There is just no sound like an electric guitar. From wild feedback to massive distortion and endless canyons of delays and echoes – a shortage of otherworldly noises tends not to be an issue. All noises aren’t necessarily desirable though.
Unwanted noise can disrupt your practice, waste studio time or even ruin a gig. So, how do we keep the noises we like and preserve our tone while removing the unwanted noise?
Well, you first have to determine where that noise is coming from. This is often easily done through some basic troubleshooting. Once you’ve diagnosed the root cause, you can then take the necessary actions to remove that unwanted noise.
In this article, we’re going to cover what you need to know to rid your electric guitar, amp and signal chain from that snap, crackle and hum.
Amplifiers can store potentially lethal levels of electricity, even when turned off and unplugged. It’s highly recommended that you have a technician handle anything that involves opening the chassis. Always unplug and wait for capacitors to discharge before making repairs. Never touch the amplifier with both hands while the chassis is open. A lethal dose of electric current could travel between your arms and stop your heart. Use the “one hand in your pocket rule”, using just one hand when working on a powered amp.
Guitar Noise Reduction – Diagnosis
We’ve established the fact that electric guitar noise can be a major problem for many guitarists. Identifying, diagnosing, and fixing the problem can especially be a headache for those less experienced guitarists.
However, even the most seasoned guitarist might not understand the basic principle of what makes their guitar work. This doesn’t even take into account issues that pertain to your amp and effects.
There are a handful of common sources of guitar noise. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to divide the types of guitar-related noises into two basic categories, which relate directly to your first step in diagnosing the problem.
- Unwanted noise when your guitar is plugged in.
- Unwanted noise from your amp, when nothing is plugged in.
If there is an annoying buzz or hum coming out of your amp with nothing plugged in, that means your problem likely lies in your amp.
Problems with your amp would include things like:
- Poor EQ or Gain Settings (Feedback)
- Bad Tubes
- Interference from other electronic devices
- Dust or dirt inside electronic components
- Speaker cable
After ruling out your amp you should bypass all effects, by plugging straight in. If you’ve now introduced a problem that wasn’t present with the amp alone, it can only be one of two things – the guitar or your instrument cable.
Problems that persist only while plugged in include:
- Poor grounding
- Bad or damaged instrument or patch cables
- 60-cycle hum
- Ground Loop Hum
- Faulty effects pedals
If you’re able to rule out your guitar and cable, now introduce other items that might be in your effects chain. Start adding effects pedals and any other components until the problem arises.
Unwanted noise from your pedalboard might involve:
- Problems with power sources
- Dirty or loose potentiometers in the pedals
- Bad patch cables or connections
So, let’s say your problem is the amp? What next?
Guitar Amp Humming When Nothing Is Plugged In?
If you’re experiencing humming from your amplifier with absolutely nothing plugged in, then you’ve at least established it’s likely coming from the amp itself.
Of course, it should go without saying that it is very dangerous to work on guitar amplifiers if you are not an experienced professional. Even when amplifiers are completely unplugged from the power outlet, the capacitors can still hold a charge for quite a while.
That being said, many times that won’t be necessary. You very well may be able to resolve unwanted amp noise without ever touching a screwdriver. We’re going to focus on those issues in this article.
Gain And EQ Settings
Let’s start with the simplest of potential solutions. All amplifiers produce some noise. The level of noise is referred to as the amps noise floor. High gain amps are going to naturally produce more noise than low gain amps.
Take that and add all the other potential noise factors (which we’ll also discuss). Now, turning up the gain will increase the input signal and amplify that noise. Many guitarists use more gain than is actually necessary to achieve a desired effect without actually realizing it.
On a clean channel, you should be able to run the volume from 0 to 10 and back without much noise in the signal. If there is noise, check and see if your EQ settings are dimed.
Aside from producing a background hum or buzz, too much gain can produce feedback. So can too much treble (especially with lower bass settings). You’ll need to experiment, and when in doubt, try boosting your mids after backing off the gain and treble settings.
Bad Speaker Cable
If you have a stack, you’ll definitely have a cable connecting your amp unit to the speaker cab. Even a lot of combo amps will have a 1/4″ speaker cable, possibly splitting off into wire where it meets the speaker.
