can't remember the actual "before" numbers, but right now it's just a bit over 2.5mm at the first string and about 3.5 at the 6th string, 12th fret. That's with using an accurate metal ruler, and bright light to read. This is near the limit of what I'm able to comfortably see without the aid of magnification. I wouldn't be able to report tenths of a mm without my digital caliper. I'm putting the scale on top of the fret and observing the reading from under the string. I'll estimate that it was probably 5 mm or more at the 6th string 12th fret, when I got the instrument.

I have been using Savarez 540R Alliance HT Classic normal tension strings. That's what the guitar came with and I've enjoyed the tone so I've stuck with them so far. I haven't experienced high tension strings yet. I'm reticent to change anything right now while I'm the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" frame of mind. I admit that I would be curious if there were people on here who had a similar Hanika guitar and had switched to high tension... and what they thought about it, though. I'd wonder if their soundboards deformed and cracked, or if the bridge snapped off and went in their eye... that sort of thing. ;)

Interestingly, I HAVE noticed imperfections in the intonation in the past, but some of it has certainly been variable technique in terms of pressure and fretting accuracy. I haven't noticed it since the modification, so it's very likely to have improved. I've read about the nuances of guitar intonation here and elsewhere, along with the history of our modern musical scale, equal temperament, mean-tone, just intonation, etc., and I see how that's really really deep water to go swimming in. Frankly it looks like the opening to Alice's rabbit hole to me, and falling in leads to a crazy world with wiggly frets. I'm unfortunately susceptible to exactly this kind of crazy, so I'm choosing ON PURPOSE to enjoy the subtle beat frequencies caused by slight variations in intervals... I think of this as "organic imperfection" and so far it's working. Maybe that's it's own form of crazy... I don't know, but if so, it's a much less expensive form of crazy.

Question:

Considering "vibration diameter" as mentioned above by Andrew Pohlman, Is a higher action ever used specifically to facilitate that the instrument can be played louder?
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by Guitar-ded » Wed Feb 14, 2018 1:15 am

BellyDoc wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 12:25 am
...
I have been using Savarez 540R Alliance HT Classic normal tension strings. That's what the guitar came with and I've enjoyed the tone so I've stuck with them so far. I haven't experienced high tension strings yet. I'm reticent to change anything right now while I'm the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" frame of mind. I admit that I would be curious if there were people on here who had a similar Hanika guitar and had switched to high tension... and what they thought about it, though. I'd wonder if their soundboards deformed and cracked, or if the bridge snapped off and went in their eye... that sort of thing. ;)
...
Considering "vibration diameter" as mentioned above by Andrew Pohlman, Is a higher action ever used specifically to facilitate that the instrument can be played louder?
Starting at the end, it used to be, and may well still be, that many concert players liked a higher action to get more volume out of their instrument. They could really dig in and not get buzzes was often the explanation. Nowadays these guys may well be playing lattice braced or double top guitars.

Regarding higher tension strings, I'd agree that if it ain't broke and you're happy enough, I'd say stay with the medium tension for now.
Although you'll love your first set of high tension strings as you crank and crank the tuners waiting for the string to get to pitch and wondering if it'll take your eye out before it gets there. : wink: Mind you, having said that, I had the same thing with the Dogal Maestrale medium tensions.
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astro64
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by astro64 » Wed Feb 14, 2018 2:25 am

If you have been using Alliance HT strings, you have been using high tension strings! Although the "R" may suggest "regular tension" but that could refer to the basses perhaps. Worth checking the package. Also, if you do notice intonation problems, the first thing to do is to put some nylon trebles on the guitar. The alliance trebles are "carbon trebles" and the intonation can sometimes be off for a string.

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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by BellyDoc » Wed Feb 14, 2018 3:28 am

I would be zero percent shocked if I were to find out that "low" "medium" and "high" tension were not strictly defined terms, and that each maker used these terms relatively within their own product lines, with looser overlap from brand to brand.

The package says "normal tension", and that the trebles are "Alliance" while the basses are "HT Classic", and you're right, these are fluorocarbon trebles. Interestingly, I had wondered if maybe the "HT" in the designation for the basses might mean HIGH TENSION. However, on the back of the pack they use the term STANDARD tension for both trebles and basses. They reference the high tension full set as 540J and a mixed tension set, 540ARJ, but it doesn't say which of the mixed set is the high tension.

I'm sure that as my technique develops and my ear develops (hopefully), I'll get the urge to experiment with different strings. Right now, I'm totally happy with the sound.

Since my last post, I've been doing nothing but playing (well... had a turkey burger too, but that was a momentary interruption). I really do think the action height modification HAS altered some of the intonation abnormality that I'd experienced and I wouldn't have caught it without it being mentioned here. I'm noticing specifically that as I barre the 7th fret and then play notes on the first and third string above that, they were more noticeably sharp before the modification than they are now, especially as played against an open bass string.

Alas... I wish I had applied some science to this before I did the modification. I have this wonderful old Conn strobe tuner and I'm sitting here playing with it right now. I'm playing the open strings and I'm in tune. When I play an octave up at the 12th fret, they're still in tune. B on the first string at the 7th fret is on target, maybe just barely wavering sharp and the same with D at the 10th fret. When I barre at the 7th and THEN play the D, I can see it drifting truly a little sharp, but I can't pick it up with my ear. It sounds good. When I play that high D against the open D string it sounds like a clean and clear 2 octave interval. I don't think that was true before the action was lowered. I think I was hearing the wavering of relative inharmony.
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by fretter » Wed Feb 14, 2018 11:04 am

Guitar-ded wrote:
Wed Feb 14, 2018 1:15 am

Although you'll love your first set of high tension strings as you crank and crank the tuners waiting for the string to get to pitch and wondering if it'll take your eye out before it gets there. : wink:
I had to laugh out loud. I've actually worn safety glasses before to crank strings, with 1 and 1/2 eyes closed.

