Most players like their guitar’s action “as low as it can go.” Even a healthy instrument with low, low action can sometimes have fret buzz/noise. In my opinion, a little bit of fret noise should be expected, but how do you know if the fret noise you are experiencing is normal, or if it is indicative of a problem? What follows are a series of questions to ask yourself, that will help you know if you should seek professional help with your instrument.

**(It is important to mention that the #1 and #2 causes of fret noise are: action too low – yes there is such a thing, and truss rod too straight – your neck should NOT be perfectly straight. It is possible that your fret noise might be completely set-up related. A professional technician should be able to tell right away if this is the case, which will save you from potentially costly fret repair).

1. Does it interfere with your guitar’s sustain?

When you play a note, does it ring out as long as it should? If your action is too low, or if you have uneven/high frets, the strings may not have the space they need to vibrate freely, which could result in a loss of sustain. Even if they are accompanied by a little fret buzz, your notes should easily sustain for several seconds.

2. Does it hinder your ability to bend a note?

Do you hear fret buzz while attempting to bend a note? Are you able to bend a note a whole step, or more, without choking out? Because fingerboards are not flat (with the exception of classical guitars, even the flattest necks usually have at least a 16” radius) they are highest beneath the #3, and #4 strings. If your action is too low, or if you have a high fret, when you bend a note on the #1, or #2 string, it may choke out as you bend it toward the center of the fingerboard. In my opinion, you should be able to bend a note a step-and-a-half without trouble.

3. Can you hear the fret buzz coming through an amp?

When you play through an amp do the notes sound clear, or is the fret buzz also amplified? Fret buzz that falls within the “normal” spectrum should not be audible through an amp.

4. Does it just drive you nuts?

Regardless of how you answered the previous questions, if it doesn’t bother you, then your fret noise is not an issue. But, if you don’t even want to play your guitar because you can’t stand the buzzing, bring it to your technician.

If you answered, “yes” to one or more of the previous questions, you may want to have your instrument serviced by a professional. Remember, if it is determined that the cause of your fret noise is that your action is too low, you will have to either live with the buzz, or live your action a little higher than it was.

It is also worth mentioning, that if your action is too low, it may be difficult or even impossible to assess whether or not you also have issues with fret unevenness. In my opinion, if you are experiencing unwelcome fret noise, bring your guitar to a technician and have him/her evaluate your setup and possibly make some setup adjustments. Even if your frets are uneven, it is sometimes possible to work around them by tweaking your setup a little. However, generally speaking, getting your frets leveled is something your guitar will most likely need at some point in its lifetime, and level frets allow you to get your action nice and low, making the repair a good value.

This is one technician’s perspective.

[Photo: Brennan Terry's rare 5-in-a-row Fender P-bass]

What are your thoughts?