What’s That Sound? Fret Buzz and Intonation

Updated: May 7

You buy a new or used ukulele, your first one ever. Your excitement is through the roof as you can’t wait to begin your ukulele journey. You start perusing the inter-webs for ukulele tutorials and lessons and after watching an avalanche of videos you start hearing ‘buzz‘ words such as intonation and fret buzz. Its like hearing a sommelier wax poetic on the nuances in a glass of wine as they swirl it in the light… only to then rate it one grape out of five. You're frightened as a deep sense of dread envelops you.

”What the heck is fret buzz? Do I have it?”

It’s like catching a life threatening disease the way these ’pro’ level players talk about it. And don’t get me started on the countless sour faces they make when they realize an ukulele has bad intonation.

Its pretty much stage 4 and terminal. Lights out! The worse part is you don’t even know what they are talking about. You try to listen hard for the bad intonation in the video but can’t pick it out.

Have no fear! As your resident ukulele doctor, I’m going to help you diagnose your ukulele!

Fret Buzz

Fret buzz is the annoying sound caused by a ukulele string rattling/buzzing against a fret wire when the ukulele is being plucked or strummed. To diagnose this problem you just have to play up the ukulele fingerboard note by note, string by string. As you do this, listen for any buzzing sounds. Its important to press firmly on the strings between the frets as doing this lightly can give you false buzzing. If your ukulele plays all the way up the fingerboard without a rattle, congratulations! Your ukulele is free of fret buzz. But if you hear buzzing anywhere on the fingerboard…. well, I’m sad to say you got a bad case of the buzz.

There are three things that cause fret buzz.

  1. String Action is too low

  2. Frets are not level with each other (some are taller, some are shorter)

  3. Neck does not have enough "relief" (neck is too straight, or bowing backwards)

String Action

Let's start with string action. String action is the height of the ukulele string measured at a specific fret. It’s common to take string action measurements at the first fret, twelfth fret, and fifteenth fret. Different players will have different preferences for their string action. Some players prefer it being relatively high (people who strum extra hard), while others prefer very low action (those with a soft touch, you jazz players).

There is a threshold to know how low the string action can be set before it starts to create problems. Using a String Action Gauge ruler you can figure this out. If the strings are set too low, the vibration alone will unintentionally rub on frets creating buzz.