Hello there, wonderful, beautiful people!!!!
Last Sunday, we discussed why particular strings break and what to do to avoid it.
This Sunday, we shall dwell upon that godawful problem: string buzz. For those of you who have not encountered it, God bless you, you are fortunate. And then again, maybe you are experiencing it even as I write, and you don’t know about it!!!
You get a buzzing string when you pluck/pick it and it hits a (few) fret(s) – up the neck or down the neck – causing that strange muted (if it is the thicker, wound string) or a sitar-like sound (if it is the thinner two strings).
So, what causes it? You say neck relief, neck angle?
Correct you are, but there is more to it than meets the eye!
Here are the reasons why a string or a few strings may buzz, moving from the simplest and most obvious reasons.
- A low saddle or nut
A low saddle or nut will always return a string buzz and cause problems. Throw out the saddle or nut or both and replace them with new – preferably bone – elements.
- Change in string gauge
Your friend, band-mate tells you that x strings are the best. You switch to x strings only to find that you have developed string buzz!
IF your guitar was set-up, it was set-up for the particular strings that you wanted, or the ones that you had on your instrument. By changing the string gauge (the thickness of strings), you’re changing that delicate balance of everything, and naturally everything is thrown out of balance.
If you go from bigger to smaller-gauge (thicker to thinner) strings, you will find that the action on your instrument has increased, making it much tougher to fret notes and chords. In extreme cases, you may even find that in the process of playing a particular note, you are actually playing a much sharper version of it.
In pulling down the string to the fretboard, you actually elongate the length of the string, which makes the note sound sharp.
Conversely, if thicker strings are thrown on, they are bound to hit the frets as their size does not allow them the same space to ‘move’ as thinner strings.
- Dented/Uneven frets
After a few years of playing something like this happening is quite normal. It is like the tread on the tyres of your vehicle disappearing after you’ve driven it a bit. But then, you have two options: get the tyres re-treaded, or, get new tyres.
Likewise, in guitars, once these dents/divots appear, you have two choices: get new frets, or, get the original frets levelled, crowned and polished.
If you don’t get either of the two things done, it is quite likely that strings get caught in these dents, creating that horrible buzz.
- Little or no pressure while fretting
It takes younger students and new players a bit of time to realise the pressure that they are supposed to apply for a note or a chord to sound right. Till they do, every note buzzes, as do the chords but they don’t realise it till the teacher points it out to them.
Also, habitual electric guitar players often experience string buzz when they have to transition to acoustic instruments. Electric guitars demand a much softer and gentler touch for them to respond. Acoustic guitars, on the other hand, demand a much stronger grip on the fretboard, in comparison.
- Change in tuning
Your guitar is in standard tuning (E, A, D, G, B, e). Suddenly, you feel like playing a few songs that demand that the guitar be tuned down half a step (Eb) or a full step (D). As you tune down your instrument, you discover that along with the new tuning, you have also managed to give your guitar string buzz.
It’s pretty simple actually. Once the tension on the strings – to which your guitar was set up – is reduced, it is bound to create problems. Amazing, right?
Those were the more obvious causes of string buzz. There are a few others, not so common, yet, if you’re trying to figure out where that buzz is coming from, check these out.
- A heavy hand?
You strum your guitar hard and that is how you play. But then if you lay your hands on a guitar that is not set up to your playing style, you are bound to get string buzz.
For a heavy-handed player, the action is raised a bit higher so that he/she gets the string clearance while playing.
- Art installations look good in museums, not on the headstock of your guitar
Frankly, how many times have you seen this. Pretty common, right? However, what is the purpose of it? Nothing! What is the problem in winding your strings like this? String buzz!!
How? The vibrating length of a string is between the nut and the saddle, but it is also true that string vibrations are carried to the tuning peg post on the headstock. Once the post vibrates, any length of extra string also vibrates.
While playing, you would think that your strings are hitting your frets, when actually it is the extra length of string picking up vibrations and causing that disturbing buzz.
- Mummy-fying the tuning post
Do your tuning posts look like this? Shame!!!
Manufacturers make strings of a certain length so that all categories of customers can be catered to. Steel-string guitars with slotted headstocks, archtop guitars and slide guitars, and all such guitars, require more string length. However, your simple Western, flattop guitar does not require the entire length of the string.
Please use only as much as will keep the string from slipping out of the peghead, the rest NEEDS TO BE CUT AND THROWN AWAY!
Winding it as shown in the picture only causes problems in tuning, transfer of vibrations, intonation and, of course, string buzz.
- Loose hardware on the headstock
We just learned how sympathetic vibrations can fool players into believing that their guitar is buzzing. It is, but not what you would classically define as string buzz.
Another such case in point is when the hardware on the headstock gets loose. With the guitar resonating, the hardware picks up the vibrations and if it is not snug, it can cause a buzz big time.
Every time you change strings, do check the hardware on the headstock of your guitar. It does not need to crush and crack the headstock, yet, it should not move if you try to move it by hand.
- Loose braces
If you look inside your guitar, there are these pieces of wood running through the length and breadth of your instrument. They are present both on the top as well as on the back and serve two prime purposes of providing structural support and helping the top and the back to vibrate when strings are vibrating.
These pieces of wood are of a specific height and thickness depending upon the size and shape of the guitar, and are stuck to the top/back. Over the years, it is very common for braces to come loose at one end, or both ends (remaining stuck at the centre). Once you have a loose brace, every time you strum your guitar, as the top or the back vibrates, the brace vibrates too, giving off an odd rattle that can be very confusing to pick where it is coming from.
If you think you have a loose brace, you have to take your instrument to a qualified guitar tech who will stick it right back.
- Improper/no set-up
To get the right gap between the strings and the frets all along the fretboard, several fine adjustments have to be made – these adjustments are known as the ‘set-up’. To set up an acoustic guitar properly requires specialist tools, accurate measurements, and expert knowledge – so it needs to be done by an experienced guitar technician.
When I set up a guitar, I ask the owner to play a little for me, so that I can see how hard or softly he hits the strings. Also the kind of music he/she plays: lead, rhythm, finger-style, helps me set up the guitar perfectly for THAT specific player.
If you think you have no problems with your instrument, wait till I set it up for you. You will notice that even a well-playing instrument can be made better with a few alterations/modifications.