WAIT. Put down that screwdriver. Put down that allen wrench. Quit fiddling with your tuners, and please do not throw your guitar out the window (or up on eBay). You aren’t going insane.
We’ve all had frustrating moments with our guitars. I’m not talking about frustration from learning to play or being in a rut; I’m talking about frustration with the guitar itself. Sometimes – and I say this with love, because you won’t find someone with a more genuine-bordering-on-unhealthy anthropomorphic affection for the electric guitar than me – but sometimes, a guitar can be a dirty rat bastard.
Occasionally, for reasons neither understood nor deserved, our guitars deign to conspire with the agents base depravity and audacious malice to torment us. They refuse to sound good, stay in tune, intonate properly, or respond to basic adjustments in a logical way, confounding our every effort to correct them and laughing at our pitiful suffering.
…Or do they?
To help remind us all to relax, take a step back, and apply a logical and experience-based approach to diagnosing and correcting common issues with our guitars, I’ve enlisted the help of two extremely qualified people: Jon Moody of GHS Strings, and Ace Bergman, the guitar tech of studio and stage for none other than Slash.
That’s right – you aren’t just taking my word for it. Read on to get advice on solving your most-common and annoying guitar and string issues from the guy who makes your strings and the guy who works on Slash’s guitars.
PROBLEM: My strings buzz!
(No matter how I set the action of my guitar, and even though my frets are fine)
A little buzz is usually OK for those of us who like low action. Most players tend to draw the line on acceptable string buzz at the point where that buzz starts to become audible through a clean amplifier. There are two general causes of string buzz – it’s either your guitar’s fault, or it’s the string’s fault. Determining which is the first step in correcting the issue.
Jon Moody advises “A very common cause of string buzz is the break angle from the nut to the tuning post. If you don’t have enough wraps on the post for that break angle, the string will buzz. An easy way to diagnose this is to play an open string (that is buzzing) and then gently push down on the string between the nut and the tuning post. If the buzzing stops, that may be the culprit.”
Ace Bergman adds that the buzz may be coming from rattling parts that have worked their way loose as you played, saying “The way to look for this is to put your ear close to the guitar and listen for where the buzz is coming from. Try placing your finger on the saddle or tuning peg to dampen it and see if it makes the buzz go away.”
Both experts agree that old or damaged strings are a common cause of buzzing. Changes to the shape of the string, or breaks in the wrap (on wound strings), throw off the distribution of mass along its length, causing the string to vibrate in a pattern divergent from the natural ellipse it’s supposed to have, making contact with your frets where it shouldn’t be and causing string buzz.
Ace explains “Another thing with old strings is that they actually get dents in them where the frets are if you don’t change them enough. This can cause fret buzz as well. I am in a fortunate position where I have plenty of strings in stock, so I never hesitate to change them.”
PROBLEM: My strings won’t intonate properly!
(No matter how I adjust the saddle, even though they’re brand new strings)
Setting the intonation of a guitar is the process of adjusting the length of the string so that the 12th fret is perfectly equidistant from the two anchor points at either end of its playing surface. In other words, you want the 12th fret to be dead-center between the nut and bridge saddle, so that the string plays in tune (or as close to in tune as possible) all the way up the neck.
This is usually a pretty easy process using the adjustment tools that came with your guitar and an accurate tuner, but sometimes things misbehave. Once again, you need to determine whether the issue is with your strings or your guitar itself.
Ace says “If I am having difficulty getting a string to intonate, the first thing I do is change the string itself. Strings can wear unevenly or get kinks in them when they are changed which can affect intonation,” adding that “if your fretting technique is uneven, you will have a hard time intonating the guitar for obvious reasons.”
