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Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?
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Author:  Loveartist [ Sun Jul 01, 2018 8:53 am ]
Post subject:  Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Hey guys, do you know if a thicker string gauge would allow for a lower action. If searched google for a while and there seems to be debate. Most people say that thicker gauge will allow for a lower action because higher tension means the vibration does not get as wide so it does not buzz as easily. Makes sense to me but I figure I better ask the people who understand guitars the most before I make the switch.

Also if it does indeed allow for a lower action is it safe to switch. I have a yamaha pacifica 611hfm and it came with 9s. The manual say nothing about switching string gauges. I would probably switch 10s. 11s are a possibility but might be to hard for me to press down comfortably, especially on low fret bar chords. Thanks for your help :-)


Author:  Freeman [ Sun Jul 01, 2018 1:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Cody, I think the change in the vibrating envelope between 9's and 10's or 11's will be so small that even if you can lower the action a hair it really won't make much difference. Think of it this way, you want low action to make it easier to fret and so you can play faster. Heavier strings increases the tension (9's are around 85 pounds, 10's 100 or so), that will feel harder to fret. It will be harder to bend. However, with that said, 10-46 is usually considered "standard" or "medium" gauge on an electric and for most people are a pretty good compromise. They will work fine on your Yamaha.

When I'm asked to set a guitar to "the lowest possible action without buzzing" these are the steps (and do them in this order because some affect others, some do not). Get the guitar structurally perfect and the geometry absolutely correct. Next get the frets perfect. Anything less than perfect will compromise your setup. Be particularly aware of the area at the neck to body joint.

Next adjust the relief, depending on fret condition it should be possible to get to 4 or 5 thousands. The lower the better but you still need some. I do the nut slots next, followed by the saddles. The final thing is the intonation. I like to play each string starting at the first fret and measure the gap at the next one, if it plays cleanly then I move up the neck and measure the gap. In theory whatever gap plays cleanly at the first fret should work all the way up the neck - if the gap gets bigger then I know I can further lower the action, if the gap gets bigger and then smaller I probably have too much relief, if the gap suddenly pinches down at one fret I've probably got a high fret.

Changing string gauges normally will pull a little more relief into the neck which appears to raise the action - I make it a point to always measure every parameter on a guitar when I start work on it to see what changes and what needs to be changed. Good luck

Author:  Conor_Searl [ Sun Jul 01, 2018 1:57 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Hi Cody, I'm with Freeman. I don't think a change in string gauge will be the solution you're looking for. Freeman's outline of a set up is good. For me when I set up my guitar or someone else's the string gauge conversation is always at the beginning of the process, for example a customer will tell me they like 10's or 11's or whatever and then I proceed with the setup using that particular gauge, working to achieve the action they like. If I've done my job well, the guitar will play well regardless of which gauge of strings I've used. Which is not to say that someone who uses 9 gauge strings exclusively will enjoy playing a guitar set up properly with 11's, just that a low action is achievable regardless of which string gauge you use. Successful low action is probably more limited by the amount of relief in the neck, the quality of the fret job, and the technique of the player.

As far as moving back and forth between gauges on one guitar, (I do this from time to time) if I have the time I like to do a quick set up when changing to a different gauge, but if I don't, I haven't found moving from 9's to 10's say to be frustrating. That being said I like a higher action and am a heavier handed player, if you like super low action and you play with a light touch and are set up with a heavier gauge string moving to a lighter one will likely cause string buzz, moving the other way will probably be less problematic.

Author:  Loveartist [ Sun Jul 01, 2018 5:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Thank you all for your responses yall are awseome! Good to know that the string gauge is not likely the culprit. I think I need to learn to do the setup poperly because I have only had the yamaha and I already started tinkering with it. Unfortunately my lowest feeler gauge I have is .005 inches but an action gauge, a set of radius gauges including a 14inch one (although mine neck is 13.75), and a set of feeler gauges starting at .001 should be here tomorrow. I am pretty excited. I wish I would have had the patience to wait so I could have taken accurate measurements of how it was setup before I started tinkering. Oh well life goes on.

The thing that bothers me I guess is at about the 10th fret the action gets "in my mind" to high on every string. With the 9s on it when i fret the note in the process of depressing the string I sometimes bend the note a bit so when it hits the fret and I pluck it its slightly sharp. Also its a bit hard to play fast because I feel like there is so much distance to the fret that I cant keep my fingers really low. Maybe I have a poor neck angle, not sure.

