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Factors Affecting the Action and Playability of Instruments
ALFIERI GUITARS Long Island, NY USA Don Alfieri
After tone, the most important concern to the musician is the action of an instrument. The action of a guitar, or other fretted instrument, depends on the height of the strings above the fretboard. There are four major factors which control this and as confusion sometimes exists as to their regulation and adjustment I will briefly discuss each factor and its influence on the overall set-up of an instrument.
NECK ANGLE: This refers to the angle at which the the neck joins the body of the guitar. Of the four factors under consideration, this is the major structural influence upon which all else depends. On instruments with a dovetail joint which has "pulled-up" (usually a good number of years after construction) a reset (removal, re-adjustment of the angle formed at the joint and re-gluing) is necessary to achieve proper string height. On guitars with bolt on necks, shimming can adjust the neck angle. On banjos this angle can be regulated by correct setting of the coordinator rod which extends from the neck heel through the body.
NECK RELIEF: Is the amount of relief or bow in the neck and therefore the fretboard. Though some people (including some technicians) think necks/fretboards should be perfectly straight, most luthiers do NOT, but believe it should exhibit a prescribed amount of relief (measured in thousandths of an inch) so the vibrating strings don't buzz on the frets. On instruments equipped with one, the truss rod is the immediate adjusting mechanism for this relief. An overly adjusted truss rod which gives a perfectly straight contour to the neck (especially on electric guitars with their lighter gauges of strings) may often result in back bend given enough time. Loosening of the truss rod does not always correct this condition. Necks without truss rods are adjusted, if needed, by applying heat and shaping to the contour required.
NUT: The nut is the slotted piece of plastic, bone, ivory or sometimes ebony at the peghead end of the fretboard which regulates the height of the strings above the frets. The grooves or slots are cut to specific depths. Once the correct specifications are cut, no further adjustment is generally made to this fitting.
SADDLE: The saddle is the piece (usually made of the same material as the nut on acoustic guitars) which regulates the height of the strings at the bridge position. After having set the above components to more or less fixed specifications, the saddle can be adjusted to the desired string height.
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