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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by rojarosguitar » Wed Feb 14, 2018 11:51 am

Some professional guitarists, when they pick up their instruments from my luthier friends, as a first thing they ask for a higher saddle bone to raise (yes, r a i s e ) the action, not to lower it. They have developed their muscles and they like to dig deep into the strings, if necessary, and feel the resistance. None of them play low tension strings.

For me, after a period of always trying to get the action as low as possible this also reversed, and now I'm perfectly happy with 4mm at 12th E-6 and 3.5mm at e-1. I also start to enjoy to be able to dig into the strings if necessary and feel the resistance. I'm already trying to make a date with Sascha Nowak to raise the action on my Nowak guitar. :D
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by spanishguitarmusic » Fri Feb 16, 2018 4:55 pm

Awesome post! This is something that I am dealing with right now with my guitar. I like the sound of it, but the action is too high for me. I am a beginner as well and I am currently only playing in the first position. As I attempt to play higher up the neck, I can feel my left hand get sore as it's harder to press down the strings. Anyway, I will need to look into getting the action lowered to proper standards. Thanks for the post!

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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by joachim33 » Fri Feb 16, 2018 7:22 pm

Is it normal for Hanika instruments in that price range to have an action that is to high? I assumed that for factory guitars keeping the action height under control would be easy. The Hanika 56 models are not really marketed towards beginners.

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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by Andrew Pohlman » Fri Feb 16, 2018 7:42 pm

High action creates a bunch of problems:
1) time it takes to get your fingers above the string, depress it to the fret, then time to fully release. The higher the action, the more time it takes = slower playing.
2) Your fingers are "fenced in" or in a valley created by the strings on either side. This increases difficulty of playing with precision, and makes it a lot easier to muff and mute notes on those adjacent strings.
3) It is contrary to conservation of energy - using the least amount of effort to play - because you are literally moving your fingers farther and pressing with more force for each note pressed and released.

I don't understand the logic of adapting to all these conditions, when lower action is the obvious answer and leads to far more ease of playing. It's hard enough already. Why make it harder?
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by rojarosguitar » Fri Feb 16, 2018 9:57 pm

Andrew Pohlman wrote:
Fri Feb 16, 2018 7:42 pm
High action creates a bunch of problems:
1) time it takes to get your fingers above the string, depress it to the fret, then time to fully release. The higher the action, the more time it takes = slower playing.
2) Your fingers are "fenced in" or in a valley created by the strings on either side. This increases difficulty of playing with precision, and makes it a lot easier to muff and mute notes on those adjacent strings.
3) It is contrary to conservation of energy - using the least amount of effort to play - because you are literally moving your fingers farther and pressing with more force for each note pressed and released.

I don't understand the logic of adapting to all these conditions, when lower action is the obvious answer and leads to far more ease of playing. It's hard enough already. Why make it harder?
No 3 first: The only action that conforms to the law of conservation of energy is no action at all (no pun intended!). Least effort may be the better term to use here, but the least effort for what? Playing music is not just producing some notes according to something printed. There is the aspect of dynamics, of articulation, of modulation the tone etc etc. The less energy you put into the guitar, the less comes out (law of conservation :lol: ).

No 1: here you paint a slightly exaggerated picture, as if we were talking about 1cm action or something. Were Bream or Segovia slow? They certainly didn't play low action guitars. Look at K. Yamashita! Is he slow? He isn't playing a low action guitar...

I must also think of great saxophone players like Charlie Parker. If you have ever played saxophones (I have, for many years) you know that the keys of the saxophone, especially from alto down to baritone, have quite a resistance and also long paths. Quite different from flutes! Charlie Parker played nevertheless 16ths almost at 400 BPM ... no, he wasn't exactly slow. It's not the effort that you have to exert on the strings (or keys), it's the effort you have put into practice that mainly decides what you can do.

No 2: The string is not vibrating on the finger side of the fret. As soon as the string is stopped by the fret it can vibrate freely (apart from internal damping and energy dissipation throughout the whole system) independently of whether the action is higher or lower. You can also reverse your own argument and say that higher action educates you to have more clarity and precision in your fingering.

Yes, you need better trained left hand and in the beginning it may appear as if a higher action is just no doable. But it's all an integrated whole: the string tension, your hands, the top tension, it all contributes how a guitar actually feels. And of course it's a matter of balance and keeping a 'golden middle'. Too low action can give a flat and lifeless sound; too high action (according to your strength) is exhausting and can result in playing problems of all sorts as well as in intonation problems.

So yes, the action matters, but not necessarily understood as the lowest achievable action... Keep the golden Middle Way :D
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Re: To my Fellow Beginners: action height matters!

Post by Rasputin » Sat Feb 17, 2018 7:47 am

I do notice the fencing in thing - I don't think it is really to do with the string vibrating / not vibrating on the finger side. I'm not buying the idea that a set up that makes playing more difficult is good because it forces you to be more skillful, if the extra skill is only delivering the results you would have had with an easier set up. There has to be some independent benefit. If you were really dedicated I suppose you could set a beater up with ah really high action and use that for Pumping Nylon type stuff, then reap the benefits on another guitar with lower action.

I had not really looked at the action on my guitar but as close as I can measure it it 3.5mm on the treble side and 4.5mm on the bass side. I find that further up the fretboard, where the action is higher, it is very easy to push notes out of tune. This is not just to do with the action, I realise, but I think that might have something to do with it.

The other thing nobody has mentioned is injury. I don't know if there is any real data out there but it's at least plausible that if you move to a setup where your fingers have to work harder you are at greater risk. It's not unlike the difference between old mechanical typewriters and modern keyboards.

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