You’ve spent hours practicing and learning new songs, you’re improving.. so why does your guitar still sound bad? It’s a problem most guitarists have been through.
A good sounding guitar can inspire you to keep playing. But a bad sounding one can ruin your motivation.
The good news is that in most cases there are easy fixes to get your guitar sounding its best. And you don’t have to be an expert or guitar whizz to do them.
So let’s find the solution to whatever is making your guitar sound so bad. It’ll probably be a common problem and with a few tweaks and adjustments you’ll be sounding much better very quickly.
The most common reasons for your guitar sounding bad are things like it being out of tune, the intonation being off, using old strings that need replacing, needing a proper setup or an issue with the amplifier.
- Technical Adjustments Enhance Sound: Adjusting EQ settings, changing strings, checking guitar setup and properly tuning your guitar are some of the easy yet effective ways to improve your guitar’s sound.
- Proper Technique is Important: How a guitar sounds is not just about the instrument itself but also about the player’s technique. That includes proper strumming, fretting and handling of the guitar.
- Invest in Quality Gear: Quality guitars, strings and amps can make a big difference in sound. Avoid low quality instruments, especially no-name brands that are marketed to beginners.
- Get A Professional Setup for Better Performance: If you’re not confident about making adjustments then a professional setup can optimize your guitar for the best sound and suited to your playing style.
For more in depth fixes and explanations keep reading.
Different Types of Bad Tone
There are a few different ways your guitar tone can sound bad. Understanding these issues can help you identify and fix them effectively.
A muddy tone is when your guitar sounds thick or lacks clarity. It’s often caused by excessive bass or midrange frequencies. It will make chords and notes blend into an indistinct sound. Everything becomes very ‘mushy’.
Fixes for muddy tone:
- Adjust the EQ settings: Reduce the bass and midrange frequencies.
- Change your strings: Old or dirty strings can contribute to a muddy sound.
- Check the guitar setup: Ensure your guitar’s action isn’t too low, causing the strings to buzz against the fretboard.
A tinny tone is characterized by a thin, metallic sound with excessive treble frequencies and a lack of bass. More common with lower quality guitars or certain string types.
Fixes for tinny tone:
- Adjust EQ settings: Increase the bass and reduce the treble frequencies.
- String choice: Use heavier gauge strings for a fuller sound.
- Experiment with pick material: Softer picks can reduce tinny sounds.
Out of Tune
A tone that is out of tune occurs when the guitar’s strings are not properly tuned to the correct notes. You end up with a sound that is unpleasant and discordant.
Fixes for out of tune tone:
- Regular tuning: Ensure your guitar is tuned before playing. Use a reliable tuner.
- Check intonation: Have your guitar’s intonation checked and adjusted if necessary.
- String quality: Use high quality strings and replace them regularly.
|Adjust amp EQ settings.
Get a proper setup done.
|Adjust amp EQ settings.
Try different and thicker gauge strings.
Try a softer pick.
|Out of Tune
|Use a proper tuner app or pedal.
Use high quality strings.
To diagnose where your poor sound is coming from go through the following reasons.
Is it the Guitar or You?
The first thing to look at is where the problem is coming from. Is it your guitar that has an issue and needs fixing? Or is the guitar fine and the issue lies with you and poor technique? (sorry!)
You need to be honest. The famous saying ‘a bad workman always blames his tools’ applies here. Don’t blame your guitar if the reason it sounds bad is because you’re playing poorly.
That sounds harsh but it’s important. Otherwise you might waste time and money trying to fix a problem with your guitar that doesn’t exist.
Play with Proper Technique
No matter how good your gear, poor technique will make your guitar sound bad. It can be hard to accept it’s you that’s the reason your guitar is sounding poor.
But being honest with yourself will save you time and hassle. You need to be playing properly.
Fix: That means making sure you’re doing the basics right. Things like muting strings properly and fretting notes right to prevent buzzing.
Strum evenly using a controlled motion from the wrist/elbow. Aggressive strumming will make your tone sound choppy and harsh. Fingerpicking should sound smooth and consistent. Bends and vibrato should be executed deliberately and drawn out.