Jon: “In the case of lower tuned strings, many of the bridges weren’t designed in a way to allow for the extra room for intonation; B strings on a number of mass produced basses are notorious for this, because you can’t move the saddle back far enough. That was partly the reason behind having “contact core” strings, because it allowed you to move the saddle forward a bit to allow for intonation on lower strings.What many players – myself included – end up doing is taking the bridge apart to cut the spring on the lower string(s) to allow more room for the saddle to adjust.”
PROBLEM: My strings will not stay in tune!
(No matter what I do, and I know my bridge and tuning machines are not the problem)
Bottom-end budget guitars aren’t the only ones that can have tuning stability problems. Sometimes, even with settled-in strings and the best hardware in the world, the little buggers just won’t hold tune for more than a couple of riffs. If you’re constantly fighting the tuning battle, read on to learn where your problems actually lie.
Ace immediately relates t
he issue to his process when working on Slash’s guitars, saying “One of the most common causes of strings not staying in tune is the string not moving freely in the nut. Make sure the string glides smoothly through the nut, I always “floss” out the nut slots when I change the strings to make sure they slide effortlessly. If the string gets caught, try using a string lubricant, and if that doesn’t work you can use abrasive cord or nut flies to widen the slot. Also I use a wooden toothpick to clean out any dirt that has accumulated.”
Jon advises that your string may be slipping at the tuning post, saying “For smaller strings (and plain steel), you almost have to wind them on the tuning post in such a way that it locks it in. That metal is so fine and smooth (since it’s round) that it’s very easy to slip.”
In the case of tuning issues with wound strings, which are less likely to slip at the post, both experts agree that the problem is often that kinks in the string, uneven winding, or a failing wrap at the ball end of the string, which spells its doom, and the only solution is to change it, with Jon adding “having a replacement on hand is a good thing.”
PROBLEM: My strings sound dead and clunky!
(Even though they’re new strings fresh out of the pack)
New strings sound bright and full of life. Old strings sound dull and dead. Some players like the sound of fresh strings and some like the sound of strings that are a little broken in, but nobody likes the sound of a string that’s so dead that pick attack and sustain are nonexistent. This shouldn’t be rocket surgery, yet there are times when even brand new strings sound like a pile of crap the minute you put them on your guitar. Why??
Our experts weigh in:
“Very rarely [do] you come across bad strings.,” says Ace. “Sometimes the ‘freshness seal’ on the pack can tear slightly, exposing the strings to the elements so they can corrode even while in the packaging.”
It can also have something to do with how you’ve installed the string, as Jon explains: “A lot of times when you’re stringing up the guitar/bass, you can accidentally twist the string if you wrap it around the tuning post once or twice prior to tuning up (I know a lot of bassists that do this). This usually results in a more thuddy, or dead sounding string. Usually you can fix this (or avoid it altogether) by reinstalling the string, making sure to tune it up using just the tuning peg.”
Ace reminds us that careful and regular cleaning is a critical part of maintaining our guitars, saying “Other culprits can be a nasty fretboard or corrosion on the pickups. A clean guitar with fresh strings is going to sound much more alive than a beater someone leaves in the living room corner for months.”
A Final Word on Strings from our Experts
“Most of the time, if you get a bum string, you know it. Right away. But a lot of times, any string issues I hear about all come down to how someone installed them. Make sure you have enough wraps on the posts to get a proper break angle, set good witness points on the string at the bridge, always check your intonation (even when just swapping the same set of strings). All this seems old-hat and redundant, but so many string issues go back to how someone installed them, and it usually takes a while for the culprit to be found.”
“Bad strings can break more easily than others. Of course, at that point you really have no choice but to change them, so the solution to that is obvious. Modern string manufacturing is very consistent, so bad strings are fairly rare, but when you go through thousands of strings a year like I do, you see some strange stuff!!”
There you have it – straight from two of the best, most-qualified sources of advice on guitar maintenance and strings that you can find. I’d like to personally thank both Ace and Jon for taking the time to share their candid perspective and thoroughly-tested methods, helping us all avoid major hassles with our guitars and rock a bit harder.