Make sure that you’re using a well shielded speaker cable. You CAN NOT substitute an instrument cable for a speaker cable! Not only will you have bad audio, you might even damage your amp.
Nomater what kind of connection runs between your amp and speaker(s), it must be well shielded and in good repair.
If you’re using a tube amp, the tubes are another component group that can cause problems. Bad tubes can make themselves apparent in several ways.
In terms of audio, you might hear a hissing sound, a badly distorted signal, experience a loss of head room, or a reduction in volume for instance. Learn to check to see if they are functioning properly in this article by The Tube Store.
Dirty Power and 60 Cycle Hum
If you’re getting an exorbitant amount of hum from your amp, with nothing plugged in, then it can sometimes be a bad or cheaply made power supply.
Your amplifier’s power supply of your amplifier is ultimately tasked with converting AC voltage into clean DC power. Cheaper amps will often have poorly designed power supplies. Components in your power supply can also go bad.
Filter capacitors in your power supply may need to be replaced, especially in an older amp. This can cause lots of noise, including 60 Cycle Hum*. Another issue could arise if your amps audio components aren’t properly shielded from the mains power. That can also cause a 60 Cycle hum.
If you’re expecting faulty or dirty power to be the issue, try things like replacing the power cable first. Try plugging the amp in another location. Anything you can do to narrow it down on your own before taking it into the shop.
If it turns out to be coming from the building’s bad wiring, you can always try a power conditioner. Check the next section also for possible environmental interferences.
Assuming you’ve tried everything else, you’ll definitely want to bring it in to a professional for power supply repairs.
* We’ll be covering more likely sources of 60 cycle hum below, along with a better understanding of the phenomenon.
Electronic Device Interference
As with your guitar, your amp could be experiencing electronic device interference. Your guitar amplifier could be affected by anything from mobile phones to fluorescent lights. Your amplifier might even pick up radio waves!
One way to troubleshoot this problem is to adjust the placement of the amplifier in the room. Try moving it away from lights and other electrical devices.
Finally, the problems with your amplifier might be caused by dusty components on the inside. Dirty wires, circuits, and potentiometers can all wreak havoc on a good, clean guitar signal.
A good can of contact cleaner or some compressed air could potentially solve this problem for you (you’ll find our contact cleaner recommendation below). However, be cautious if you’re planning to open the amp’s casing. If in doubt, take it to a licensed technician!
If Your Electric Guitar Is Buzzing When Plugged In
If you’ve ruled out the amplifier as being your unwanted noise culprit, next we’ll check your guitar. An electric guitar normally has a slight amount of buzz or hum when plugged in, especially with single-coil pickups.
A certain amount of background noise is generally unavoidable and tolerated by many guitarists, as your playing will cancel out the background noise. Amateure guitarists often need to learn to mute the strings during rests and cut the volume to zero between songs.
Another handy tool when playing live is to engage your tuning pedal in between songs. Most tuning pedals will silence your signal when in tuning mode.
However, if there is an unreasonable amount of noise that sounds unnaturally loud or annoying, it will then be necessary to explore some of these possible problems.
Before you even get into troubleshooting your guitar, you should check to make sure you don’t have a faulty cable. Instrument cables do not last forever, and some aren’t built well or with proper shielding. The sad fact is, as with most things, you do get what you pay for with guitar cables.
A bad cable can mean the difference between an awesome performance or recording and a complete flop. Fortunately, you can quickly tell this by swapping out a couple of cables and seeing if you’re still experiencing the problem.
If you’re in search of a crystal clear-sounding, high-quality cable we usually recommend trying the Mogami Gold Cables (found here on Amazon). You’d be surprised what a difference a great cable can make.
That being said, not everyone can shell out more than $20 for a guitar cable. They’re also not going to fix issues that didn’t lie within the cable in the first place. Also, check soldering joints at the connector section of your current cable. If you’re electronically inclined, you can use a soldering iron to repair damaged jacks in cables relatively easily.
Editor’s Note: It’s worth learning how to coil your cables properly to preserve the insulation. Whatever you do, don’t fold cables into long loops and then knot them!
Guitar Ground Noise
A solid ground connection is a crucial part of your guitar’s internal wiring. Essentially, the guitar’s ground wiring connects all internal electrical components and your bridge, then returns that signal to your amplifier. From there, that connection will be sent to earth ground.
