How to Lower the Action on Your Acoustic Guitar

A couple years ago, I bought a super cheap Ibanez acoustic.  I think it was on sale for $200, is actual wood all around and has a respectable Fishman preamp/pickup.  Of course, when you spend this little for a guitar, you cannot expect perfection.  It never played great, but it was certainly usable.  And it looks kinda nice.

guitar

Flash forward 2-3 years, with part of that in the brutal Texas heat and bitter Wisconsin cold, and it plays really terrible.  Even after tightening the truss rod, the action is a hair over 3/8″ – which is pretty bad.

action-before

Fretting anything beyond the 7th or so fret is a real challenge.  Beyond the 12th fret is impossible.  So I’d like to take the action down almost 1/4″.  Doing so requires lowering the saddle – which is part of the bridge and it often just raises the strings too high to the point that they are difficult to fret.  By sanding the underside of the saddle, it will sit lower in the bridge, thus lowering your string height.

Here’s how it’s done.

What you’ll need:

  • Sand paper (80-120 grit will be ideal)
  • Permanent marker
  • Needlenose pliers (maybe)
  • Ruler/calipers

Skill level: Easy.  You can do this in a half of a beers time.1

Step 1 – Remove your strings & bridge saddle

Or tune down to the point that they have zero tension.  You’ll need to get the saddle out (photographed below) and eventually back in.  Many times, it will pop out by hand, but if not, give it a gentle tug/wiggle with your pliers.

bridge

Step 2 – Mark & measure your saddle

Not essential, but a very good idea.  I prefer to cover the underside of the saddle with marker, so you can tell if you’re sanding evenly.  If the marker wears off on one end and not the other, you need to adjust so everything comes out as level as possible.

Measure the saddle from top to bottom so you know how much sanding you’ve done.  Some people will mark the side of the saddle with a line indicating how far you need to go.  I find this difficult to see when dust starts getting everywhere, so I don’t do it, but it’s a smart move.

The rule for how much to sand is 2x the distance you’re trying to lower your strings.  If you need to drop your action 1/32″, then you need to sand 1/16″ off your saddle.  Don’t go that full distance right away though.  More on that in step 3.

saddle-underside

Step 3 – Sand!

Lay your sandpaper business end up on a table.  Hold the saddle toward the top, placing the bottom flat against your sandpaper and gently go to work.  Emphasis on gentle!  I suggested using pretty meaty sandpaper to get the job done with minimal frustration, but it means that things will happen fast.  Especially if you’re dealing with a plastic saddle.

Like I said before, don’t take off everything you think you need in one shot.  It’s worth taking the time to tune your guitar back up and check the height/playability, only to have to sand more.  You can’t un-sand.  If you go to far, your frets will buzz or strings will fret out completely.

Take this slow.

sanding

Step 4 – Reinstall, tune up, enjoy

Make sure your saddle goes in the way it came out, otherwise your intonation will be a mess.  If you didn’t pay attention, you’ll usually see little notches from your strings on the back side of the saddle (facing the tail of the guitar).

In my case, everything turned out great and the guitar plays like it’s worth at least $250 now.

action-after

  1. Please note: while this is easy, you can really screw things up if you sand too much.  Also, getting any guitar playing perfect is an art and requires great skill.  This tutorial will give you the skills to do it well enough