Great visualization of Guitar Action - action, relief, backbow, etc

There’s been some talk in some other topics about the difference between action and relief, etc, so it seems worthwhile to give this it’s own topic.

Here’s the best visual explanation I’ve seen.


Also worth checking this post where Gibsons Master Luthier goes through everything in a series of videos.


That was an interesting watch, thanks Tom.

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Thanks for sharing this video :slight_smile:

Let me recommend StewMac, especially their trade secrets section. Lots of interesting topics and videos there.

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Very interesting and informative. As a beginner, I’m one of those people who didn’t really comprehend all the different adjustment points.

I will say, knowing this information now makes me worried that if I took my guitar in for a set up (and I should, because I changed from 12g to 11g strings last month to try to help relieve finger pain), I wouldn’t be able to trust the guitar tech to know the right way to adjust it, and he/she may just shave off my saddle or nut instead of evaluating it properly for the correct type of adjustment that may be less invasive, or scratch, chip or otherwise damage my guitar by being hasty or careless. I do realize mine was a cheap guitar but I still don’t want it damaged because it has a specific coloration that I adore (and its my first, and the one I’m learning on, and I’m sentimental like that!)

Hi Stacy,

Guitar techs/lutheirs are not professionals for nothing. When you take your guitar for a setup, you should give them at least some basic clarification on what you would like to have changed and/or what doesn’t feel right at the moment. Adjustments are always done by small increments, too.

Also, setups are done with fresh strings, and I’d imagine that at most (if not all) workshops you can also specify what strings you would like to use.

Some techs/luthiers are also players themselves, so they can offer some practical advice as well.

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Stacy guitars aren’t as fragile as people thing and the last thing a Tech wants to do is ruin your guitar. He or She want you to learn to play so when you’re ready to buy that $5000 guitar you remember and trust them to set it up as well.
I’ve been doing set ups on guitars for over 30 years and even inexpensive guitars can be set up to play like a dream.
Changing you strings from 12’s to 11’s normally wouldn’t change your guitar enough for a set up If your guitar was set up properly in the first place.

This tells me your guitar wasn’t set up in the first place. People expect guitars to come from the factory perfectly set up. Well they are for the factory then they are shipped thousand of mile some times across an ocean then trucked to a store where they sit in non factory conditions for some time months or years until some one buys it, takes it home and expect it to be perfect.

Take your guitar in to the store you bought it from and talk to the tech, explain to him about your finger pain show him how you play and he will set the guitar up for your personal style of playing. The tech may set you guitar up with low action to play easy for a beginner and you may find that as you get better and strum more aggressively you need to take it back in to have the action raised.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the tech still has his first guitar that he learned on, I wish I still had mine for sentimental reasons.


So funny story, I’ve had this guitar for 14 years, a Jasmine, it was a gift from my parents when I tried to learn guitar back then. They purchased it from a guitar shop (not a Guitar Center, by the way, but a small, individual-owned guitar shop) where they live, 2 hrs from me. But it developed a buzz in the headstock, and I just couldn’t abide the buzz. They took it back to that shop and the guy there told them it had cheap tuners and would be more money to fix it than the guitar was worth. So, the guitar sat in a corner all these years, until a couple of months ago when I took it upon myself to find the buzz (three slightly wiggly tuner thumb heads) and dab some super glue on them, and boom, buzz gone, and I’m now well on my way to learning to play. But I think of those 14 years that I lost, and all the experience with that guitar shop did is teach me that guitar techs may not respect or want to work on a cheap guitar. However, I do realize not all, or even most, guitar techs are like that, it just didn’t instill confidence and I worry that someone with a flippant attitude might handle my guitar and I won’t know how flippant until he’s done something irreversible and its too late.

One question about getting a set up- If they want to shave the saddle or nut to accomodate the 11g strings, won’t that make it to where if I put 12g strings on, which I intend to do eventually, the saddle or nut will not be in optimal condition for them, seeing as they will have been altered?

This is very true. Manufacturers may have their own standards, but those standards may not be ideal for some people. The manner and duration of time spent in storage is also important. When I bought my Epiphone Casino, everything felt good about it, but the strings felt a bit thick considering the guitar came with a .010-.046 set. When I took it to the luthier, he immediately saw that those were indeed .010 strings and that strange feeling of thickness was due to the lack of setup. And here we were talking about fractions of a millimeter.

So yeah, a proper setup can make all the difference.

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Saddles, nuts and other “disposable” accessories are quite easy to replace and usually don’t cost very much, so you shouldn’t worry about that. Most adjustments can be reversed if needed.

If it comes to re-fretting the guitar or repairing/replacing the bridge on an acoustic, that’s more complicated and better left to a professional unless you really know what you need to do and how.


Thanks! I’ll keep this in the back of my mind.

If you can it’s a good idea to talk to the tech and see how you feel about them. If you get a bad feeling about them take your guitar somewhere else. I see you’re in Oklahoma maybe there is someone here that can recommend a good tech in your area.
Or maybe just maybe you could check the set up on your guitar yourself after all you fixed the buzz in the tuner and the video Tom posted gives you enough info to check how well your guitar is set up. If you have any question just ask and we’ll help you figure it out.

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Thanks! I actually do prefer to know how to do things myself, and want to eventually learn to check the set up on my own. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable doing any adjustments on my own, but maybe in the future. There is a whole lot to learn, so I’m really appreciating these topics coming up in the forum here.

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Thanks for sharing that, Tom. I think it should be a mandatory watch for anybody getting into guitar. Can only be good to have that basic understanding, even if you are taking the instrument to a luthier.

All that was missing was to talk about the direction to turn the allen key when adjusting the truss rod. I made sense of it when I made some adjustments to my electric, but a bit of a slow-down-and-think-carefully moment to understand why it is what it is from first principles.

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If I understand correctly, changing strings may require a truss rod adjustment, but nothing more. At least, that’s what the luthier told me last time I had my acoustic set up.

Yes. Different gauge strings exert different pressure on the neck which may increase or decrease relief.

But from @stitch, who knows what he is talking about …

11s will exert less pressure but maybe not significant enough to need a setup. I think fair to say that you can make the change and see how the guitar plays. Remember to give it a day or two after the change to settle, which I think also applies when making truss rod adjustments.

To quote StewMac, “Righty tighty, lefty loosey”, i.e. you turn it clockwise to decrease relief (make the neck straighter) and counter-clockwise to add relief.

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Great visualisation, really immediate and clear - bravo to that man. :clap:

Exactly. When I changed from 11s to 10s I did not have to make any adjustments.

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