If you suspect it’s your technique thats to blame then record yourself playing. It will help you to identify any areas where your technique is the problem.
Then it’s simply down to practising the areas that need to improving.
If you aren’t sure or can’t work out where the problem comes from and whether it’s you or your guitar then work through the rest of the fixes listed here. It’ll be more long winded but you’ll eventually figure out what the issue is.
Check Your Tuning
You’ve almost certainly tried this but I’m going to include it just in case. Why? Because the most obvious culprit for a bad guitar sound is improper tuning. If your guitar is even slightly out of tune it will just sound plain bad.
Fix: If you haven’t yet then investing in a quality tuner is a must. I use a Boss TU-3 pedal – it’s pretty much an industry standard at this point. You’ll see it or the TU-2 on so many peal boards of professional guitarists.
It’s simple, works great and has some fancy features that are handy too. I wouldn’t be without mine. If you don’t want to spend that amount on a pedal, or don’t have pedal board, then a clip on tuner works well too. BOSS do a decent one and the Fender FT-1 is another good option.
Even if you’ve tuned your guitar remember that strings settle during playing. So check tuning periodically as you play and make quick tweaks to get back in tune.
Even properly tuned guitars can sound bad though. So let’s look at other common issues and how to fix them.
Change Your Strings
Old, dirty strings are one of the most common causes of a bad guitar tone. Over time dirt, skin oils and residue build up on the strings preventing them from vibrating properly.
The result? Your tone will begin to sound dull and lifeless. New strings however have a much brighter tone and ‘lively’ sound.
Fix: You can get coated strings which do help to reduce the buildup of dirt and residue, but all strings need changing periodically. On average changing electric strings every 1-2 months and acoustic strings every 3-4 months will keep your tone sounding its best.
When changing strings clean the fretboard and fretwires to remove any built up grime and dirt. If you haven’t ever changed your strings you’ll instantly notice a difference and find your guitar sounding massively better.
Adjust Pickup Height
If it’s your electric guitar that sounds bad it could be the height of the pickups. The pickups on an electric guitar work by picking up the vibrations of the strings.
But if the pickups are too far from the strings the magnetic field can’t properly detect the vibrations. Which results in a weak signal and lackluster sound.
But annoyingly pickups that are too near to the strings, or too high up from the guitar body, also mess with your tone. Pickups set too high can magnetically pull on the strings decreasing sustain and causing tuning issues.
Fix: You will have to adjust your pickup height until you find the best spot. It’s worth it though. Once you’ve found the proper pickup height it will mean you have a consistent and full tone that sounds good.
Adjusting pickup height is straightforward. You simply turn the screws and the pickup will move up or down until the proper height is reached. Start with the manufacturer’s recommendations then fine tune the height by ear until the desired sound is achieved.
Set Proper Intonation
When I was new to playing guitar I went a ridiculously long time before I adjusted my intonation. Which was stupid because it’s 1. Easy to do, and 2. Has a big impact on how your guitar sounds.
If you’re not sure what intonation is, it refers to the guitar correctly producing the proper pitch at each fret. If you’re intonation is wrong it means the guitar may sound in tune when strumming open strings but will sound increasingly out of tune higher up the neck.
You might not necessarily notice at first. Or you’ll hear something doesn’t sound quite right but can’t put your finger on it.
But more experienced guitarists will pick up on dodgy intonation when you play. Thankfully it’s easy to both diagnose and fix.
Fix: To check intonation you compare the 12th fret to the harmonic at the 12th fret. If the fretted note and harmonic match the intonation is set correctly. If not the bridge saddles need to be adjusted until the intonation is corrected up the entire neck.
Adjusting the saddles should be easy but does differ depending on your guitar. On a Stratocaster or Strat type of guitar with a tremolo bridge you’ll move the saddles back or forward with a screwdriver or allen key.
