The Action of Your Bass Can Impact Your Tone More Than You Think

If you have ever talked about bass tone, you have probably heard the term “action”. Most people don’t bother to define everything they say, but action, in this case, refers to the distance between your strings and your fretboard. It has a huge effect on tone and playability, and almost everybody who takes the time to play with it has a different preference. As for me, I like a moderately high action, but I’ll be sure to cover the benefits of both high and low action.

What if I Have Low Action on my Bass?

Low action is the choice of speedy players. If you plan on covering songs from Slayer, but with actual bass lines, then you might prefer a lower action. The reason for this is since the strings are closer to the frets, it requires less force and time to fret each note.

Of course, everyone would go with low action if it didn’t have any negatives. Unfortunately, low action means less sustain, tone, and dynamic range. This is all because of the low distance. It causes a smaller angle behind the fretted location, and doesn’t have as much room to vibrate in front of the fret. Of course, you don’t need sustain if you’re just gonna gallop 16th notes, right Steve Harris?

What if I Have High Action on my Bass?

High action is my favorite. It allows you to have full sustain, a richer tone, and much more dynamic control without worrying about fret buzz. The reasons are all the opposite of why low action is good for fast players.

Eventually, you’ll develop some good speed with high action, but it takes time, practice, and, believe it or not, exercise. When I first increased my action I got hand cramps all the time. While you may never be as fast as with a low action, with time you’ll have the strength to do all the fills at speed, but the tone to carry through on sustained notes or even chords.

Be careful, though. Too high, and you may throw your intonation out of whack, or make your bass nearly unplayable.

An Intro on How to adjust the action on your Bass

On your bridge, the strings will go over a saddle. The saddles are the parts that hold each individual string, and usually have 3 screws attached to them. You’re looking at the two on either side of the string. The adjustment is simple, usually clockwise rotation raises the saddle, and counter-clockwise lowers the saddle. Some bridges won’t allow for individual adjustment, in which case, you can usually adjust the entire bridge as one. A higher bridge means higher action, obviously.

Past this, you will also need to adjust your truss rod, which creates relief in the neck of your bass. This is something you want to take slowly and be very careful when you do it. If you are not comfortable doing these, please take your bass to a local guitar and bass repair shop.

What’s the right action for you?

Depends on what your playing. If you prefer a technical style with a lot of quick notes, then you don’t really need the sustain and tone of a high action. If you’re playing long, legato, or drawn out styles, you may prefer a higher action. It’s all up to you, really. My advice would be to raise it a little at a time since most stock basses have a pretty low action. If you raise it a little and hate it, then lower it back and so on. There is no right answer to “best action”. There is only your answer, so play around with it and find what’s best for you.

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