By: Steve Busby
A lot of people ask me about fret buzz - what causes it and how do you deal with it, particularly on electric guitars? Fret buzz occurs when your strings vibrate in an elliptical path and rattle on frets further up the fretboard. In extreme cases fret buzz can choke out the note completely.
If you get fret buzz on an electric guitar when you’re playing it acoustically; and you can’t hear it through the amplifier, don't worry that's normal. But if you can hear fret buzz through your amp, you probably need to pay attention to your set up. If you’re getting fret buzz on an acoustic guitar, this definitely needs attention.
The main causes of fret buzz that I’ve found on new electric guitars are:
Player technique, i.e. fretting too far down the fret or not depressing the string enough. You can also get fret buzz if the truss rod is too tight, causing the neck to be too straight. One cause that's easy to resolve on an electric is if the action (string height) is set too low. This is a lot more complex with an acoustic; you'll need to shimmy the saddle to raise the action.
I quite often find that if the top nut is badly cut, it can cause the strings to buzz when played open, although they'll probably be fine when played further up the neck or with a capo. The odd high fret can also cause fret buzz. You can normally overcome this with fret dressing, leveling and contouring, although it may be best left to the professionals.
A warped neck will almost certainly cause fret buzz and, sadly, will need major surgery so let’s hope that’s not your situation. As popular as they are, Floyd Rose bridges can be a challenge particularly if the springs and strings are badly out of balance; when they are, fret buzz is fairly common. Sometimes just taking your new guitar home from the store will slightly affect the neck’s set up because of the change in atmosphere but this easily fixed.
In my opinion, if an electric guitar doesn’t have some degree of fret buzz when you play it acoustically, it probably isn’t set up as well as it could be.
But what causes fret buzz to occur on your long-serving previously problem-free axe? There's not an easy answer to this but here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Have you fitted heavier gauge strings to the guitar than it was originally set-up with?
Have all the strings been taken off at the same time, allowing the truss rod to flex?
Is the nut worn down and needs replacing?
Have the strings have eaten into the saddle(s)?
Has the guitar been exposed to heat or cold beyond its tolerances?
Even if you can answer yes to some of these questions, or perhaps you can identify with some of the symptoms I described earlier, I'd probably still recommend taking your guitar to your local repair store rather than taking it apart yourself.