Are you wanting to get to the bottom of why your guitar just is not sounding how you want it to? Or are you simply looking to expand your knowledge of the ins and outs of the guitar and why it sometimes sounds the way it does when malfunctioning?
If you have at some proclaimed that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’, then you are in the right place, as we will be exploring today the various reasons why you might be in such a predicament.
Why Does My Guitar Sound Bad?
If indeed you are driven to state aloud atop a hill that your guitar is in tune but you’re starting to notice the guitar sound bad, then it could very well have something to do with the act of strumming and the performing of the note or notes in question (or even the chord or succession of notes if that is more your bag).
Now, it is nothing to beat yourself up about, especially when you can very easily fix these things yourself, working on your technique and bettering your approach all the while.
The answer to your heavenward claim of ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’ could very well come in the form of your fretting hand technique. Especially in the early stages of learning an instrument, it is only natural that we might not be able to sound a note properly. Without the proper guidance, it only makes sense that we might struggle to get it right at our own behest.
The key to sounding a note properly is balance. The guitarist looking to both conserve energy and play a note so that the guitar sounds out as fully as possible will want to strike a pose in the middle. This can take some practice and can only really be done by the user.
A useful exercise in this regard is to pick a note on a guitar (any note at all) and place a finger gently on it, pressing harder and harder into it gradually until the guitar sounds properly aloud without any buzzing or plinking. You will thus have found the way to play this note for yourself using the least possible exertion, and in time you will be able to carry this technique across to all notes and chords you come across.
The point, however, is that if not struck properly, a note can very easily sound bad even if it is indeed in tune. In response to this deficiency, many a guitarist will simply apply more pressure, which might work out in the short term, but will quickly exhaust the muscles in the hand and wrist and could even lead to more serious conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome.
It is, therefore, advised that each guitarist find their own middle ground between the exertion of pressure and conservation of one’s own energy so that they can play for as long as possible.
Just as the technique of the fretting hand can have a severe effect on the overall outcome of the note being played, so too can the strumming hand. Surprisingly, they can have a rather similar effect on this outcome.
If the strings are strummed too hard by the strumming hand then they can resonate out of tune, which can make them sound objectively bad (despite this veering in and out of tune being something I rather like in a what is considered a lower-action on acoustic guitar).
Likewise, the technique of the fretting hand can have a very obvious impact on the tuning of the notes even if the guitar itself is perfectly in tune. If too much pressure is exerted through the fingers of the fretting hand into the note(s) in question, then the string is bent well past the fret that the string is being pressed into.
This can cause the strings to bend further upwards in pitch, thus answering anyone’s skyward claims that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’, for a guitar can still be out of tune even when it is in tune.
However, if you have followed the steps of advice from the previous section (that regarding the fretting hand) and are certain that this is not part of the problem, then you might be having problems with your strumming hand.
In this case, try strumming the notes or chords in question with a little less exertion, so that they do not have a chance to over vibrate and such. If nothing else, this will be a valuable exercise in dynamic diligence on the part of the guitarist.
If, however, this does not seem to solve the issue you seem to be having, then the reason that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’ could just as easily be to do with the intonation of the guitar, in which case you would be advised to seek the help of a licensed professional.
If you have followed all of the advice thus far, but your guitar sounds bad even if you stick to easy guitar songs, then it is likely an issue relating to the poor intonation of the guitar in question.
The guitar’s intonation deals in the very minutiae of the guitar’s tonality and temperament, so it might not seem like so big a deal. That is until it actually starts impacting you if you have intonation issues. This becomes all too obvious when you play larger-scale chords or notes on diagram.
Barre chords, for example, sound out almost all of the strings at once, meaning that the relations between all of these strings and the minutiae of their tuning and tonality are exhibited for all to see.
This might seem like a simple issue regarding the tuning, but it will affect the sound of a chord even if the guitar is perfectly in tune, with a chord going out of tune more or less depending on where on the fretboard it is is played.
Intonation is thus a way of talking about the way that the notes on an entire fretboard (and elsewhere on other instruments for that matter) differ in minute amounts depending on where they are played and the like.
The way this is dealt with is to tune a guitar and then to sound the string on the 12th fret, either wholly or with the harmonic, and then to adjust the saddles on the bridge until this note on the 12th fret is also in tune. Easier said than done, and sometimes best left to the professionals.
Besides some of the extra vibrational faults that might occur from issues with intonation on the fretboard, if someone is proclaiming that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’ then it could very well be because of parts of the guitar that are vibrating when they otherwise should not be, something else rattling away other than the individual strings and the body.
