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
Armin Hanika 56PF