Absolutely buzzing! Why am I getting string buzz?

“Absolutely buzzing” has recently become a popular phrase to explain a heightened feeling of happiness, excitement and elation.

However, ‘Absolutely Buzzing’ is certainly not something you want to hear when describing the way your strings sound on your guitar :-/

This usually occurs when the string doesn’t have enough room to freely vibrate and its path of travel is interrupted and usually manifests itself as an irritating buzzing noise. This buzz can occur when a string is played open, or it can also occur when the string is fretted.

If your guitar is buzzing more than a swarm of bees round a honeypot we’re here to help. Below we’ve offered up a few suggestions as to what the root of the issue may be. Please note, because all guitars differ, these points are just possible suggestions and one guitars string buzzing issue may be caused by something different compared to another guitar. Before having any work carried out or attempting anything yourself, we would always recommend discussing the issues with a qualified technician or have somebody with the know-how carry out the work on your behalf.

So what will cause a string to buzz?

Apart from interrupting the strings vibrations ourselves through muting them in some way, there are a few common areas on a guitar that are prone to cause issues like these.

One issue could be your frets. Uneven fret heights are an obvious culprit of string buzz. Over time, frets wear down and this wear isn’t ever completely even all the way up the fretboard. You only need one rogue fret sitting ever so slightly higher than the others and when the string when starts to vibrate, you’ll inevitably hear that buzz straight away.

If your guitar falls into this camp, it may need a fret dress (also known as fret stoning). Essentially this process involves levelling out all the fret heights by finely removing a thin layer from the fret’s surface. Once this is done, the fret is then reshaped and re-rounded.

If you own an older guitar and the frets are well worn or have been ‘dressed’ several times before, you may find another fret dress leaves them too low. If this is the case, a complete refret may be required. Unless you’re completely comfortable in doing this type of work yourself, we’d always urge customers to have this work carried out by a professional guitar technician as the process is quite involved.

Another possible obstacle for your strings vibrations could be your pickups. Pickup height is adjustable and some players like to have their pickups raised fairly high to help increase output. Much like a tall fret, a vibrating string can catch the top of a pickup’s pole piece if it’s raised too high so it’s worth keeping an eye out for this too.

Pickup height measured with a steel ruler

**QUICK STRING TIP**
Remember to keep your strings clean kids! Old, dirty strings are a prime suspect in wearing down your frets. The grime that collects on your strings is always transferred to you fingerboard and in some extreme cases can find its way between the frets and fretboard joints.

Ready for Action!!!

If you’re experiencing string buzz, then the action on your guitar is something that may need to be addressed. When people talk about the ‘action’ of their guitar, they’re referring to the distance between the underside of the strings and the top of the frets. This distance needs to be big enough to allow the string complete freedom to vibrate, but not so big that the guitar’s playability is affected (a higher action can make a guitar quite difficult to play).

A lower action is often more desirable as it can make a guitar feel more comfortable and playable. However, a guitar set up like this will often run the risk of string buzz. The reason for this is because if the string is closer to the fret, there’s less room for the string to vibrate and more likely to make contact with the top of a fret.

Neck Relief

Action and neck relief are closely related and controlling both will help keep string buzz at bay. Neck relief is the amount of curvature (or bow) your neck has along its length. All guitars and basses need to have a small amount of neck relief and it is this ‘bow’ shape in the neck that will provide the room needed for the string to vibrate without any interference.

If you can imagine your guitar string as a skipping rope held by two people at either end. (The skipping rope being our string and the two people are acting as our top nut and saddle). When the two people swing the skipping rope, it’s widest path of travel is in the middle of the rope and the shortest width of distance is where the skipping rope is being held.

Our guitar strings move in a similar way, so if we now bring this analogy back to our guitar, we can see that as we strike the string it will have a greater arc of motion in the middle of the fretboard, hence this is why the slight bow shape is needed.

Altering a guitar’s neck relief is a common adjustment that is carried out via the truss rod. The truss rod can be loosened or tightened and doing so will add relief or reduce relief respectively. Whilst this isn’t a huge undertaking, we’d always recommend being guided on how to carry this out before attempting this yourself. Of course, if you are in any doubt, always look to have this done by your local guitar luthier or somebody who knows their ‘truss rod onions’!

Badly cut nuts (ooh err missus!)

The nut is one of the most important parts of your guitar and it may come as a surprise to hear that such a small part plays an incredibly vital role in shaping the playability, action and tone of your instrument. As one of the few points of contact your string makes with your guitar, you can start to understand that a poorly fitted nut can play havoc with the guitar’s performance.