This is an issue that is more common with acoustic guitars, especially those that are unplugged and thus unable to mask these vibrations with amplification, though can also be present on electric guitars too in some cases.
Of course, a guitar ought to vibrate when it is strummed. It is vibrations that we hear when we listen to any music, whether it be full of guitars or devoid of them. Vibrations are emitted and reach us through our bodies and/or ear holes. There are, however, vibrations that are not necessarily intended, and if you have made it this far then you are likely wanting to know how to deal with some of your own on your own steed of choice.
These kinds of vibrations are more often than not the result of a loose part on a guitar vibrating along with the strings when plucked or strummed. Since there are not so many parts on an acoustic guitar, for example, try holding each piece down as the guitar is sounding aloud. If the noise stops when you are holding a particular piece down, then chances are you have found the part that is causing you grief.
One of the pieces that are more commonly the culprit of such irksome behaviors is the battery compartment of an electro-acoustic guitar. This part can easily come loose over time and vibrate along with the movement of the strings as played by the player.
Extra Human Reasons Why Guitar May Sound Tinny
If you have run through all of the above reasons and are still left proclaiming ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad, then the problem might be out of your hands, and might actually be more to do with the instrument’s condition itself.
When this is the case, the complaint from guitarists is most often to do with the tonal and timbral quality of the guitar, with regular cries that the guitar is too tinny or metallic. Let us see why this might be.
Change of Strings
As time passes and your strings come into contact with your fingers repeatedly, the strings will gradually age and become dull, both in sound and appearance (to relative degrees depending on which strings you use and how often you play, as well as the environment in which you play and store your guitar). Sometimes you may even find the guitar strings breaking.
This can sometimes be so gradual that you do not instantly notice it, though it can be altogether too obvious when you do finally change the strings over for a new guitar set.
A brand new set of strings is going to alter the tonal and timbral quality of the guitar considerably, especially if the previous set of strings on the guitar had been on there for some time and had thus been given enough time to acquire a significant layer of dirt and age (and therefore had mellowed out considerably compared to their previously bright and metallic state at first installation).
For a lot of guitarists, this is a change that is welcomed, providing a chance for them to change things up and react somewhat differently to modification of the tonal qualities of the guitar – to hear their playing anew in some sense.
Inversely, for some other guitarists, it can be gutting to have to change strings and can sound very undesirable, thus answering soundly the claim wrought aloud that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’.
This metallic sound will not stay around for long, depending on how often the strings are played. If it is of particular concern, there are certain string types that can be looked into which are coated in such a way as to negate this period of brightness that a set of new strings is likely to have to go through.
Learning how to string a guitar a step-by-step guide might also be of use.
Low Action / String Height
If the guitar sounds tinny when plucked or strummed with a side order of buzzing, then it might just be that the strings are vibrating against more frets than they are supposed to, causing tensions all across the fretboard. This can happen on certain pitches, or can indeed happen all over the neck and fretboard if the intonational setup is particularly shoddy.
Thus, if your strings are hitting more than the two frets that surround your finger when fretting a particular note, your string height and action are likely too low.
The action of a guitar is very closely related to its string height, being the relative distance between the strings and the fretboard. It is rarely worth thinking of action outside of these bounds, for they are the ones that are going to count.
With the strings closer to the fretboard, there is more opportunity for the string along its length to come into contact with more frets than it ought to, spreading thin the power of the string until it can no longer sound out properly.
You ought to be able to see how this can cause you and others to exclaim that ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’, for it does not matter how in tune your guitar is if all the notes you play on it are obstructed by other frets all over the fretboard.
If your notes buzz in a characteristic way when you are strumming or fretting notes, then you might want to get your action checked. This can be done at home, though if you are seeking a lower action, then you are likely going to want to hire the help of a licensed professional, as this is inherently harder to set a guitar up with.
This is going to be something worth considering for just about every electric guitarist, though there are more and more acoustic guitars with electric capabilities, and more and more options to amplify an acoustic guitar with more crystalline and higher fidelity results.
If proclaiming ‘my guitar is in tune but sounds bad’, then there is a strong chance this could be related to your pedals and amplifier if the sound is being amplified at all.
First of all, it would be worth asking yourself whether the guitar tone sounds undesirable or ‘bad’ when a certain pedal is engaged, such as those that attempt to make an electric guitar sound like acoustic, or whether the sound is there all the time?
If the former, then the problem ought to be looking you in the face now, in which case you will likely need to consult a more specific and dedicated article on the subject. In the case of the latter, it would be worth trying out any other pedals that are part of the chain.
