Complete Rundown: The Surefire Fret Buzz Fix
There’s nothing more disappointing than picking up your guitar and strumming a chord only to hear your strings buzzing against the frets. Every guitarist is going to encounter this at some point, and likely more than once.
There’s a wide range of issues that can cause fret buzz, but the most common is from humidity changes. Your guitar’s neck is made from a hygroscopic material, which basically means that it breathes water from the air. This expanding and shrinking is happening throughout the year as the climate changes. It’s no surprise that most cases of fret buzzing are resolved by simple setups to correct the neck’s relief.
Sometimes that’s not the end of it though – and that’s probably why you’re here in the first place. Luckily, when your guitar is buzzing, there’s always a solution.
Note: Acoustic guitar buzzing and electric guitar buzzing is the same when it comes to diagnosis. Only the repair process varies slightly when it comes to the bridge. So feel free to read along if you’ve got steel-string issues if you play an acoustic. Just make sure you know how to set your saddle action.
Why Guitar Strings Buzz
- Humidity Changes
- Uneven Frets
- Bridge/Nut Action
- Neck Relief
- Twisted Neck
- Rising Tongue
- String Tension (low tunings with uncompensated action)
Diagnosis & Repair
There is an order of operations you can follow to ensure you don’t misdiagnose an issue. Fret work is no small matter, and it can get expensive if you’re not performing it yourself. It can save you a lot of money and effort to develop a keen eye for neck irregularities. Follow along closely and you’ll be on your way to perfect, buzz-free action.
1. Sight the Neck
Before you do anything, tune your guitar to the desired pitch. After that, you’ll need to set your guitar’s relief – the process is described in the first step of the refretting guitar.
After that, you’ll need to sight the neck – you’re looking for a twist, specifically. It can take a bit of time to correctly diagnose more subtle twists, but if you know what you’re looking for from the start then you’ll be able to see the issue. If you’re unsure whether or not you’re seeing a twist, double-check that your relief is set perfectly and then continue to the next step.
Solution: If you’ve discovered a twist, there’s a few ways to address it. The most common suggestion you’ll hear is to just throw the neck in the garbage. Obviously, that’s more feasible with a bolt-on neck – replacing a set-in neck will require a lot of effort.
Resurfacing the fretboard will address the issue and give you a flat plane. It doesn’t guarantee that the neck will remain that way, and it’ll likely require another resurfacing in the future.
In many cases, it’s a great way to extend the life of a guitar neck, but it won’t be a truly reliable instrument until the wood is completely settled. For most people, that’s just not good enough.
You can learn the resurfacing process in the refretting guide. If there’s no twists, continue on to the next step. And consider yourself lucky.
2. Set Up Your Guitar
Tune to your desired pitch again, set the relief, and set nut/bridge action. The guitar setup guide will walk you through this process. The purpose behind this is not only to rule out neck relief & action issues, but also to ensure the guitar is in a technically perfect state to avoid misdiagnosing fretboard issues.
Nut Action (1st fret): You’ll want to measure each string’s action at the nut with a set of feeler gauges. You can learn how to adjust your nut sluts (or replace the entire thing) in the bone nut-making guide.
Bridge Action (12th fret): You’ll need a small 32nds / 64ths ruler to measure the action from the bridge side.
You are encouraged to read the pro setup guide for more detailed instructions of the process.
Nut Relief Measurements
Bridge Action String Heights
High E: 2/32″
Low E: 5/64″
If you’ve done a proper setup on your guitar and still experiencing fret buzz, don’t worry! You’ve just narrowing down the list of potential causes. Unfortunately, you can’t escape doing some fret work now.
3. Check for Uneven Frets
This is something you might be able to notice before you perform a setup, but as a rule of thumb, it’s not recommended to do any fret work until after the guitar’s relief is set properly.
Saying “uneven frets” is a fairly broad term – it accounts for worn frets, improperly seated frets, and high frets caused by either. Checking for these issues is fairly easy – all that’s required is a fret rocker.
You’ll want to first locate the area where the buzzing, and then check the heights of each fret in the area compared to the frets immediately before and after. It sounds complicated, but it’s really just a matter of laying a baby straightedge across three frets at a time.
Solution: If you locate a high fret, or a small area of uneven frets, then a partial fretjob will likely be all that’s needed to correct the issue. This is simply removing the offending fret and placing a new one, taking extra care to surface and crown it to match the height of the surrounding frets (otherwise you’re wasting your time). You can learn everything you need for this in the refretting guide.
In some cases, the frets are worn enough to warrant a complete fretdress. Before you go ahead with this, you’ll want to double check that it’s only the frets that are out of whack and not the fretboard as well – this will ensure you’re not doing a fretdress when your fretboard needs to be leveled. A notched straightedge will help a lot here.
4. Sight the Neck (again)
You’re going to use the same process as before, but this time you’re looking for a rising tongue. If it wasn’t noticeable the first time you sighted the neck, it will be now since you’ve performed the setup.
A rising fretboard (or tongue/ramp/hump) is a common issue, and it has a few different causes. The wood tends to swell and push upward at the neck pocket when it becomes humid, which will cause the upper frets to rise and buzz.
Another cause could be from an improper fret job. If you haven’t set your relief properly before resurfacing the fretboard, or neglect to sand the fall-away, this is what you’ll be left with.
Solution: A complete refret job is the only way to get the fretboard itself to fall away properly. You might be able to get away with a simple fretdressing job if the ramp isn’t too drastic, but that won’t address the fretboard’s surface – and your fret heights might feel a bit lower at the top of the fretboard, in spite of being planed parallel to the string. A complete refret is still recommended.
Is Your Guitar Buzzing Still?
The steps have been ordered deliberately to ensure that nothing is overlooked and no effort is wasted performing unneeded repairs on your guitar. If for some reason you still have fret buzz after you’ve gone through the whole process, it’s likely that you’re doing something incorrectly.
That doesn’t mean you’ve failed at this though, there are some rare cases involving un-settled neck wood, but that’s easily solved by going back to step 2 (tune to pitch, check relief) and continuing down the list.
If for any reason it’s STILL buzzing and you’ve triple checked your action measurements, relief, and gone over all the fret levels closely with your fret rocker – it’s safe to say that you’ve overlooked a slight twist in the neck. You have the option of re-radiusing the fretboard (which would be done during a refret job), but that’s no guarantee that the issue will be permanently resolved. A poorly selected cut of wood (knotted, improperly cured, flat-sawn, grain pulling to one side, etc) is liable to continue shifting around over time.
This is less of an issue with a bolt-on neck, as they can be easily replaced. But with a set neck or thru-body neck, you’ll have to start weighing the value of the instrument against the cost/effort of getting it to play properly.
Make sure you tune the instrument to pitch before and after every adjustment, no matter how small – especially before doing any fretwork. Otherwise, you’re just going to make more problems for yourself.