Here are my measurements followed by my diagnosis and questions:
Relief at 6th fret capo first 22nd fret depressed - lower than .005 feeler gauge my guess .002 to .003
Relief at 8th fret capo first 22nd fret depressed - lower than .005 feeler gauge my guess .003 to .004

Bass E string measurements at fret number with previous fret depressed.
#2-5 - 0.007 All about the same
#6 - Slightly Higher .009
#7 - About Same as #2 (.007)
#8 - About Sameas #2 (.007)
#9 - .006
#10-13 .005
#14-22 lower than .005
Note: The strings start making a slight buzz at the 11th fret with a hard pluck

Same deal as above on treble E string
#2-4 were lower than .005 and were about the same it seemed
#5 seemed a little more difficult to get the feeler gauge under so maybe high fret?
#6 -11 were lower than .005 and seemed about the same as #2-4
#12-16 were pretty hard to get the .005 feeler gauge under
and #17 through 22 were very hard to get the .005 feeler gauge under however there was still a small visible / tappable gap
Note: This string buzzes slightly at every fret accept perhaps the first with a hard pluck. Did not notice it yesterday though when I started messing with things, not sure what happened there. Maybe I just was paying attention.

Nut Height capo 3rd measuring at first fret
E - Slightly under .005 prolly .004
A - .004 to .004 (guess)
D - .002 to .003 (guess)
G - .001 or .002 (guess)
B - .003 to .004 (guess)
E - .005

I set up the Bass E string action at 12th fret about .09
I set up the High E string action at about .06
the other 4 strings I adjusted by feel to be honest, if it was buzzing I raised the saddles a bit until it stopped

My diagnoses so far would be
#1 add more relief
#2 get a fret level
#3 possibly get my nut filed down
#4 possibly adjust the neck angle or have someone adjust it

I am curious, is the lower fret clearance as I go up the neck just the bridge saddles being to low or is it to MUCH relief?
How do I know if the neck angle is off. Is it something I can measure on my own or do I need special tools?. Unfortunately there are only four bolts so I dont think it has neck angle adjustment.

Also I was not sure if you measure the nut action right next to the nut, at the first fret, or at the first fret with the third fret depressed. So I did the one with the capo at the 3rd measuring the first. Let me know if thats not the correct way to do it :-)

For Freeman: Now that I will have most of the tools for measuring setups come monday.. on the spreadsheet you emailed me a while back what do the BRIDGE POSITION - 1ST STRING through 6th and bridge height 1st and 2nd string mean. Or rather what do I measure for these. I am guessing they are for tremolo systems and I can ignore them for now since the yamaha is a hardtail. Also when you recommend .06 and .09 for 12th fret action on the E strings is this with a capo on the first fret?

Thanks so much man you have made this whole process so much easier. I no longer have to scour the internet and and not know who to trust :-)

Author:  Freeman [ Sun Jul 01, 2018 6:11 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

OK, lots of good information there. Lets work thru it slowly. One of the rules of thumb is that if your guitar buzzes in the lower frets (1 to 5 or so) you probably need more relief, is it buzzes near the neck joint you might need a little less. This is a really simplistic picture but it kind of shows what is going on


String tension pulls a little bit of relief in the neck up to where it joins the body, then the neck gets really stiff. The truss rod is only effective to about that point so you frequently end up with that little hump. Imagine a bunch of little fret bumps in the picture just to the left of the hump - you can see how the clearance gets smaller and you have the potential for buzzing. That is pretty much what your next fret numbers indicate, they get smaller right at that point. The solution is to work with the relief if you can lower it any more and maybe lightly dress those frets - I find the action gauge to be pretty good for rocking frets to see if you have a high one (use the short side up there and just try to rock it on three frets). So, yes, a little bit of fret leveling might help but go very slowly.

This is a very good discussion of neck relief and its effects on playability - he is mainly talking about acoustic guitars where we tend to have slightly higher relief but he is using an electric to demonstrate his point - anyway, good read.

There are basically three ways to do nut slots, I mostly use two of them. First, if you know how tall your frets are (lets say 0.040) you can put a stack of feeler gauges next to the nut and file the slots down to them. Basically that would be like there was a zero fret which would be the same height as the others. In reality you won't be able to get quite to that level and every time I try it I end up filing my feelers so I don't do it that way.

