A Little Less Buzz and A Little More Action

As I prepared for The 2014 Chicago Guitar Show I found myself in a rush to finish and prep 14 guitars for the show.

These included our 6 new Pasquale Metal Series Guitars; The Inferno, Inferno-X, Tribulation, Vengeance, Switchblade and Assassin Models and also our new Pasquale Classic 22 and  Revelator 7 Guitars.

The Revelator 7 is our first 7 String extended range guitar.  We also had a sampling of guitars from our Exotic and Custom Shop Series as well as a few Modern 24 Guitars on hand with a variety of Pickup and Hardware options.

As I prepped these guitars for the show I run them through the standard 21 point checklist for set ups and I realized that I was faced with a pretty difficult conundrum. I was attempting to set up 14 guitars with a variety of woods, necks, fingerboards, contours, hardware and pickups and I have to attempt to dial them in specifically to the playing styles of every player who will come to the show. That is a difficult task.

Typically every player tells me the same thing; “I like my action pretty low”. I have never had a client tell me that they want “really high action”. Usually everyone wants low action that frets easily, doesn’t buzz and still gives a great tone. The problem is that “low action” usually means something different to every player. What is low to you might seem high to me and vice versa. I have built several 6 string guitars recently for players who tune down to low B, this concept brings a whole new meaning to the term “set up” because none of the rules of standard guitar sets up will apply for this tuning. The action has got to be much higher to compensate for the lack of string tension.

So as I found myself blazing through this task I thought I would take a minute to talk about what “action” is, why it’s there and explain how we get it “perfect”* on an instrument that exists in a constant state of conflict and by definition lacks perfect temperament.

“Action” is a general term that has been adopted by the guitar community to define the overall way a guitar plays. It usually refers to the height of the strings, however its definition goes well beyond the overall playability and delves deep into the construction and craftsmanship of the guitar.

It refers to the height of the strings over the frets as well as the tension at the nut and bridge.  It also has reference to the radius of the fingerboard and how well the nut and bridge saddles are contoured to follow the radius. Finally it relates to the constant battle between the straightness of the neck, the leveling of the fret height and the precise centered crowning of the frets.  This is a constant struggle because changes in temperature and humidity have adverse effects on the straightness of the neck.

It is important to understand that the traveling vibration from a plucked note runs up and down the length of the guitar string in a circular wave parallel to the neck. The lower the note the slower and wider the circular vibration pattern is, the higher the note the faster and more condensed the pattern becomes. This is basic guitar physics but to truly comprehend the complexity of guitar action you must understand these principles .

On any given fretted instrument there is a set “scale” that the tuning temperament is based on.  No, this is not another Exotic Mixo-Phrygian Inverted Demented Minor Scale that Steve Vai invented,  it is a mathematical formula that determines the exact distance one fret must be from the next to produce the next note in the major scale pattern that we use in western music.  No, I don’t mean Country Western music I mean western music that developed in Europe during the Renaissance Era as opposed to Eastern Oriental Music and Middle Eastern Music. Western music is based on the intervallic patterns of “half steps” while eastern and middle-eastern music revolves around a “quarter step” interval.

I’m sure at this point you are asking yourself “Who truly gives a crap?” Well just read on a little more and see if I can’t pull all of this together in a shredding metal moshing way that will make you raise your goblet of rock with your fist in the air…or at least you will better understand how your guitar works.

OK, remember that “fret scale” that we were talking about? Well it is set in such a way that the beginning of the scale starts at the nut and the end of the scale stops at the bridge. Your guitar is broken up into octaves that begin at the nut and repeat at the 12th fret. The distance from the edge of the nut to the center of the 12th fret must be EXACTLY the same as the distance from the center of the 12th fret to the end of the bridge. I didn’t say close…I said EXACTLY! If this is off slightly it will cause the intonation of each note on the string to be off incrementally so that a B note on the 6th string will not sound the same as a B note in the 4th string. Fortunately modern guitar bridges have compensating saddles that allow us to correct intonation down to 1/1000 of an inch. (That’s as close to EXACTLY as we can possibly get)

Now back to our point… The 12th fret is exactly dead center on the string. It is also the point that the circular sine wave from the vibration reaches its widest point. For this reason there needs to be enough “relief” in the neck to allow the wave to “run” the length of the scale without buzzing against any frets. To accommodate this we add just a little back bow to the neck to give the strings clearance to vibrate. Contrary to popular belief, no properly set up guitar neck is ever straight. If it were all the strings would fret out.

So how does this relate to the guitars “action”?

Well we use a slight back bow to allow clearance for the strings but too much back bow can cause the action in the middle of the neck to be higher than the action in the lower and higher frets. To accommodate this you must have the perfect string height at the nut.

This is where the situation gets complicated. You have to have enough clearance at the nut for an open string plucked at full force to clear the first fret without buzzing, but you also have to have it set low enough that the strings at the first fret are easy enough to fret without struggling. The tension at the first fret should be the same as the tension at the 12th fret. Therein lies the game because every player has a different touch and feel while playing.

( NOTE: Tone starts in the hands and begins with the players touch on the strings. If you don’t believe this just look at all of the players who have tried to copy Eddie Van Halen and Dimebag Darrell’s tone and none have quite been able to do it)

Every Pasquale Custom Guitar is put through the “Dreaded B-Flat Test”. The first fret B flat chord in  the first position is called “Dead Man’s Curve” because I have seen it derail even the best guitar players when it’s thrown randomly into a chart. If you are strumming along in the open position and the B- flat chord appears on a chart even the most proficient of players cringes a little bit. We put our guitars through the B- flat test which is simply a clean channel run through where the B flat chord in the first position must fret effortlessly. Pasquale Custom Guitars strives to find the perfect balance between nut height and string relief to get the best balance between neck tension and string height. In order to achieve this we usually set the height of our nut slots between .006” to.010” of an inch above the first fret so that we get extremely low action while still being able to fret the 1st fret B- flat chord easily. This means that the bottom of the string is 6/1000th above the first fret. (Talk about precision boys and girls…)

This does however create a problem for recessed style tremolos. Recessing a tremolo allows the bridge to get as low into the body as possible allowing extremely low action. Half of the fun of a recessed tremolo is being able to pull up on the bar and cause the notes to go sharp.  This especially fun with harmonics because it can create sounds that non tremolo guitar can’t.  However, there can be a problem. As the bar is pulled too sharp the string can deaden out against the last fret and cause the note to die. To compensate for this we set the string height at the nut slightly higher.  This allows for a slightly higher clearance above the 24th fret which allows the note to be pulled sharp without fretting out against the last fret.

These are just some of the hundreds of little things that go into a “perfect” set up. We at Pasquale Custom Guitars factor in every one of these considerations when starting a set up on our guitars.

Finding the perfect balance on a guitar is always a challenge but we work with every one of our clients to ensure that their guitars are perfectly set up EXACTLY the way they want to maximize their performance and creativity.

*Perfect is a relative term and subject to interpretation. This in no way indicates that the same standards of what is perfect to you are the same standards as to what is perfect to me and vise- versa. Pasquale Custom Guitars reserves the sole right to determine what is “perfect” in regards to all Pasquale Custom Guitars. This term is not meant to mislead or defraud anyone living, dead or undead. Pasquale Custom Guitars assumes no responsibility for any damages, personal injury, riots, epileptic fits, emergency OCD counseling, deaths or toppling of world governments that may occur as the result of this statement being misunderstood.

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