All too often, a customer comes in and says something like this: “I can’t play any chords in the first three frets without the notes buzzing out. I raised the bridge a whole bunch and the problem still didn’t go away.”
Now, you have really high action, and still can’t play a clean cowboy chord to save your life on account of your back-bowed neck.
Another common refrain is: “I’m constantly adjusting my trussrod, but notes in the upper register are still fretting out!”
What can you do?
Here are some very general guidelines for improving your guitar’s setup. This is not meant to be a full setup guide, but simply the first step towards understanding the important relationship between the trussrod and bridge height, as well as some DIY tips before you hit the shop.
If your guitar buzzes between the nut and the 7th fret, loosen the trussrod to relieve the buzzing. Start with a quarter to a half turn, check your tuning, and see if your chords ring better. If the buzzing is past the 12th fret - closer to the end of the neck - you want to raise the bridge to clean up the buzz.
Of course, the opposite is also true. To lower your action, tighten the trussrod until the strings just start to buzz in the first five or so frets then back off just a hair. Next, lower the bridge until you have too much buzz up the neck then go back up a hair to eliminate that. This is obviously much easier if you have a barstyle (i.e. Tune-o-matic or Gretsch-style) bridge where you can adjust the bass or treble side with a thumb screw. If the guitar has individual string height adjustments, I recommend adjusting both E strings to where you want them, then arc the middle strings to an even radius over the frets.
Remember that fret buzz is a subjective thing. If you are a low-action kind of person, I recommend leaving a touch of buzz, and seeing how the whole guitar plays through an amp when you’re done.
Very important: Keep track of where you started adjusting the trussrod, and make a note of how many turns were made so you can always go back. Also, keep in mind that the height of the strings in the nut, which can create possible open-string buzz against the 1st fret, is a completely separate and complicated adjustment, and you probably need a pro to help. Other things that will come into play are fret level and neck integrity. Buzz from a high fret won’t be fixed as easily by raising the bridge, and a neck bow is not always taken out by tweaking the trussrod.
This is an admittedly simplistic view, but having a basic understanding of the balance between bridge height and trussrod should not be underestimated. You can keep the same string height and completely change the feel and playability by modifying the relationship of the trussrod to the bridge. I encourage anyone interested to give it a try.
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.