I just file the slots so that I get clearances at the first fret that I know will work. Usually that is around 0.014 on the high E going up to about 0.018 on the low E, that would mean the strings in the middle are 0.016 or so. I approach this slowly knowing that I can always make them deeper but its a big hassle making them higher - its time consuming and I have screwed up a few nuts going too low. The other quickie test is to fret between 2 and 3 and tap the string over 1, I want some clearance. If I loose that clearance the string might buzz on the first fret - I'm too low.

I think electrics are a little less critical on nut slots - most people don't play there as much as they do on an acoustic so if you went a little higher you are probably OK. There is a little chart that comes with the StewMac action gauge that suggests 0.010 to 0.024 (high to low) for an electric, 0.013 to 0.023 for an acoustic. Somewhere in that range is a good place to start.

I'll say that while 0.060 to 0.090 is my goal at the 12th fret it does require pretty good frets (and that absence of that hump). Thats honestly about as low as I dare go. I also just set the in between string so they gradually go up from 60 to 90 - the action gauge makes it pretty easy if you have individually adjustable saddles.

Couple more comments. Remember that I use that spreadsheet for everything - acoustics, electrics, even the rogue banjo that might wander by. Neck angle is different for them - its really important for an old acoustic where the neck might have to be reset before the setup can be done. With an electric I want to know that I have sufficient adjustment in the saddles to get the action where I want it and have some future adjustment. Most of the time that means that a straightedge on the frets will jut touch the top of the saddles when they are at their very lowest position.

I also like to check the saddle position on both electrics and acoustics - usually you can't do anything about it but I check anyway. Often some of the boxes in the spreadsheet don't get filled in but they are there to remind me to think about them.

Hope this helps, glad to hear that you are moving forward

ps - here is a little thread that I did at another forum that kind of goes thru all the steps. Its not complete and it doesn't get into the details like you are starting to, but it might help ... tele-setup

Author:  Loveartist [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 11:27 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Thanks a bunch man, great links / tutorial also.

So I took tension off the strings, and flattened the neck to make sure the neck angle is right. I did it at the D string saddle and it was spot on with the neck (saddle lowered all the way). The wierd thing though is I have these graphtech saddles and the intonation spring / screw kinda levitates the saddle a bit when the two action adjusting screws are not holding the saddle up at all. But if I use my finger to press down the saddle there is prolly a .04 gap between the straight edge and the saddle. Not sure if thats a problem. What do you think?

I also put some 11s on just to see if I like them. I really like them tuned down a half a step but with standard tuning to hard to press down for me. They did solve the problem though of when I press down on a string it sorta bending due to how high they were so I might try 10s so I can stay i standard tuning. I also tested one string with a 9 10 and 11 just to make sure it did not allow for a lower action and you were correct, hardly any difference, if anything the 9s had slightly less buzz at same saddle positon.

Also I checked the frets by flattening the neck with no tension on the strings then used a credit card to rock 3 frets at a time sliding back and fourth across the three frets and I didnt find a single rock on the fretboard so I guess the frets are fairly level.

I guess all thats really left now is filing the nut down (if needed... I still need more precice measurments) and getting the apporpriate relief. What are your thoughts on DIY nut filing solutions such as sandpaper wrapped around a guitar string? Also what are your thoughts on doing it myself? You said earlier its not as big a deal on electrics to leave it high. At what point eould you consider it too high for an electric?

Thanks again man, bery grateful for your help. Also as soon as my tools come today I might go up to the local music go round and start measuring some action heights heh. :-) I need some strings anyway!

Author:  Conor_Searl [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 11:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

One obvious way of telling if the nut slots are too high other than it being uncomfortable to fret the first fret is if the strings go significantly sharp when fretted in the first few frets.

I will sometimes measure the gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the first fret with a feeler gauge. But usually just to get me in the ballpark. Once in the ballpark I'll hold the string down at the third fret and gently tap behind the fretting finger at the first fret, if I hear a little metallic "tink" for lack of a better term I know the slot is about as low as it can go without creating a buzz.

