Low Action on a Bass: The Pros & Cons
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