Guitar Fret Buzz – How to identify and fix it

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It can ruin the clear ringing notes of an anthem … it can turn the hottest solo into a slushy mess … and it can turn you into one cranky bastard in minutes.

Guitar buzz is probably one of the most annoying problems that you can find yourself dealing with. It can happen with a new guitar, or with a different set (or even brand!) of strings.

The hardest part of it is tracking it down. Once you’ve found it, it’s normally not a big deal getting rid of it.

Step One: Make sure it’s really the strings buzzing. It’s easy to assume its the strings when you only hear it when you are playing.

The best way to do this is to play the guitar un-amplified.

Play a few loud chords up and down the neck and listen very closely. Listen to where the buzzing sound is coming from. If you don’t hear the buzzing at this point, you might have a problem with your amp or a cable.

If you do hear the buzzing, see if you can figure out which part of the guitar it is coming from. It it coming from near the bridge? Or is it coming from the middle of the neck, or where your fingers are fretting the chords?

Rule out the non fret buzz possibilities. Listen while playing and make sure nothing is loose, like bridge saddle pieces, tuners, pickup covers (make sure the pickups arent too high and hitting the strings as well), volume knobs, pickup selectors, etc.
This process can be tricky. I also recommend shaking the guitar. It may sound silly, but I once found a glob of solder in the pickup cavity that was making quite a racket as it bounced around and vibrated in there. I found it by shaking the guitar. It might alleviate some frustration.

Check for frets that look out of alignment
Check for frets that look out of alignment or too high.

The final thing you might be able to rule out with a visual inspection is a loose or high fret. As you look across the frets (try looking down the neck from the headstock and then again from the bridge side) and see if any of the frets are noticeably higher than the others, or stick up in funny ways that the others dont.

If you find a fret that’s out of whack, you might want to take it to a repair shop. This can be fixed reletively cheaply and its not something you want to tackle at home in most cases.

If none of this investigation yeilds results you can assume you have something up with your neck or bridge. There is still a good chance you can fix it at home, however.

Now, its time to start playing up and down the neck. Play all the way up and down the neck and keep track of where you hear the fret buzz.

There are a few simple rules as far as location on the neck that can tell you what sort of problem your guitar is having.

If the buzzing is happening on open strings, it’s possible that you have to raise the bridge (action) or shim the nut. Shimming the nut is considerably harder, so I would recommend trying to raise the bridge, if only to rule out what the issue is. If your buzzing is coming from higher (higher notes, higher than the 12th fret) on the neck, a bridge adjustment is more likely to work. If its lower on the neck, you might want to try adding some relief to the neck by adjusting the truss rod a bit looser.

You should never have to play with crappy action however, so if you end up raising the bridge to where you aren’t comfortable with the action, its the wrong solution.

It might be that adding some relief to the truss rod is the answer.

Just remember, there are only 3 things outside of a completely warped neck that you need to think about – the nut, the bridge, and the truss rod adjustment (bow and relief). Well, lets make that four things, becasue you might have some strange frets buzzing, but we’re already covered that.

So out of our 3 things, the two most likely (bridge and truss rod) are also the easiest to adjust.

If you don’t know what you are doing I don’t recommend adjusting the truss rod unless you are very careful.

Truss rod adjustments are not for adjusting your action – that is more the bridge and the nut adjustments.

A good rule of thumb is to do this:

  • Hold down your low E string on the 1st fret. Capo it there if you have a capo.
  • Fret the same string at the same time with your finger, around where the neck meets the body. You’ve now removed the bridge and nut from the equation and you can see how straight your neck is.
  • Look at the 8th or 9th fret – whichever is closer to the middle of the two positions you have fretted.
  • There should be a gap about the thickness of a credit card (.5 mm) between the fret and string.
  • If there is no gap you might have found the cause of your buzzing. The neck needs relief (loosen it).
  • If there is too much gap – or just enough, your problem is probably elsewhere

You will need an allen wrench that is exactly the right size for the truss rod. Don’t try using one that doesn’t fit – you’ll regret it.

  • Turn the nut counterclockwise to loosen it, and clockwise to tighten it.
  • Only turn in 1/8 to 1/4 turns, no more. KEEP TRACK! You may want to return it to the original position if it doesn’t solve your problem.
  • If there is too much resistance – and you feel like you are forcing it – stop. Take it to a professional.
  • Re tune, check the action, and wait an hour.
  • Come back and play and listen for buzz.
  • Repeat until you get better results.
  • If the nut starts to get sloppy or loose, you are probably not fixing anything. Return the nut to where it was.

If this doesn’t work, you have diagnosed the issue improperly and you might want to look at some of the options above besides the truss rod as the cause of your buzz. If this does fix it, congrats! You might have to tweak your action a little if the truss rod adjustment has altered the feel to where you don’t like it.

Sometimes a simple change in gauge of strings can be the cause and require some adjusting. Make your adjustments one at a time, and if they don’t make things better, return them to where they were before you try something else, or you will end up with a jacked up guitar.

We don’t want that.

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Guitar-Muse Staff

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