Over its lifetime, the nut is subject to a lot of wear and experiences a huge amount of downward pressure from your strings. This pressure eventually wears the slots in your nut which can become too low affecting the guitar’s action. If the action at the nut is too low, this will inevitably cause string buzz which will be especially noticeable around the first few frets.

Nut slots can also gather dirt in their grooves meaning the string won’t necessarily sit nicely in the slot and as a result, could start to buzz.

Electric Guitar Top Nut

Saddle up partner!

If you’re experiencing string buzz and can identify that this is coming from the higher registers of the guitar’s neck, the height of your guitar’s saddle/s may be something that needs investigating further.

Saddles that are found on many electric instruments have the ability to be moved forwards and backwards to help adjust their intonation. Saddle height can also be adjusted which is a big advantage in helping to combat fret buzz. When saddles are set too low, a vibrating string can catch the frets higher up the neck. Therefore, raising saddle height gives the string plenty of room to freely vibrate without being hampered in any way.

Telecaster Bridge and Saddles

The saddles found on acoustic and classical instruments aren’t quite as easy to adjust on the fly as they are more or less fixed in position until the strings are completely removed. Of course, regardless of this, the height of the saddle can still be adjusted and this is usually done through the use of a shim placed underneath to help prop the saddle up a little bit higher. If you wanted to, you could always replace your guitar’s saddle completely. New saddles aren’t overly expensive (usually less than £10) and we always recommend the Graphtech TUSQ range of saddles. Graphtech manufactures a huge variety of saddles in different shapes and sizes to suit all guitars. They come up a little larger than you initially need meaning you can lightly sand them down to the exact length, width and height needed.

Well ‘ard mate!!!

Another thing that may not be so obvious to consider is how hard you strike your strings.

When you strike a guitar string with gusto and exert force upon it, the string will travel with a wider arc of motion than if you were to play it very lightly where the amount of travel will not be as wide.

With this in mind, you can begin to see that if you’re a player who plays with a lot of energy and hits the strings with brute force, the relief and action on the guitar will need to compensate for this. The combination of a hard-hitting guitar player and low action doesn’t always go hand-in-hand and can often result in the strings catching the top of the frets and you guessed it, a first class ticket to ‘buzz town’!!

Conclusion

String buzz sucks the fat one! If your guitar is suffering from this, there’s usually a reason for it… most likely in the form of what we’ve outlined above.

None of the issues above are anything to worry about and can be resolved fairly easily, often only requiring minor adjustments here and there. A reputable guitar technician worth their salt should be able to identify the culprit and have your guitar up and running buzz free in no time.

If you are concerned about your guitar buzzing or if it has any other issues whatsoever, please feel free to get in touch with us by sending us an e-mail, calling us or alternatively popping a message in the comment section below.

We love hearing from you and would be interested to find out if you have managed to solve any buzzing issues you’ve had in the past.

As always, thanks so much for your continued support. Thanks for reading, we’ll see you in the next blog.

 

6 Comments

  • Jules

    Another issue which can cause buzz on acoustics is resonance. This is much harder to address.

    • stringsdirect

      Thanks Jules, much appreciated

  • Chas

    Before checking that there are no high, or low, frets the first thing to check if you are experiencing fret buzz, or choking, is that there are no kinks in the string that’s buzzing. Often a plain string will kink over a fret slightly from repeated string bending and this can then cause it to buzz on the next highest fret. Spot wear on the windings of a wound string can also lead to a similar problem.

    Something to watch for especially on new guitars is a ‘rising tongue’. It’s not uncommon to sight down a bolt on neck and find that its reasonably straight and true up to the point where it reaches the neck pocket where it can seem to slope up from the plane of the rest of the neck. Essentially the end neck is clamped to the body but the main shaft of the neck can be pulled up and out of line with the heel under string tension. The result is that, relative to the main part of the fingerboard, the top end rises up at the body and the upper frets start to buzz because each subsequent fret is effectively slightly higher then the one before it. Other than a fret dress to lower the top end frets to compensate for the problem with the underlying fingerboard there isn’t much you can do about this – so best not to accept a new guitar with this sort of problem in the first place. The same can be also be seen with set neck guitars like Les Pauls where the neck joins the body. At best a rising tongue will mean that you can’t get the action as low as you would like and at worst it will just buzz and rattle regardless, even with a high action, as the effective length of the string becomes much shorter towards the top of the neck and so ‘neck relief’ doesn’t play much of a part and is unlikely to help the situation.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Chas. Many thanks for the thorough insight, as always.

  • Alex B

    Another great little article guys.
    Can we please have Bass guitars included in future.

    • stringsdirect

      Hi Alex, thank you very much. Yes of course, is there anything specifically that you would find useful on basses. We’ll see what we can do in future.

Please post your comments & reviews

Your email address will not be published.