Dear readers,

Apart from good health and good fortune, I wish all of you many wonderful musical moments in 2016. And from a more practical point of view: good judgment when buying new gear. I’m confident that your returning to my blog page will prove to be a wise step, in that respect. I sincerely thank you for taking it.

Assuming you’ve read last month’s article, you probably own a capo by now, and those very important feeler gauges. If not: best get them NOW (the links are there for you).

Okay, back to where we left off. So you’ve seen this guitar or bass you really dig, you’ve sighted the neck and measured its bow. If the neck is bent backwards, or if the upbow is not within the margins I set out last time, ask the sales person to adjust the truss rod so that it DOES. Then sight the neck again, looking for…


High spots


If you can pinpoint one (or several), you might want to check whether these frets are loose. Beware not to damage the fretboard during your inspections! With your index finger or better still, a hard object (a Lego block or so?), try to press a fret down. See if it moves. If it does, it’ll probably pop right back up again when you release the pressure. THAT fret sits loose in its slot. It’ll have to be glued in. There’s a good chance other frets will be loose as well. They too will have to be glued. Then, the whole of the frets will probably need to be leveled. If they’re too low for leveling, a full refret is required. Can you hear the cash register tinkle? Unless this is a really rare and possibly valuable instrument: walk away.

What if you’ve found high spots but the frets sit rock solid? Then (if you’re lucky) they may only need leveling. If the frets aren’t high enough, you’re looking at a refret again. Either way there’s a cost involved. Think twice. How badly do you want this guitar?

Finally, let’s say you’ve sighted the neck and were unable to detect any high spots. So now you’re going: “Phew! I’m in the clear here.” Well, not necessarily. Unfortunately, the absence of any visible high points does NOT guarantee a thing. NEVER trust your eyes. ALWAYS measure. I’ve learnt that the hard way. There’s no reason YOU should have to.


Looking at frets objectively


For this, as always, you’re going to need some sort of tool. Something with a perfectly straight edge, that you can press against 3 frets at a time. If the middle fret is higher than the two others, you’ll be able to rock the tool. For this kind of checking, guitar technicians use short metal straightedges of different lengths, or a single tool that combines different lengths, like the one on the right:

Some straightedges

Some straightedges, including the Fret Rocker

I absolutely think it’s a great tool! It’s called a Fret Rocker and I use it all the time! If you don’t want to buy one, alternatives are available. For instance, you might buy ONE longer straightedge, and saw that to different lengths. Or you could use several pieces of glass or plastic. In fact you may use whatever you can get your hands on, as long as it’s got a truly straight edge to it. Here again, a set of Lego blocks could do the trick. Hell, you might even use your credit card. (Should you decide to buy the guitar, you’re going to need it anyway, right?) But seriously: if you want to make your life easier, just get a Fret Rocker.


I guess all of this is simple enough, so far. However, there’s a serious “BUT” involved: to get accurate reading, the neck itself should be set absolutely straight.

Wondering why? With backbow you’ll be able to rock the tool on ANY set of three frets. The middle one will always seem the highest – even if they’re all identical. And with upbow, high spots may be masked. Your straightedge will tend to rest on the first and last frets, without touching the one in the middle – even if that one is in fact a little higher than the others. (If the middle one DOES stand out, that means it’s MUCH higher than the others and DEFINITELY needs taking care of.)


I’m afraid I can’t offer you complete certainty. The only way to be absolutely sure of fret evenness is to remove the strings, adjust the truss rod so that the neck is straight, and THEN do the 3-fret rocking test along the entire length of the neck. But I strongly doubt that a store owner or employee will let you do that kind of thing.


