The single biggest problem with cheap guitars
Many guitar players miss this, but it's definitely something to watch out for when buying guitars under $500.
Something that happens with a ton of guitars in the under-$500 range is something not talked about often but should be, and that's a phenomenon called "rising tongue".
Should an electric guitar have this issue, it is fixable, but it's better to avoid it whenever possible.
The fortunate part is that this issue is something you can spot if you know what to look for on new guitars when at the guitar store.
What is rising tongue?
Rising tongue is when frets 14 to the end fret (which is either 21, 22 or 24) are higher than the rest.
It is totally normal for most mass produced electric guitars to have the upper frets slightly higher than the lower frets. Most of the time, all that's required to accommodate for this is a good setup, and the guitar will play just fine.
However, on cheaper guitars, rising tongue can be a real nuisance because the upper fret heights almost resemble a ski jump because they're seated so much higher.
What's the "tongue"?
The part of the fretboard extending into the guitar body.
What guitars do rising tongue happen most on?
Guitars with bolt-on necks. This isn't to say set necks can't have rising tongue, but it's less likely.
What are the symptoms of rising tongue?
Fret buzzing and/or sitar-like sound from the plain strings (G, B and high-E) on higher frets. Frets 1 through 12 will play fine, but once above that and you get closer to the tongue, buzzing/sitar happens.
What is the fix for rising tongue?
A fret leveling. (Or in worst case scenario, a total re-fret.)
It is best to have a luthier perform this work. Better luthiers will usually level frets 16 and up ever-so slightly lower, and also angle those higher frets ever-so slightly towards the body to ensure maximum playability. They start at fret 16 and not 14 because that's usually right before the tongue starts on most electrics, which is where the work would take place.
Yes, you could level the frets yourself, provided you have the right tools like a straight edge, necessary files and so on...
...but on a cheap guitar it's not worth the bother, especially if the rising tongue resembles a ski jump. If after setting neck relief you still have this huge "ramp" in fret height where the neck meets the body, send it to the luthier - if you feel it's worth spending the cash on that.
Visual check for rising tongue on guitars in the guitar store
Lift the guitar up and put your head directly next to the nut. Look down the neck, and focus your eyes as best you can on frets after fret 12.
If there is a significant rise in fret height, you should see it easily. Remember that it's normal to see a slight rise in fret height. What you're looking for is a significant rise to know if the guitar has rising tongue or not. It will be obvious.
Unsure? Check a few other guitars with the same color neck (if a maple fretboard, look at another guitar also with a maple fretboard). You specifically want to look at necks of the same style and color so your eyes don't have to readjust too much.
Sound check for rising tongue on guitars in the guitar store
If your eyes don't work that well and/or you have poor depth perception, there is a way to check for rising tongue just by listening.
With the guitar in the seated position and unplugged, play every single note on every single fret individually. Frets 1 to 12 should all sound fine. If they don't and buzz all over the place, that most likely means the neck relief isn't set correctly, and it will need to be set right before you can do a rising tongue sound check.
When you play above fret 12, it is normal to hear some light buzz on the wound strings (low-E, A, D). For the plain strings however (G, B, high-E), fret buzz shouldn't happen.
On the high frets, a guitar that has rising tongue will have very obvious fret buzz and sitar-like noise on the plain strings.
Why does rising tongue happen in the first place?
No guitar that sells for under $500 had has fret leveling performed before being shipped. That's why.
An example of guitars in which all have fret leveling performed before being shipped are Duesenberg Guitars. Every guitar they make is run through a PLEK machine. Each fret is leveled to within a tolerance of 1/100mm. Sounds nice, doesn't it? It is. But you'll spend a bare minimum $2,500 just to get a Duesenberg. Not cheap. And I'm fairly certain Duesenberg doesn't make any bolt-on guitars either. Set neck only.
In fact, it's probably safe to say that no guitar that sells for under $2,000 has had any fret leveling done before being shipped.
I'm not saying you need to spend over 2 grand just to get a good guitar, but I am saying you should look out for rising tongue on cheaper guitars, especially those with bolt-on necks.
If you hear that buzzing or sitar-like noise from the plain strings on the high frets, put it back on the rack.
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