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Can You Hear Fret Buzz Through an Amp?

If you’ve ever picked up an electric guitar with a low action at night and practiced without plugin it in, chances are you noticed your riffs sounded something in between a dry, snappy tone and a surprisingly loud fret buzz. Of course, you have played that guitar many times and never had any issue while running through an amp – or so you thought and just didn’t notice the guitar had a problem after all.

Fret buzz is picked up differently by our ears when listening to the guitar unplugged compared to through guitar pickups. When the signal runs through the coils, fret buzz usually disappears into other frequencies or is not picked up at all – However, even if you can’t hear fret buzz through an amp, it might still affect the guitar’s tone slightly, and ‘dead’ or almost muted notes will show.

Guitars are living things, and it’s easy to misdiagnose what doesn’t, after all, need a cure – so I’ll help you ensure the buzzing you hear from the amp is truly coming from the frets and if it’s at all something you should worry about.

A Small Amount of Fret Buzz is Okay

There’s a thin line between having a low action that works well or going too far and making the guitar unplayable. Luckily an electric can handle lower heights, and the fact that pickups don’t pick up the buzzing directly is a relief for shredders and blues benders alike.

I previously wrote a detailed guide on how much frett buzz is okay. In a nutshell, no matter how well the guitar is set up, picking too strongly will cause buzzing, which has become, over time, part of the sound of many players and genres. 

There are many ways to put it, yet the following explains it best for electric guitars.

The difference between harmful and acceptable buzz is in the player’s intent. If the guitar only does it sympathetically (barely noticeable or part of the ‘tone’) or only when you play hard, then it’s nothing to worry about. 

All of my good electrics buzz on the lower strings when played unplugged, as it is the only way to get them to play with moderately low action. However, the limit to where buzzing is ok is to ignore it as long as it doesn’t kill the tone and/or change the fretted note’s tone.

Remember that the limit differs for different guitars, fret types, materials, bridge types, neck profiles, etc. A good balance of refining your technique and checking the setup is the usual fix in most cases.

If you want to go deeper into the topic, here’s a lesson I learned from my experience recording in the studio. 

Some genres also have more ‘tolerance’ for fret buzz. For example, using high gain and a lot of compressions in metal hides the fret buzz with tremendous success. Whenever you need a more organic, less saturated sound, the fret might not buzz through an amp, yet the string will vibrate differently and ultimately sound slightly different when amplified.

What To Do If Fret Buzz Is Coming Through Your Amp

To buzz is to rock, yet when it’s too much, you need to do something about it. There are different ways to fix fret buzz coming through the amp, and all follow a step-by-step procedure.

  • Check if the strings are touching anywhere besides the frets – Fret buzz might not get caught much by the pickups, but touching the pickups with the strings or buzzing near the bridge or saddles can be loud. The closer the buzz comes to the pickups, the louder it will be in the amp. Don’t underestimate a bad nut; the buzz could be coming from far away.
  • Check the neck relief, action, and overall setup – This is standard procedure to do before getting the guitar to a luthier for professional care. I went into length in another article. Have a read at my guide and see how far you can get to fixing the problem yourself. A tip I can give right away is that the lowest is not always the best action. Even if you want to play fast, sometimes some resistance from the string could be helpful.
  • Frets could be uneven or damaged – This scenario will always need a luthier with the right tools. It’s easy to tell if this is the case with very noticeable carvings in the frets. Same logic for the neck.
  • Your playing might be partially guilty – It’s hard to say if it’s completely up to your playing technique or if it’s a mixture of that and the guitar. However, check my other guide on it to make sure.

Other Reasons For Buzzing Coming From Your Amp

The buzz coming from the amp might not be related to the guitar’s hardware at all. It’s easy to confuse a fret buzz with a hiss of a single coil in high gain or any other noise caused by your rig.

The noise could be static or whenever you play a string. In both cases, it’s best to check each stage of your signal individually to figure out the cause. Some causes are non-obvious, like a faulty power supply, and they’re worth checking before taking your amp in for repair or opening up your pedals. 

Weird things can happen with amp hiss, hum, and buzz, and just like fret buzzing, It’s acceptable to a point and even created epic guitar moments like Jimi Hendrix pointing his Strat to a wall of amps to get that mean feedback we all love.

My tip, before going into technical guides like this excellent one from Sweetwater is to be prepared if the noise happens on stage. A good workaround in a moment of need is to lower the gain on the high frequencies and do the same with the low frequencies if there’s still noise. A trusted EQ pedal or even the tone knobs and pickup switch of your guitar could get you through some tough times.