While an improperly grounded amp could kill you (in a worst-case scenario), the guitar’s wiring isn’t likely to lead to death or serious injury (aside from freak accidents involving other factors). Mostly, it’s going to help remove unwanted noise. It’s an absolute necessity though.
A good way to tell is to touch your guitar strings and see if the noise is reduced. If it does, then your guitar is actually grounded properly.
There are some straightforward ways to solve grounding issues with your guitar. If you are interested in fixing the problem yourself, you should invest in a multimeter. A multimeter is a tool used to measure electric current, voltage, and resistance. You can use the multimeter to locate bad grounding connections inside your guitar.
Opening the body cavity of your guitar and carefully removing the output jack, will expose all your wiring and solder joints. Many grounding issues will immediately become obvious. Look for loose wires or broken solder joints especially.
Ground Loop Hum
Just like your guitar has a grounding component, so too does your amplifier. Oftentimes, especially when a guitarist (or other musician) has two amplifiers plugged in, your noise may be a result of Ground Loop Hum.
What Is Ground Loop Hum?
Ground Loop hum is a 60-cycle hum that occurs when one or more devices in the same audio signal chain have multiple paths to earth ground. For instance, running a 2 amp setup with each amp plugged into a separate outlet.
Another situation, providing the same result, is when guitarists aren’t providing clean dedicated power to their effects chain. You should either use 9-volt batteries or purchase a quality dedicated power supply specifically for pedalboards. Whatever you do, steer away from power blocks that daisy chain your pedals together.
Some people will recommend “lifting the ground” using a 3-to-2 prong AC adapter. This is very dangerous! We do, however, recommend a hum eliminator device (see bottom of article) specifically for ground loop issues.
There are also ground lift switches on some amplifiers which can help quite a bit. These are wired properly for the task, so it doesn’t pose the same risk as an after-market ground lift device.
Note: As a forewarning and not to confuse you – we’ll be talking about other sources of 60 cycle hum (other than ground loop hum) during this article. Just understand that 60 cycle hum can result in multiple problems with multiple solutions, but the cause is ultimately the same. Its source is the 60 Hz frequency of electricity coming from the surrounding AC power.
Guitar Crackling and Popping Noises
Aside from a hum or hissing sound, if you hear crackling or popping noises, they could also be ground-related. There may be an alternative diagnosis, though.
If the crackling sound seems to be more centered around turning your volume or tone knobs, you may have a dirty or faulty potentiometer. If it happens when you wiggle your cable end closest to the guitar jack, then you’re probably be looking at an issue with your jack.
These are very common issues, especially with older instruments. Fortunately, they are also relatively easy to fix. Chances are, crackling potentiometers can be quickly cleaned with an electrical contact cleaner (found below).
A bad output jack may be just a poor connection. If not, it’s an easy and quick replacement. Also, a great first repair on your guitar if you’re looking to try your hand at soldering.
Sometimes, just bending the contact points inside the guitar jack toward the center of where the cable is inserted will do the trick.
60 Cycle Hum
We briefly touched on 60 cycle hum in the above section on ground loops. A ground loop isn’t the only thing that can produce this though. We’re going to cover this a little more broadly now and how it relates directly to your guitar.
So, What Is 60 Cycle Hum?
60-cycle hum (or mains hum) occurs when your audio signal is affected by the AC current in your surrounding environment. AC current in North and South America produces a frequency of 60 Hz, hence the name “60 cycle hum”. Europe and many other parts of the world produce a frequency of 50 Hz, but it is still often referred to as a 60-cycle hum.
This environmental AC current doesn’t play well with your audio signal. Always make sure to keep your power cords as far apart as possible from your audio cables. The amount and types of electrical devices in your room will also play a role. Often, you’ll notice a big difference if you just point your guitar away from room lighting.
Hum Elimination – Pickups and Shielding
Your number one scenario where some mains hum will become unavoidable is with single-coil pickups. Proper shielding in the body cavity of your guitar can mitigate a lot of this. This is why you’ll usually find Strat-style guitars to have shielded pickguards and body cavities.
