Action/Style/Fret-Buzz: The Other Side of the Coin

If you’re reading this you’ll know that I’m pretty vocal about getting players to understand some of the compromises necessary with guitars and basses. The biggie here is the fret-buzz-and-action issue. I’ve frequently gone off on rants trying to cement the notion that even a perfect guitar can have fret buzz if the setup isn’t right for its player’s style.

The ‘as low as it can go without buzzing’ thing just isn’t something that can be uttered on its own and a tech can magically make that happen. As low as it can go for most people is doable. As low as it can go for me to hammer out punk classics is good. As low as it can go for me to shred my way through arcane scales while barely touching the strings is just fine. It needs the qualifier. It needs more than ‘as low as it can go’.

I’ll continue to thump this drum as long as my career and/or life allows. A player’s style is a vital piece of this puzzle. It’s not just the guitar.

But, of course, sometimes it is.

Fret buzz can be caused by style, setup, and hardware. Let’s talk hardware

Sometimes it is the guitar. And I’m remiss if I don’t mention that.

Sometimes the guitar is the problem. My ranting assumes a well set-up guitar with perfectly levelled frets. That’s not always the case.

Someone emailed me recently, saying he’d collected a guitar from a tech and found it was buzzy and seemed poorly intonated. The tech told him, “It’s the way you play, man.” However, the player’s other guitars at home didn’t exhibit the same problems. Having read some of my articles on buzz, though, and this guy was internalising all this information to conclude he should lighten up about buzz and maybe change his style.

And, to be fair, that’s definitely an element of my message.

But it’s not all.

And it’s my fault for not being more clear.

Sometimes it is the guitar.

Sometimes the guitar does need fretwork. Sometimes it needs a better setup. My bugbear is around realistic expectations of the instrument and really, the fundamental expectation is that the guitar be ‘right’. Sort out the hardware and then look to style and setup.

What I DO NOT want to happen is for players to settle early. I don’t want players to accept a less-than-perfect guitar and assume it’s their fault if there’s a buzz. I don't want players to learn to live with buzz that can be remedied by some fret work.

Absolutely get it sorted. Then, when the guitar is perfect, consider where the action/style/buzz compromise has to lie for you.

And, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT want to help provide licence for the less scrupulous out there to use ‘it’s the way you play’ as some sort of excuse for failing to get that instrument perfect.

I know that last point is unfair in this particular story. I haven’t seen the emailer’s guitar and I don’t know the tech in question. I don’t know that this was any real shirking of responsibility. The worst I can legitimately say is that the tech could use some work on communication.

That said, in my time doing this job, I’ve seen enough to know that not everyone holds themselves to standards I’d consider pretty basic — technically and ethically.

So, the takeaway here is to find a tech you can trust (ask around, check online, check with others) and work to get an instrument that’s as good as it can be.

Then ask, “As low as it can go without buzzing for me.”