On a Gibson or Gibson type of guitar with a Tune-O-Matic bridge the intonation is also adjusted by moving the individual saddles forward or backward with a screwdriver or allen key. But the range of motion for each saddle is typically more limited compared to a Stratocaster.
Having proper intonation means your guitar will play in tune and sound right no matter what notes or chords you play up and down the neck.
Adjust the Truss Rod
If you aren’t sure what the truss rod is it’s an adjustable metal rod built into the neck of most guitars. It counteracts the string tension which allows adjustment of the neck relief and action height.
If your action is wrong, be it too high or too low, not only will your guitar play badly it could sound off too.
With low action and proper relief the guitar strings vibrate freely. Although you run the risk of fret buzz and getting a muddy tone if you lower them too much.
With higher action the strings don’t vibrate as easily. This can result in reduced sustain and lackluster tone.
Fix: Adjusting the truss rod correctly though will let you lower the action for comfortable playability without fret buzz. So when you combine setting the truss rod properly together with adjusting the string height you should be able to achieve a good action height that both improves tone and playability dramatically.
But messing with the truss rod can be dangerous. Not to you but your guitar. If you turn it too much it’ll wreck your instrument.
If you suspect the truss rod is the cause of your problems but don’t have any experience with it you might be better of getting a pro to adjust it. Simply for peace of mind.
Fix Fret Buzz
As just mentioned – excessive fret buzz and muted notes are another common cause of poor tone. Fret buzz occurs when the strings make contact with the frets. Besides an annoying buzzing sound the fretted note also doesn’t ring out properly.
Basically what you play will sound dead and muted. This can affect the entire fretboard or just certain frets.
The main causes for fret buzz are too low action, neck relief issues, fret problems or broken nut/bridge. It can be tricky diagnosing where the fret buzz is coming from. But if you do have fret buzz then fixing it will definitely help with poor tone.
Fix: Once you’ve figured out what the cause of the buzz is then it should be relatively easy to rectify. If it’s neck relief – adjust the truss rod. If it’s as simple as too low action all you have to do is raise the strings.
In order to get the right action height when you’re adjusting it I use a simple action gauge. You can pick them up for less than $10 and they’re useful for these sorts of situations.
For nut or bridge problems, or uneven frets, you may not be able to fix it yourself. Frets may need levelling, the nut replacing or even a new bridge if it’s got a major problem.
One things for sure through is that when you get rid of excessive buzz you’ll have a much better and less muddy tone.
Get a Setup
If you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself then many guitar sound problems can be fixed with a professional setup. A setup involves setting up the guitar to optimal specs including neck relief, string height, intonation, pickup height etc. And if your guitar is new then they often come from the factory with less than ideal setups.
Fix: While you can perform your own setup, the small investment of around $50-$75 to have an experienced tech do it is money well spent. Even well setup guitars need periodic adjustments as temperature changes and string tension can shift parts over time.
A proper setup tailored to your playing style and guitar configuration means your instrument will sound its very best each time you pick it up.
Use Quality Gear
Low quality guitars, amps, strings and other gear can potentially be the cause of poor tone. Sadly there are a lot of really, really awful guitars and amps that are marketed to beginners but are simply terrible.
As an example if you go through somewhere like Amazon there are so many no-name guitars you can buy. The overwhelming majority of them will all be absolute junk.
Barely playable, terrible action with stupidly high strings, awful construction, strings that slip or aren’t seated properly, and so on. And all of this means they will both play and sound rubbish.
The no-name amplifiers will be the same – sound appallingly bad.
It’s always best to stick to well known brand names. The likes of Squier, Epiphone, Yamaha, Harley Benton etc. are all affordable and aimed at beginners but will be decent.
You can’t guarantee you’ll get a good guitar but you’re far less likely to get a really terrible one.
Fix: For those on a tight budget prioritize spending more on your amp for the biggest improvement. Even cheaper guitars can sound decent with a quality amp.
A Squier Sonic will cost you roughly $120. That played through a Fender Frontman 10g or 15g amp will sound pretty bad (the Frontman being Fenders cheapest and lowest quality amp).
