Buzz Feiten's Obsession with Making Guitars Play and Sound Better

By all accounts, guitarist Buzz Feiten has led a charmed musical existence.

By all accounts, guitarist Buzz Feiten has led a charmed musical existence. At age 19 he jammed with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix in New York, and the next day he was invited to audition for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That gig led not only to performing at Woodstock, but subsequently opened the door for Feiten to play and/or record with a Who’s-Who list of artists, including Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bette Midler, the Rascals, James Taylor, Gregg Allman, Rickie Lee Jones, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau, Bob Dylan, Dave Weckl, Kenny Loggins, the Brecker Bothers, David Sanborn, Michael Franks, Mr. Mister, Dave Koz, and Olivia Newton-John.

Throughout his long career as a professional guitarist, Feiten has always sought to improve the performance of his instruments, whether by making them play more in tune or building his own speaker cabinets to make them sound better onstage. Feiten chalks up his relentless pursuit of “fixing” guitars to a very simple philosophy: “I’ve always felt that if something could be improved, I had to at least try to make it better. As I got more years of experience in different situations, I started to have very strong intuitive feelings about things. For instance, I noticed that all the guitars I played exhibited the same tendencies to play out of tune, so that set off an alarm bell, because if they’re all tending to sound out of tune in the same way, maybe there’s a correction that could be just as consistent. That led me to create the Buzz Feiten tuning system in 1992, and the rest is history.”

More recently, Feiten has put his energies into creating a line of electric guitars bearing his name—a venture that affords him ample opportunity to pull from all the things he has learned about guitars over the decades and, as always, continue to make improvements wherever he sees a need.

Was it primarily the tuning issue with guitars that put you on the map as an inventor?

Yes, and the real motivation behind that was I had several experiences working in the studio on projects with producers and I could not tune my guitar. Here I am, a session guy with 25 years of experience, and I can’t get my guitar in tune! That was an embarrassment to me, and I swore that I was either going to fix it or give up playing. And then I remembered that back in the late ’60s when there were no electronic tuners I was intonating my guitars by ear. I’d pluck a string and play the octave, and if it sounded sharp or flat I’d adjust it. I had more success doing it that way than I did using a tuner, and it got me thinking that there must be something wrong with the formula—that’s what led me down that path toward developing my tuning system.

After that, you got involved for a time in building speaker cabinets.

Yeah, I got obsessed in the early ’90s with speaker cabinets, because I realized that most manufacturers were basically just building a square box and sticking some speakers in it with very little thought as to how it sounded. It was more about how it looked and if it was the same size as the head. I had some guitar cabinets that sounded great and others that didn’t, so I started experimenting with cabinets and came up with a design that was very lightweight and very punchy. It was a closed-back design, which was sort of against the grain in those days, and I ended up being pretty happy with it. But it took a couple of years and hundreds of hours of work to get there.

What did you learn about improving speaker cabinets?

In order to make a great sounding cabinet, you have to first get rid of the standing wave, which makes things sound boxy. Most speaker cabinets are dampened with cotton batting if they’re dampened at all, so I started using acoustic foam to dampen the inside of the cabinet which right away helped by getting rid of that boxy sound, tightening up the bottom end, and letting the voice of the speaker come through better. I also discovered is that if you combine a high efficiency driver with a low efficiency driver—such as a Celestion 80-watt Classic Lead, which has a big magnet, with a Celestion Greenback, which has a smaller magnet—then you get the best of both worlds: the headroom of the big magnet and the sweetness of the smaller magnet.

Why do you front-load one speaker and rear-load the other?

Front-loaded cabinets tend to be very snappy and have a lot more attack, whereas rear-loaded cabinets tend to be more boxy sounding, so I discovered that if you frontload the bottom speaker—the one that’s furthest from your ear and closest to the ground—you get more punch by virtue of it being front-loaded. Conversely, when you put a front-loaded speaker up off the ground they tend to sound very annoying and piercing. A lot of this has to do with where you’re standing in front of the cabinet, of course, and that being said, I tried to find the best combination of all those variables so that if your speaker cabinet is in a normal position onstage it would have a great combination of tightness, punch, bottom end, and attack—but would also have the warmth that putting a rear-loaded speaker on the top provides. At the moment, Fuchs Amplification has licensed both of my speaker cabinet designs, and you can get can them directly though Fuchs.

What was the reason for choosing a Tele-style design for your guitars?

I started with that basic design because I’d played Strats for years and had developed shoulder problems. In fact, I had to have shoulder surgery because of a torn rotator cuff, which was caused from 20 years of having no support for my right forearm when I played guitar. And that’s because of the elbow rout on the Strat body, which means you can’t rest your forearm on the lower bout. So I switched to Teles and all that went away, and my playing improved because I was able to rest my forearm on the lower bout. That’s why you’ll never see an elbow rout on one of my guitars, even though I like how they look. Another design advantage of the Tele is that it’s very simple and has very few parts on it. The simpler the guitar, the more sound transmission to the body and neck.

Is that why you prefer bolt-on neck guitars?

