So, you want your action “as low as possible without buzzing”?
This unfortunately is a phrase that makes guitar techs the world over grit their teeth, and for good reason – there’s no such thing, or rather – if I set the action to have absolutely no fretbuzz, you’d likely complain that it was too high.
Guitars are designed in such a way that there is ALWAYS some fret buzz unless the action is VERY high. As you go lower (towards a more typical action) there will usually be some buzz somewhere on the fretboard, especially if you hit the strings pretty hard. As you go lower, the buzz increases. There’s no magic “low action/no buzz” point to aim for. It’s really a question of reasonable compromise.
Let me tell you a story.
A client brought a Fender Telecaster in for a setup saying “It’s buzzing all over the fretboard!”
So I play tested the guitar (didn’t seem THAT bad), straightened the neck a touch and adjusted the action so that it was medium-ish and didn’t buzz very much at all. I called the client to let him know that his guitar was ready to collect.
When he came, I sat him on the “testing chair” and gave him the guitar.
“Do you want a plectrum?” I said.
“Yes please – do you have a 1mm?”
“Sure – here you go.”
He took the plectrum from me and gripped it with the force of a thousand tigers. His knuckles whitened with the sheer energy of his Herculean grip.
He then put his ear to the neck and began slamming the low E string, at around the 14th fret.
“It’s still buzzing”, he said.
I had no words.
I tried to convince him that there aren’t many songs that exclusively use the low E string at the 14th fret, and that perhaps his very heavy-handed technique wasn’t helping. He remained unconvinced, and to this day probably thinks I’m a bullshit artist that doesn’t know what he’s doing. Can’t win ’em all, eh?
I’m becoming more convinced that once people learn enough to identify what fretbuzz IS, they become hyper sensitive to it ESPECIALLY when they’re paying someone good money to make it go away. There are techs out there that may approach this differently, but as Paloma Faith sang – Do you want the truth or something beautiful?
For a low, buzz free action you need to have the following:
- A guitar neck that is perfectly made (most aren’t)
- Dead level frets (most aren’t, even on new guitars. Hell, ESPECIALLY on new guitars!)
- A correctly cut nut
- Neck relief (truss rod) set perfectly
- A light to medium playing style
If you take just one of those away, your guitar is more likely to buzz SOMEWHERE on the neck.
If the frets are worn, you can have buzzing on the specific worn frets. If a fret is loose and stood proud, the frets below it will buzz. If the truss rod isn’t adjusted properly you can have buzzing all over. If the nut it cut too high it won’t cause buzz but the action will be compromised. If the nut is cut too low the open strings will choke or buzz. If you hit the strings really hard, with your ear to the fretboard, you will ALWAYS be able to find some buzz. So many variables.
But ask yourself these questions:
- Can I hear it when the guitar is plugged in?
- Is the low action more important than the fretbuzz? (zero buzz is no good if the action is waaay too high for you to play it properly)
- Would my time be better spent practicing, rather than worrying about a tiny bit of fretbuzz? (always yes, but that’s just me being cheeky)
- Do I want to pay for a full fret dress as well as a setup (usually around £100) Your call but sometimes it really is needed.
So there we go. The zero bullshit guide to fretbuzz. Fretbuzz is just unfortunately a side effect of the way that fretted musical instruments work. It can be minimised for sure, but if you want a really low action it is sadly sometimes unavoidable.