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Last Updated: January 13, 2019
“Why are my guitar strings buzzing?”
It’s one of the most common questions I’m asked by concerned guitar owners. People’s reaction to guitar string buzz varies widely. 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.
Guitar string buzz can happen for many reasons, and in some cases it can be due to an actual problem with the guitar. This includes things such as loose, uneven, or worn frets, an unnatural hump in the fretboard, or worse. Only a skilled guitar repairperson can diagnose and fix those types of issues.
On the other hand, there are a number of “normal” things, all within your control, that can cause guitar string buzz, and those are the ones we’re going to cover in this post.
1. Improper setup (or no setup at all)
Guitars have a few points of adjustment that are all interdependent in some way. Tweak one thing and it affects another. Tweak another thing and you’ll need to adjust something else to compensate. If they’re out of whack, then your guitar isn’t set up properly and string buzz can be one symptom.
A setup performed by a skilled guitar repairperson is the guitar equivalent to getting a car “tuneup” by an ace mechanic. 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.
What to Learn to do Your Own Setups?
If you want to learn to do your own setups, there are couple resources I highly recommend:
2. Not pressing the string down directly 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 shown this in the photo 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, as shown in the G Major barre chord below:
3. Not pressing the string hard enough
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 awhile. 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. Low humidity (the air is too dry)
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.
Some of the more obvious symptoms of a “dry guitar” include sharp fret ends and, yep, you guessed it: string buzz.
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).
Protect your guitar against low humidity:
5. You changed your tuning (especially lowering)
Remember what we learned in #1 about setups? Part of the setup equation is having your guitar strings tuned to pitch. 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 on-the-fly (for one particular song, for example), your strings may buzz as long as you stay in the new tuning, because the string tension on the neck is now different than what the guitar was set up for. Once you go back to your standard tuning, the buzzing should subside.
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. You changed your string gauge (thickness) or brand
Just as your guitar is set up to play optimally in a certain tuning, whoever set up your guitar also did so for the brand and gauge of strings you specified at the time.
So, if your guitar plays beautifully and buzz free with certain strings, stick with that same gauge and brand whenever you put on a fresh set. If you change to something else, your strings may buzz. There are a couple reasons for this:
- Strings of a different gauge exert a different amount of tension (pull) on the guitar neck.
- 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. You’re strumming or picking notes too hard
While not actually a mistake, this is also a cause of string buzz that is within your control.
Hit a note or chord with a certain amount of force and it may sound fine. Hower, hit it much harder and the strings may buzz. This is just the reality of physics: hitting the strings harder will cause them to vibrate in a wider arc and potentially make contact with the other frets. The resulting sound you’ll hear is a metallic buzzing along with your 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.
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.
Setting up a guitar, especially an electric guitar, to have low action and be completely buzz free is sort of the Holy Grail for guitar players. It can happen, and when it does it’s a beautiful thing, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. I’ve seen some guitar players become obsessed and spend unhealthy amounts of time and money trying to completely eliminate string buzz. A much more realistic expectation would be a guitar that has low, comfortable action and plays mostly buzz free most of the time.
Do you have some string buzz and are wondering if it’s normal? Let me know in the “Leave a Reply” section down below.
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