Getting to Know Your Bass: How Your Bass’s Action Influences What You Can Do

Bass action

Photo by billaday

Keeping up with Getting to Know Your Bass series, today we’ll take a look at the action of your bass and how that influences what you can play.

While your action doesn’t necessarily impact your note choice, it certainly factors into the amount of force necessary to play the instrument and the techniques that you use while playing. Ultimately, you want your instrument to allow you to play whatever you’d like, so if you’ve recently discovered the joys of tapping, but find the execution of it to be difficult, it may be because your instrument is working against you. At the same time, if you don’t care for any fancy-shmancy stuff and just want a solid, clear tone for finger style playing, your instrument should be able to give you that as well.

Just in case you’re unfamiliar with the term action, it refers to the distance between the strings and your fretboard. A bass with low action will have strings that are closer to the fretboard, while a bass with high action will have strings that are farther away. The action of your bass can be changed according to personal preference and, although you can try to make certain adjustments yourself, you may be better off bringing your instrument to a tech. The height of the screws at the bridge adjusts your action, but the slots in the nut and the relief in the neck will play a role as well. Also, your action may change from time to time, depending upon seasonal changes and the warping of your neck, so it may need to be tweaked every now and then.

If you’re just starting out, keep in mind that you can make adjustments to the instrument that you got from the music store, your neighbor’s garage, or off of Craig’s List. Even some of the “Starter Pack” basses can be set up to play well, so once you get a new instrument, try to find an experienced player to take a look at it. I remember having a true light bulb moment when a friend did a quick adjustment to my Squier P-bass. After a few minutes with a screwdriver and tuner, I felt like I had a new instrument in my hands. Suddenly, I was more willing to practice since it was easier to play and I got better results.

Years later, I found myself teaching lessons to many beginner students who didn’t know what the strings names were, let alone what the instrument should actually feel like. Very little attention is paid to beginner instruments, or even higher-level instruments that haven’t been played in a long time, because the player doesn’t know any better. So, if you’re an educator, or if you happen to befriend a low-end newcomer, take a few minutes to examine the person’s instrument and point out any glaring problems.

Usually, you’ll find that the instrument’s action is far too high, making it difficult to press the strings down on the fretboard. A bass with high action requires more effort and can create problems for younger players who don’t have enough strength to get a good tone. Another common problem is low action, where the strings are practically touching the fretboard without any help from the player. If the action is too low, it will result in string buzzing and you may end up pressing down strings that you don’t intend on. If you’re trying to fret a note on your E string, and you accidentally press the G string with the inside of your finger, then you’ll probably have to do some adjusting (both with technique and with the set up of the bass). Remember, you want playing to be easy, but not too easy.

In addition to the overall playability of your bass, you want to make sure that your set up allows you to incorporate any technique you’d like. For example, if you’re working on tapping, you need to make sure that it’s fairly easy to press down the strings because you need enough force with just one finger to get an audible note while fretting. Also, since the majority of your playing will be higher up on the neck, the action will have to be fairly low and uniform across the whole neck of the bass. If you’re trying to develop your speed chops, you’ll find it easier to play faster on a bass with lower action as well, due to the lesser amount of force needed to hold down the string. On the other hand, if you want more room for dynamics within your playing, you may want to have higher action since you’ll be able to apply more force with your plucking hand without getting a clacking sound. Depending upon how often you delve into these other techniques, you may want to have certain instruments that are set up slightly differently, giving you the flexibility to use the best bass for the job.

Quick exercise: Even if you’ve been playing for a while, take a moment to examine the neck of your instrument. Identify whether your action is high, low, or in the middle (you may have to go to a music store, play a couple of basses, and compare the feel of those necks). Then think about how your bass helps to define your style of playing and why you like your current set up. Think about what, if anything, you’d like to change about the set up of your instrument and how that may influence your playing. If you’re dissatisfied with the current state of your neck, try bringing it to a tech.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. I like as low action as possible, because I like to tap DURING a bassline as well as finger picking, it adds to the overall sound!

  2. I setup my bass with very low action even though I’m a pick player but not that low that the note chokes out. The slight fret buzz can be part of your personal tone.

  3. I can’t properly setup my bass to my playing style :/ I always setup with a little bit of relief (0.10 mm) and my action is 2.4 mm for E string and 1.6 mm for G (rest of the strings are set to my neck radius). That kind of action provides me sound with no buzzing or fret noise but I think that is not what I want from my bass setup. But if I lower my bridge saddles or even make my neck straight it give a lot of buzzes and I can write that my control of playing on bass or my control of strings is not fine :/ Is this a fault of my imperfect technique, bad setup or sth else?

    • Sometimes the fretbuzz, even when your strings are not too low, is due to bad playing technique. Having a little bit of relief is fine, and should ideally be in every proper bass setup as it allows you to lower the action a tad more without having fretbuzz. If you feel that no matter how wel setup your instrument the strings buzz, try to improve your playing. If you play with your fingers, pull the strings upwards instead of pulling them towards the body of your bass. Same if you play with a pick. I’ve also been able to tell, as I do the setup on my basses, that you can have a good balance between a relatively low action that allows you to play comfortably, but not so low that your bass will buzz all the time. In some basses, they are so finely built that they allow for a super low action and very little to no fetbuzz at all. Look fir whatever suits you best, and if you do your own setup it’s better, as only you know what you actually from your bass in regards to playability and sound.

    • Exactly Daniel, I play an ESP 6 string bass, ash/spalted maple body maple/walnut neck, it’s so finely made I can have my high c at about 1/4 millimeter action and the low b is double that, and I have no fret buzz at all and it has an incredibly fast transition!

    • Wow ! 0.5 mm action without fretbuzz ?! It’s unbelievable ! On my StingRay it will be impossible.

  4. My Acton is the same height as the thickness of a 1 p piece. Around 2mm

  5. Practice will improve your technique no matter HOW your bass is set up pr what quality level it is. Decide what it is that you DO want and adjust accordingly. I get the impression you do all of your own setups, so changing shouldn’t be a problem. A while ago I had a choice to make: get two basses of lower quality and have them set up differently in order to play different styles or get a bass that actually was of PHENOMENAL quality but left me less options… I bought the par, one for pick style and one for finger style. Works for me.

  6. I love low action. I play in a metal band that wants me to play almost lead lines a lot of the time. I’ve also discovered I don’t hate tapping. LOL! So, right now it’s working for me, but it could probably be lower – with another bass later on. Mine has been set up professionally, and I was told that any lower would cause horrible buzzing. I’m ok with it.

  7. I like a pretty low action. I play in a metal band and I think the low action with the occasional buzz gives it that gnarling edge.

  8. It is always nice to hear why you wouldn’t want your action to be too low. Clarity of tone vs. ease of fingering. A good balance is always necessary. Unless of course you are a player who wants a touch of buzz, a-la Billy Sheehan or Chris Squire…

    Thank you Ryan Madora.

  9. I can shoot arrows with my bass

  10. I’m surprised there aren’t more high actions lovers here. I have pretty high action on my bass, I can’t stand that fret buzzing, clickity clackity noise I get from low action.

    • +1 I completely hate fret buzz and that clack. I don’t believe I have a very high action, but more of a middle one (If it was lower and without buzz and clack, that’d be great).

  11. Low action for life :D

  12. That reminds me of this one time in high school when I had to play lots of riffs on the higher frets, but couldn’t figure out why this one string got almost totally muted (from hitting an irrelevant higher fret) when I played it on a certain fret. Took me weeks to realize where the problem was and how to solve it (lol I had no bass teacher/mentor). From then on I probably had been a little traumatized by low action (-_-;).