Eliminating bass fret buzz (and beyond).

Jan 20, 2001

The Bottom Line Fix the instrument, your left hand technique, and (for fingerstyle players) your right hand technique (the key is to "play forte with your left hand, but mezzoforte with your right").

Note: If you're not absolutely sure of your skills, leave all instrument tests and adjustments to a highly qualified repairman. And make sure you get lots of advice about repairmen from experienced players before sending your axe out for repairs.

OK, you're in for it--the super course in eliminating fret buzz. First, we're going to take a look at the bass, the mechanics of your instrument that have to be going right in order for you to have a fighting chance at eliminating fret buzz. That's the easy part. Then we're going to look at eliminating buzz from your fingerstyle technique (this isn't really a problem with slapping). This is the hard part, but if this is your problem, the solution offers you a wonderful opportunity to take your playing to the next level. We will not go into such peripheral matters as setting the pickup height or the intonation on your axe. These are covered nicely in many other spots on the Web.

The Bass

Note: Before starting, make sure it's fret buzz that's the problem. Very frequently, buzzing may be traced to the vibration of a bridge saddle spring, pickup mounting hardware, control cavity components, or even a straplock end if you forgot to remove the strap before listening to buzzing.

When a string, any string, is plucked or hit, it swings back and forth in an arc. Naturally, it's immobile at the ends of the vibrating length, and it moves the greatest distance in the middle. If this vibrating length hits something as it swings back and forth, the clear tone of the string is interrupted. If it hits something hard, like a fret, the result is buzz.

As a bare minimum, all frets must be level and crowned properly to do anything else. Significant fret erosion will indicate that a leveling and re-crowning is needed before going further. If you are getting buzz out of just one or two frets in the middle of the neck, chances are you have a high fret, which can sometimes be re-seated (see a pro if you're not sure how to do this). The knowledgeable do-it-yourselfer can take all the relief out of the neck and lay a machinist's straightedge across the frets up and down the length of the neck to check for high and low spots.

If all frets are properly leveled and crowned, the first idea that will occur to you to eliminate buzz is to raise the string at one end. However, at the extremes of its travel, the string is curved somewhat like a jump rope. It stands to reason that if you don't want the string to hit anything under it, you'd want the area underneath it to be scooped out in a curve that approximates the shape of the string when it's closest the instrument.

The amount of "scoop" that you can dial into the neck is called neck relief, and a judicious amount will keep the string from hitting the frets, yet keep it as close as possible to the instrument as it vibrates. This will keep down the demands on your fretting-hand strength (any effort spent fighting unnecessary forces is not spent opposing unavoidable forces). The relief is adjusted by tightening or loosening the truss rod nut(s).

Graphite necks do not offer this adjustment. Proponents claim that because humidity doesn't affect graphite necks, no adjustment is needed. I favor adjustable laminated wooden necks both for sound quality (this is a very personal issue) and to allow for varying amounts of excursion required by different kinds of strings (this is a rather more objective issue).

The balance between string height at the bridge and neck relief is complex and can only be fully optimized through experimentation. Some strings are much stiffer than others and require less distance (and hence curvature) to develop their sound, while others require more. This adjustment may require many expensive visits to the shop if you are experimenting with strings, so you may wish to acquire the skills and proper wrench to do this yourself.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, remember that any figures you may run across on the Web are only starting points. For Fender-style instruments, you may begin with the figures available at Fender's mrgearhead.net site. If you find you can't adjust the bridge low enough, see that site's advice on neck shimming.

In terms of reducing fretting-hand effort, there is also nut height to think about. Borrow an automotive feeler gauge, the kind they used to use to adjust ignition points with. Press the string down after the third fret. The distance between the first fret and the string should be roughly 0.010" (ten one-thousandths of an inch). Much more and you will want to consult your repairman about the possibility of having your nut slots cut more deeply.

If you are a do-it-yourselfer, remember that these slots are not parallel to the fingerboard, they must be pitched so that the bridge edge of the nut is in solid contact with the string, and the string is gently guided to the tuners by bearing on the headstock end of the nut, too. I get the closest possible correct gauging by filing the slots with a mix of fractional, letter-size, and number-size drill bits. Graphite is the most forgiving nut material. Do not mess with brass unless you're dead sure of what you're doing. Read a good guitar repair manual before starting.


Now, here's a very common situation: you've got the bass adjusted to a fare-thee-well and you still have fret buzz. Sorry, you can't blame the axe any more! You're in for a lot of work, but don't be too hard on yourself. You are probably doing the wrong things in pursuit of the right goals--a good, full, authoritative bass sound. The good news is that once you fix your technique, you will find the overall musical potential of your playing has improved as well.

The Left Hand

Adjusting your left hand technique is the easy part.