So now what? Here are my suggestions:

  • If you hear fret buzz, check two things.
    First of all, if the strings are low, raising the bridge (supposing it’s adjustable) might solve the problem. This is an acceptable solution, as long as you can still play in a comfortable manner afterwards. However, on an acoustic, bridge saddles are hardly ever adjustable. Here “raising the bridge” means you’re in need of a new saddle.
    Second check: if the pickups on an electric are too close to the strings, their magnetic field may cause the strings to vibrate in an unnatural, almost arbitrary way. This, in turn, can make strings hit the frets. (I’ll elaborate on this subject in a later blog post.)
    Ask the seller to lower the pickups.
  • If you DON’T hear any buzzing but the guitar’s action is high, you can’t tell whether the absence of buzz stems from THAT or from impeccable fret work. Hopefully the seller is willing to lower the action for you, so you’ll know for sure.
  • If you don’t hear any fret buzz whatsoever and the guitar plays like a breeze, why worry? Unfortunately, in real life this won’t occur very often.


Other reasons for fret buzz?

There are still other reasons why guitars or basses may suffer from fret buzz. Among them are frets that are too flat, frets that don’t sit in a 90° angle (see picture), or frets with worn tops. I’ll talk about those in one of my next articles, but for now (unless you don’t mind paying extra for a leveling job or a refret) I’d say: avoid guitars with any of these defects.


Crooked fret

Crooked fret

Also, look out for frets with severe wear. Deep pits mean trouble. Not only do they make string bending more difficult, they’re also responsible for muffled notes when playing barre chords AND – when the next fret isn’t worn quite as much and is consequently a bit higher – they may…? Generate a buzz, indeed. Then once more you’re in for a refret or a leveling job. Be aware of this.


Playing in tune, up high


Here’s a simple truth: a guitar or bass that won’t play in tune is useless, unless you want to hang it on the wall for decoration. It SHOULD play in tune, ALL the way up, and ALL the way down. I suggest the following test to start with.

  • Using a good quality tuner, tune all open strings.
  • Check whether neck bow is within the margins I set out in last month’s article. Upbow results in high action, which in turn causes fretted notes to be sharp.
  • Now check the tuning of each individual string, played at the 12th fret. The octaves ought to be in tune, with only minor deviations. Deviations are especially possible – and likely – when multiple strings share a common bridge saddle (think of jazz boxes, old style Tele’s, acoustic guitars…).


If your test guitar’s octave tuning seems alright: thumbs up! You may proceed to next month’s post (among other things, it’ll have a section on playing in tune, down low on the neck). However, should your octave tuning be off, best read on.


Out of tune octave notes may be caused by a number of factors:

  • The height of the bridge saddle(s) is not optimal. Action that’s too high not only hinders your playing – it also makes your octave notes (and probably all others) sharp.
    Luckily, this can usually be taken care of. On most electrics, individual bridge saddles can be lowered or raised with screws, and bridges that DON’T allow for individual string height adjustment often have thumbwheels to raise or lower the bridge as a whole.
    On acoustic guitars the bridge saddle can be trimmed down, but pay attention: if it barely sticks out above the plane of the wooden bridge base, there’s no room left to sand off any height! Also, string angle past the bridge saddle should remain sufficiently steep, otherwise there won’t be enough pressure on the saddle. And THAT may cause buzzing notes, loss of volume, poor sound projection.
  • The strings have gone bad.
  • The (electric guitar’s) pickups are too close to the strings. I already explained that this may provoke fret buzz, but unfortunately that’s not all: the magnetic fields of most pickups interfere with the natural overtones as well. When that happens, you may experience wolf tones (yet another possible blog post subject) and poor intonation.
  • String length is incorrect. As usual, there are several possible situations:
    • On an electric guitar or bass with individually adjustable bridge saddles, the player can move these to the front or back. Most of the time, there’s enough room to correct the matter. If not, you’re in trouble (see next month’s issue).
    • On some jazz or acoustic (bass) guitars, the bridge is not fixed to the top. Then it may be moved into place, as a whole.
    • Some instruments are equipped with a bridge that’s glued to the top. If it’s glued in the wrong position, you’re in deep shit.


Okay. As you have read, most of the aforementioned issues can be taken care of without too much of a hassle. The bridge’s mounting spot however is a totally different matter – a VERY important one, obviously. (And we haven’t even talked about the all-important nut yet!)

I’ll elaborate next month. Meanwhile, I sincerely thank you for reading my blog.

Bye now,


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