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

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I play nice and high. I can’t help but really dig in when i’m feeling a song and low this would sound awful. Maybe on one day I’ll be subtle enough to drop it a little ;-)

  2. mine is considered high by many of the area players. But I love my tone and I will sacrifice a little speed to sound really good.

  3. I keep mine low and fast but I mostly play with a pick. My fretless I balance for the buzz but no pop off the pickups to play with fingers.

  4. I recently paid a good amount of money to have my bass set up. The technician set the action very low. While it is easier to play, I find that I have to use an unnaturally light touch. While it sounds good in my bedroom playing by myself, it is a totally different matter on a gig. I tend to dig in when playing live with my band and the bass sounds terrible to me with too much spiking and rattling as Damian mentioned. I have decided that I would rather have tone than speed.

  5. I play with my action fairly low, since I like to have a fair amount of speed. You have to work hard to be able to get a good tone out of low action. When I get a fretless, I’ll probably keep a higher action on it.

  6. Is it possible to quantify “”low” “Medium” and “high” actions? On a 4 string bass what is the height above the 12th fret on the respective strings?

  7. On my two main axes, I have my action set to what I feel is medium height on my Conklin 7 string, with medium-ish gauge strings (tuned F#, B, E, A, D, G, C), and very low action on my Peavey Cirrus USA 4 string (standard tuning) with some super light gauge La Bella Slappers (.030, .045, .065, .085). The Cirrus plays like no other bass I’ve ever used, and the tone is pretty solid too. I’ve thought about raising it a bit, but to me, it just makes playing so much more fun.

  8. I CAN’T STAND low action. For me to just feel comfortable I need those strings to feel good and tight, and higher action just has a warmer, fuller tone.

  9. I play my fretless Rick with strings just high enough to “not buzz” but low enough to still provide some speed. The (Hipshot) bridge is set up with a slightly higher-to-lower E string to G string, respectively. Funny, I can TELL when I have the strings set too high, because my left fingers will hurt after a good practice; there’s gotta be that “just right” balance. Left fingers need more “strength” than right fingers; easy on that right hand touch, Eugene, even if you’re grooving! Resist the urge to go yanking with your right hand; it only ruins your tone.

  10. My bass got a low action too,I sometimes use a pick and i notice when i hit a low F or low G it got a slap sound to it,the action is so low that the string dont have any space to vibrate properly on the E string,not sure if the action is too low,or maybe i pick the string to hard!

  11. I like super low action, but the largest deciding factor in how low can I go is how the nut is filed, which of course is dependent on how straight the frets are in the neck, I like a neck with the nut filed to .022 clearance at the first fret on all strings, 0.0625 measured at the 12th fret with a slight relief in the neck. This gives me the best action for me, great for slapping and a consistent feel up the neck.

  12. When Damian calls low action/light touch a “certain sound”, he’s being very diplomatic. I call it “crap”

    • 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 ..!

  13. I’m at a medium-low nowadays. I want to be able to dig in and get some rattle & grind in situations that call for it, and I don’t play extremely hard, but I want to have the full range of dynamics and tonal options available to me.

    • 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 :)

  14. I’ve got mine pretty high. Works better for the low tones. Tuned it B E A D.

  15. Very Low for me, but have still managed to create my own sound that has reaped many endorsement deals over the years, so it can’t be too bad. Ultimately I feel it is all in the hands, as Jaco said, but I also agree with Damian…. “Horses for Courses”… Do what sounds and feels best for you ;-)

  16. I used to have my action stupid low (Damian can vouch for this…he tried a bass of mine) but over time I found that it was harder to play because I actually like digging in. So now it’s just ‘low’ as opposed to ‘stupid low’. I also have gotten more into using Medium gauge strings because you have can lower action and less fret buzz than with light strings.

