There is perhaps nothing more annoying than playing a guitar that has a fret buzz. You might be able to play in certain areas, but when it comes to a particular fret, it buzzes out. Or worse yet, you the note might actually play a different pitch than what it should.
If you’re experiencing this, don’t fret! There are a few things you can do to determine your specific issue.
Why Do My Guitar Strings Buzz?
When it comes to fret buzz, there are a few different causes that can contribute to your issue. Depending on the issue, you may be able to fix this problem on your own.
Generally, strings will buzz on frets because the clearance between the fret and the string is not enough. For instance, if you play a certain fret, the string might actually be touching a higher fret on the neck.
The result of this is that the string will buzz or rattle a little bit. Depending on the severity of the issue, your pitch might not be accurate. Quite often, your notes will be a little sharp than what is intended.
The common culprits with this include:
- Inadequate neck relief
- Inadequate string action
- Uneven frets
If you change your strings to a lighter gauge string, you could also encounter some buzzing. Your guitar may be set up to accommodate a specific string gauge. Any change in the string tension will cause your guitar to react differently.
Even if you have moved to a lighter gauge string, you’ll need to adjust accordingly. The process is the same for the common buzzing culprits.
Let’s explore each of these culprits in further detail. This will help you determine what your problem may be. It’ll also help you determine the proper course of action in fixing the problem.
Does My Neck Relief Need Adjusting?
Ever wonder what your truss rod is for? You might have played guitar for years without ever worrying about adjusting it. Or worse yet, you might have been too afraid to touch it.
The truss rod is what adjusts the amount of relief (or lack thereof) within the neck. Relief could be thought of as a bowing within the neck. It helps to determine the gap between the frets and the neck on a large scale.
Some players like to have their necks completely straight. There are guitars that are designed for this type of setup. However, maintaining this position is not always easy, as a neck will adjust with play and environmental conditions.
If you don’t have enough relief in the neck, your neck will have a back bow. This is seen as a sort of small hill in the middle of your fretboard.
Should you have a back bow, your open strings will likely buzz at the 1st fret. You might also buzz or fret out in the middle of the fretboard.
Many guitars tend to have some relief in the neck. This will allow enough of a gap between all of the frets and the strings for proper vibration.
A little relief will tend to look like a small dip in the fretboard, usually around the 7-12th frets. However, too much relief can cause your neck to warp, so do keep a keen eye on its condition.
You can check this by placing a capo at the 1st fret and pressing the last fret with an open finger. Use a set of feeler gauges to test the distance between the fret and the string at the 8th fret.
When checking with a feeler gauge, it’s always best to refer to your manufacturer’s factory specs.
How Do I Adjust The Neck Relief?
Adjusting the neck relief on a guitar is actually quite simple. You’ll need to adjust the truss rod accordingly with your relief needs.
If your guitar has a back bow (not enough relief), you’ll need to loosen the truss rod in your neck. Doing so will add relief to your neck.
Similarly, if you need to remove some relief, tighten the truss rod. This will straighten out your neck. Be careful that you don’t inadvertently give yourself a back bow in the process.
One major rule of thumb when adjusting the truss rod is to always adjust in quarter turns. Your neck will need to become acclimated to the change you’ve made. Too much adjustment at once could damage your neck.
When you turn the truss rod, it’s best to leave your guitar to rest for 30-60 minutes. This should allow enough time for the adjustment to settle. By then, you’ll have a good idea of whether the truss rod needs more adjustment.
Also, take care to never force your truss rod when making an adjustment. Some trusses may be stuck if never used. Loosening before tightening will usually help with this (if you need to remove relief).
If you do force your truss rod, you risk breaking the truss rod inside of the neck. Once you do this, you’ll have a neck that cannot be adjusted. You’ll then need to take it to a technician to see if a replacement can be made.
Do I Need To Adjust My String Height?
Your string height may play a role in your fret buzzing problem. String height is what is often referred to as your “playing action”.
Like neck relief, your string height determines the gap between the frets and the strings. However, string height is much more localized, focusing on each individual string.
If your guitar plays pretty well, with the exception of one particular string, this may be your issue. Fortunately, this is a fairly easy fix. You will need a few tools to ensure that you correctly resolve the issue.
How Do I Adjust My String Height?
To adjust your string height, you’ll need to have an idea of how far off your string height actually is. So, to perform this, you’ll need:
- The recommended specs from your guitar’s manufacturer
- A string height gauge
You’ll want to use a string height gauge to give you a visual indication of how high the string is. Try to match your manufacturer’s recommended specs.
If the string is lower than the suggested height, you’ll need to raise it. Similarly, if the string is too high, you’ll need to lower it.
To adjust the string height, you’ll need to detune the string and add a little slack. You’ll then need to adjust the saddle at the bridge of your guitar.
Some guitars have individual string saddles, while Tune-O-Matic style bridges only have 2 height adjustment points. We will cover both.
Individual saddles have small Allen key bolts that raise when turned clockwise and lower when turned counter-clockwise. Tune-O-Matic’s have an adjustable post on each side which adjust in the same manner.
These adjustments will have the screw turning into/away from the guitar. This effectively raises the height of the individual string in question.
