We’ve all been there. You plug in your electric guitar or pick up your acoustic, strum a few chords, and you’re left feeling like something’s off.
It just doesn’t sound right!
Again, you’re not alone. Even the most seasoned players (like myself!) with 20+ years of playing experience occasionally go into a practice session, only to be left with that feeling that their guitar sounds really bad.
The difference between this happening to a beginner and an advanced player is that the advanced player understands what’s likely making the guitar not sound optimal. And, hey, rockstar legends sometimes manage to sell tons of records despite being out of tune! (1)
But if you’re not a super rockstar yet, I’m here to help you discover why your guitar might not sound the best and provide solutions to remedy the issue.
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Main Reasons Why Your Guitar Sounds Bad
As you can imagine, there are SEVERAL reasons why your guitar isn’t sounding the best. I’ve broken this article down into the main reasons. Under each section, I’ll offer solutions to the problem.
By the time you finish this article, your guitar will (hopefully) sound like it’s being played by one of these guys!
- Tuning: This is a good starting point for any problem. If your strings are out of tune, your guitar won’t sound good.
- Electric Guitar Sounds Bad
- Guitar Amp. Is something wrong with the amp? Or can you tweak the EQ for a better tone?
- Guitar Tone. How are tone knobs set on your guitar? They can make a big difference.
- Pickups. Are your pickups still installed correctly? It’s worth a look.
- Acoustic Guitar Sounds Bad
- Strings. When was the last time you changed your strings?
- Sustain. Are you humidifying your guitar? A dry guitar has worse sustain.
- Strumming & Technique
- Picking. How are you holding your pick? Is it the right thickness? A few minor alterations can make a big difference.
- Palm Muting. Is your hand getting in the way of your strumming? This is a common problem.
- Poor fretting. Are you not pushing down the strings hard enough on the fretboard? This can create buzz.
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Tuning & Strings
Let’s start with tuning, which is often a big reason why a guitar doesn’t sound 100% during a practice session or live performance.
First, every beginner guitar player should purchase a tuner and learn how to tune to standard tuning correctly. Once you understand how to tune a guitar properly, you must do that at the beginning of every practice session. And depending on the length of your practice session will likely need to re-tune it at some point.
Why Doesn’t My Guitar Play Well Even When Tuned?
There are a few reasons your guitar may sound bad, even when tuned.
One, your electric or acoustic guitar may not be the best-produced instrument. Frets could be uneven; action could be off, and, as a result, the guitar sounds out of tune, despite the open strings being tuned.
In other words, a cheap guitar model could be the cause. I’ve played cheaper acoustics where that’s often the case.
My Guitar Sounds Bad After Changing Strings
Your guitar can sound bad after changing strings because new stringers often quickly fall out of tune. That’s because it takes a few practice sessions and re-tunings for the strings to stretch out properly. This can typically take a week or two of consistent playing.
New strings can also make your guitar play dramatically different depending on the gauge of the string. If you purchase a heavier string, expect a more robust, warm tone.
If you purchase lighter strings, expect better cleans and trebles. In terms of sound, one isn’t necessarily better than the other, but if you go with a string you’re not comfortable playing, there’s a good chance your guitar isn’t going to sound the best.
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Let’s start with electric guitars, which can be riddled with issues that can impact tone.
Why Does My Electric Guitar Sound Bad?
Electric guitars have more potential issues that can cause them to go bad compared to acoustic guitars, which is why I’m putting more ink behind this topic.
An electric guitar can sound off for any number of reasons. For starters, it could be a poorly manufactured, super cheap guitar.
I’m a big fan of Yamaha guitars for beginners, for example, but it has to be said that the quality of those guitars isn’t always the best. When you mass produce a guitar, there’s a much higher chance of ending up with a lemon that simply doesn’t sound good.
Maybe it doesn’t stay in tune, or the electronics are junk. Either way, cheap electric guitars can sound tinny or muddy — they may not sound the best.
If you feel like you have a decent electric guitar, I recommend checking over all its components.
- Is the input jack screwed in all the way? A loose jack can impact your sound when plugged in.
- Are the bridge and nut in good shape? If either of those components is beaten up, it can impact the tone and intonation of your guitar.
- What about the pickups? If they are jiggling around, they’re likely not capturing the intended tone of your guitar.
In other words, tighten everything up, then try strumming some chords and picking some scales.
Why Does My Guitar Amp Sound Bad?
Your electric guitar may not be the source of things sounding bad —¸it could be your amplifier.
Common amplifier problems include:
- Distorted sound. If your cleans aren’t sounding clear enough, you may either have a cheap amp or you need to adjust the EQ (bass, treble, mid) to see if you can clean things up. Also, double-check the tone knobs on your guitar to see if that makes a difference.
- Humming speaker. This is more of an annoyance, but it can impact your sound. Make sure your amp is plugged into a surge protector. That typically fixes the issue.
- Too loud. Or even too quiet. Not all amps are made the same, so a 5/10 on a Fender may be WAY louder than a Marshall, for instance. Adjust the volume to find that sweet spot. If it is still too loud, you may have some kind of component issue with the amp that a professional needs to repair.