  17. i was just having this issue with my steinberger synapse. E A D and G are all perfect height where i like them, but the B kept rattling around the 3rd and 4th fret. so i adjusted the neck relief a half turn, since i just changed strings as well. i like to have the 80’s geddy lee sound mostly, so low action played really hard is how i get it, but the B string cant take that really well. when i played fretless a while back i always had them as high as they could go, and i originally did that for this bass too, i can play fast on any height, it’s just how close to the bridge i have to get that changes it

  18. From my experience, if you play an acoustic upright, you almost need to have the strings on your electric bass set just a bit higher than usual to avoid “overplaying” the action when you are swapping from one to another. I agree with the other comments that having a little tension on the string improves the sound.

  19. higher action works for me due to my right hand technique. I use my thumb (Wes Montgomery style) to play everything. Higher action works for me.

  20. I use medium action on mybasses..allows me to play with different dynamics and you can get more tones out of the instrument..it is a balance of playability and allowing the instrument to “project” its voice..in a big venue(live) you can hear the difference between high and low action..in a recording you can instantly hear if the bass is badly set-up..tone is everything!

  21. It really depends on how you play, what you like and what sound you want. I too thought I had pretty low action until I started performing at bass centric events. Now I would say that I favor medium action, and my bass setup has not changed since I bought my Alembic in 1998. Quick question: Has anyone had their bass PLEK’d?

  22. I feel very unconfortable with high actions settings. I like medium/low action. I don’t like to struggle with the instrument…so for my style of playing, medium or low action is the best option.

  23. I like a low medium when I do my set up on my basses.. and that has done me very well over the years to have “a little of both worlds”

  24. I’ve played with my action for decades and just have it set at “bleeding edge low” for the best results. It works great for me and I’ve never had a problem with tone. It really does come down to what works for you. I’ve always liked to have a little “sizzle” in my sound.

  25. I use a ridiculously low action live but in a recording environment I raise my action a bit. I don’t want too much buzz on recordings but live I like to be able to just play and loose myself in the music rather than struggle a little bit. When you are playing loud you can’t tell the difference anyway.

  26. The following quote nails it perfectly for me.

    ” 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.”

  27. I’m not a fast player by any means, so I keep mine medium. I’d almost consider raising it to see if I like the tone better.

  28. A few basses each a little different

  29. When you learn first on an upright you develop a stronger plucking style. I have several electric basses with only one set up with light action. Like the author says, the strings resonate so much better when they are not so close to the frets. Bass was not intended to play with a soft touch in my humble opinion. Mike Lull sets up all my basses.

  30. All I know is that I love my action super low but with my basses, technique and knowing how to EQ you can absolutely get amazing tones.

  31. Very low action, like heavy compression, reduces natural nuances and character.

  32. I’m a digger I like mine a lil higher, used to be a low guy but my heavy rh technique left me with no other option but to raise it up a little. Very pleased with my tone now.

  33. The action I use is typically a low medium. I get to retain my tone, and I can still play as fast as I need to. I usually play progressive rock/metal, so I need to be able to switch between a plethora of time signatures, play styles, and areas on the fretboard without having my bass trying to fight with me. I have one P-bass that has very high action, and it just felt uncomfortable and even painful to play around with. If I can’t even press on the frets without having to use all of my strength, then that is a massive issue for myself.

  34. Ian Lewis Western Australia. I used to set my basses up so that the strings never rattled, but these days I set them lower (<2mm string to 24th fret, 0.5mm relief @ 7th). I like to be able to 'dig' a little buzz when I want it!

