...is often it being properly setup!
Have you ever had a great setup done on your guitar? It’s amazing what a few adjustments can net in terms of playability.
What is a setup? Just like you can hot-rod your car or truck, you can make adjustments to your guitar for how you want it to play. Some people are so surprised that their difficult-to-play guitar can actually be turned into a sweet playing instrument once setup- perhaps it has never even had one!
There are many factors to consider when doing a custom setup.
Commonly, players request lower action when they bring it down to the shop for the first time. Action can be set as low as the fretboard will accommodate, and all fretboards are different! The fretboard radius (curve of the playing surface), condition of neck, fret height consistency, string gauge, tuning, and playing style all have a significant role in determining the best action for each instrument.
Generally, although not without exceptions, the flatter your fretboards’ radius, the lower you can set the strings to play cleanly with enough clearance for full string bending over all positions. While vintage styled necks with a rounder playing surface demand higher action to allow full playability across the entire neck.
And are your frets level enough? If your frets aren’t completely level (and most guitars aren’t 100%), their inconsistencies may become obvious when the action is lowered. You may need a fret level to level out those divots, high/low frets, or subtle warbles down the neck…that is if you expect your guitar to play consistently in all positions. Warped necks are a whole other story, let’s assume yours is not!
String gauge, tuning and playing style is important to consider. Someone who plays aggressively may need higher action if they want to avoid excessive fret buzzing. And the lighter gauge your strings, the less tension there will be when tuned to pitch, the sloppier they tend to be. The looser the string (due to string gauge or drop tuning), the wider the strings’ elliptical vibrational pattern when played, the more clearance it requires (in relation to how hard the string is played).
Many electric guitar players will request low action and no buzzing, and often with light strings to boot! This is the guitar tech’s most frustrating request, as it relies most commonly on who is playing it/how it is being played, not the instrument itself. Any normal electric guitar will buzz, and if you look for buzzing, you’ll find it! The harder you play the string(s), the more it vibrates, the more room it needs to move. At some point it runs out of room and hits the frets. This is where that buzzing often comes from. Steel frets, steel strings = they hit each other! Although it can be minimized through a proper setup and fret leveling where necessary, etc., buzzing and electric guitars go together (even your prized PRS custom or “insert big shiny brand here”). Most players accept and live with it. Others go on to play keyboards ;)
In many cases guitars will come factory setup with a medium to high playing action. Why would they do that? They do this for various reasons, 1) Nobody wants to hear a buzzy guitar when they pick it up for the first time. 2) not everybody likes low action. 3) There is always a ‘settling in’ period with new guitars, being made out of wood, many manufacturers take this into account, which helps avoid any potential problems before they are sold. 4) The instrument will sound better, give off more volume and sustain with higher action. 5) Great playing action is simply a matter of opinion! (which is why most people will bring their guitars in to the shop when it’s not performing the way that they want it too).
So remember, tell your tech what you want and why! We are good at a lot of things but we can’t (always) read your mind and we’re not the ones playing your guitar. A good guitar tech can solve your problems and set it up to accommodate any playing style.