Like guitars, cheap amps can simply not sound good. While there are undoubtedly great practice amps on the market, if you’re only willing to spend about $100 on an amp, don’t expect it to sound amazing.
Why Does My Guitar Tone Sound Bad?
The biggest reason for lousy guitar tone is tied to the tone knobs on your guitar. If it’s turned down too far, you’ll have a muddy guitar sound. If it’s turned up too high, your guitar sounds tinny.
It’s so important — especially for beginners — to do some trial and error with their tone knobs to really dial in a tone that sounds great. Beginner guitar models will be more limited, but there’s still an opportunity to find a usable tone.
If you believe your tone knobs aren’t the issue, it could be your amplifier. As mentioned above, tweak the EQ to find something that sounds good to you.
Why Does the Clean on My Guitar Not Sound Good?
We all like a crisp, clean tone, but there’s a chance you’re packing too much treble if that clean tone doesn’t sound good.
Crank down the treble a bit on the amp and dial down your tone knob a bit. If the clean tone still isn’t to your liking, there’s a chance you’re dealing with a cheap guitar and/or amp that can’t produce the type of clean tone you desire.
You could consider investing in guitar pedals that can mask your tone with effects. I’d recommend a compression pedal and a reverb pedal to improve your clean tones.
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Why Does My Acoustic Guitar Sound Bad?
There are three main reasons why your acoustic guitar sounds like junk:
- It’s a cheap acoustic guitar made of crappy tonewoods that simply don’t sound good.
- The guitar is dried out and isn’t exhibiting the type of tone and sustain that it should be putting out.
- You’re simply not good enough yet (don’t worry, you will be!) to make your guitar sound good.
Cheap acoustic guitars may be worse than cheap electric guitars. Some manufacturers, for instance, use the most inexpensive tonewoods that aren’t durable and sound awful.
Basswood is an excellent example of this. It’s abundant and cheap — and some guitar manufacturers love that! While basswood can be treated to sound good in guitars, when it’s done poorly (and typically it is for mass production runs), it sounds rather mediocre.
Cheap acoustic guitars also have horrible intonation, meaning the guitar won’t stay in tune. Even if the tuners are high-quality, the overall construction makes the guitar sound out of tune. The frets may not be even, so if you’re shaping chords, it could sound slightly off.
Components of cheap acoustic guitars can also impact the overall sound of your guitar. As mentioned, cheap tuners can prevent your guitar from staying in tune. But cheap string pegs — which hold your guitar strings into the bridge — can also throw off your intonation. Cheap frets can also make your strings buzz, which doesn’t sound good.
If you’re on a budget and can’t afford to spend much on an acoustic, check out this review article on our favorite cheap acoustic guitars before you go shopping.
Why Do My Acoustic Guitar Strings Sound Bad?
If your acoustic guitar strings don’t sound good, I would ask first: “When did you last change them?”
If you play consistently — even if you’re just practicing at home — a string set typically lasts only 3-6 months. If you’re playing live shows, you’re lucky to get three months out of your strings. Buy a new pair of strings, and you’ll notice a big difference in your sound.
That being said, a new set of strings could also sound poor to you. Guitar strings come in all different gauges and even materials today. If you buy guitar strings that are too thick, they could be challenging to fret, which produces an incomplete tone.
If you buy strings that are too light, it might create more of a metallic sound that’s undesirable. This could require some trial and error, so when you find a set of strings that sound great, make sure to replace them with the same strings.
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Strumming and Technique
As you can see, several technical issues can undoubtedly impact your guitar’s overall sound and tone.
But another big reason your guitar doesn’t sound the best is your overall playing technique — and strumming and picking play a big part in those issues.
So, let’s dive into why your strumming and overall technique impact the sound of your guitar and then offer up some solutions to turn things around.
Why Does My Guitar Strumming Sound Bad?
Your left hand (or right hand for lefties!) could be perfectly proficient at shaping chords and working scales up and down the fretboard, but if your strumming is awful, the guitar won’t sound good at all.
There are typically three common problems beginner guitar players experience with strumming.
One, their strumming arm is WAY too tense. Strumming a guitar needs to be a fluid motion. If there’s too much tension, the sound won’t be good. It definitely takes some practice to learn how to strum properly.
Another common issue that’s the complete opposite of strumming too tense is strumming too lazily. If you’re not being intentional with your strumming, your guitar is going to produce a dull tone.
If you’re practicing chords, give a full, complete strum from the low E string to the high E string. If you’re practicing songs, really delve into the music, pick up on the strumming pattern, and try to perfect that pattern.
In addition to strumming, lazy playing can apply to every concept of guitar learning, including fretting and shaping chords.
If you play lazy, you’re going to sound lazy and dull. Practice and strum with intention and vigor, and you’ll sound MUCH better.
Pick noise can really have a negative impact on the sound of your guitar — especially with acoustic guitars.
The first issue could be the thickness of the pick. A pick that’s too thin combined with fast strumming creates a clicking sound because the pick bends easier. This is primarily an issue with acoustic guitars because the soundhole amplifies that clicking noise.
