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Fret Buzz: Don’t Let It Grind You Down

Fret Buzz: Don’t Let It Grind You Down

It’s a problem that can drive you slightly potty...

But what causes fret buzz? There’s something about a ‘buzzing’ sound that seems to make it particularly irritating (unless of course, you’re aiming to create a buzzing sound…)

Whether it’s a fly buzzing around you, a refrigerator, mains hum, or some other buzz, it’s seldom a ‘positive’. As a guitarist, fret buzz is a particular variety that can plague their playing lives. However, help is at hand so don't fret (you're welcome).

Here we take a look at the main causes and solutions so that you can move on to producing nothing but sweet, sweet tones…


1. Technique: It's all in your hands

This is the most common cause of fret buzz. For the guys in stores, it’s also the most difficult when it comes to telling the owner/ player the cause of the buzz. Naturally, the last thing that you want to hear from someone is criticism on your playing, musicians can be an egotistical bunch after all.

Typically, the cause is fretting too far behind the intended fret, or not pressing the strings down hard enough. Sit down with a metronome and go through some chromatic exercises slowly but surely to ensure that you're fretting each note on each string correctly, paying close attention to any trouble areas.

For example, you may find it more difficult to fret the 6th string at the first fret than you do the 1st string at the first fret. Alternatively, as you shift your playing position along the neck certain frets along the fingerboard may be more challenging for you to fret properly. Everybody is different but you'll get there.

So, before you head off to your local music store, check that it isn’t your playing style that is to blame.


2. Nut problems (ahem!)

Sometimes, the nut gets overlooked when it comes to maintenance. Over time, nuts can sometimes get worn, resulting in grooves that are too big for the strings (or occasionally, they’re not cut very well in the first place). In these instances, fret buzz will occur. You can usually distinguish this based on the fact that strings will buzz when played openly (not fretted).

Thankfully, a new nut is a fairly easy fix (in most cases) and are readily available. However, if you happen to have an elaborate trem system then things can get a little trickier. There are plenty of videos available on YouTube to help you out, but for times when you need a helping hand a decent guitar care/repair shop and/or luthier will fix the job without any fuss.


3. Warped or twisted neck

If your strings buzz, pray that this isn’t the problem. It can be fixed, but it’s generally not straightforward. This is sometimes spotted by buzzes that occur on the upper frets, or string chokes when fretting.

A reason this happens is due to changes in humidity and temperate, and why you should avoid leaving your guitar in environments where they can change dramatically.

If you're got a bolt-on then you could try and source a new one, replace it, job done. If you've got a set- or neck-thru model and you're subject to neck warping then I'm afraid you'll have to kill your instrument with fire. Not really. Find a luthier and see what they can do with it (probably kill it with fire...)

As Tom Quayle recently explained he travelled from Europe to New York then on to Las Vegas, and his poor guitar ended up as twisted and warped as a Disney villain. Nowadays, there are processes that guitar manufacturers employ that roast neck woods to remove as much moisture as possible (cough...Ibanez), minimising the chance of humidity and temperature changes absolutely abusing the stability of your guitar's beloved neck.


4. Action that is set too low

This is also a very common cause of fret buzz. Setting the action too low can cause the strings to buzz against the fretboard when played - particularly when you're lashing at the strings.

A good set-up can rectify this, by adjusting saddle height. On an electric guitar, this is usually a fairly straightforward job with a fixed/hard-tail bridge. Again, when you move into floating tremolo territory then all I can advise there is patience, as the adjustment process is significantly slower. On an acoustic guitar the protocol is even more complex.

If you aren't confident then get someone else to do it. For example, you could visit your local Dawsons store. The guys and gals there should be able to sort this out fairly easily.


5. Neck bow (or lack of it)

This is closely related to saddle height and set-up. The neck of nearly all modern guitars features a truss-rod, which allows the ‘bow’ (a slight curvature) to be adjusted. The reason for this is to provide some distance between the fretboard and the strings (think of it like bow and arrow).

A typical set-up is a balance between adjusting saddle height and neck bow, to provide a playing action that suits the player, whilst remaining intonated and without fret buzz. If you’re experiencing buzz all over, or over a section of the lower frets, this may be the cause.


6. High, uneven or worn frets

If the buzz is localised to a particular fret, then this may be the cause. Worn frets can sometimes be spotted by visible dips or notches. If they’re really worn, the may even cause the string to choke on the fret below.

Once again, a good luthier or guitar tech should be able to fix this fairly easily by performing the dark art of the "fret dress". Actually, it's not a dark art and if you're patient and pretty good with your hands then you can do it yourself. But what is it?

When we referring to the term "fret dress" it's basically a fancy way of saying we're levelling and reshaping the frets. Over time the frets become worn when the string has been pressed and pushed against them, essentially filing them down until there's a fine groove or divot (or worse a chunk missing like on one of my guitars years ago, I nearly sliced my fingertip off when I went for a 15th fret whole-step bend on the 1st and 2nd strings). By levelling off each fret you improve the longevity and playability of the fingerboard. Excellent.

We'll go through the "fret dress" process in another article, for now, I just wanted to let you know what the term means.

Wrapping things up...

There are other causes of ‘buzz’, but the above are the most common. If you’re concerned about it and have established that it isn’t a technique issue, pop along to your local Dawsons Store, and let the guys take a look. After a bit of a spruce up and a new set of strings, your pride and joy should be buzz-free once more.

If you haven't got a Dawsons Store near to you, then tap up a Guitar Repair Shop in your local area and they will set you right. When your guitar is set-up properly there's no better feeling either.