Sometimes your guitar will suddenly start sounding bad or you may notice something is wrong.
Other times, a problem may gradually creep in and you may realize your guitar doesn’t sound as good as it used to.
In this guide, I’ll go through the common issues you might experience that cause your guitar to sound bad.
There are a lot of reasons why your guitar might sound bad. It could be something simple like old strings, or it could be an issue with wiring, intonation, or your guitar amp.
Read through the below information to properly work out what is wrong with your guitar and how to fix it.
Guitar Sounds Bad When Strumming
If you notice that your guitar sounds bad when you strum chords, there are a few easy fixes that solves this problem.
There are three reasons why your guitar might sound bad when strumming:
- Out-of-tune: even one string slightly out of tune can make strummed chords sound bad
- Bad technique: pressing too hard on the strings or hitting the strings too hard can make chords sound out-of-tune
- Bad intonation: if your guitar’s intonation is out, chords will sound bad when you strum
Let’s look at how to fix each of the three possible problems.
Fix: Guitar Tuning
If your guitar sounds bad when strumming, the first thing to do is check your guitar’s tuning.
Make sure every string is perfectly in tune using a high-quality guitar tuner.
If any string is slightly out-of-tune, that can be enough to make chords sound bad.
Playing riffs may sound perfectly fine with a slightly out-of-tune guitar, but chords will sound terrible.
If you find that your guitar seems to always fall out of tune, make sure you read the section later on string slippage. It may be that your strings are slipping out of tune as you play.
Lower priced guitars tend to use cheaper parts which lowers tuning stability. So if you’re playing on a cheap guitar, if you notice that it’s sounding bad, it may be that your ears have developed to hear what you didn’t notice before.
Fix: Fretting Hand Technique
The way you press your hand down onto the strings when playing chord plays a big part in how good the chords sound.
If you use poor technique, you might hear buzzing, muted notes, or out-of-tune chords.
There are three common reasons why your fretting hand may make chords sound bad when strummed:
- Pressing down too lightly: not enough pressure on the strings can cause buzzing
- Pressing down too hard: too much pressure can bend the strings out-of-tune
- Not using fingertips: if your fingers touch other strings, the chords won’t ring out clearly
Your fretting hand needs to press down on the frets hard enough to make sure the strings don’t buzz, but not so hard that you bend the notes out-of-tune.
If you are hearing buzzing when you strum chords, it may be because you aren’t pressing down on the strings hard enough.
Here’s how to check your fretting hand technique:
- Place your hand in a chord position
- Pick each string separately and listen to each note
- If one or more strings buzz, try pressing down harder and see if it stops the buzzing
- If one or more strings sound muted, check that your other fingers aren’t touching adjacent strings
- If the chord sounds out-of-tune, try pressing down lighter and strum the chord again
If you hear buzzing but your fingers are pressing down hard, the problem is likely due to the action height being too low.
Fix: Strumming Hand Technique
How hard you hit the strings when you strum can impact the quality of what you hear.
If you strum the strings too hard, you can bend the strings out-of-tune which can make them sound bad.
If you have followed the above steps and you are sure your fretting hand technique is right, try strumming lighter and listen if it changes the sound of your chords.
If you already strum chords lightly, then the problem is likely to be intonation.
Fix: Bad Intonation
If you have followed all of the above advice and your chords still sound out-of-tune, it may be due to bad intonation.
Bad intonation becomes obvious when you play barre chords. If you notice that some barre chords sound fine, while others higher or lower on the fretboard sound out-of-tune, that’s a good sign that your intonation is out.
Read this guide to learn about intonation, how to check your guitar’s intonation, and fix it.
Guitar Vibrates When Strumming
Sometimes a guitar will make weird vibration sounds when strumming. You may hear something rattle or something will vibrate when it’s not meant to.
This issue is common with acoustic guitars but can also happen with electric guitars.
For beginners, it’s important to understand that acoustic guitars will vibrate when you strum them. That’s normal.