  35. I’ve played jazz, blues, soul, R&B, fusion, funk, rock,, rock&roll, reggae, country&western, delta blues, polka’s, salsa’s, techno, gospel, praise and worship, with high, very high, low and very low action on bull, acoustic and electric basses over the last 43 years now and I think I wouldn’t change a word… a good response to the question, not too much, not too little… keep doing what you’re doing and B blest

  36. My first bass though, had pretty high action, about a half inch (being my first bass and self taught, I didn’t know that, that was high)… and I’m so, so glad that I learned that way… as it made playing everything else after that, a breeze…

  37. Unless you really want to just be a guitarist (and it seems most bassist today do) there is no need for super low action, makes the bass sound weak. I’ve always played a Precision bass when I was in bands. I was playing a little aggressive because I would break a lot of low E strings. A few years ago I decided I wanted to learn a few Jeff Berlin bass solos. I had to get a Jazz bass with light strings (40 – 100) and lower the action a lot to do this. But I know that this is not “bass playing”. If I were to play in a band again, I would want to get heavier strings and higher action. To me, the best place for a bass is with a band, and to know where you belong, you are not the guitar player or keyboard player. I just don’t like most bass solos because the tone is just dull.

  38. I use a medium action and Elixir strings on my Warwicks. That, coupled with the MEC pu’s height has a killer tone…. to my ears. I have a lower action on my Spectors, which have thinner necks, slightly closer string spacing and EMG pickups with D’Addario strings, that gives me a really good rock tone. I use really low action on my Music Man Sting Ray, to the point the strings are buzzing. I play over the bridge to try and compensate for the low action. I play through a Peavey Headliner 600, with a 1×15 cab and 4×10 cab. Also a SWR Super RedHead with a 2×10 cab, coupled with a Goliath III 4×10 cab

  39. I love the sound of flatwounds played a just a tad too hard over a split humbucking pick-up on a 1970s Fender Precision with mid-to-low action. It makes the needle jump! And the waitress too!

  40. I tend to think its all about the touch more than the action.. I read of several note worthy pros using low action and it haven’t ruined their career or reputation..

  41. I had always set the action on my les pauls as low as possible, all notes clean no buzz at medium “dig”, but after touring for a bit set them higher to account for the constant changes of environment.

  42. I guess my preferred action is medium low. I don’t like high tight strings nor do I like really low strings that rattle. But On the lower side of medium is nice for me.

  43. I play with a really low action and a light touch. I slap,use fingers and picks as needed. But I’m looking to raise it ‘just a smudge” to experiment with getting a different tone and volume. I do my own set-ups, so I will be experimenting for the new year to lock in my sound, for now.

  44. I really want to know how string action have some great bass players like Nathan East, Lee Sklar etc. I don’t know how high is “medium” action or “low” action – the only way to know that is to measure string height on 12th fret, then set the same value on our bass and then check if that kind of action is best for us.

  45. We have a cover we are doing that has a bass tone that sounds double in that one is the bass normal sound and another that is a string vibrating against the frets (its not slap or thumb).http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjXjkbODrro I actually like the fact that you can hear those two sounds. I have a medium action setup and the only way I have been able to duplicate it is by playing on the side of the string instead of on top just barely touching the string which is weird but does make the duel tone come out. On this track it is really obvious on the verses but when the rest of the instruments kick in on the chorus you cant really distinguish it. Is this sound normal on basses with low action? Maybe I should have two basses for this desired sound on some songs??? A little help here if someone knows if it is technique or just low action would be great!

  46. Thanks George. The Spector Euro 5 is neck through. I have a Euro 4 that isn’t in the video that is neck through. The Warwick Vampyre, Dolphin and Katana are all also

  47. I have my Ibby set pretty low ’cause I need it that way and I can still get pretty much any sound from it using only variations in my right hand technique… soft & warm to cold & harsh and anything in between. I’m guessing it’s not “stupid” low then… what is that anyway? :-

  48. Speed all day an flash all day! Like victor an Stanley

  49. 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)

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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.

  53. 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. :-)

    • 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!

  54. 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 .

  55. What else can be said?As the author succinctly stated “if it works for you, it’s working”.Nuff said!

  56. Jimmy Lewis

    Medium string height works best for me. I use a pick 95 percent of the time. I agree with several of the posters. The sacrifice in tone with low action isn’t worth it.