To be fair, the electric guitar is one of the most fun and engaging instruments to play. With all the different pickups, hardware, pedals, amps, and various effects units, the freedom in expression is almost endless. However, things are never that simple. In order to make the best out of it and have an enjoyable experience playing this instrument, there’s some practical tech stuff you should be familiar with. And one of the most common problems that guitar players face is that annoying fret buzz. With this in mind, we’ve decided to look more into the matter and help you out in dealing with this issue.
What is “fret buzz”?
First, let’s discuss what fret buzz means. This annoying little phenomenon is caused by strings hitting excessively over frets. There are four main things that can cause it:
- Warped or “bowed” neck
- Low string height
- Nut problems
- High frets
It can either be one or more of these issues at the same time. We’ll tackle each of these problems and will look for ways how to get rid of them. And don’t worry – in almost all of the cases, it’s easily repaired with a few simple tools.
How a bad setup and string buzz can impact your tone and performance
Let’s examine how the fret buzz impacts one’s tone and performance. As already explained, the fret buzz or string buzz occurs when you hit the strings and they hit over the frets too much. It can be anything from minor buzzing, or it can completely mute your tone.
The most common problem is the simple buzz that you can hear when you play your guitar unplugged or without distortion. It won’t completely hinder your performance, but depending on its intensity, it can be more or less noticeable. When you turn on the distortion, it’s usually “hidden” behind the effect’s “harmonically rich” content. However, even with some fret buzz, you’ll have two problems – you’ll feel it under your fretting hand and you’ll notice reduced sustain. When you pick any of the strings, it produces sound by vibration. If the string hits the frets, it loses its momentum and the vibration stops sooner. As a result, you can notice a significant reduction in sustain. This is especially annoying for lead players who love to keep one or more notes ringing out with distortion turned on.
What’s not fret buzz and things you should know
Of course, we should distinguish significant fret buzz from minor annoyances and other issues. There are some things beginner or intermediate guitarists may not be familiar with, so it’s important to know the difference.
Electrical hum and buzz
With words like “buzz,” some may confuse it with electrical hums and other related issues. These issues have nothing to do with your guitar’s setup. The most common electrical hum is with single-coil pickups. And there’s just nothing that can deal with it, except for noise gates or more expensive single-coil pickups, but even then you won’t get rid of it completely. It’s just something that you should live with if you’re playing guitars with single-coil pickups.
The other annoying electrical hum can happen due to grounding issues. You can easily notice the problem as the buzzing gets quieter when you touch the strings or any other metal part on the guitar that’s in touch with the strings (bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs, etc.). It’s not hard to deal with, but we advise you to take the instrument to a guitar tech, especially if you have Gibson-style tune-o-matic bridge on your guitar.
Other issues can include different types of electrical interference. If you notice that your guitar buzzes more when you touch on the strings or any metal parts while other guitars perform normally in the same settings, then you most likely have an issue with poor shielding. After all, your guitar has pickups and can act as an antenna. It’s even not that uncommon for electric guitars to pick up on radio signals. This is not an unsolvable problem, but you’ll need a copper tape and you’ll have to cover all the cavities where your guitar’s electronics are.
String buzz that won’t do much damage to your tone
Of course, you can’t make your setup perfect, especially if you have a cheaper or mid-level instrument. You’ll always experience some kind of fret buzz. If the buzzing only occurs in the very short time span after hitting on the strings, in the initial attack, then it’s not much of a deal. If it doesn’t affect the sustain and if you don’t notice it when playing through an amp, then you shouldn’t worry about it. However, always keep track of the situation and see if things get worse.
What causes fret buzz and how to deal with it
As we said, there are four main problems that can cause fret buzz – bowed neck, low string action, high (or uneven) frets, and problems with your guitar’s nut. We’ll tackle each of them.
Any of the needed tools, like allen keys, can be bought in any hardware store. You can even get yourself a specialized guitar tool kits, like CruzTools Guitar Player GrooveTech Kit.
Your guitar’s neck is under constant tension. In the long run, metal strings can warp the neck, causing it to bend towards the body. Your neck gets slightly concave in shape, or “bowed.” There’s also the opposite case, which usually happens when you keep the strings too loose for extended periods. The neck can become convex, or get a “hump.” These issues can also occur due to poor quality wood or extreme climates where the humidity is too high or too low during the year. In the case of arid climates, you can get a guitar humidifier. And if you’re living in extremely humid areas, then make sure to keep your instrument in dry conditions and place silica gel or bamboo charcoal packs in your guitar case or a gig bag.
Bowed necks are an easy fix. If you notice any buzzing, the first thing you should look for is whether your neck is bent. Fortunately, all guitars have adjustable metal truss rods in their neck. They’re accessed at the guitar’s headstock and are sometimes hidden under the plastic cover, which is the case with Gibson and Gibson-styled guitars.
You’ll first need to determine whether your neck is “bowed” or “humped.” First, find a way how you can keep your guitar safely on a flat surface without damaging it. Next, press the 4th string (D) on the first and the last fret at the same time. Then take a look at the 8th or 9th fret. If there’s no room between the string and the top of the fret, then your neck is either perfectly straight or humped. Both of these cases are bad for your performance and you’ll want to loosen up the truss rod a little.
In case you see a big gap at the 8th fret, which is around 0.5 millimeters, then your neck is bowed. If you notice this issue, then you’ll need to tighten up the truss rod.
For more precise measuring, you can use gauge measuring tools or specialized straightedges for guitars. This is a significantly more precise method, although it requires more research and practice.