And you can always replace low quality pickups and hardware on a cheaper guitar down the road. That’ll go a long way to making it play and sound better.
Adjust Amp Settings
Even a high quality amp can sound bad. If you use the amp settings incorrectly or turn them all up to max then it will inevitably sound pretty terrible.
Fix: So it’s a good idea to learn what and how to use all the tone shaping controls that come with your amp. In fact it’s good to learn how electric guitar amps work in general. This guide to guitar amp controls will help you understand the basic settings.
And while it might be tempting to max out the controls the key to getting the best tone is by dialling your amp settings by ear. Listening as adjust them until it sounds good.
Master volume controls loudness. Set gain for your desired level of distortion. Start with EQ knobs at 12 o’clock, then tweak them to taste. Most amps sound best with mids higher than bass/treble. Reverb and effects should complement your tone, and not overpower it.
Set aside some time to familiarize yourself with all your amp’s controls if you haven’t. Minor adjustments can have a big impact on your tone and how the amp sounds.
Use Minimal Effects
It’s easy to get carried away dialing in crazy effects like excessive reverb, delay, chorus, phase and so on. I used to whack them all on when I first got an amp with built in effects.
It’s usually fun for a brief moment before you realize how bad it sounds. Too many effects will muddy up your tone and make it hard to distinguish actual guitar notes.
Fix: You want to use effects sparingly. They should subtly complement the guitar and song instead of drastically altering and obscuring your base tone. Less is often more when it comes to effects – you want your guitar’s sound to still shine through.
If you think it might be effects making your guitar sound bad – turn them all off. Start with no effects just your amps regular tone.
Then add one or two effects. See how it sounds. As your experience grows you can add more but keep levels low. Unless your specific aim is an overly processed otherworldly sound, keep effects minimal.
‘Bad’ when referring to how a guitar sounds will usually mean ‘sounds bad’. But it can also mean your tone or sound is boring or uninspiring.
Lots of guitarists get frustrated from sounding generic or boring. There are ways to fix that though.
Adding dynamics and variety to your playing makes it more interesting and better replicates the ebb and flow heard in professional music. Accenting certain notes, bending strings, adding vibrato and manipulating volume and intensity levels avoids the repetitive robotic sound of playing everything exactly the same.
Fix: If you’ve found yourself in this position try listening closely to your favorite guitarists and take note of their subtle (or dramatic) dynamic changes during solos and throughout songs. Imitating how the greats effectively utilize dynamics is a great way to take your playing to another level.
Spend time focusing just on dynamics during practice. Play repetitive lines but alter the feel of them by adding accents, bends, slides, legato, staccato, vibrato, ramping intensity or volume.
Mastering dynamics brings life and emotion to your playing.
Try Different Pick Sizes/Materials
A pick may look and feel insignificant but it can have a big impact on the sound your guitar produces.
Thicker picks create a fuller sound but are much better for playing lead on electric guitar. On the other side thinner picks have a brighter sound and are more trebly. They work well with acoustic guitars.
I love using Jazz III’s when playing electric, and they’re 1.38mm.
But when I’ve tried them on my acoustic it sounds harsh. Really loud, too aggressive and lacking any subtlety.
So I use Dunlop Nylon 0.60mm’s instead. Much thinner, softer and easier to control.
Fix: Try out various different pick thicknesses, materials and shapes with your guitar or guitars. You’ll quickly find they sound and feel very different. And some will definitely sound better and suit styles of music or different guitars.
Fixing a poor sounding guitar is very much within your control. Simply doing the basics will sort out most problems.
Start with proper tuning and a good setup. Keep your strings fresh and use decent quality gear. Set amps properly and use effects judiciously.
Then be sure your technique is good. Add in some dynamics. And above all keep practicing and don’t get discouraged. Little tweaks and adjustments add up to big improvements in your tone.
Soon you’ll have your gear dialed in to perfection and be playing well enough to finally achieve the sound you’re chasing. And when your guitar sounds right it makes the endless hours spent practicing worthwhile.