I've always used nut files for the string slots. I would imagine wrapping a string in sandpaper would end up giving you a slot that is too wide, since you'll be adding a few thousands width to the string with the sand paper. But filing nut slots isn't too hard, just go incrementally and make sure your file is always angled down towards the tuning pegs so the nut slot falls away from the fret board side. In my experience plastic seems to file much faster than bone. If you go too far, you'll know it, the string will buzz. But to fix that I'll make a paste by mixing some superglue and dust from whatever the material the nut is made from together and filling the slot and starting the filing over once its dried.

Author:  Freeman [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 12:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Your observation about string gauges and downtuning is right on - if you downtune a semitone or two you normally want to bump the string gauges up one or two standard sizes to maintain the tension. SRV played some very heavy strings (13's I think) but he was tuned down several step so it was a little more reasonable (I think I would still hate his action however). Anyway, I'm going to suggest 10's as a reasonable compromise unless you find you need more or less tension. And a good way to experiment with tension is to just tune up or down one step (which would be the equivalent of 11's or 9's)

I'm hesitant to suggest diving into nut slots because a mistake is irreversible - go too deep and you end up making a new nut (so you get lots of practice). For an acoustic guitar player who spends all of his time playing cowboy chords I think nut action is very important, for an electric player who lives at 12 not so much. As long as you are somewhere around those numbers I gave you and, importantly, as long as you have that back fret clearance you should be fine.

There are cheap and dirty ways to get file nuts - some people buy the little gauged tip cleaners for welding tips (auto parts store should have them) but the problem is they aren't marked in decimal sizes so you either need a conversion chart or a caliper to figure out which one to use. You can buy on e-bay feeler gauges that have been made into little saws, or you can try wrapping fine sandpaper around a string or feeler gauge. None of them work very well, eventually you'll want to buy the correct files. If I had to get along without nut files I would probably wrap 400 grit sandpaper around a feeler that was about 5 or 6 thousands under the string size.

I use a file one size bigger than the string - normally for the high E I'll use a 0.012. You can rock the file slightly to open a slot and I like to take a couple of passes, put the string in and tune it up to check the clearance. I takes me an hour or so to make a nut (I only do bone unless someone requests something else).

And again, remember the cause and effect - changing relief will change action and nut (very slightly). Changing nut will affect action. Changing action will affect intonation but not relief or nut.

Carry on

Author:  Loveartist [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 4:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

So I tested the pitch at the first fret on the strobe tuner app I have and its pretty much perfect going from first open to first fret on every string. So I guess the nut is ok :-). It will be interesting to see if it changes when I put 10s or 9s on.

Anyway Im starting to be impressed with yamaha. No super unlevel frets, a dexent nut and dead on neck angle.

Also my tools came. Currently the action at the 12th fret low E is .08 and on the high E .05 so I guess thats pretty good. Also all buzzing has stopped, dunno if the 11s helped but the relief is inbetween .002 and .003 at the 8th fret.

Anyway I finally have peace of mind about my action knowing its pretty good. Thank the both of you for giving me the knowledge and the tools to find that peace. Feels good. Thanks again :-)


Author:  Freeman [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 5:00 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Loveartist wrote:
Also my tools came. Currently the action at the 12th fret low E is .08 and on the high E .05 so I guess thats pretty good. Also all buzzing has stopped, dunno if the 11s helped but the relief is inbetween .002 and .003 at the 8th fret.

Those are pretty much to die for specs - you aren't going to get any better. If you go back to 10's you might find the relief drops - it might not even be measureable but you are so close to the limits you might find you have to back off (loosen, allow more relief) just a hair. Eight of a turn, no more. You may also find that changes in humidity or temperature will push you over the fine line, but now you have the tools and the knowledge to walk it.

Good job

Author:  Loveartist [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 5:02 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Thanks Freeman, take care man!

Author:  Conor_Searl [ Mon Jul 02, 2018 5:57 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

I used to sell Yamaha guitars at the music store I worked at. People would often look sideways at them because they see Yamaha products everywhere, so how could they possibly make good instruments. But in my experience Yamaha can't afford to do anything bad. An interesting aside, the metal they use in their drum hardware is all cast in the motorcycle factory. That's a huge bonus, when you see how many different drum brands fail at the threaded parts.

Author:  Loveartist [ Tue Jul 03, 2018 10:01 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Will a thicker string gauge allow for lower actions?

Ya that a pretty good company. If I had any money I might buy stock in them lol. Thanks again for your help Conor. :-)

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