How to Correct a Guitar with Stiff Action

Stiff Strat? It's a common problem (the most infamous might be the maple fretboard version of the Eric Johnson Signature Model Fender Strat So why do some guitars play like 'butter' while others put up stiff resistance?

Here's the main culprit: maple fingerboards + sticky / glossy finish + low frets
Add to that a tight, vintage fretboard radius and you've got a recipe for a guitar that plays horribly.

How about quarter-sawn neck wood as the culprit? Every now and then you see some ding-a-ling arguing online about guitars with quarter-sawn necks being hard to play but there's no rational basis for the claim, there's no physics to back it up, and nobody can provide any proof other than their subjective experiences with a particular guitar, e.g., "This guitar is hard to play so I put on a new neck and now it's easy to play. The only thing different is the way the wood was cut....." This is like saying "I changed my guitar and now it is different." Congrats, you're a real brain-thinker now. It would take some kind of voodoo to replace a neck with another and change only one physical quality between the two. I find it interesting that owners of the maple fretboard EJ Strat report lots of problems, yet, those with the rosewood versions (both versions have quarter-sawn necks, by the way) are getting along just fine. Hmmm.

Anyway, enough with the crackpot theories.

Here is a list of corrective measures that might help you transform your unyielding guitar into one that plays itself. We'll begin with the easy things and progress to the most demanding and expensive.

I'm going to assume (I know, I know) that you possess adequate physical technicality with regard to playing but if you have sloppy technique then learning how to properly play will probably correct a lot of problems. I see a lot of kids playing with their 'finger prints' instead of their 'finger tips' and thumbs all over the place -- keep your fretting thumb on the back of the neck and not coming up over the top or hung over the fretboard.....learn proper fretting techniques first and see if your guitar isn't a lot easier to play.

Beyond technique:

If you have a F-style guitar with a maple fretboard finished in a sticky or glossy nitro or poly, etc.,  and low frets it's going to need a lot of work, a new neck, or just dump it for something different because a lot of the things on the list below are not going to help.

If you have a guitar with a rosewood fretboard (or a satin finish on maple) and at least medium jumbo frets in good condition, try the following suggestions:

1. Install new strings.

2. Install smaller gauge strings. On long scale guitars with fixed bridges (e.g., Tele) I like 9s; on long scale guitars with vibrato bridges (e.g., Strat) I like to use 9s or 10s. On short scale guitars I like to use 10s. People often think that the larger the strings the better the tone but this is often backwards. Larger strings will enhance the note's fundamental whereas thinner strings will enhance the upper order harmonics (i.e., the 'mojo'). See our guide on improving tone. It all depends on what you want to hear.

3. Install 'pure nickel' strings -- they're softer and easier to bend (not for high gain or metal applications typically). See our article on pure nickel strings.

4. Adjust your action: (a) your strings are probably too high off the fretboard and the neck needs to be straightened so get out your truss rod wrench and flatten it out a touch. Put a capo at the first fret (or use the index finger of your left hand) and with a right hand finger fret the 6th string at the 21st or 22nd fret and then with a left hand finger (pinky if you're holding down the string without a capo) push down on the string at the 12th fret. There should be a very tiny gap between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret; (b) once your neck is fairly straight you need to adjust the saddle heights to bring them into the proper relation with the new neck angle. Once your action is where you like it be sure and adjust for proper intonation. (c) ensure that the nut slots are cut properly such that the string is not sitting too high prohibiting a low action.

5. Your action should allow for some fret sizzle but not rattle or buzz. Lots of people use excessive force when playing. Ease up and let your amp do the work.

6. If your action is incapable of going low enough for easy playing you might have frets that are worn out in spots and uneven. Level and re-crown your frets. If you're not comfortable with this or do not have the tools take it to a tech.

7. New frets might be in order. Larger frets (I like medium jumbos or jumbos) are easier to play on compared to vintage style (small and low) frets. And nothing beats stainless steel frets.

8. Re-radius your neck (or have that work done for you -- you'll get new frets if you go this far). If you're playing on some kind of retro-style Fender, for example, it might very well feature a tight 7.25" radius that means comfortable chording in the first few positions (cowboy chords) and high action around the 12th fret and above. Modern guitars have radii that start at 10 inches.

Here's a guide:

Vintage Fender: 7.25 (actually, old Fenders that have been re-fretted numerous times will have flatter radii, sometimes as flat as 12" and this is why some 'vintage' guitars play so well compared to newer Fenders with tighter radii).

Contemporary Fender: 9.5

PRS: 10 and 11.5 on the Santana models

Gibson: 12

Contemporary G&L: 12 (one of the main reasons most G&L S and T style guitars play so much better than their Fender counterparts).

Parker: 10"  to 13" conical

Warmoth compound: 10" to 16" conical

(Here's a more complete radius guide to check out).

When you go so far as having a new radius cut and new frets installed be sure and get stainless fretwork in place of the traditional silver nickel stuff. Bending on stainless frets is a real treat. Yes, they will chew up strings faster but so what? While you're at it, if you have a guitar with a maple fretboard, have it finished with a satin, low gloss clear coat that won't slow you down.

At this point you've done all that can be done to get your guitar playing as well as it can. If it's still stiff and uncooperative perhaps the neck geometry is not suited to you. There is a myth a lot of players fall into that a larger neck results in "better" tone. In over thirty years of playing I have found no correlation between chunkier necks and "better" tone per se. It all depends on the individual guitar and how the neck relates to the rest of its components.