Do you often encounter string buzzing sounds?
Unfortunately, it’s one of the most common issues that we are asked about by concerned guitar owners. Guitarists of all kinds have come around this issue and gave various reactions. Some people flat-out don’t care or don’t notice. Others find it maddening–to the point that they can’t focus on just playing their guitar and having fun.
Problems With The Guitar?
A string buzz problem can occur for numerous reasons. Yes, it is true that sometimes, there is an actual problem with the guitar. This includes things such as loose, uneven, or worn frets, an unnatural hump in the fretboard, or worse. Don’t go ahead and try to fix those if you are a beginner or playing guitar for a year. You need skills to deal with these issues, so, it is best that we find a repairperson for that.
Now that we have talked about guitar problems, there are lots of reasons that you can control that cause string buzz. We will discuss them in this article. Let’s dive in.
1. Problems in Setup
Guitars have a few points of adjustment that are all interdependent in some way. Tweak one thing and it affects another. If you tweak another thing, you must adjust something else to compensate. Your guitar isn’t set up properly and string buzz can be one symptom if they are out of whack.
A setup that is performed by a skilled person is beneficial in all ways. It’s the best way to ensure all these points are adjusted properly and that your guitar is as naturally buzz-free as possible. It’s also how you can be sure there is nothing more sinister going on that could be causing unnatural string buzz.
Just as you can learn to do your own car tuneups, you can also (and probably should) learn to do your own guitar setups. However, getting a feel for it can take time so I recommend leaving it to a pro at first. Trying to jump right into it yourself can feel like a frustrating game of whack-a-mole, and you could damage something.
2. Lack Of String Pressing Behind The Fret
When you’re pressing a guitar string down to create a note, your finger should come down as close to the metal fret as possible. Otherwise, the further away you are, the harder you’ll have to press to ensure the note rings out cleanly without buzzing. I’ve tried to point this out in the photos below:
This is easier to accomplish when playing scales or single notes, but chords can be a different story. With chords, press directly behind the fret wherever possible, but know that there will always be some situations where you simply can’t get all your fingers close to the frets.
With chords, you can’t always get all your fingers close to the frets. That’s okay!
3. Lack of String Pressing During Playing A Note
In addition to not pressing the note down in the correct spot as outlined above, there is still the issue of needing to apply enough pressure to the string. Even with your fingers in the right positions, close to the frets, if you don’t press hard enough the note will buzz against the metal fret. If you’re finding it difficult to press hard enough, don’t worry. That’ll come with time and practice as you build your technique and hand strength, so for now just be aware that you need to work on it.
If pressing the string is still painful for you, that’ll eventually subside too as you continue to practice and build up the calluses on your fingertips. It’s something all guitarists have to endure for a while. In the meantime, I recommend beginners use ultralight guitar strings while they’re building calluses and hand strength. Or, if you’re experiencing general or excessive hand pain, I wrote this article: 6 Ways Guitarists Can Reduce Hand & Finger Pain.
4. Humidity Can Affect Your Guitar
Guitars, especially acoustic guitars, are safest in an environment where the relative humidity is between 45% – 55%. If you live in an extremely dry climate or frequently have your heater or air conditioner running inside the house, your guitar can become too dry if you don’t take proactive steps to get more moisture into the air around it. If you’d like to learn more, I wrote an in-depth article on how humidity affects guitars.
There are certain symptoms of a dry guitar including string buzz and sharp fret ends.
If you suspect that this may be an issue, buy or borrow a digital hygrometer to first get a true reading of the humidity wherever you keep your guitar. Then, if necessary, buy a room humidifier or an in-case guitar humidifier (depending on whether you primarily store your guitar outside or inside a case, respectively).
5. Changing The String Configuration
We talked about setups at the beginning of the article, right? One of the important things in the setup is having your guitar strings tuned to pitch (whichever tuning you prefer) and letting it stay there. It doesn’t matter whether you normally use standard tuning, drop D, an open chord tuning, or something else, your guitar is typically set up to play optimally in one specific tuning you’ve chosen.
If you change that tuning for one particular song your strings may buzz as long as you stay in the new tuning. Because the string tension on your guitar’s neck is now different than what the guitar was set up for at first. The moment you go back to standard tuning, the string buzz will go away.
Players who are constantly changing their tuning on-the-fly have grown accustomed to this issue and either accept the buzzing or compensate for it by using thicker strings and/or higher action.
6. Changing The String Thickness
So, your guitar is set up to play optimally in a certain tuning. He who set up your guitar also did so for the brand and gauge of strings you told him to do at the time.
All you need to do now is, stick with the same gauge and brand whenever you put on a fresh set. This will allow you to get a beautiful buzz-free sound. If you change to something else, your strings may buzz. There are reasons:
- Strings of a different gauge exert a different amount of tension (pull) on the guitar neck. This tension determines how much the neck bends forward/backward.
- Various string manufacturers may use different manufacturing processes, materials, etc. in the production of their strings. These variables also play a role in how much tension the strings exert on the neck and can even affect the way the string vibrates.
This doesn’t mean you can never try different strings. It simply means that if you do you may need to have your guitar set up again so that it sounds and plays correctly.
7. Are You Strumming Too Hard?
No, we are not calling it a mistake. But, your control plays a great role in causing string buzz!
Hit a note or chord with a certain amount of force and it may sound fine. Yet, if you hit it much harder, the strings may buzz. Nothing but a high-school physics lesson: hitting the strings harder will cause them to vibrate in a wider frequency and potentially make contact with the other frets. The output will be a horrible sound that is a metallic buzzing with all the notes
Have your guitar set up for how you pick/strum most of the time, and accept that you’re going to get some normal buzzing whenever you get lost in the moment and become heavy-handed. If you’re normally a heavy hitter (you pick/strum hard most of the time), you may need higher string action to avoid buzzing.
8. High Pickups
If you have an electric guitar, it’s possible your guitar’s pickups are adjusted too close to the strings. Electric guitar pickups are magnets; your guitar strings are metal. So, it is normal that the pickups physically pull on the strings. If they’re adjusted too close, they can actually pull the strings enough while the strings are vibrating and create a mess.
Adjust your pickups so that the individual pole pieces are no closer than 2mm – 3mm from the string. You measure this distance while holding down the string at the 22nd or 24th fret (depending on how many frets you have).
To Sum Up
If you’ve addressed everything listed in this article AND had a professional rule out any serious problems with the guitar itself, yet you’re still getting some string buzz, there’s one final possibility: The buzzing is completely normal.
Yes, you read that correctly!
For guitarists, setting up an electric guitar without a string buzz can be one of the best feelings in the world. It can happen, and when it does it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, there are some guitar players who become obsessed and spend a lot of time and money trying to completely get rid of string buzz. What we really need to expect is a guitar that has a comfortable action and plays “mostly buzz-free” while on practice or on the stage.