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Low Action on a Bass: The Pros & Cons

Bass Action

Q: I was at a bass players’ get-together a while back, and I noticed the other cats have their action set really low, and some used ramps like yourself. A lot of high dollar basses too. I thought “this is too low for me”, and I was pulling too hard. My basses feel good to me, and I like a little resistance, but the other cats thought my stuff was unplayable, like James Jamerson or something. Am I doing this bass playing thing wrong?

A: I think you know that I’ll say: “if it works for you, than you are doing it exactly right!”

Yes, with the well-built basses available today, coupled with these younger cats coming out of the gate with ridiculous chops, I’ve noticed that some player’s action is getting lower and lower to help facilitate speed.

To each his own! I used to drop my action way down (as low as it would go without completely fretting out), because it made playing faster so much easier.

But to my ears, it was at the cost of tone. Higher action just sounds better because the strings have more room to vibrate without hitting the frets. This also allows more room for dynamics with the right hand. When the action is too close to the fretboard, you just cannot dig in without the notes spiking and rattling.

Usually, I can actually hear when someone has action that I would consider “too low”. I won’t name names, but a lot of tones I hear from modern players is actually defined by their action more than you’d think. There’s nothing wrong with it, but a super soft touch with incredibly low action produces a certain sound.

The problem is that you can only get that sound out of the instrument, while raising the action just a little bit allows for far more room to express… in my opinion.

I’ve been experimenting for years and have finally discovered that I prefer a medium action on my fretboard. But, I like my pickups to be pretty high and close to the strings, so I can play with a light touch in the right hand. If I want to really dig in, I can always play in between the pickup and the neck.

So, in answer to your question, I’ll say it another way: You are doing it right if you are getting the sound and feel that you want out of your instrument.

Readers, what’s your take? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this. Post in the comments.

Photo by Yannic Staudt

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Share your thoughts

    Josh E Lambert

    Josh E Lambert

    Pse man, this is a eerious place …If you do not have anything to share in knowledge …Just stay quiet ,instead of
    mockery of other people’s problems ..!

    John

    I agree with this comment! I want it low enough where I have to practise some subtlety in my technique.. When I’m too ‘high’, although it still sounds nice, I lose all sorts of colour and articulation from the string. Of course, the other extreme is no good either. Though I have found that a medium action, whilst using this as a reason to refine my touch a little, is killing two birds with one stone, and improving me as a player too :). Every bass is different, but by low/medium, I have my new F-Bass BN6 at 2.5mm on the Bass side, treble side drops down to 2mm. Any lower than that, and I notice a compromise in sound.. I may even jack up the B to 3mm at most. Also, a neck which is stable enough to work with minimal relief works very well too. I can’t get away with this on a Fender or my Sadowsky.

    I think it’s really important for all musicians to take ‘Quiet’ time with their instrument, and their touch, and listen to what really works. I’ve heard guys with high action who don’t have as full a tone as guys who run it low-ish and with a nice solid, yes subtle touch. So many variables to a good tone :)

Phil Reid

Thanks Damian for answering my question! I do however get the low action faster speed thing, as I have a couple of basses set that way. I use them to slap and pretend I am you or Victor or Stanley and race around on them like ‘the kids’ :O)

But I don’t have much to ‘say’ at those speeds and I kinda like to groove in the background.
Not that you cats don’t groove with your low action :O)

Jesse Squire

Jesse Squire

I feel like the “higher action helps right hand dynamics” thing is an opinion. I play pretty low action, generally if I were to lower it anymore I’d get fret buzz at the first fret on open strings. But I play very dynamic with both right and left, softly for subtle piano portions, digging in or slapping hard for more forte portions, I even often use thumb and palm muting techniques for good a thud. Though I do keep higher action on my acoustic, I mainly use it to keep my left hand strong and to make lower action even more of a breeze.

Andrea Salomoni

Andrea Salomoni

I have a cheap GSR-200 bass, and I had to rise the action a little to get rid of the first three frets notes buzzing. But I had another problem, never heard of it before, I found that the REAR part of the string buzzed when I played low A, Bb and B on the E string: I had to soften the truss rod to increase the curvature of the neck and eliminate the buzz, but getting an even higher action. So now I have high action, but I play mainly african style (congolese rumba), energetic thumb-index picking, so high action is good. (By the way, thumb-index picking is easier than index-middle picking, and allows for more speed and easier muting of the low strings).
I think that low action (not too low), if needed, is obtainable without buzz only on high priced, very well-crafted basses.

Colton

Colton

I like to have my bass set up fairly low for playing slap/pop and stuff of that nature, but my other bass has the strings just over half an inch above the strings, with the pickup about .3″ below the strings. Personally I prefer the feel and sound of the high action, but just can’t use it for speedy slap type music.

Allen Sackett

Allen Sackett

I completely agree with Damien. I absolutely loathe string buzz. It is a tone killer and can be distracting. I don’t understand those who say “if you can’t hear it through the amp then it is not a problem”. If you can hear it acoustically on your electric it is already hindering the tone – perhaps not the maximum volume as you can just turn it up. I want my electric bass to have a wide range of dynamics (pp to fff) with the intended tone (thick, fat, full) in the styles I play ((from rock to orchestral). Music has an emotional impact and I want nothing to affect the impact of my contribution – especially when it can consist of playing whole notes for 20 measures. :-)

    Scott Edgards

    Right on Allen! I also don’t understand the (stupid) “If you don’t hear it through an amp, it’s not a problemen” aproach.. Even an electric bass, is first (!) an acoustic instrument.. The amp will just simply ehm..amplify this. So a “stupid low Action” will just sound stupid & unprofessional!

mike merrifield

mike merrifield

Nice very nice input love what you have yo say …..medium then you could play around more with the right hand . But leaving the strings free to reach their potential tone .