By Erin Shrader
Buzzes always seem to happen at the worst possible time. My most recent buzz started on the eve of a recording session, just as spring was giving way to summer, when the temperature suddenly shot up and humidity plunged. I went through the mental checklist, peering closely and prodding cautiously. Nothing suspicious . . .
Many things can cause an instrument to buzz. Some are easy to spot once you know what to look for, while locating others can bedevil even the experts. Buzzes fall into two broad categories: the ones you fix yourself and the ones that need professional attention.
The advice from violin maker and restorer Jeffrey Holmes of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to anyone experiencing a buzz is to first check for the obvious and then adjust the humidity in the instrument’s environment to an appropriate level. “At 20 percent or 30 percent relative humidity, you may as well play a percussion instrument,” Holmes says. “At 40–45 percent humidity, [the buzz] often goes away.”
Maintaining adequate humidity for your instrument is always a good idea and can ward off trouble before you can hear it. Humidifying (or dehumidifying) the room you keep your instrument in is probably the best option, Holmes says. He views case humidifiers as “a remedy, not a cure,” but says, “doing nothing is a bad thing.”
Here’s a checklist of common and uncommon causes of that most annoying of sounds. We’ll start with the easy stuff and work our way toward the issues that require a visit to the repair shop.
Strings, fittings, and accessories cause the majority of buzzes. Fine tuners are prime suspects. Make sure no screws are loose. Some models have parts that screw together in addition to the screws that adjust string tension. Make sure the screws are engaged with the little levers underneath the tailpiece, and, while you’re looking under there, make sure they’re not too close to the top of your instrument. If your tailpiece has a raised wire or wooden fret across which the strings ride, check that it is not loose. If it is, a little glue should do the trick.
While you’re in the neighborhood, check the chin rest, another Usual Suspect. Can you wiggle it? If so, it needs to be tightened. You need the right tool, but the good news is that chin rest tools start at about $2. First make sure that the cork pads that protect the instrument from the chin rest are intact. Make sure not to overtighten, which can cause serious damage.
Holmes came up with another easily overlooked item: “crud in the f-holes.” The points of some f-holes come very close to the body. Occasionally, rosin and dust will build up in the gap, forming a little bridge which then breaks and buzzes. The ornamental collars and little balls on certain styles of pegs come also come loose and buzz.
On to the strings. Some of the higher strings come with a little plastic sleeve or chamois that is intended to prevent the thinner strings from cutting into the bridge. Those can rattle and buzz. Bridges sometimes have a little slip of parchment glued over the E-string groove for the same reason. That can work loose, too. The culprit could be loose windings at either end or strings contacting each other inside the peg box. Too-low strings can rattle against the fingerboard, Holmes says, and fall into the category of things that need professional attention. This problem may be caused by changed height of the neck due to environmental fluctuations (dry winter months), or the strings may work their way down into the bridge or nut, which would require the attention of a repair person.
Your instrument is held together with hide glue, a natural glue which is very strong, easily reversible, can last for centuries, and breaks under stress. This is a good thing because the glue breaks instead of the wood. Stress can be caused by impact and also by shrinking and swelling due to changes in humidity. Open seams between the plates (top and back) and the ribs are common and easily glued. If you can’t see the open seam, you may be able to hear it by lightly tapping or brushing your thumb off the edge all the way around the instrument. The sound is different where the glue is broken. Resist the temptation to wiggle it or poke at it. Sometimes an open seam is hard to spot because the very outer edge of the glue is still intact.
Though you may not notice it, the top of your instrument (and probably the back) is made of two pieces of wood joined in the center. These joints can move, too, which may or may not be a serious problem. Holmes also points out what he refers to as open flank cracks (cracks in the flanks of the arch, which are not under the same kind of tension as those near the bridge area). Open f-hole cracks are another possible cause of a buzz.
Other items that can come unglued include the ebony saddle over which the tailgut passes, and purfling.
The bass bar, glued inside the top, is often reputed to cause problems, but according to Holmes it rarely does. He’s found that a loose bass bar caused a buzz only once in 25 years.
Even aging repairs can also be a source of trouble. Cleats, used to reinforce cracks from the inside of the plate, can come loose and buzz, as can the linings, and edge doubling restorations. Insect, or “worm damage,” if not properly filled, can rattle and buzz internally.
So next time you hear that unmistakable buzz, keep in mind that there are any number of possible causes: sometimes it just takes perseverance to identify the right one.