If none of the pedals are causing the problem, then it might be the case that the amplifier itself is causing the overall sound to be undesirable. If this is the case, it is likely that you are going to need to have a fiddle around with the settings of the amp in order for it to sound more desirable and/or more in alignment with the kind of sounds and styles you are hoping to achieve.
There will be various guides on how to do this online, especially if you are looking to achieve a particular sound, such as that of a famous artist whose playing style you like or otherwise wish to imitate.
Oft neglected, the pickups on a guitar can be one of the root causes for the sound a guitar produces being undesirable in the ears of the user and beholder. This can be for both simple and complicated reasons.
If we are to put it simply, some pickups are simply built differently from others, hence why some are chosen by some and some chosen by others, and also why some are chosen to fill the boots of a particular situation where others are not.
The two main types of guitar pickups are also two of the first to exist in the mainstream market, and while there are plenty of other types of pickups in the modern guitar market, they still hold the floor when it comes to popularity and debate, and serve to illustrate my point succinctly here.
The original pickups, single coils, are a type of pickup for the electric bass and electric guitar which electromagnetically convert the vibration of the corresponding strings into electric signals via a single-coil mechanism.
Being only one mass of coils singly wound together, the sound is typically more bright, twangy, and spare, and they are oft called upon to do the work in music that requires tones and timbres of this kind.
By contrast, the humbucker is basically a double coil pickup, a variety of pickup for the guitar that uses two-wire coils to otherwise elide the noise interference picked up and transmitted by the single coil. Since there is a whole other coil wound into this particular kind of pickup, there is a thicker and warmer tonal quality as a result.
Not only can the style have an effect on the desirability of the resulting sound, but the quality can too, so this is also worth considering.
There are rarely any gaps between a person’s expectations of a recording and reality. As the power is handed more and more over to the consumer and the medium becomes more and more democratized, the gap is ever exaggerated alongside the tangential parallel boom of home recording technology.
Often, a guitarist will have learned the ropes and will want to satiate their own artistic ambitions to write their own songs. They will purchase a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and a cheap adapter to plug their guitar straight into their laptop and will automatically expect anything that comes, as a result, to sound just as good as it did coming out of the amplifier.
The sad fact is that, unless you have a whole bunch of swanky amplifier simulators already installed, the sound is not going to be anywhere near your expectations (unless those expectations are rather low or fittingly realistic). And you certainly are not going to be able to meet any expectations by plugging your guitar into the audio jack already installed on your computer.
You will need a dedicated audio interface or an amp and/or pedal with USB recording capabilities, as well as the knowledge of how to plug a guitar into a computer. If you have all of these things and the sound you are producing is still not to your liking, then you are going to need to consult a dedicated manual or online resource to help you navigate the specific piece of equipment that you are using for the job.
The settings that you use on the interface, or the pedal, or the amp, as well as those that are being used within the Digital Audio Workstation itself, are going to play an integral part in the eventual sound that the guitar is producing, no matter how in tune it might otherwise be.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are somewhat the wiser as to the reasons your guitar’s overall tone might be undesirable to you and are thus equipped to tackle these undesirable sounds head-on, to sculpt them into that which you so desire.
Go forth and spread the good word. Look as though you know exactly what you are talking about at the next gathering of guitar enthusiasts. Be the reason for people saying ‘goodness, their tones are it!’
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
There are several reasons why your guitar might sound more buzzy than intended. The action might be awry: this is caused by an improperly adjusted string height in conjunction with an imperfect intonation (in as far as can be perfect in the first place). Likewise, the buzzing might be a result of poor technique, which is best meted out at as early a stage as possible, so that the fingers do not become too familiar.
There are several reasons why your guitar might sound weird, and, unless you are willing to pay a licensed professional, you are going to have to investigate at your own behest. It is best to start with reasons pertaining to your own imperfect technique, such as those with the fretting hand and strumming hand. Then, to investigate the electronics and hardware of the guitar; problems with the action, with the intonation, with extra parts of the guitar buzzing when they are not supposed to, not to mention the pickups and what they are being fed through, etc.
If the guitar in question is an electric guitar, then it could well be that the amp and pedal(s) it is being fed through are distorted the signal before it is fed out through the amp and into your ear holes. If, however, the guitar is not being amplified (electric or not), then you will need to investigate the guitar all over for the culprit. Often in these cases, the distortion is caused by a piece of the guitar vibrating with the vibration of the strings, having come loose at some point. Sound out the strings and hold down each individual piece of the guitar’s hardware until you have meted out the cause.