Setting action on electric guitar

I understand I have the option of changing the action via the truss rod or the bridge & I’ve watched a few youtube vids on both.

The bridge changes the action on the higher frets and the truss rod middle frets.

My question is, is there an order I should follow to getting the action right? I get the impression you first use the truss rod to get the middle frets right or doesn’t it matter? Also do I need to be really careful on the trus rod changes if I’m reducing tension? I’ve done a qtr turn so far (anticlockwise) but action still too low. Worried if I keep turning I might break something.

From what I’ve seen it’s always first truss rod then the bridge. Makes the most sense too since adjusting the neck is a bigger change then adjusting bridge or saddles.
The usual approach in optimization is to start with big impact factors and end with fine tuning. Other way around messes with the setup too much.

I don’t feel too comfortable giving advice on truss rod adjustments. As long as it is done in small increments it should be fine. Also heard that it’s good to wait a bit between adjustment to allow the material some time to stabilize in the new tension

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Leon, to the best of my (albeit limited) knowledge/experience, you should not be thinking about adjusting the truss rod to work on the action. The truss rod is about setting neck relief. I suggest you check out Justin’s series on setting up an electric guitar which addresses that (if I recall correctly).

Once neck relief is appropriate, which I think should be slightly concave ie a dip in the centre, then you can work on action. Generally speaking this would be by raising or lowering the bridge. It can also be influenced by working on nut slots but maybe that is better left to the pros?

Once you have the action then you’d tackle intonation by adjusting saddles.

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Hi David

Having looked into it the truss rod appears to be used to change the action in the centre of the neck, the nut at bottom of the neck and the bridge for the high end of the neck.

From what I can see Blues player tend to go for more neck relief (higher action in the centre). Other players who prefer lower action go for a straighter neck.

My take in Justin’s video here is they are trying to get rid of some of the neck relief to lower the action in the centre, towards the end of the vid they measure the action and confirm it has lowered.
Adjusting The Truss Rod | How To Setup Your Electric Guitar [2/10] with Charlie Chandler - YouTube

I tried using the bridge alone but whilst the action is now good up to around fret 10 I still really struggle to bend on fret 7 where the action appears to be lower. I did a qtr turn on the truss road which has improved fret 7 (still too low) and made fret 10 now too high.

Leon, I had a quick look at the lesson and the first in the series on assessing the guitar.

I agree that changing neck relief will have an influence on action and maybe without getting bogged down, what is important is to just assess the relief and ensure it is appropriate.

In this video, he makes a recommendation and maybe it is worth googling for your style of guitar and getting some more information on neck relief.

The crux, I think, is to get that appropriate first. Once you believe that the relief is right, then you can work on action. I didn’t watch the action-setting video. Again you may find there are recommended heights for your guitar type on the low and high E strings.

What I think is to be avoided is going back and forth between making truss rod adjustments and raising/lowering bridge heights. And the complication could be the nut at the end of the day. He uses the capo at the first fret when adjusting the action to eliminate the influence of the nut.

Perhaps somebody with more knowledge and experience than me will chip in. Everything I say should be taken from whence it comes.

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@DavidP is correct. The truss rod is not for changing action. Action and relief are not the same.

If you want you guitar to play it’s best, set the relief first. Then use the saddles and, if necessary, the nut, to set action.

The saddle sets action all along the fretboard. Not just the higher frets. If the nut is correct, that end will take care of itself. If the nut is not correct, nothing will help it except fixing the nut.

The relief is the curve of the middle of the fretboard. It can be flat, curve back (back bow, where the head is lower than the body), or curve up (where the head is higher than the body). Important is that the portion of the neck IN the guitar body does not bend.

Strings pull the neck up (head up, forward bow) to different degrees depending on string tension. Higher tension pulls harder. Changing strings to a higher tension may increase relief, lower tension may decrease it, potentially even causing back bow.

In my experience on my guitar, one step in gauge makes negligible difference, but greater than that requires truss adjustment. Your guitar may be different.

If the relief is too low, you may need to raise the action to avoid buzz, and the action at the high frets will be too much and the guitar will play poorly.

If the relief is too much, and you lower the saddles to set the action where you want, you will find that the middle of the neck has higher action than the two ends. This may be ok, so isn’t necessarily a problem, but can affect intonation and playability.

If you set the relief to reasonable recommended height, then set the action where you want it, it will work the best.

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@Jamolay
When you say set the relief first. How would I know when it’s time to move on from adjusting the relief to using the saddles to set the action correctly?

Leon, what kind of guitar are you setting up?

It’s a fender Stratocaster I bought s/hand. The guy selling had recently had it set to suit his style, I’m guessing his style is a low action.

When I bought it the string height was so low I found it impossible to bend a full step on the high e. So I’ve been trying to adjust the string height until bending on it feels as easy as it does on the Pacifica. I thought it was going to be easy, just adjusting the saddles but I made 3 or 4 full turns which got the 10 fret to bendable but 7th fret still really tough, the strings just slide under my fingers. I had a second opinion from my daughters guitar instructor and he agreed the strings needed raising (a smidge was his view)

Have a look at this, Leon: https://www.fender.com/articles/how-to/how-to-measure-neck-relief-on-guitar-or-bass

You’ll need to know the neck radius of your specific strat and then the article will give you the recommended relief. I’d suggest adjusting to this relief and then measuring and setting your action.

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What is the radius of the pacifica and strat. If the pacifica has a 12in and the strat hasa 9.5in you will never get the strat to bend as easy as the pacifica.

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Thanks. I used a 025mm feeler gauge and the string was slightly too low according to the fender spec. Upped it an 8th turn and it now seems good, bending seems more like the Pacifica, tad harder but will try and improve my technique.

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They are different radius but pretty convinced my problem is the string height as had a professional guitar player confirm.

Also think of string gauge. If you are used to 9 or 10s, and the ones in the guitar are 11s there will also be a big different in bending.

When to check relief, you hold the string down at the 1st and 12 or 14th fret (use a pick under the 5th string and over the 6th and 4th) and measure under the 6th or 7th fret. If you can just get a business card under it, it is about right. Then measure action at the 12th fret and adjust at the saddle however you like. Each string separately on an electric. Relief first, as it is independent of action, but effects action.

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Just put a capo on the first fret and fret the 12 or 14 fret with your finger

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Thanks for the comments everyone. Think it is sorted now.

When doing my first setup I found Fenders guide was really good for the order of events:

https://fendercustomersupport.microsoftcrmportals.com/en-us/knowledgebase/article/KA-01901

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I’m glad you got it sorted @skeldol

Note for anyone reading … Charlie Chandler’s series of lessons with Justin show the order of adjustments.
The truss rod affects the action but is not a de facto mechanism for setting the action. It sets relief. Optimal relief is a slight back bow. Then you set the bridge and saddles. In an ideal world the nut slots are filed just right. It seems manufacturers are tending more and more to leaving them filed high on the principle that you can take some off but you can’t put it back on.
RE: Pacifica vs Strat radii
@stitch is spot on
12" radius is flatter than 9.5" and less prone to fingers getting caught with fingers on bends. Vintage Fenders had an even smaller radius, great for chords, more awkward for bends. That is why they moved to a 9.5" to please both playing styles.

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And as I understand it, scale length will also have an impact, longer scale length leading to strings being under greater tension to achieve standard tuning and being harder to bend.

No idea if the Pacifica and Strat would have the same scale length?

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Yes I think you are right. Why didn’t I buy a Les Paul? With it’s scale length and neck radius it must be a beauty to do bends on!