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The 'Scoop' On Buzzing Bass Fingerboards

Nothing will frustrate a bass player more than a buzz coming from his bass.  There can be a whole combination of reasons or it can be super simple.  When we get a new bass in the shop that has a buzz coming from the fingerboard it is more than likely a low (or high) spot on the 'board'.  The old saying of "what goes up, must come down!" certainly holds true with fingerboards.  Also, bass fingerboards for the record are surely the hardest to plane and optimize than any other stringed instrument in the violin family. The reason being is that as basses go, we are obviously looking at feet of length, rather than a few short inches as on a violin.  There is then way greater room and issues with regards to irregularities in the fingerboard.  Depending on the bass, the string, the player and music genres, basses will buzz at varying degrees and string heights.

Let's do a quick checklist of some of the most easy and most common fingerboard buzzes:

First, please make sure that it isn't a bad string!  This is rare, but when you are trying to fix a buzz nothing will make you more crazy than finding a 'bad' string AFTER you have looked at and tried everything else!!  Look at the string where it is buzzing.  Sometimes you will see a nick or an obvious defect.  Replace that string and try it again.  Sometimes you may even get a string that looks perfectly fine and then to replace it and find the buzz is nicely gone.  Don't be fooled by using a more muted (less vibrant) kind of string.  If you can, try to use the same brand so that they behave similarly.

Secondly, there may be a 'bump' on the board.  This is often usually the culprit.  Often you cannot see the bump because it is so slight, but you can most easily find it, as it will be almost directly ahead (just higher) of the note buzzing.  For instance, say your E on the G string is buzzing.  Look at or near the F, F#, or even G for that high spot.  Usually, though that buzz will not only be behind a bump, but will actually also be under (in pitch) some kind of flat spot where the fingerboard doesn't allow for any 'relief for the vibrating string to move (i.e. it touches the board and then you hear it buzz.)  Another way to see this is to take a steel ruler (with a nice flat straight edge) and slide it along the top surface of the fingerboard.  The best way is to slide it alongside the string since that is exactly where the string comes in contact with the surface of the board.  If you do this, try to have a good source of light (like a lamp or even flashlight) behind the ruler so that you can see the little sliver of space under the ruler.  You should see a constant (ever so slight) sliver of light all along the board coming under the ruler.  Look for a flat surface where no light comes through or even a bump in the board where the ruler acts like a teeter-totter.  You can even take a pencil and mark exactly where the buzz occurs on the fingerboard and then study it with the light and ruler method.  Again, any work needed should be done by a qualified luthier that understands basses.

Most often your bass repairman/luthier can easily take just a few sweeps with his plane or metal hand scraper to take that flat out and feather the rest of the board length under and above the pitch spot on the fingerboard.  Before finishing (with oil and polish) they can quickly play the note first to make sure it is gone.  If not, you will often hear an improvement (less buzzing!) and to repeat the process little by little until the buzz is gone.  In Chuch Traeger's bass optimization book, he makes a comment about not being too 'greedy' at first with the block plane.  I agree!  Taking off a little bit at a time and checking it is far better than aggressively removing ebony.  It's easier to remove wood and ridiculously more expensive to add it back on!  Be patient and always ask a qualified repairman to help with that.

Once in a while you will get a buzz and after checking for a defective string, then logically think that it is a fingerboard issue.  You check the board closely (and not matter what), cannot figure out where the spot is or why it is happening at all.  We have personally seen some really great, professionally set up, quality basses ($100k+) and they buzz all the same.   These days, with bass players playing violin and cello solo music on the bass, the standards are very high for low strings and great set ups that will enable this kind of playing.  Only after you have checked the string (for defects), or your luthier cannot see anything wrong with the board, please try a Wolf eliminator on your A string (below) the bridge.  Amazingly, it is a strange kind of wolf type note that will cause that note to flap or vibrate so irregularly that it buzzes against the board.  It's always a beautiful thing when an otherwise perfectly performing bass will have a crazy note, that can be remedied with a little brass weight added on the A string.  You may even want to try this first before taking it in to a luthier.  Often, with an inexperienced luthier or someone not used to the crazy way basses can vibrate, their first inclination is to plane the buzz away.  Unfortunately, these type of (wolf) buzzes are so nasty that we have seen heavily planed (or deeply 'scooped') fingerboards that are so deeply cambered that they are then rendered almost unplayable making the strings too high to play on for any real period of time, when all it really needed was a wolf eliminator on the string.

  • some basses have 'seasonal' buzzes with wolf notes that can come and go throughout the year.  Keep a wolf eliminator in your rosin pocket if you have one.  If the weather changes and you start getting that 'buzz', try putting it on.

 If you don't have a wolf eliminator to slip on, you can always substitute with anything 'weighty' to tape on or even ask someone to pinch that spot (the A string between the bridge and tailpiece, just above the colored winding) while you play it to ascertain if that is the cause of the problem.   This can at least give you an indication if the buzz stops then.  The wolf eliminators that we use here run between 18-24 grams.

Lastly, another cause this kind of 'wolfy' buzz is that the bass sound post is out of adjustment, in the wrong place, is too tight (or even too loose).  Often when the post is too tight or in the wrong spot, it will keep the top from a more freer vibration.  The best way to visualize how a sound post will work it's optimum is the Teeter-Totter again:  When the Teeter-Totter is nicely balanced, the kids can have an easy time balancing themselves and reasonably maneuver.  If the fulcrum is moved off center then it becomes much harder to work and balance.  The top of your bass rocks from left to right (side to side) and functions much the same way.

These are just some ideas of how and why a bass fingerboard will buzz or clack.   Surely, you could have chosen another instrument less big, less troublesome, but not nearly as gratifying to play! Always remember that if you are not experienced enough with bass set ups (most all are not), you will save money and aggravation by taking your bass into a bass specialist.  Always try for someone that specializes in basses.  If that is not possible, then going to a good violin shop is your next logical step.

Bass Fingerboard Buzz Checklist:

  • first look at and make sure your string isn't damaged or defective (maybe try another string) preferably of the same make and brand
  • get a steel or metal ruler to check if there is a flat area or bump on the board at or around where the buzz emanates
  • is there a wolf note? That alone can cause the string to buzz wildly
  • how about that sound post? Is it in the correct place, is it too tight or too loose...