Heavier picks can help, but if they’re too heavy, there’s a chance your guitar could sound terrible. It typically requires some trial and error to determine which pick fits best with your playing style.
It depends on your style, what types of strings you use (thin strings may not agree with heavy picks), and if you play a cheaper or more expensive guitar.
Palm muting is an excellent strumming effect — especially for rhythm playing — but if done poorly, it can harm the sound of your guitar. It takes a lot of practice to nail down proper palm muting because it’s more feel than something you can practice over and over again, like running scales. I recommend checking out some YouTube guitar lessons to learn how to correctly palm mute.
Another reason your guitar may sound bad due to palm muting is more technical. For those palm muting on electric guitars, you may notice a metallic tone when using gain. If that’s the case, I recommend turning down the gain. If that’s not an option (some songs simply require a lot of gain), look into a noise gate pedal, which can minimize the negative parts of palm muting.
Other issues highlighted by palm muting include vibrations from loose pickup springs, tremolo springs, and the springs above the nut. Make sure everything is tightened up on those components, and then try palm muting again.
In terms of palm muting on acoustic guitars, old strings are typically the most significant reason it doesn’t sound good.
Tapping is a challenging technique that, when perfected, is really amazing. Erik Mongrain is one of the best tappers ever:
So, you’re probably wondering, “Why don’t I sound like that?” For starters, Erik Mongrain is a prodigy.
But secondly, you haven’t figured out how to properly execute the tapping technique.
Most likely, your tapping is too quiet. That’s because when you tap, the string’s vibration is essentially stopping. You need to focus on how you “hit” and then release the string to keep that string vibrating. Some players like to think of it more as a “flick” of the string than a tap.
You can do some technical things to improve your tapping, though.
Whether you play acoustic or electric guitars, lighter string gauges are easier to tap because you can keep them vibrating longer. You also don’t have to tap them as hard.
Tapping with distortion is also easier than without distortion (or overdrive), so I always recommend more beginner players who want to learn how to tap to start with some distortion. As they get a feel for it, they’ll better develop their technique and will feel more confident in tapping with clean tones or even on acoustics.
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Other Common Guitar Sound Issues
As you can see, there are many reasons your guitar playing doesn’t sound up to snuff. Here are a handful of other minor issues that, if improved, can drastically improve your guitar’s overall sound.
Barre Chords Don’t Sound Full
If chords sound bad in general — including barres — it typically means your fretting hand isn’t pressing down the strings hard enough. This is always a tricky technique to master for beginner players.
The only way to fix this issue is to practice shaping chords and pressing down on those strings with the tips of your fingers. Newer players don’t have very strong fingers, making it difficult to press down individual strings, let alone one or more strings simultaneously.
It doesn’t matter if you’re playing higher quality guitars or cheap guitars — shaping chords can only sound good if you’re pressing those strings down to the fretboard.
Fret Buzz is Loud
Now, if you feel like you’re pressing down on the strings properly while shaping chords but are hearing buzzing, there’s a chance your guitar needs a tune-up. Fret buzz is a real problem and, unfortunately, can typically only be corrected by a trained guitar technician.
Fret buzz is when the strings are too close to the frets and vibrate loudly over them when pressed down on the fretboard.
String gauge, strumming too hard, and pressing down on strings too loosely are all symptoms of fret buzz, but the overall setup of the guitar, including the action of the strings (how high or low they rest over the fretboard), is the most significant contributor.
If you’re constantly experiencing fret buzz, contact your local guitar shop to see if they can fix it with a new setup.
Guitar Pickups Are Acting Up
I’ll keep this simple: Cheap pickups may not ever sound good. That’s a chance you take when purchasing a cheaper model guitar, like a Yamaha or a Squier.
Now, whether your guitar has single coil pickups or humbuckers, there could always be issues with pickup failure. Have a trained guitar technician check your guitar to confirm if your pickups are damaged.
Plastic Nut is Causing Intonation Issues
This may sound weird (pardon the pun!), but if your nut is plastic, it’s likely causing your guitar to have tuning stability issues.
Cheaper guitars tend to use plastic nuts. If that’s the case with your guitar, there isn’t much you can do about it, unfortunately. Your guitar is going to sound out of tune a lot.
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You Control How Your Guitar Sounds
Whether you’re playing an expensive electric guitar or cheaper guitars, there are countless reasons why your playing is coming across poorly. You first need to realize that this is totally normal, and you shouldn’t get discouraged.
If it’s a technical issue, troubleshoot it until you can find a solution. But it’s also likely that the cause is poor playing technique. When I was just starting, I remember thinking my guitar sounded terrible, then being blown away at how good it sounded when my teacher played it.
So get back to your practice routine, and consider signing up for some online guitar lessons.
And most importantly, don’t give up — you’ve got this!
- Ultimate Guitar, “Ozzy Recalls Reaction to Steve Vai Telling Him Black Sabbath’s 1st Album Is Out of Tune: ‘You Know What, Steve?'” as published here https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/news/general_music_news/ozzy_recalls_reaction_to_steve_vai_telling_him_black_sabbaths_1st_album_is_out_of_tune_you_know_what_steve.html