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I recently took my Ibanez RG into the shop for new strings (same gauge as original) and asked them to lower the action. It came back with a significant amount of fret buzz (pretty much all over the neck, regardless of pick attack). When I asked the guitar tech about it, he said it's fine as long as you don't hear it through the amp.

I raised the action a bit myself and now it only buzzes slightly if you pick the strings quite hard. I play mostly lead and generally have a gentle picking attack.

Is either of the following considered a poorly setup string action:

a) The strings buzz quite consistently but not enough to be heard through an amp or,

b) The strings buzz only if you pick the string quite hard and you can bend the strings without any buzz or fretting out.

Is the goal when setting a low action to aim for 100% "buzz free" setup regardless of pick attack. Does it even matter? I assume too much buzzing would wear down the frets and also just make the guitar sound bad, even with distortion/overdrive.

Thanks

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    Read the answers to this related question. I'd say some light buzz is inevitable if you're going for the lowest action possible, but that's just an opinion. – Andy Jun 28 '16 at 7:14
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    If you've ever hear James Hetfield's guitar unplugged, you'll hear that fret buzz is definitely acceptable. – Kyle Jun 28 '16 at 7:34
  • I agree with you on James Hetfield's unplugged stuff :D – King_Nothing Jun 28 '16 at 10:49
  • De gustibus non disputandum. Set it where you like it. – Carl Witthoft Jun 28 '16 at 12:50
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The lower the fret action, the more buzz you will get. Your ideal height will be based on what you need. Unamplified, many of the really fast guitarists have fret buzz all over the neck.

Personally, I use a reasonably high action on most of my guitars (about 3mm at 12th fret) because I dislike buzz and have quite a hard picking action. I do have two guitars I use for speed and legato, and these are much lower. Unamplified they sound terrible, but once hooked up through my effect chain they sound great)

So there is no actual goal - if you asked the guitar tech to lower it as much as they could, they have probably aimed for the lowest they see as reasonable based on their experience with many guitars and guitarists. If you ask for less buzz / a higher action next time they will do that for you.

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    On one of my basses, the action is quite low to allow for fast playing, and the fret buzz actually adds a great sound to the top end. :D – Kyle Jun 28 '16 at 10:33
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    Actually, Kyle, that is a sound I really like on some tracks - it seems to give a bit more body to the bass sound, sometimes. – Doktor Mayhem Jun 28 '16 at 10:34
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    Definitely agreed with that, if done right it can be a great thing. – Kyle Jun 28 '16 at 10:37
  • @Kyle Same here, i have an Ibanez K5, the low action is what gives it the intended sound. Overall, it's really just preference of sound. – RianBattle Jun 28 '16 at 12:09
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    I've never had any fret job on any guitar no matter how expensive be so perfect that all frets start buzzing at a certain action height and no frets buzz above that height. So another factor in determining "buzz tolerance" is how many frets/areas of the neck have to have buzz before your action is too low to tolerate. Again, it's a matter of taste, but if I wanted no buzz (in general) and had mild buzzing on a couple frets, I'd accept that as optimal action for my desired parameters. – Todd Wilcox Jun 28 '16 at 12:55
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Fret buzz isn't necessarily a sign of a poor setup, because some players want low action and can accept some fret buzz. A guitar tech should discuss this with a player before doing a setup.

Having strings fret out when bending is more serious and I would expect a tech to make sure this isn't happening, unless a player said they don't do string bending and want the lowest possible action. This is normally a problem only on necks with a small radius, like on vintage Telecaster necks.

Since the amount of string buzz also depends a lot on technique (like angle of pick attack), it's possible you're experiencing more buzz than your tech did.

Does fret buzz matter? Yes, buzz will affect sustain and clarity. Also, I don't like it :-). I doubt it affects fret wear, but that would be hard to measure.

Dan Erlewine's books on guitar setup and guitar repair go into lots of detail on fret buzz. A lot of factors besides action affect buzz: neck relief, presence of loose frets, fret wear, string gauge, etc.

  • Buzz affects sustain only in the sense that it clamps the maximum initial volume you can get from the string. It doesn't actually constrain the decay length from there. It won't affect feedback-driven sustain, either. After the buzzy attack, the string stops buzzing and then it doesn't matter. – Kaz Jun 28 '16 at 22:31
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The strings buzz quite consistently but not enough to be heard through an amp

Strings buzzing not only puts you off playing but it will prevent the string from resonating for as long and lower your tone quality.

In my opinion nobody should create fret buzz when you ask them to lower your action.

One thing you could try is a higher gauge string, but that will likely affect your playing more than the original action did.

The strings buzz only if you pick the string quite hard and you can bend the strings without any buzz or fretting out.

This sounds ideal for your playing style and what you wanted in your action.

Personally I prefer the action slightly further away from buzz range and compensate with picking technique.

Is the goal when setting a low action to aim for 100% "buzz free" setup regardless of pick attack. Does it even matter

Its always up to personal taste at the end of the day, but I think that is a good goal to aim for. I hate fret buzz and wouldn't take it over low action any day.

Does it matter? Again, up to you. To me it does.

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    Thanks Robbie, this is definitely sounds like a taste thing, but I do find that buzzing can affect the tone quite significantly. I will be playing the guitar through my amp later and listening to the tone. I may try to get the action as low as it will go without buzzing, or minimal buzzing. – King_Nothing Jun 28 '16 at 10:51
  • It's worth nothing that I rarely play with distortion, so the natural tone is quite important to me – Robbie Averill Jun 29 '16 at 5:57
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Fret buzz is not only not necessarily bad, but actually a part of the guitar tone. The guitar is partially a percussive instrument, and one percussive aspect of that (in addition to knocking or tapping on the body of an acoustic guitar or hollow-body electric) is the snap produced by string-on-fret action. Slap guitar technique in particular exploits this way of producing a sound. Aggressive "Rasgueado" strumming in Flamenco also exploits the percussive noise of strings hitting frets.

Is either of the following considered a poorly setup string action:

a) The strings buzz quite consistently but not enough to be heard through an amp or,

b) The strings buzz only if you pick the string quite hard and you can bend the strings without any buzz or fretting out.

These statements aren't wrong. The important thing is for the buzz to be approximately the same everywhere, hinted at by your (a). If you lower the action, and you get buzzing on all the frets at the same time in any given general area of the neck, across all strings, that indicates good setup. How much buzz you allow is an artistic decision. There is an objective "too much", when you can't produce a tone at all.

Uneven buzz is bad, indicating that a fret is not properly seated, or there is uneven fret wear that requires leveling.

Regarding (b): whether you can bend a string without buzzing out depends a lot on the radius of the fingerboard. This is why "shred" guitars have flatter radii, and why the "compound radius" became popular in the 1980's, whereby the fingerboard is basically the section of a cone (tighter radius at the nut, wider at the body). With the compound radius, the guitar has some of the characteristics of a Fender Stratocaster for chording in the low positions, while allowing for bends with low action in the high positions.

The best fretboard shape for good bending with low action is infinite radius: perfectly flat. If the fretboard is flat and the frets are straight lines, then bending a note doesn't bring the string any closer to any fret, and so there is no onset of buzz.

Thus, what might be "too low" on one guitar can work great on another.

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