Tune back up to pitch and see if the adjusted string action has made any difference. If this is the culprit, you’ll likely have remedied the issue.
If you are adjusting the string height of multiple strings, it is suggested you use a radius key. This is used near the bridge and helps to ensure that your strings have the correct curvature from the bridge. Again, refer to the factory specs of your guitar for this measurement.
Why Does My Guitar Play Out Of Tune After Making Adjustments?
Whenever you make an adjustment, whether it be the truss rod or string height, your intonation is affected. Your open strings might be tuned to pitch, but higher notes will be out of tune.
You will need to adjust your intonation with every adjustment you make, so knowing how to do this is essential. It’s pretty easy to do but does require some patience.
Be sure that all of your truss rod and string height adjustments are where you need them before doing this. If they are, tune your guitar up to pitch.
To check your intonation, play the 12th fret harmonic and check its tuning. If it is not in tune, you will need to make an intonation adjustment.
String saddles will have a horizontal screw that moves the saddle and adjusts the intonation. You could think of this as moving the fulcrum point for the correct pitch to ring out.
If the pitch at the 12th fret is flat, move the saddle towards the nut by screwing in. If the pitch is sharp, loosen the screw to move the saddle towards the bridge.
With every adjustment, retune the string and repeat the process until the pitches are both in tune.
Should you have a floating tremolo system, you’ll have to retune the entire guitar. This is because the bridge is essentially under a specific tension. Each time the intonation and height are adjusted, so too, is the tension at the bridge.
Be sure that your tremolo system is correctly set before you do this process. You’ll have some serious tuning issues if your tremolo isn’t correctly set up.
Do I Have Uneven Frets?
Uneven frets tend to be a pretty common issue on guitars. You might even experience this issue with a brand new guitar direct from the factory. It is an unfortunate reality, but it is true.
What happens is that some frets may be taller or shorter than others. Frets should be uniform along the neck to allow for the strings to properly vibrate when being played.
If a fret happens to be too tall, you’ll notice the string touching the fret above the fret being played. This will result in a buzz, or even worse, a dead spot where a note can’t be played at all.
Similarly, you might have a fret that is too low. While this isn’t an issue for playing the surrounding frets, it is when you play that specific fret. You’ll encounter the same issue as you would with a tall fret.
Should you have this issue, you’ll likely have a fairly good idea of the specific problem area in question. You can diagnose this fairly easily with a little time and patience.
What you’ll need to diagnose this is something that has a straight, level edge. If you happen to have a string height gauge, this will work just fine.
Take the level edge and press it against the fretboard along every string. You’ll want to do this up and down the entire neck.
Pressing the edge into the frets, see if there is any unevenness causing the edge to rock back and forth. This will literally spell out your issue and give you an idea of whether you have uneven frets.
How Do I Fix Uneven Frets?
Unfortunately, this is one issue that is probably best left for a certified professional to fix. These technicians will have all of the tools (and experience) to be able to correctly fix uneven frets.
Taking it to a certified professional will be far less stressful than if you decided to do it yourself. The process itself takes a few hours to complete.
What you’ll need to ask for is a fret leveling. The technician will adjust the height of the frets by shaving off the frets to match in uniformity.
You may want to have the technician perform a full setup to ensure that your guitar is in playing condition. Some technicians include this leveling with a setup, and some don’t.
When you receive your guitar after the procedure, you’ll have a fully playable neck with no buzz.
Why Does My Acoustic Guitar Buzz?
If your acoustic guitar is presenting a string buzz, you likely have some of the same issues as outlined above. While those problems and solutions were for an electric guitar, the mechanics of the guitar are essentially the same.
Should you encounter buzzing on an acoustic, be sure to check for uneven frets as well as the neck relief. While uneven frets will require a professional, you can fix the neck relief yourself.
Similar to electrics, a change in string gauge could cause your guitar to react differently. If you’ve put lighter gauge strings on, your guitar may buzz as it is set up for a higher gauge.
However, acoustic guitars are unique in a few different ways, and as such, present different problem areas. As most components of an acoustic guitar are made completely of wood, humidity can play a role.
Too much humidity can cause the top of the guitar to bubble up. This will raise the bridge and string height. Too little humidity can cause the bridge to dip, lowering the strings.
As you now know, string height can play a large role in fret buzz. Be sure to store your guitar properly with the correct humidity levels to avoid this issue.
The nut and saddle could also play a role in fret buzz on an acoustic. A worn nut will cause the strings to sit lower, causing a buzz at the 1st fret.
Generally, you’ll want to have a professional tech inspect your acoustic. Your nut could need a graphite filling if the string is too low at the nut. You may also need to have your nut and/or saddle filed down to achieve the proper string height.
Why Does My Guitar Buzz? Final Thoughts
Guitar maintenance doesn’t need to be as daunting as it often seems to guitarists. In fact, knowing how to maintain your guitar ensures it always plays the way you want it to.
Regardless, sometimes it’s best to take it to a technician for a proper setup if you feel uncomfortable. A tech will be able to make sure your guitar is ready to play, no matter what situation you may face.
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