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I'm a beginner electric bass guitar player. I've been doing a tonne of practice, mainly late at night, so I've been using headphones.

Today I tried playing something without the headphones, and was shocked at how much buzz and rattle was coming out of the guitar, particularly on the lower strings. It's definitely coming from the frets; if I play, say, E on the third fret then it seems to be buzzing on the fourth fret (not surprising, given how close the string is to the fret). It doesn't happen on open strings.

...but none of this is coming out the amp, which was why I hadn't noticed before.

Is this normal --- i.e. people just don't care about the noises that come out of the guitar itself, because it's expected to be inaudible under the amp? Or is it a symptom of something wrong with the guitar (or, although it seems highly unlikely, my playing)?

  • It sounds like your bass guitar may need some adjustments. What make and model do you have and how long have you had it? Did you buy new or used? When did you first start to notice the buzzing? – I can provide a more useful answer and possible solutions if I have a little more info. – Rockin Cowboy Feb 28 '15 at 4:23
  • It's a very used AriaPro II FB, dating from about 1990. I'm not sure it's ever been professionally set up. I need to replace the electrics at some point, but that shouldn't be related. – David Given Feb 28 '15 at 11:41
  • After having done some research, it seems to have been strung amazingly badly (by me), and I need to redo that (trimming the strings, winding D and G the right way round the posts, etc). I might also try raising the action a little by adjusting the grub screws on the saddle. I'm beginning to suspect that the truss rod needs adjustment, but I don't think I want to try that myself. – David Given Feb 28 '15 at 14:19
  • Unrelated to your question, but re your comment - don't bother getting the active electronics fixed on an AriaPro II. They sound far better passive than active. [Ex-owner of one, never managed to find a single situation where active was an improvement] – Tetsujin Feb 28 '15 at 17:12
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    ah, scratchy pots - try a can of contact cleaner, 5 quid/bucks/shekels from Maplin/Radio Shack etc. I thought you meant the active tone circuitry - 5 position rotary & an on/off switch +red LED - which I still wouldn't bother fixing if it's not working. It doesn't improve the sound. One of the finest basses I ever played, beautiful neck on those if you have the one with the 5-piece laminate through-neck. – Tetsujin Mar 1 '15 at 10:38
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After gathering more information about your bass through comments I am going to offer some thoughts.

It is clear from the description of the problem that for whatever reason, you are getting fret buzz. Fret buzz most commonly results from the vibrating string contacting another fret. Most often this is because the string is too close to the fret it is contacting due to factors discussed below. More rare is a fret that is too high that one or more strings may contact when played.

It is common to get more buzz on the lower strings because they have a wider oscillation arc. And you mentioned no buzz on open strings which eliminates most other buzz producing culprits (such as loose hardware).

Several things can cause fret buzz. Most common is the action (amount of relief between the strings and fretboard) is too low. But there are several ways to adjust the action.

On your bass, you can adjust the truss rod to provide more relief. In most cases a slight bow in the center produces the best results. Completely straight neck or backbow (curved up in the middle) will produce fret buzz in most cases.

But there are other adjustments that can impact the action as well. If I am not mistaken, your AriaPro II FB has a bolt on neck. The neck angle can be adjusted (by a guitar tech or luthier). If your neck is angled back too much, it can contribute to fret buzz as well due to lowering the height of strings above fretboard (action). Be sure your neck is set at the the optimal angle.

You can also change the action by raising or lowering the bridge. After confirming that the neck angle is correct and adjusting the truss rod to provide a slight bow to counteract the string tension wanting to pull the neck back straight, you can adjust the bridge height to fine tune the action to get the best compromise between playing comfort and buzz free performance.

Since your instrument is quite "vintage" it is possible that the slots in the nut have become worn and the strings could be sitting too close to the frets on the headstock end of the instrument as opposed to the bridge. If the strings get way too close to the frets at the nut end - you might even get some buzzing on your lowest strings when played open. If this is contributing to fret buzz, you can have the nut replaced and properly slotted for the gauge strings you use.

Another thing that can cause fret buzz is worn frets. Over time - the strings will wear grooves in the frets and wear them down until so the strings are not as high as they need to be when fretted. Closely examine your frets (particular under the strings) to see if there are any deep grooves or if they appear to be excessively worn. Eventually, if played often enough, almost every guitar or bass that uses metal strings will require a "fret job" or re-fret.