Without proper shielding or isolation, the AC current radiating from your surroundings will interfere with the electric current moving through your guitar, creating a hum. That 60-cycle hum is then amplified over and over as it travels from your guitar amp and back through the guitar in a continuous cycle.
Humbuckers work to cancel (or “buck”) annoying hum. They do this by alternating the poles of 2 separate coiled magnets, effectively canceling out unwanted magnetic interference.
This isn’t to say that you can’t get some unwanted noise, but humbuckers are much quieter in this regard. You would still benefit from proper shielding in your pot and switch cavities. Some guitarists will still even shield their humbucker cavities.
Try Using An EQ To Eliminate Guitar Hum
When all else fails, try using an EQ to eliminate unwanted hum. Try especially cutting out frequencies at 60 Hz, 120 Hz, and even experimenting with 180 Hz (harmonic frequency intervals of 60 Hz).
Even with humbucking pickups canceling out 60 Hz, you may still get some noise in the 120 Hz and 180 Hz range. You’ll want to use a tight notch High EQ with the narrowest Q possible. Although, with a guitar, anything below 120 Hz or even 150 Hz is pretty useless. Especially, if you’re playing with a bass player also.
Bass players can usually cut all frequencies below 50 Hz but can consider cutting everything under 60 Hz in an effort to eliminate noise. Alternatively, you can also use a high-pass filter set to the respective settings.
Once you find a sweet spot, check your guitar’s tone to make sure you’re not sacrificing anything you can’t live with.
Quick Tip: To test if your pickups are being affected by an electrical source, try turning your body (and thus the guitar) to the side. If your pickups are causing the problem, there’ll be 2 positions 180 degrees opposite of each other where the buzz stops.
Noiseless pickups are a potential option when searching for a remedy to guitar noise, including 60-cycle hum. Noiseless single-coil pickups are essentially constructed by stacking two single-coil pickups on top of one another. This stacked configuration cancels out the electric hum in much the same way that humbucking pickups do.
You can find single-coil noiseless pickups in some Fender guitars or you can purchase them aftermarket. Many guitarists will argue that noiseless pickups just don’t have the organic sound that traditional single coils have. They certainly don’t sound the same, but it’s not a deal-breaker for a lot of people.
In my personal opinion, it’s not that they don’t sound “good”, it’s just not the tone I would be going for. I fall into the category of working to mitigate noise with traditional methods and living with the remaining hum of traditional single-coils.
Active pickups are another solution if you’re looking for reduced hum and maximum clarity. These are made from low-wound magnetic coils that send your signal through a built-in preamp that boosts the signal level and applies several filters.
These low-wound pickups are less susceptible to outside electric interference than passive pickups are. They are generally much “hotter” though with higher output due to the boost in current from the internal preamp.
People will argue for days about the sound of active pickups vs passive pickups. Many guitarists will say that active pickups are sterile sounding and wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole. A lot of metal players live by them though.
The funny thing is, they produce crystal clear clean sounds as well as heavy distortion with minimal noise. And there are many famous guitarists outside of the metal genres who’ve used them (for instance David Gilmour). That being said, I fall into the passive pickup club myself.
If you decide to go this route, just keep in mind that active pickups rely on battery power. You will need to make sure you either unplug your guitar every time you are done playing and keep spare batteries with you.
There is nothing worse than being on a gig and having your guitar stop working because it ran out of batteries!
Troubleshooting Noise In Your Effects Chain
The final kink in the chain of diagnosing your guitar noise problems could lie in your effects chain. We now know, though, that your guitar, amp and main instrument cable have been assessed. Deduction tells us that your issue then has to lie somewhere between your guitar’s instrument cable and the amp in your signal chain.
We touched on this in the ground loop hum section, but make sure that you’re using clean and dedicated power for your effects chain. If you’re using a daisy-chained power supply, you’ll have to scrap it. Bottom line.
(We recommend using Voodoo Labs Pedal Power isolated power supplies for maximum clarity and dependable power.)
Whichever power supply you end up choosing, make sure to check all your pedals’ current types (likely DC), voltage rating, polarity and amperage. Many pedal power banks will have 9V,12V and even 18v adaptor ports. Make sure to plug into the correct slot.
If you’re using 9V batteries, make sure they are all in well-charged working order. Lastly, always make sure you have backups.
