By Ron Jackson
You experience unwanted, sometimes distracting string noise when you play guitar. Don’t fret. Every guitarist deals with string noise at some point. Here’s how to tackle it head on.
Make some subtle adjustments to your technique—modifications that will minimize string noise while helping you play more cleanly. Consider using different types of strings as well.
1) Practice muting unplayed strings on basic open and barre chords
Try the I–IV–ii–V (C–F–Dm–G7) progression in Ex. 1, which contains a bunch of unplayed strings. You have three options for muting: a) Use any free fret-hand finger, including your thumb, to stop the sound of the strings; b) hit only the intended strings with your pick or fingers; or c) use a combination of these two approaches.
Certain chords have notes on non-adjacent strings that require simultaneous muting. To play the C chord on the downbeat of Ex. 2, for example, you’ll need to mute the first string with the side of your first finger, while using the side of your third finger to mute string 6. Similarly, in Ex. 3, on beat 1 of bar 2, mute strings 4 and 5 with the side of your first finger, also used to fret the sixth-string G.
Ex. 4 contains an Fmaj7 chord and a Gmaj7. The former is a good example of a chord with both an open string and an interior unplayed string. To mute the fifth string, touch it lightly with your fret hand’s first finger, making sure not to silence the open first string with the side of your fretting hand. On the Gmaj7 chord, use your muting techniques to silence strings 1 and 5.
2) Practice muting single-note patterns
Ex. 5 depicts the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) in fifth position, and offers a good way to work on keeping unplayed strings silent during single-note passages.Throughout this example, use any available finger(s) to mute the strings that aren’t being played. As you move toward the first string, you might find it useful to use your thumb to silence the strings.
3) Do some lifting
The fret hand can make a lot of noise when shifting between chords and notes. You can attenuate the noise by lifting the hand slightly off the strings when doing so. In Ex. 6, you’ll find the C major scale (C D E F G A B) played in harmonic sixths. You will see that each pair of notes has an unplayed string in the middle. The trick is to work on muting that string while also lifting your fingers when moving between the sixths.
Ex. 7 shows a full sixth-string-rooted barre chord played up the neck, one fret at a time. Remember to lift the grip slightly when moving between the chords, and continue the pattern as high as your guitar will allow.
Now try some lifting in context. Ex. 8 shows a i–VII–VI–VII progression (Am–G–F–G) found in many pop and rock tunes. That two-fret jump between the chords has the potential for a lot of string noise, which you can largely avoid with the lifts when switching between chords.
Ex. 9, a i–iv–III–V progression in C minor, has your fret hand really jumping around. You’ll make a tremendous amount of string noise if you don’t lift those fingers when switching. The challenge is to do it just in time to land on each chord without disrupting the rhythm.
4) Experiment with your equipment
Certain strings are more prone to squeaking than others, so if you’re still experiencing too much string noise after attempting to address it with guitar technique, try throwing on some different strings. D’Addario’s Flat Tops, for instance, have flattened playing surfaces designed to cut down on noise.
Or, you could just learn to embrace string noise. These transient sounds do, after all, help give the guitar a certain character—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ron Jackson is a New York City–based master jazz guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, and educator who’s played with Taj Mahal, Jimmy McGriff, Randy Weston, Ron Carter, and many others. Find more of Jackson’s lessons at practicejazzguitar.com.