Get the Most from Your Guitar Tech by “Speaking Repairman”
HOW MANY TIMES have you thought, “Where is that buzz or rattle coming from?” Not the normal fret buzz that we all know and hate, but a more mysterious buzz. Before we go further, let’s define our terms. Buzzes can be mechanical (frets, hardware, etc.) or electronic (shielding, wiring, 60-cycle pickup hum, etc). We’re going to look at mechanical buzzes first, and we’ll discuss electronic buzzes next month.
A customer brought in a semi-hollow guitar last week that made an annoying sitar sound when any C note on the instrument was played. The strings come out a hole in the trapeze tailpiece, and the length of string behind the bridge on the low E string happened to be tuned to a C. This caused it to vibrate sympathetically against the tailpiece when any other C was played. I ended up putting a 1" piece of heat shrink around the string at the ball end and that took care of it. I recommend weaving a strip of felt or leather through the strings between the bridge and the tailpiece on any guitar that has unwanted string vibration.
Along the same lines, one of the most common buzzes happens behind the note you are fretting. This is easy to find by dampening the strings behind where you fret the note. Pro fixes include a fret level, or raising or lowering the nut. At home, you can try a slight trussrod adjustment.
A little bit of heat shrink on the low-E string got rid of an annoying mystery buzz.
Another very common problem comes from Gibson- style Tune-o-matic bridge saddles. The individual saddles often have some play in them, and they can buzz or rattle along with a note—a note that may even come from another string. To make it even harder to troubleshoot, the problem may mysteriously come and go.
First, be sure the saddle retainer wire is not hitting the string. Then, try removing the saddle, cleaning out the area it sits in, and reinstalling it. You can also try a drop of the weaker blue Loctite, a drop of nail polish, or even a drop of wax to keep the saddle and screw from vibrating.
While looking for a sympathetic rattle, I once found the capacitor that spanned from the Volume to the Tone pot on a Gibson ES-175 had its own resonate frequency that vibrated along with certain notes.
Mysterious acoustic-guitar buzzes are often a loose brace. Lightly tap the top or back of the guitar like a bongo. The sound will go from a nice drum sound to a thud when you tap near a loose brace. Unless you’re super handy, however, fixing this buzz typically requires a shop repair.
There is a moral to this story: If you can describe the problem accurately and reproduce the problem quickly, it makes it easier, faster, and cheaper to find and fix. This may mean more time at home experimenting with your guitar, but that is far more effective than coming into a repair shop, and asking the tech to “fix” an issue that has mysteriously disappeared.
Gary Brawer runs Stringed Instrument Repair in San Francisco. His many clients include Joe Satriani, Metallica, and Neal Schon.