With all your joy grinding to a vicious halt, you are left asking yourself why does my electric guitar buzz?
Since the conception of the guitar string, buzz has been a plight of many a player on both acoustic and electric instruments.
Complaints in the vein of “why does my low e-string buzz ?” have been echoed throughout generations of players sending them on the everlasting quest to eradicate it forever.
Fret buzz can be caused by a number of issues to do with how a guitar is set up, this can include things like the string height, the neck relief being incorrect, bridge saddles set to low, uneven frets, and the list goes on!
In this article, we will dive into all things string buzz so you can help identify what causes buzz, and more importantly how to rectify it.
What is fret buzz?
As you probably already know, when a guitar string is stuck it vibrates. If for some reason that vibrating string is sitting too close to the frets, it’s going to repeatedly smack against that metal fret causing fret buzz.
Guitar buzzing can occur on any string but is most often noted on the low string, this is due to the fact that the low string vibrates in the largest elliptical pattern due to it possessing the largest mass.
However, you can also find this on the higher strings, as we tend to learn towards soloing around that 12th-15th fret it’s pretty common to see fret wear in that area. Which can leave the string prone to smacking against the frets further up the fretboard which we spend far less time on.
Why does my electric guitar buzz?
Guitars can endure string buzz for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of which pertain to your guitar setup.
Quite often, the whole issue may be caused by something as simple as your string action being too low, and raising the string height of your instrument at the bridge or installing a new nut that is the required height may be all that is required to remedy the issue of fret buzz.
However, there will be occasions where this simply is not the case or a mere ingredient amongst numerous contributions to the issue at hand.
Here, we will delve into other causes of guitar string buzz.
Adequate neck relief is an essential component in a fret buzz-free guitar setup in which too much or too little can contribute massively to the issue of fret buzz.
Ideally, a guitar neck should be close to perfectly straight, with just a small amount of curvature to ensure the strong doesn’t ‘bottom out’ which is where a perfectly straight neck doesn’t give the string enough room to ‘breathe’ (vibrate) causing it to either buzz or possibly get completely choked out.
This dip is what we refer to as relief. Having too much will result in a forward bow in the neck which may eliminate fret buzz, but too much relief also makes the guitar a nightmare to play as the action will be unplayably high. Whilst not enough will cause a back bow which may cause the aforementioned ‘bottoming out’ of the strings.
The perfect amount of neck relief is totally desirable as this will leave enough space between the fret wire and string so that the latter can vibrate freely without causing fret buzz, while still keeping the string height low enough to be comfortable and playable.
Numerous factors can affect a guitar’s neck relief in turn causing fret buzz including seasonal changes, humidity, and changing string gauges.
The truss rod
The Truss Rod is a metal rod encased under the fretboard of your acoustic-electric guitar. It runs down the length of the neck and can provide positive or negative tension to allow us to control the neck relief.
The truss rod is often adjusted at the headstock (traditionally on Gibson-style guitars) but can also be located at the butt of the neck, as on some traditional Fender guitars.
Adjusting the truss rod is an essential step in electric and acoustic guitar setup. If you’re unsure or hesitant to do so, it is recommended that you take your instrument to a professional guitar tech or luthier as mistreatment of the truss rod may harm your guitar’s neck.
But don’t worry too much, as guitarists sometimes we treat the truss rod like a bit of a boogeyman to where just giving it a stern look is going to irreparably warp the neck forever. Watch a few YouTube guides on how to adjust it and clue yourself up before just jumping in and yanking on the thing, you’ll be fine!
Tightening the truss rod will reduce neck relief encouraging forward bow whilst loosening the truss rod will promote back bow inherently increasing the amount of neck relief.
If one is undertaking the adjustment of the truss rod on their own it is important to not take more than 1/4 of a turn at a time waiting to see what effect this has on your guitar’s neck relief before continuing with any further adjustment of the truss rod. If you have the time available waiting a good 5 minutes between each 1/4 turn is ideal.
Fret leveling is another factor that will not only contribute to fret buzz on your guitar, but also how low you can set your string action without the aforementioned buzzing sound occurring.
Ideally, all the frets on your instrument will be leveled, dressed, and crowned (rounded) to be the same height across the entire length of the fretboard.
Fret leveling is a laborious process that demands a high level of skill and experience to execute properly and as a result, more expensive instruments will commonly have a higher level of attention to detail applied to this process than instruments of a lower cost.
The process of fret leveling involves the use of specialist files that gradually shape each fret to be the appropriate height and shape.
If an instrument has high/low frets the result will be immediately noted via the presence of fret buzz, which can only be remedied by seeking out proper fret leveling or raising the string action to a height that will likely compromise the playability of the instrument.
Unlike the truss rod which is fairly easily adjusted at home, when it comes to leveling and crowning frets it’s much easier to just take it to your local store and have them look at it. The cost of materials alone makes home fret leveling not worth it.
It’s not you, it’s me
Whilst approaching a topic as broad as guitar fret buzz it is important to take note of how the player themself can have an impact upon such a concept.
Guitarists with a heavier pick attack will likely need more neck relief and higher action incorporated into their setup to avoid string buzz than a player with a lighter touch.
String gauge will also influence the likelihood of encountering string buzz, but thankfully all of these issues can be adequately dealt with by incorporating a setup that is catered to the individual guitarists playing style and attack.
On occasion, it has been known for a player to encounter buzz whilst being in the presence of a guitar setup that has been perfectly adjusted to their individual intricacies as a musician (action height, fret leveling, appropriate guitar wiring void of any ground loop, etc”).
In this type of scenario, one must look to other sources of buzzing and in some isolated cases other types of buzz entirely in order to reclaim their peace of mind.
Ground loops and poor shielding can contribute to electrical buzz not dissimilar to the 60 cycle hum inherent in vintage single coils that lead to the birth of the humbucker.
In other circumstances, the noise can be caused by something mechanical, such as a loose tuning machine or hardware screw. You’ll be amazed at how close a loose tuning peg sounds to regular fret buzz!
Even the springs in the tremolo cavity or the bar itself can cause auditory annoyances if not kept in check.
It is certainly good practice to give your instrument a once over every so often to check for any issues that can contribute to these mysterious ‘noise phantoms’. If you have your local store set up your guitar they should go over the entire instrument and double-check that every screw is nice and tight.
One thing that is very important to mention is that when we talk about eliminating guitar buzz, we are not necessarily meaning that it needs to be 100% eliminated. When we try to address fret buzz it’s easy to fall into this trap of not wanting to hear any buzzing at all when we play.
However, the reality is a perfectly set up and sounding/playing guitar will still have a certain amount of buzz that is completely inaudible when played through an amplifier. This is very normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
The art of setting up a guitar properly is striking that balance between having the action nice and low while keeping the buzz to a minimum.
So try to proceed with the mentality of minimizing guitar buzz instead of eliminating it entirely.
Hopefully, this brief article has given you some insight into one of the primary issues that many of us have encountered as guitar players and, in turn, arm you with the knowledge required to ensure that you can live on with a buzz-free existence.