This is not totally inclusive of everything that applies or it would be three times as long. I rewrote this to try and shorten it but give you specifics about diagnosing it. Many people have guitars that suffer from low E and A string buzz, including me. Google it and you’ll find people with brand new Fenders, Gibsons or other guitars who have gone through turmoil trying to get this fixed, but to no avail, and they are told not much of anything on how to fix it. If you have searched you will find vague how-to-fix-it articles on blogs. Most of the conclusions are “take it to someone you trust, a Luthier, and they will take care of it for you” or “send it back to the manufacturer and they will fix it”. Many times you have already done that.
So what is it? To begin with, if everything has been checked out and the guitar is setup properly and it buzzes excessively it is due to bad geometry of the neck itself. The fix in that case is to replace the neck or perform major surgery on it if possible. There is no mystery about excessive buzzing.
The instructions below are nothing more than a basic setup but if followed will allow you to determine the problem and whether you can fix it yourself or not.
You need a small pocket ruler to measure string height. They are available at the big box stores. It must measure 32nds and 64ths.
On a very good neck you can get 3/64″ under the low E string and 2/64″ under the high E string at the 12th fret with minimal to no buzz. That is low action. If you want low action that is as low as you will ever get while still playing satisfactorily. Please note I did not say expensive neck. One of the best necks on my bench was off a $300 Jackson that had better no-buzz action than some of the finest boutique guitars that I’ve had in my shop. You CANNOT get this action on all necks and yours may be one. It is the luck of the draw.
On a given guitar there is an amount of buzz you will have to accept for a given height of action.
E and A string buzz can be tremendously more apparent on different brands of guitars and amplifiers. And different frets. The buzz sounds different between stainless and alloy.
Truss rod nuts in the head stocks of guitars are there for people who play their guitars regularly and adjust it to get the best playability. Truss rod nuts located in the heel of a neck do not lend themselves to adjustment and it tends to not get done. Because of that, heel adjusted truss rod guitars tend to have the most complaints about buzzing and high action. Because of temperature and humidity variations, the neck should get adjusted for proper play and that’s just too inconvenient when it is in the heel.
Tuning half step down or lower decreases string tension and will encourage buzz and you may just have to live with it.
How to adjust
Make a mental decision on how much rattle you can tolerate.
The frets must be level. If you know they are not level you are wasting your time. If you are not sure then try these adjustments anyway, they may prove useful.
Baseline – The first thing you need to do is tune to standard because string tension affects everything. Then adjust your string height for 2/32″ at the 12th fret under the low E and 2/32″ under all the remaining strings. Then adjust your truss rod so you have .010 under the low E string at the 7th fret- .010 is the the thickness of a business card. You will find that adjusting the truss rod affects the 12th fret measurement. You adjust and readjust the saddle height and truss rod until you have reached these measurements. Do not over adjust the truss rod.
** It is very common to have to adjust the low E string height on a Fender neck to 5/64″ to remove most if not all E string rattle.
Now play and observe for E string rattle. Does the rattle occur when the E is played open or does it occur when the E is played on the 3rd, 5th or 7th fret?
If it occurs when played open the buzzing may be caused by contact with the 1st through 5th fret. And they would need to be tapped back in or filed. Or the nut slot is too low. Or the action is too low and it is buzzing up the neck. If you have adjusted the low E to 5/64″ the action is not too low and one of the above problems exist or there are other problems.
If it occurs when fretted on the 3rd through 7th or even higher, the problem can be a high fret or frets generally from 12 and above. And they will need to be tapped back in or filed. OR you may need to adjust the truss rod to provide more relief. You should not need more than .015 relief under most any circumstance if you do there are other problems.
Lastly the neck could’ve been made incorrectly and some are. The heel will be higher than the 1st fret area, meaning that the plane of the neck is in an uphill direction. If that is the case, then the neck has to be resurfaced or replaced. Especially true with compound necks that buzz. You have to understand neck geometry which is another discussion.
Another example- think about a 10 -16 compound radius. The radius of the first fret does not match the 22 fret, the 22 fret has a shallower radius so the plane of the finger board must take this curvature into account or the neck will have built in buzz at frets past the 12th. I’ve seen it on famous necks and have built a few of my own that ended up in the fireplace because of it.
I hope this was helpful.
Send me an email if you have a question.