Guitar repair – The pain of fretwire-levelling!

There come moments in everyone’s life which test a man’s patience and abilities. I think this instrument brought along with it one of those moments for me.

This guitar –  a Fender CD140 – was good-looking, well-kept and clean,

and came in with the complaint of a buzz on the B string on the 13th fret. By experience I have learned that once it gets that specific, there’s bound to be a raised fretwire somewhere.

Still, following due process, I first checked neck straightness. It was straight enough with the right amount of relief, and true enough, there was a God Almighty buzz on the 13th fret.

The owner had informed me that the guitar had been standing for a few years, and I guessed that by standing uselessly, there would be more frets than just one creating problems. As I went about checking higher fretwires, I counted six – one which got tapped in and five that required the ‘full treatment’.

Now, fret-levelling, as you might know is probably the most painstakingly-repetitive and tedious work in guitar repair. Level the fretwires and then individually crown them and then individually polish them.

It began with levelling them with this, concentrating on the higher frets.

Underneath the beam is sandpaper stuck which does all the hard labour. I just put in the elbow grease. However, one has to be very careful about how hard and how long one is going on the fretboard. A little extra effort and the fretwires have gone much lower than where you need them to be.

After the beam has done its work, this is what the ground looks like – silver dust all around.

And then follows the crowning process, which again one has to execute very carefully so as not to overshoot the mark. More often than not, it is experience which tells you when to stop crowning a fretwire. More silver dust.

Then came the polishing of the fretwires that were worked upon. The polishing removes file marks from the levelling and crowning, making the fretwires nice and slick. This step in the entire process is the most tedious because you work through five or six grits of sandpaper on every fretwire that you have levelled and crowned. If there are more than five or six fretwires that you need to work on, the digits on your fingers start complaining (at least mine do)!

That done, it was time to clean the fretboard for the last time, give it a drink of the elixir, and while you’re at it, show some love to the bridge as well.


Strings came next and the owner chose these ones

As I tuned up the instrument and played it – horror of horrors – the buzz was still there, and if anything, more robust than before. This meant that there were other raised fretwires that I had missed, or those that ‘got raised’ due to the work done on their neighbours.

The strings were loosened enough and out came the Fretrocker

and carefully, all the fretwires 11th fret onwards were tested. Three more truant ones were found. Carefully (now with the strings on), the entire process described up till now was repeated and the strings were again tuned to pitch.

I tried loosening the truss rod and the action went up dramatically. I tried tightening the truss rod and the buzz screamed at me.

Again when I tried to check for the buzz, it seemed to have moved from the original string to a different string, different fret, but still in the same zone! Again, the strings were loosened, again spot-levelling, crowning and polishing of the fretwires took place.

And this process went on for a few times more, but it took its toll on the strings and just as I apprehended, first the ‘B’ string broke and then the ‘A’ string. Meanwhile, the ‘G’ string was looking so frayed that I was afraid to breathe over it! But it could not be helped and so, I replaced the entire set of strings.

Finally, when the guitar was done, I was exhausted both physically and mentally, but happy that I had exorcised the buzz.

When the owner came to collect the instrument I related my effort to him. Along with the effort, the time taken to complete the job had also to be taken into consideration. I also told him about me putting on a fresh set of strings and gave him the option to pay for the second set of strings, or not. After all, the strings had broken while I was working on the instrument!

A thorough gentleman, he suggested that we split the cost of the second set. Fair enough, I said, and we shook hands on that.

He was happy with the work done on his guitar, and when I called him a week later to check how the instrument was doing, the ‘all is well’ reply was most comforting.



Amit Newton

An experienced guitar tech with over 10 years of experience working on acoustic Gibsons and Martins in the Gulf region. There is nothing that cannot be repaired; the only consideration is the price at which it comes. And yet, if there is sentiment attached, no price is too high! WhatsApp/Call me: 7080475556 email me:

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