In which I disagree with Steve Vai on setup

I recently read The Guitar Magazine’s interview with Steve Vai. Steve was discussing his new JEM model and he said the following in answer to a question related to the ‘quality’ of an instrument:

It’s always a good idea to start on a decent instrument. . . . The neck should be able to set the action as a low as possible without any buzzing so it should have a decent and straight neck on it.

No, Steve Vai! No!

It drives me nuts when players speak like this because it misses a fundamental point of guitar setup.

It’s not all the guitar.

First off, I firmly believe every player should have a guitar with perfectly levelled frets. A guitar with no unevenness, no high frets, no low frets, no possible reason for a note to buzz or fret-out due to hardware.

Absolutely. No question.

However, the most perfect fret work in the world is not a guarantee that you won’t get fret buzz.

No way. No how.

…action as a low as possible without any buzzing
— Steve Vai, 10th Greatest Guitarist (Guitar World)

“As low as possible without buzzing” always fails to take into account the fact that the player’s style is a massive factor in whether or not a guitar will buzz.

I’m sure Steve Vai has some wonderfully set-up guitars, with fantastic fretwork, and some insanely low action. And, I’d bet a month’s supply of tea and cake that I could pick up one of his guitars and make it buzz.

A month’s tea and cake. That’s how confident I am.

It doesn’t matter if the guitar is perfect. It might not be perfect for everyone.

If you play power chords with a 5mm pick made from cast-iron, hammering the strings like a medieval blacksmith, your “as low as possible without buzzing” will be different to Steve Vai, who’s sweeping arpeggios with a plectrum made from a beech leaf.

No, Steve Vai! No!
— Gerry Hayes, fed-up guitar repair-guy

“As low as it can go without buzzing” gives the impression that anybody should be able to get a super-slinky action and, if there’s any buzz, it’s the guitar’s fault. Or the tech’s fault.

No.

Anyone that’s read my stuff for a while knows this is a particular bee in my bonnet. I’ve written about it a number of times and if you’ve been moved by my ranting and tea/cake wager, please check out String Action As A Limiter — I feel that explains things nicely.

Lastly, I should just give Steve Vai the benefit of some doubt. He does mention the ‘low without buzzing’ thing twice during the interview and it may well be that he’s aware of the nuances around different setups for different styles. He may be just saying that it’s important a guitar have great fretwork. And that’s fair. But it needs the nuance or it just continues the myth that the guitar or tech is to blame if a player gets buzz.

When players like Vai say stuff like this, a LOT of other players read it and internalise it. And they can’t all play with super-slinky buzz-free action because they don’t all play styles where it’s appropriate. And then they blame the guitar and worry they have to ‘upgrade’ or they blame their tech and I have to have difficult conversations.

So, please go have a read of String Action As A Limiter.

Help out an angry guitar-repair guy.