Making a buzz
(First published in Guitarist magazine, issue #463)
The easing of lockdown restrictions has stimulated a change of atmosphere in the workshop this month. Customers are resurfacing to get their instruments serviced, live music outdoors is starting to take place, and I sense a flurry of impulsive lockdown-induced online purchases are coming my way. With the doors and windows open inviting the world back in, it feels like the workshop is - both literally and metaphorically - a hive of activity.
It’s not just the bees and summertime insects causing a hum though. Accompanying almost every new instrument repair this week is a complaint of buzzing of one kind or another, and not one customer can identify the source of it. In every instance I am humoured by the fact that no one is able to reproduce the irritating sound they’ve been hearing at home, but nevertheless my job is to diagnose the problem and fix it. Let the sleuthing begin.
The guitar is a pretty complex piece of kit, and even in capable hands there are many elements prone to producing undesirable sounds. However, I would suggest that undergoing a good set up will wring out a mysterious buzz nine times out of ten. Whilst we are all looking to squeeze every bit of potential out of our instrument - and let’s admit it, our ability too - a very low action and light gauge strings are not conducive to a robust tone. A fresh set of strings often solves the problem anyway, ruling out the high frequency rattle caused by broken windings and damaged ball ends. A badly cut or low nut will also cause a string to clatter against the frets, and a poorly adjusted truss rod may cause notes to fret out in certain places. If fret buzz is happening in specific areas of the neck it’s almost always to do with the overall set up, or may be a result of issues with the fret work. Once you’ve attempted all the adjustments you are willing to make yourself, it’s time to go a little deeper.
I’ll wager that if you’ve an acoustic guitar with an irritating buzz that’s not set up related, you’ve got some sort of built-in pickup system. It seems to me that almost every acoustic pickup has an unfathomable amount of cabling running around the inside of guitar, often using little more than sticky tabs and blind faith to keep things from rattling about. At best these noises are little more than the occasional clack of a wire hitting the soundboard, but at worst you’ll get some pretty invasive noises triggered by playing certain notes.
On the subject of hardware, I make it a matter of habit to check every screw on an instrument that arrives on the repair bench. Battery housing and strap buttons might be all you’ll come across on an acoustic, but electrics are rife with buzz-inducing components, whereas banjos and resonator guitars top the list of problem instruments. Whilst we’re at it, instruments with trapeze-style tailpieces come with their own difficulties. The varying lengths of string suspended between the bridge and the anchor points of the tailpiece introduces six random resonances which may excite in undesirable ways. Fortunately a bit of felt or appropriate damping material weaved between the strings is all that’s needed to clear up the sound.
Lastly then, are the multitude of unforeseeable quirks that may accompany just about any instrument. It was this week, exploring inside a vintage guitar that I remembered a friend who had acquired an old cello banjo. As well as a rather muted tone, there was an annoying rattle that would be produced only when playing certain notes. When we opened it up we discovered a six- inch piece of plastic bacon glued - yes, glued - to the underside of the skin. Perhaps the lesson here is that if you’re resorting to raiding the kids’ toy box to fix your prized musical instrument, it’s probably time to put the “tools” down and book an appointment with your local luthier.
Copyright (c) Future Publishing Ltd