While you’ve tested your guitar cable, we still need to test out your other patch cables though. Start with your cable which runs from your pedalboard or (effects processor) and your amp. Plug that from your guitar directly into the amp.
Remember, you can use a multimeter to check each cable if you have one at your disposal. At this point, I would also bring up that the shorter your patch cables are the better. The longer your patch cables are, the more opportunity for electrical interference and loss of signal.
Once we’ve determined that this cable is good, we need to test all your smaller patch cables. If you’ve been able to eliminate all of them as being faulty, then you only have one option left. There must be an issue with one of your pedals.
Isolating Pedals To Troubleshoot Unwanted Noise
It’s less likely that mains hum is being caused by a faulty pedal itself, but there are noise issues that can arise. Unless you’re using a multi-effects pedal, you’ll need to isolate each pedal one by one to see which one is causing the issue.
Once you’ve targeted the problem pedal, you can go ahead and plug everything else in and test it out. Assuming you’ve located the problem, you should have a good clean signal now.
Depending on the pedal, you can decide whether to take it to a repair shop, buy a new one or repair it yourself. If it’s a cheap pedal and worth the gamble for you, a multimeter and soldering iron could possibly help you find a simple issue. It isn’t abnormal for someone to drop a pedal and damage a solder joint.
Guitar Pedal Crackling Noises
It isn’t at all uncommon for a guitar pedal to begin making a crackling, popping or static noise. Like cables and guitar potentiometers, pedal jacks can become loose, damaged or dirty.
Fortunately, these fixes are also relatively simple. You can usually test your input and output jacks by wiggling the inserted cord back and forth at the junction. If you hear a crackling sound, you may have found your issue. You might need to fix the solder joint to the jack or replace it altogether.
Wiggle your tone/volume pots as well. If your problem seems to be coming from there, you may be able to fix that with some contact cleaner (found below).
A popular choice to tame amplifier and guitar noise, particularly among metal and hard rock players, is to add a noise suppressor or noise gate to their pedal chain.
Noise gate pedals set a baseline level for noise. When your guitar signal passes above a certain threshold, the pedal allows the signal to pass. When the signal passes back under the threshold, the pedal blocks the signal.
The idea is that you set the threshold just above the level of your background noise. Usually, anything you’d play will come in above that volume level allowing you to completely eliminate this problem.
Keep in mind, that most people will tell you to make this your last resort. It’s a popular opinion among many that the natural integrity of your tone is better preserved without a noise gate. If you’re playing high gain metal, you’ll likely own one already.
Recommended Products For Noise Reduction
|Top||ISP Technologies Decimator II G String Noise Suppressor Pedal||Prime||View On Amazon|
|MXR M135 Smart Gate Noise Gate Effects Pedal BUNDLE with AC/DC Adapter Power Supply for 9 Volt DC 1000mA, 2 Metal-Ended Guitar Patch Cables AND 6 Dunlop Guitar Picks||Prime||View On Amazon|
|Furman Power Conditioner (SS6B) black||Prime||View On Amazon|
|Ebtech Hum X - Plug-Style AC Voltage Ground Loop Hum Eliminator + Cleaning Cloth||Prime||View On Amazon|
|Copper Foil Tape (2inch X 33 FT) with Conductive Adhesive for Guitar and EMI Shielding, Crafts, Electrical Repairs, Grounding||Prime||View On Amazon|
|Hosa D5S-6 CAIG DeoxIT 5% Spray Contact Cleaner, 5 oz.||Prime||View On Amazon|
Annoying hums, noises, crackles, and pops happen to every guitarist at some point along the way. They are a natural part of playing the electric guitar. Learning some of the basic problems that can cause unwanted guitar noise will go a long way.
Most of these problems are easily fixable without major technical knowledge. But, make sure to leave the heavy jobs to the pros! The last thing you want is to discharge the capacitor of your tube amp into your internal organs. Especially in the name of saving a few bucks.
We’d like to thank Jay Stapley for his expertise and consultation on this article. Jay has spent 4 decades in London’s music industry as a writer, musician, audio engineer, and studio owner. He’s worked with artists such as Roger Waters, Mike Oldfield, Suede, Scott Walker and many more. Check out his website for more info at jaystapley.co.uk.