In case you have a back-bowed “humped” neck, then take the larger Allen key that came with your guitar (usually 8 or 6 millimeters in diameter) and turn the truss rod just slightly in counterclockwise direction. In case of a “bowed” neck, first loosen up your strings a little and then tighten the truss rod by slightly turning it clockwise. After each minor adjustment, check your string height. About 1/8 to 1/4 of a turn will be enough to adjust the neck in most cases.
In the end, your neck should be just slightly bowed. Press the 4th string on the first and last frets and look at the gap. There should be a barely noticeable space between the string and the 8th fret.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When adjusting the truss rod, it’s extremely important to be careful and do only minor turns. Any sudden moves and major adjustments can potentially damage your neck.
Low string action
String height, or string action, adjustment can be a little difficult. It’s far from an impossible tack, but you need some practice and patience to get things right. We’ll be looking into two main types of bridges – Gibson-styled tune-o-matic that comes with or without a stopbar tailpiece, and the Fender-style bridge with individual adjustable saddles. The latter can either be a hardtail or a tremolo one.
NOTE: String height adjustment should be done after truss rod adjustment. First check your neck relief and then look into your string height.
Let’s start with the tune-o-matic. You can find these on most of the Les Pauls, SGs, Flying Vs, or similar Gibson-inspired guitars. This kind of bridge has two adjustable screws on each end. You can adjust it by simply raising and lowering each of them. However, if you’re raising your string action, make sure to loosen the strings just a little. You don’t want them to break.
With a tune-o-matic bridge height adjustment, make sure not to adjust each side gradually and check if the fret buzz is gone. If your action happens to be too high, then just lower it little by little until you notice the buzz. Then rise it just a little so that you find that perfect “sweet spot.”
On Fender-style bridges, each string has an adjustable saddle. This goes for both hardtail and tremolo versions. The adjustment is not that hard, although you need some patience. Each saddle comes with two screws. These screws can be adjusted using a 1.5-millimeter Allen key. Turning them clockwise raises the saddle while turning it counterclockwise lowers the saddle. However, you’ll need to adjust each of two screws little by little while making sure that both sides of the saddle are at the same height.
After raising the saddle, make sure to check all the frets where the fret buzz occurred. When you deal with all the buzz, try to find that “sweet spot” where the string action suits your playing and where you experience no buzz. Of course, it’s impossible to make it all perfect, but just make sure that buzzing is at a minimum.
High or uneven frets
It’s not uncommon for frets to cause any unwanted buzzing issues, even when the neck relief and string action are all perfect. Even new guitars can sometimes come with these issues, and you’ll find that one spot on the neck where you experience strong fret buzz. If it’s an older instrument that’s been used a lot, then maybe there are one or more uneven frets.
Now, this is a little trickier, especially if we’re talking about older instruments that have been played for years. You’ll first need to look at your fretboard. If you see a lot of worn-out marks on the fret wires, then it’s probably the time to take your guitar to a luthier and refret it. This will not only get rid of the fret buzz but will make your playing experience more enjoyable.
But if there are only one or two spots on the fretboard that give you trouble, there are simpler solutions. After all, this issue is so widespread, even with brand new guitars. Some of the frets just didn’t sit well during the instrument’s assembly. The best way to figure out if this is the case is to play every string on every fret note by note.
In order to fix this issue, you can just level the frets. However, you’ll need to be careful not to damage the fretboard. For this, you’ll need a simple straight wooden block with a perfectly flat surface, double-stick tape, masking tape, sandpaper of various grits, and a metal file. Before you begin, also make sure that your neck is perfectly straight.
Remove all the strings, and then cover the fretboard with masking tape, leaving only the fret wires uncovered. After that, mark every fret using a sharpie. Then take the wooden block and use double-stick tape to add sandpaper to one of the perfectly straight edges. When you get everything done, take the board and start moving the side with the sandpaper back and forth over the frets. At the same time, try not to hit the nut or any other part of the guitar. Do this slowly, and once you notice that sharpie markings are going away, change the sandpaper grits to finer ones. Repeat this until all the sharpie markings are removed. After you’re done, take the metal file and get rid of any rough edges that might have appeared. Just make sure not to damage the fretboard.
The process is not complicated, but you’ll need to be careful. If you’re not feeling confident about doing this yourself, the best solution is to take it to a luthier. The repair shouldn’t be expensive.
Guitar nut can wear out after the years of playing. This is not uncommon and you can notice it easily if you see that any of the strings are vibrating in the grooves. If the grooves have worn out, it’s probably the best idea to have the nut replaced. For this, we advise you to take the guitar to a luthier. It’s not an uncommon issue and it shouldn’t be that expensive. The process of repairing the nut can be a bit tricky, so it’s easier to just get a new one.
If you’re not sure, take it to a guitar tech!
At the end of the day, guitar techs are here to help you. It might cost some money, but instrument maintenance is just part of the game. If you’re not confident about doing any of these adjustments or repairs by yourself, take your instrument to a guitar tech or a luthier and they’ll sort it out.
However, if you’re at least somewhat serious about becoming a good guitar player, it’s important to know how to set the string height and your guitar’s truss rod. These are some of the essential skills that will come in handy. After all, if you’re out there on a tour one day and don’t have a guitar tech with you, you should be able to know how to deal with these issues yourself.
Sam Ash Music: The Guitar MaintenanceExperts
You can find these and more guitar maintenance products on SamAsh.com. If you’re still undecided, have questions, or need assistance with your purchase, give us a call at 1-888-977-0074 where we have music and audio experts at the ready to help you fulfill your needs.