Imagine you are pushing the string 45 degrees down into the crack between the fret and the fretboard. This gives you your clearest sound with the least effort. You will also find it gives you your cleanest releases when lifting up the string to end a note. At first, this may seem strange, and it will take some work to keep the fleshy part of your fingertip from deadening the note, but it will pay off.

If you are doing this correctly, your calluses will look like this:

On the index finger, you will start developing a callus on the inside edge (side) of the tip joint, starting about halfway to the end of the joint and wrapping around to the front.

On the middle and ring fingers, the callus will be less pronounced and more centered on the tip.

On the little finger, the callus will appear on the outside edge of the tip joint, starting about halfway to the end of the joint and wrapping around to the front.

We won't worry about thumb placement. Some people obsess on this, but basically, if you're a thumb wrapper, you'll quit when it doesn't work for you any more.

The Right Hand

Here's the hard part where we have to go beyond a mere concern with fret buzz to the notes to the music so we can get back down to fret buzz again. The quick and dirty explanation is that you are hitting your strings too hard or the wrong way, but there is more to the issue than that.

There are three reasons you may be hitting your strings too hard or the wrong way. You will notice the first reason if you have more buzz at the end of a set than at the beginning, and that is your band's volume is creeping up and instead of turning up the volume knob, you are hitting the strings harder and harder.

Or maybe you find your sound is wimpy unless you whack the strings so hard they buzz. If the problem's a weak signal, it's solvable with proper pickup adjustment or (easiest to try out to see if that's the problem) a Sadowsky outboard preamp or a SansAmp or something. If not, then you have to work on your attack, the basic way you hit the string.

Lastly, your problem may be lifelong muscle habit. When you exert a certain amount of force with one hand, it's hard to exert a different amount of force with the other hand. They both want to work as hard as the other. In this case you also have to work on your attack. This is because you are overdoing things in order to get a clean, clear, authoritative start to your note. Retrace my search for proper attack with me and you'll see where it comes from and how to get there.

I complimented the upright player of the Dallas Jazz Orchestra many years ago on the beautiful fat, singing sound he was getting out of an unremarkable old Juzek. His playing reinforced my belief that the quality of each note played is of paramount importance. I asked how I could improve, and he said the secret to great sound was to play forte with the left hand and mezzoforte with the right, and he encouraged me to play scales as legato as possible to strengthen the left, each note full value.

He said that if I listened to most bass players, I would hear a thin "foo-foo" sound because their left hand wasn't bearing down hard enough to make the bass sing, in fact they didn't even have enough strength to keep full contact through the duration of the note (this lack of strength creates a further problem, that of not having the string fully down when the note is attacked, so as an exercise, he told me to deliberately stop each note *before* plucking it). It is only natural that the hands should exert themselves with symmetrical force, even for the right to put out more power than the left. But if I wanted to make the bass sing, I would have to reverse nature and bury the string in the fingerboard while pizzing comparatively lightly.

Of course, the problem with fretted electric isn't "foo-foo," it's buzz and rattle. After I finally succeeded in breaking myself of the habit of playing too hard with my right hand, I was able to realize the benefits of that gentleman's advice. And better, my attack improved by leaps and bounds. The amount of effort expended by the right hand has nothing to do with the degree of attack. Actually, too much effort might hurt strong attack it if it causes available headroom to be overrun.

After watching Francis Rocco Prestia's Fingerstyle Funk video, I guessed his great attack came from pre-tensioning the strings before release, so I became very aware of that. Prestia said he had a problem with strings sticking to his fingers so he used a little lotion. But I could see that controlled sticking was the key to consistent pre-tensioning, so I blew off the lotion and got the same effect by playing lighter. I kind of slingshot every note and it makes a big difference, tightens things right up.

Essentially, good attack has to do with the clarity of the note, which comes from the greater pressure of the fretting hand (if beginners are reading this, remember to finger notes as close to the fret as possible to reduce effort) as compared to the force exerted by the attacking hand.

And it has to do with the focus imparted to the note by the attacking finger, which results from total control of a combination of:

- Exact amount of preload (uniform from note to note)

- What spot on the string you attack (with my EMG P, the best spot is exactly at the back edge of each of the two pickup sections; I'm not good enough to hit only these spots but I average them into a shallow arc)

- Even, rapid acceleration of finger throughout the stroke

- Angle of fingertip at preload, angle of fingertip at release (these angles should be thought through and experimented with on all three axes), and

- Cleanness of release, which should feel exactly like a surprise trigger break or arrow release--except you control its exact timing.

Work on these things and you'll have gone beyond merely eliminating fret buzz; you'll have tightened up your playing to the point that you'll have a clear path to the next level of playing.

Note: The adventurous will want to explore their hardware options in their quest for a truly authoritative attack. The informative EMG pickup catalog at www.emginc.com will help you get started, as will the ongoing newsgroup discussions about scale length, wood choices, and basic bass construction choices.

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