What isn’t normal is if you hear some strange rattling or extra vibration that sounds separate from the chords you are strumming.
If your guitar vibrates when strumming, it is likely due to a part becoming loose on your guitar. Touch different parts of your guitar and listen closely to figure out what part is vibrating.
For example, if you have an electro-acoustic guitar (an acoustic guitar you can plug in), lightly touch the battery compartment after strumming and listen if the vibration stops.
One of my students had an issue where the battery cover would lightly rattle when strumming.
Other possible causes may be a loose internal pickup, loose input jack, loose machine heads, or sympathetic vibration on the guitar head.
Learn about guitar parts and their names here if you don’t know what the above parts are.
If you find the part that is vibrating, look to see if you can tighten it or stop it from vibrating. Worst case, you may want to take your guitar to a repair shop so a pro can fix the issue.
Guitar Sounds Tinny
Your guitar can sound tinny or metallic due to switching to brand new strings, bad action height, pedal or amp settings, or due to thin-sounding pickups. If you are hearing a tinny sound when recording an electric guitar, it may be caused by your recording hardware.
Let’s go through all the possible reasons for a tinny guitar sound.
Over time as you play, your guitar strings gradually become dull sounding. You may not notice this change, but the difference in tone becomes obvious when you change to a set of brand new strings.
Brand new guitar strings can sound incredibly bright and metallic sounding compared to the warm or muddy sound of an old set of strings.
For some guitarists, this is a welcome change and big upgrade in tone.
For other guitarists who prefer a warmer tone, the metallic or tinny sound you get with new strings sounds bad.
If you have just changed your guitar strings and you don’t like the metallic tone, don’t worry. As you play, your strings will break in and they will gradually lose the metallic sound.
Different guitar string metals and coatings impact how new strings sound, so there may be different types of strings that suit you better.
Low Action Height
If your guitar sounds tinny with a bit of twang of buzzing, it may be due to the strings vibrating against the frets as you play.
It’s possible for your guitar to sound tinny on only certain parts of the fretboard or strings, or across the entire fretboard.
If your guitar strings are hitting the other frets when you strum the strings, it means the action height is too low.
As the above photo shows, the action height is the distance between the guitar string and the frets.
A low action height is when your guitar strings are closer to the frets. When the action height is too low, the strings will vibrate against the other frets when you play something.
This can make your guitar sound tinny as the vibration changes the way your guitar sounds.
If you notice your strings buzz or vibrate in a strange way when you strum them, you may want to check your action height.
Pedal or Amp Settings
If you play electric guitar, one of the reasons why you may hear a tinny sound is due to your pedal or amp settings.
Do you notice a tinny sound when only certain pedals are turned on? Or is the tinny sound there all the time?
If you notice your guitar sounds tinny when only certain pedals are turned on, look for a tone knob or anything that changes the tone.
For example, changing the tone knob in the above pedal can completely change how your guitar sounds. Some tone knobs can change your tone from completely tinny-sounding to a muddy mess, so experiment with your pedals and learn what each knob does.
If you want to learn how to get different guitar tones from pedals, check out my Guitar Effects Course. The course teaches you everything you need to know about all types of effects as well as how to dial in different tones with your guitar amp.
If the tinny sound is there all the time, it may be due to your guitar amp settings.
Some guitar amps have more controls than others, but most should have EQ knobs, which can create a tinny sound if not used properly.
Read my guide on Guitar Amp Settings to learn everything you need to know about dialing in tones with your guitar amp.
Some guitar pickups are designed to produce a thick and warm guitar tone, while others are designed to produce a twangy or tinny sound.
For example, the two below guitars will sound completely different mainly due to the type of pickups used:
The guitar on the left uses single-coil pickups, which can produce a thinner tone compared to the humbucker pickups on the guitar on the right.
The cheaper the guitar, the more likely the pickups will be low quality and can produce a tinny sound.