Yes. I believe that when they’re set up right, the amount of volume and bottom end is way more than on a set-neck guitar. It’s just common sense. If you play a set-neck guitar acoustically, it doesn’t have the same amount of bottom end as a bolt-neck guitar, and that’s because the strings are trying to move one big piece of wood instead of moving two smaller pieces.

What are some of the other elements that define your guitars?

I use 6100 frets, and the 14" radius comes from playing acoustic guitars. It’s just something I got used to and found very comfortable. Another thing is the bridge pickup, because I love the way Tele pickups sound, but a stock one is pretty much unusable for me in a real-world situation because of the single- coil noise. So I started working on different ways of wiring a humbucker to give me a single-coil sound. Series/parallel is the option I chose to use, but the parallel setting, which is the weaker one, usually has way too much top end and the guitar sounds thin and tinny. To solve that, I came up with a passive tone network that works only in the parallel position, and acts like a preset tone pot with the high end rolled off a little bit. It’s standard on my guitars with humbuckers. The idea is that the high end stays the same when you switch from series to parallel, allowing you to get rock sounds and Tele sounds from one guitar. Dean Parks has some video on our website now, and one of the things he talks about a lot is that switch. He loves having that snappy Tele thing available without changing guitars. We also flip the pickup around so the polepieces are facing the neck, and the pickup is mounted on an angled pickup ring so that the polepiece screws are closer to the strings than the rear coil. This makes the pickup sound a lot more transparent because only one set of polepieces is sensing the strings that closely.

You’re also a fan of top-loading bridges, right?

I don’t like string-through-body loading because it causes excess string tension. I know some people think that’s what’s good about a Telecaster, but guitars with top-load bridges feel better to me because it’s easier to bend strings and play chords. They also sound better because there’s not too much tension across the bridge saddles. Too much tension causes excess brightness and a loss of bottom end, and that goes along with my general theory that every component on a guitar that the strings affect—the neck, bridge, nut, and the tuners—has an optimum resonant frequency. When I install a neck on a guitar it’s a gentle press fit into the neck pocket, and the screws that attach the neck to the body aren’t real tight. For a long time I used to make them real tight, but I eventually realized that the guitar sounded better when the neck was allowed to vibrate more freely. One way to think of it is the neck and body are two different pieces of wood, and if you have screws trying to force them to become one piece of wood, the strings will have a harder time vibrating those components.

It’s the same with the bridge screws. I discovered a trick about installing a three-screw bridge: After you tighten all the screws, if you take the center screw and crack it loose, the guitar just blossoms. My realization there is if you have a strip of metal that’s held down with three screws, it’s not going to vibrate as much as it would if you loosened the middle screw so that it was just held down at the ends. Of course, all of this is happening at a microscopic level, but effectively the bridge is being allowed to vibrate and excite the top of the guitar. It’s the same thing with the nut. I don’t allow the nut on a Buzz Feiten guitar to be glued in. It requires more labor to press fit them, but I’ve had the experience over and over of gluing the nut in and destroying the tone of the guitar and the way it feels. So I just decided that the nuts on our guitars are going to be pressed in like on a good nylon string. You shouldn’t tighten the tuning machines too much either because each tuner is a piece of metal that the string is trying to vibrate. The neck is at least 60 percent of the sound of a guitar, so it’s worth paying attention to these things.

One thing that definitely stands out on your guitars is the size of the neck.

People often think the neck is too big at first, but after playing it for a while they’ll usually say, “I don’t want to go back to my other guitars because there’s no support for your hand.” But if someone wants a slimmer neck, we can make it. We just got Vince Gill as an endorser, and I’m building him a Signature Elite with a little thinner neck because that’s what he likes.

What’s the reason for the different top woods on your various models?

Every guitar has a thin top over an alder core, and I’ve tried to match the top wood with the tone of the guitar. For instance, the Tele-style bridge pickup on the T-Pro, which is hum cancelling, is brighter than a humbucker, so that’s why I chose spruce, a very soft wood, for the top. On the other hand, the Signature Elite sounds darker because it has a rosewood neck, and the maple top works really well to brighten it up.

What’s on the horizon now?

I’m working on a two-humbucker model as well as an alternate body shape that looks a little snazzier. I’m also ready to go public with an improved bridge design that solves a lot of problems. One of the things I’ve observed with bridges on electric guitars is that you can drastically alter the way the guitar feels simply by changing the relationship between the height on the bass and treble sides of the saddle using the height adjustment screws. It can make a huge difference, but it’s an enormous pain in the ass to do this if you have to set up a lot of guitars and make them all feel loose enough to bend strings nicely, while also having enough string tension to sound good. So I’ve been working on a design that replaces the saddle’s two screws with one. These machinedbrass saddles are currently on our Signature Elite and Blues Pro guitars, and the new bridge design will incorporate them while also preventing side-to-side motion of the saddles by capturing each of them in a slot.

What do you most enjoy about making guitars now?

The good part is that I get to really follow my instincts. I have tremendous support from the people I work with, and I always get to try my ideas out even if they don’t make it into production. Sometimes I fail miserably, but other times it works out really well.