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Somewhere along your guitar playing journey, you will encounter notes that buzz when you play them. Instead of a clear sounding note, you get a buzzy sound instead. This is known as fret buzz, and it’s caused by the guitar string vibrating against the fret.
If you are an electric guitar player, you might ask yourself, are my guitar strings supposed to buzz? It is an electric guitar after all. Is that just distortion? Is it supposed to sound like this? Well no, your electric guitar strings should not be buzzing. Your notes should sound clear and clean, at least when playing without any effects.
A little string buzz is inevitable, but you should strive for buzz-free notes as much as possible. Once you have a good clean sound, you can add effects to your signal such as overdrive and distortion.
There are multiple causes of fret buzz as we will see. Some of these are easily addressed, and some will require a little bit of skill. If you don’t have the tools and training to take care of it yourself, you can take it to your local luthier.
All guitars can benefit from a professional set up. This entails tuning the guitar, adjusting the neck relief, adjusting the string action, setting the intonation, and making any adjustments at the nut. Some fret work may also be required. (Check out the Know Your Gear Setup video.)
If this all sounds like a foreign language, don’t worry, we will briefly explain each of these items. You may not do it yourself, but at least you will know what the procedure includes when you have a professional set up your guitar.
A professional guitar setup may be all that you need to eliminate fret buzz. So, step one should be to check your guitar’s setup.
Tune Your Guitar
You are likely familiar with the process of tuning your guitar. We are not going to cover it in detail here. However, make sure your guitar is in tune before you do any setup work. You will want normal tension on the strings so that you can do an accurate assessment and setup.
Check The Neck Relief
A guitar neck normally has a small amount of bend in it, called relief. Either that, or it is perfectly straight. Normally, you want some amount of relief to provide room for the strings to vibrate. Guitar strings vibrate in an elliptical pattern when plucked. If there is no room for the string oscillation, the strings will hit the frets and cause buzz.
You can check the relief a couple different ways. An easy way is to hold down the string at the first fret with your left hand, and place your other thumb on the string where the guitar neck meets the body, around the 15th fret.
While doing that, take the index finger of your right hand and press against the 12th fret. There should be a little bit of give, or some space between the string and the 12th fret.
If there is too much space, there is too much relief or bend in the neck, and you will want to tighten the truss rod. If there is none at all, you will want to add a little bit of relief by loosening the truss rod.
Another way to check the neck relief is with a notched straight edge. You can find these on Amazon, or at a luthier supply store such as StewMac. Using the straight edge, you can see where there is space (or lack of it) between the fretboard and the straight edge. This will help you to dial in the perfect amount of neck relief.
Set The Action
The next part of the process is to set the action. This refers to how high the strings are off the fretboard. You might ask, didn’t we just do that by setting the neck relief? The neck relief plays a part, but once you set it, you still need to make another adjustment at the bridge.
In order to set the action, you use a string height gauge or ruler to measure the string height at the 12th fret. Then, you raise or lower the bridge to get your desired action. Your bridge will have some screws on either side of it, or along the front edge that you tighten and loosen to lower and raise the bridge.
After any adjustment, you will want to check individual notes along the fretboard to see if you have added any new fret buzz. Double check the string height with your gauge as well.
If notes are buzzing, raise the bridge a little bit for a higher action. The goal is to get the action as low as possible with as little fret buzz as possible.
Wait, you’re not done yet! As part of this process, you need to adjust the individual bridge saddles so they follow the radius of the fretboard. Raise and lower each saddle as appropriate, and use a radius gauge to check your work.
Check The Nut
You can evaluate the nut with the string height gauge, or special feeler gauges. If the nut slots are not cut deep enough, the action will be too high for the first few frets. If that’s the case, you will need to file the nut slots a little deeper, or have a luthier do this for you.
During the setup process, you should also set the intonation. But this does not really have an impact on fret buzz, so we are going to skip this step for now. We cover this in our post on how to restring your guitar.
Now that your guitar is set up, we are going to look at some other common causes of fret buzz and how you can address them.
Another cause of fret buzz is worn out frets. While you play guitar, the pressure of the strings as they are pressed down by your fingers can cause worn spots on some frets over time.
You’ll see this on older guitars especially. You can tell if you have fret wear when looking at the guitar with the strings off. Or, just spread the strings apart and look for any wear.
On frets that are worn, you will see distinct indentations where the string has pressed down on the fret. Since one area of the fret is lower, the string will vibrate on the next fret when you fret that particular note.
This can be a frustrating cause of fret buzz. Fret wear can be addressed with a fret level and crown procedure, or by selectively replacing the worn frets. Unless this is something you are confident about, you should probably contact a professional luthier.
Uneven Fret Height
Even on new guitars, the fret height can be uneven across the neck, causing string buzz and dead notes. If a low fret is right next to a high fret, the note will sound muffled, or may not sound at all. Or it could produce fret buzz.
In order to check if your frets are level, you need to use a simple tool called a fret rocker. You place the rocker across three frets, and see if it rocks back and forth. If it does, then the fret in the middle is higher than the surrounding frets.
The sides of the fret rocker are different lengths, allowing you to check all the frets as you move higher up the neck. If you do discover uneven frets, the frets will need to be leveled. In that case, check with a luthier.
Action Too Low
If the string action is too low, you may get some fret buzz when playing. Guitar strings that are too close to the fretboard don’t allow enough space for the string to oscillate. The string can vibrate against the frets, causing a buzzing sound.
Thankfully, this is easy to fix. All you need to do is raise the action a bit. This may be as simple as raising the bridge. See the process described above to set the action and check the neck relief.
No Neck Relief or Back Bow
If your guitar neck is perfectly straight, with no relief, the guitar strings may vibrate against the frets when playing. If your frets are absolutely level, you may be able to get away with a flat neck. However, most guitars need a slight bend in the neck called relief.
If your truss rod is adjusted too tight, this can cause a back bow in the neck. Your notes may not even sound out if the neck has a back bow. You will want to loosen the truss rod and add some relief. See the process described above to check the neck relief.
Bridge Saddle Adjustment
If you have the action set perfectly, and you are still having issues, another thing to check would be the individual bridge saddles. The bridge saddles can be adjusted up and down to follow the curve or radius of the fretboard. If the saddles are too low, you could get some fret buzz even with the bridge height set correctly.
An improperly cut nut with nut slots that are too low could also be a source of fret buzz, especially on the lower frets. More likely, the nut slots are cut too high on a guitar, but this is another thing to check.
You can do a quick test pressing the string down at the third fret, and check if you have a small amount of space between the string and the fret at the first fret. If you don’t have any space, the slot may be too deep.
String Too High On The Tuning Post
One overlooked item that can cause buzzing strings is the angle of the string from the nut to the tuning machine. If you have too many string wraps around the post, this can push the string up, creating too flat of an angle from the tuner to the nut.
This can actually cause a vibrating, twangy sound. Some players actually stuff a piece of cloth or other material under the strings behind the nut to dampen any vibrations.
Tremolo Spring Vibration
If you have a tremolo on your guitar, the tremolo springs can also be a source of noise. After you eliminate all other sources of buzz, check the tremolo springs. You can find some material to dampen any noise, or try noiseless springs which have a coating around the spring.
This can sometimes create a sitar-like buzzing sound. Having strings too high on the tuning post can also create this sitar effect. It’s not really a good sound, unless that’s what you’re aiming for!
Fret Buzz Summary
We’ve covered the possible sources of fret buzz, and how to set up your guitar to eliminate it. Hopefully some of these tips will help you reduce any unwanted noise coming from your guitar.