I’ve had students come in with cheap eBay guitars that had an awful tinny sound as a result of cheap pickups.
If you’re not sure whether your pickups are creating the tinny sound, take your guitar to a guitar store and try it out on one of their guitar amps. If it still sounds tinny and you aren’t using brand new strings, you know it’s the pickups.
If your guitar sounds tinny due to the pickups, you have two options. You can either buy a different guitar, or you can buy different pickups and swap them.
The most common time I’ve heard complaints about a tinny guitar sound is when trying to record guitar into a PC or Mac.
If your guitar sounds fine when played through your guitar amp, but you get a tinny sound when you try to record it on your PC, then the first thing to do is to take a look at what hardware you’re using to record.
If you’re plugging your guitar into your computer’s mic input jack (shown below) using an adapter, you’re guaranteed to get a tinny sound.
Don’t try to record your guitar by plugging into a jack like in the above photo.
To record your guitar, you need to make sure you use a proper audio interface or an amp/pedal with USB recording capability.
If you are using a decent audio interface or pedal/amp with USB output, take a look at your recording settings.
The settings you use on your audio interface as well as the settings in your DAW will play a big part in the quality of your recorded guitar tone.
Read my tutorials on how to record guitar with different DAWs to learn to properly set up your audio settings.
Guitar Sounds Muddy
A muddy guitar tone is one of the most common issues and most of the time it’s easy to fix.
There are so many reasons why you may have a muddy sounding guitar. The most common reasons for a muddy guitar sound are having your guitar’s tone knob is turned down too far, using old guitar strings, or your amp’s EQ knobs are set wrong.
Let’s go through some of the common reasons for a muddy guitar sound.
Almost all guitars have at least one tone knob. Some guitars have two tone knobs – one for the neck pickup and one for the bridge pickup.
Try turning your tone knob (or both if you have two) all the way down and listen to your guitar.
If your guitar tone knob isn’t numbered, turn them anti-clockwise all the way until it stops.
You’ll hear that it becomes muddy and loses any brightness in your tone.
Turn the tone knobs all the way clockwise to restore your normal bright tone.
This might seem like an obvious fix, but I’ve seen it quite a few times where guitarists were pulling their hair out trying to figure out what was wrong with their guitar tone, only to discover their tone knob was turned down.
Old Guitar Strings
As you play your guitar, the oil and grime in your fingertips transfer to your guitar strings. The strings gradually wear down over time and change their tone.
You might be surprised by how much dirt and oil transfers from your fingers to the guitar strings.
The below photo shows how much grime I removed from my guitar strings after wiping them down with a cloth.
Now imagine if you never clean your strings and let this grime continue to build up.
You may not notice this change as you play, but they do change.
Eventually, your strings will become dull and muddy sounding.
Keeping your guitar strings clean will extend their life and prevent them from sounding muddy too early.
If your guitar strings do sound muddy, try changing to a new set. You’ll know straight away whether the muddy tone was a result of old strings or whether the problem is elsewhere.
Amp or Pedal Settings
If you use any pedals or a guitar amp, check the EQ or tone knobs.
Any one of these tone or EQ knobs could contribute to a muddy guitar sound.
The tone knobs in your guitar pedals are very similar to the tone knob on your guitar. If you turn the knob down, you’re likely to end up with a muddy or dull tone.
On your guitar amp, the most important knobs to check are the treble or presence knobs. These knobs impact the higher frequency ranges and can produce a muddy sound when they’re turned down too low.
Learn more about EQ and setting up your guitar tone in my Guitar Effects Course.
Another reason you may hear a muddy tone is if you have recently switched to a very low guitar tuning.
For example, if you’ve tuned down to something like Drop-B tuning, you may notice that your guitar sounds muddier than normal.
Low guitar tunings can sound muddy when your guitar pickups weren’t designed with low tunings in mind.
One of the reasons some guitarists prefer to use 7 or 8 string guitars is because the pickups are designed to properly handle the lower frequencies you get with low tunings.