Since there are so many different things that might need adjustment on your bass, I would encourage you to take it to a qualified guitar technician for a full set up and adjustment. I am sure that whatever is causing your fret buzz (and it may be a combination of factors) it can be corrected and your instrument will be fully capable of providing you a very satisfying playing experience. Good luck!

  • Having visited a guitar shop and tried an actual new guitar, set up correctly --- yes, my guitar needs setup. Badly. Everything which is adjustable needs adjusting. I've restrung it, properly, and raised the action, and it's now a bit better, but the truss bar control doesn't seem to accessible without taking the neck off and I don't want to do that myself. I'll try and find a live human who knows what they're doing, and if that fails, take it to a shop and get it set up. Thanks! – David Given Feb 28 '15 at 21:19
  • try fixing the string winds before you do anything else, its free. – bigbadmouse Aug 9 at 8:20
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Find a local reputable luthier. Put together an honest and total laundry list of your issues. Then talk to the guy! Tell him everything and ask for some type of "back of the envelope" cost estimate and get with it. I've done this a couple of times and it works. The amount of damage a person can do with the wrong tools and wrong information makes a "sort of playable" instrument into a wallhanger. Spend the dough and get it done right.

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Often to avoid fret buzz you need a little bit of relief in the neck, loosening the truss rod in the neck until it curves forward just a little. Whether you need to do this, and how much, depends on other things, especially how low you have your bridge saddles. The higher the saddles, the less relief you need.

On a normal (non-bass) guitar, unless the fret finish is really bad, any fret buzz normally comes from the fret one above the one you are fretting. However, on a bass guitar, the string displacement is so much greater that strings can often catch frets further towards the bridge. So to get really clean notes on the bass guitar, you often need an action so high that the instrument isn't as comfortable as it could be to play. In practice, most instruments are set up at a point that's a compromise between the instrument sounding clean, and being easy to play.

Another point is that a bit of 'string clank' is often seen as a desirable part of a slightly 'dirty' sound. I have one bass deliberately set up so that the strings occasionally catch the highest frets if I hit the strings hard. This gives a wonderful snarly sound, especially with the bridge pick up. This is something quite cool that you can do on the bass that doesn't work so well on a standard (non-bass) guitar, as it seems to just kill the decay on a standard guitar, and come through the pickups more.

In summary, it is totally normal for the unplugged sound of a bass (which, as you say, people don't usually hear) to be quite messy and clangy, and it's not necessarily indicative of a problem. However, if you suspect your playing or your sound out of the pickups is being affected, spend some time experimenting with neck relief and saddle height to find what's right for you. (If you are not confident doing neck adjustments, get someone to show you first as it is possible to do damage to the instrument)

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You're mostly right that if the sound isn't coming out of the amp it doesn't matter as much. But excessive fret buzz is indicative either of poor technique, or an instrument in need of adjustment. Make sure you're fretting as close to the fret as possible, and plucking the string as nearly to perpendicular as possible (unless of course you're slapping/popping).

Frets will buzz if the neck is curved the wrong way (towards you) such that fretting one note forces the string to contact the next fret as well. In this case you'll need to adjust the truss rod to hopefully bend the neck the right way. If you've never done this, get someone to show you because you can ruin a neck if you do things wrong.

  • As far as I can tell from squinting along it, the neck is perfectly straight. The harmonic at the 12th fret matches the pitch of the plucked string there, which I gather means the intonation can't be too far wrong. – David Given Feb 28 '15 at 11:43
  • @DavidGiven shouldn't be perfectly straight, a little bit of over-bow is desirable. Put a capo (or elastic band and pencil combo) on fret 1, then press E string at the final fret - the height from string to top of fret at fret 8-9 should be about 0.5mm (0.02") . If its around there, but not zero, your neck relief is fine.Perfectly straight will give you some buzz. Intonation sounds fine to me too. – bigbadmouse Aug 9 at 8:23
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There are a few reasons for the buzz. The most obvious is the neck needs adjusting or the frets need some work. However if you are a beginner it could be you. Even experienced players can make their ax buzz if they overdrive it mechanically. Picking or fingering too hard can create a buzz. Also, if you are not fretting the note with your finger right behind the fret you are giving the string freedom to move against the fret and that will cause a buzzing or almost sitar type sound. This is all technique related.

If you cannot hear it through the amp than whatever it is is not getting amplified and may not be a concern. I have seen videos of great bassist and guitarist playing high end gear and once in a while they buzz.

Definitely take it in to a shop to be checked out but if it comes back well adjusted or if the tech says it's in good shape you should evaluate our technique and see if you can make it go away with light touch or moving the fretting finger closer to the fret.

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