A guitar like the below example will do a far better job at dealing with low tunings than a normal 6-string guitar.
The good news is that there are plenty of pickups you can buy for 6-string guitars that are designed to properly handle low tunings.
Alternatively, you may want to try changing to a heavier string gauge, which will help avoid the issues of tuning a normal gauge set of strings down too far.
If your guitar strings feel slack or have a flabby sound, changing to a heavier gauge will tighten up your guitar tone.
You may also want to read this guide on guitar scale length and how it relates to low tunings. Scale length becomes important to understand when you tune your guitar down.
Guitar Sounds Out of Tune
If your guitar sounds bad because it sounds out of tune, there can be a few causes that you can easily fix.
The first thing to do before looking at the possible reasons is to tune your guitar up as perfectly as possible.
Use a good quality guitar tuner and tune your guitar up. It will be hard to figure out the problem without a good guitar tuner.
Here’s how to find out what is causing your tuning problems:
Now, check your guitar’s intonation by fretting the 12th fret and checking the tuning.
The 12th fret is the same note as the open string an octave higher, so any guitar tuner should be able to test this.
If your open string is perfectly in tune but the 12th fret is out of tune, that’s a result of bad intonation.
This means your guitar will sound out-of-tune when you play it – even if you perfectly tune your guitar.
If your guitar uses a tremolo and you regularly use your tremolo arm or whammy bar, it’s likely that it’s causing your guitar to slip out of tune.
The above photo shows two common types of tremolos. The one of the left is a Floyd Rose and the one on the right is a standard tremolo.
Floyd Rose tremolos generally have far greater tuning stability compared to standard tremolos.
So if you use your tremolo arm often and you’re playing on a standard tremolo, then expect your guitar to go out of tune.
While there are things you can buy to help prevent this such as better quality saddles (check out these string saver saddles by Graph Tech), there’s only so much you can do.
Cheaper guitars that have a tremolo that looks like a Floyd Rose may also have serious tuning stability issues.
If you play a style of music where you use the tremolo bar often, you might want to consider using a double-locking tremolo system.
If you notice that only certain guitar strings go out of tune when you play, then the likely cause is string slippage.
There are three things to look at if you think your guitar strings may be slipping out of tune: string trees, machine heads, and the bridge.
On your guitar’s headstock, check if it has any string trees as shown below:
On the above guitar, you can see there are two string trees over the higher four strings.
Sometimes, the strings can get caught on the string trees instead of sliding freely, which can cause them to suddenly slip and go out-of-tune at any time.
For example, on an old Ibanez I have, bending the G string causes the string to slip on the string tree and fall out of tune.
To check if your string trees are causing the string to slip, tune your guitar, then bend each string separately and immediately check if the tuning has slipped.
You may even hear the string slip as you bend the string.
If the string tree is causing your tuning issues, you can either replace them with a higher quality tree or lubricate them.
Tuning issues due to the bridge or machine heads are harder to fix. Lower priced guitars tend to use lower quality parts, which means you end up with lower tuning stability.
If you’re a beginner or an intermediate guitarist and you’re suddenly noticing your guitar is constantly out-of-tune, it might be a sign that you’ve outgrown your guitar and are ready for something higher quality.
Guitar Sounds Weird
The chances are you will be able to figure out what is wrong with your guitar from the above advice.
But sometimes your guitar might sound weird due to other causes.
It can be hard to pinpoint the issue if you’re not sure what you’re hearing.
If your guitar sounds weird but you can’t tell what is causing it, I recommend going through all of the above advice. Try checking your intonation, action height, tuning stability, and all the other above points to check everything.
If it still sounds weird, it may be a wiring or electrical issue. Maybe the issue is with your guitar amp, guitar cable, or something is causing electrical interference.
The more you learn about the gear you use, the easier it becomes in solving weird guitar issues.
Check out my Guitar Effects and Tone Course to learn more about guitar pedals and amp tones.