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I have been playing the electric guitar for over ten years now, and this is an issue that has been troubling me for ages.

Whenever I play hi-gain songs and have to switch fretting hand positions quickly (there is no time to lift fingers from the fretboard and replace them somewhere else without touching the strings), my fingers sliding over the strings make an awful lot of scratching/squeaking/hissing noises. It's something you usually hear on acoustic guitars as well but when playing hi-gain electric the noise can be so loud it gets really problematic, it sounds very sloppy indeed.

Obviously, playing accurately is essential, and when playing slowly it's usually possible to lift your fingers off of the fretboard quietly when switching positions but at shredding speeds when there is too little time I really don't see how to avoid this.

My picking hand causes some of these noises as well but I think the problem there is playing too cramped when playing fast and having a tendency to rest my hand on the strings too much.

My favourite guitar players seem not to have this problem, even when hearing them perform live, so I assume it is possible to avoid this using proper technique. I know using too much gain will make noise uncontrollable but I'm not one to turn the gain knob to 10 at all. Hearing guys like John Petrucci play at lightning speed with no unwanted noise at all - even when using an extremely aggressive hi-gain tone - baffles me quite a bit.

How do they avoid or minimise these unwanted noises?

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How often do you play loud volume/high gain? This is definitely a skill that is "picked up" over time, and playing in that kind of environment will help you out.

One definitely needs to "learn" to play loud. If that makes sense.

It can be tackled a few thousand different ways, as I'm sure we'll see in the answers here but what has worked for me is muting, since inevitably, we'll have problems with strings being ever-so-slightly plucked as you try to quickly lift your fingers off of them.

So learning to mute can be taken from a few different angles.

This assumes you're playing right-handed guitar. Easily think in reverse if this assumption is not true.

  • Left Hand

Assuming you've been playing for some time now (which you have) I can assume you're left hand is pretty good with muting. It may even be subconscious, but you'll need to make sure that an unintended glissando is not apparent (moving up or down the neck on a single string) in your playing. An easy way to work on this is playing at stage volume (whatever you consider that being) and really focusing on what's happening between the parts you're playing where a position switch is necessary. It may even be beneficial to record a few sessions and listening to the extraneous noise you encounter so you can focus on when and where it happens.

The other muting most of us are used to is the left hand finger's muting the strings as you lay them down. This is picked up pretty easily with enough volume and gain in practice, but it's always good to see how the interaction between horizontal (sliding) and vertical (laying down hand/muting) positioning works, and if there's any minimize-able gaps between these.

  • Right Hand

The right hand was really the Eureka moment for me as I started to play louder amplifiers, since we'll inevitably get finger/string noise. I practice a combination of left and right hand muting to really get a noise-free (or, as much as possible) performance and find a sweet mix of technique to properly play high gain.

With the right hand, you can easily rotate your wrist out towards the audience and get a nice fatty, fleshy (hate those words - better adjectives for that?) part of your right hand on the strings. Depending on where you pick most of your time, this will be more or less effective with either a full-stop mute, or a palm-muted sort of sound. The goal is to come up more on the string to effectively mute the noise you'll get from the string being amplified 10,000 times. I've found that with practice between this and the left hand traditional styles of muting, a lot of gain and volume can be played and still come out "cleanly".

  • Gear

A noise gate or compressor with a threshold can help slightly, assuming you have the cut-off point set well enough. The noise gate will allow you to "tune-out" some of this noise with proper muting technique applied, but it can have an overall "choppy" sound to it. The compressor will work in reverse of this, but bring up the overall volume of sound that's not the string noise making it a bit less apparent. But you really shouldn't focus entirely on this solution as it's gear-dependent, especially since you've admitted you're not playing with extreme high gain.

This is out of left field, but how often are you changing strings? Dirty strings can have more funk on them, making them a bit rougher and allowing perpendicular vibration to happen more easily (think of a violin bow across a violin's strings). A newer set of strings are "slick" and inherently allow you to slide across them more easily; you'll find the noise as you move across them lower than an older set that has maybe started to corrode or "die". If you find that your technique can not be improved, a look at the strings and their state of affairs may be in order. We're talking about unwound strings, but this even slightly applies to wound (although some may make the argument that gunk in the wound strings makes them smoother).


It's important to understand that some of this sound is intended, and subconsciously requested by many. It keeps you from sounding like a keyboard and that's a good thing. Acoustic guitarists can't always get away from this sound, and it's better to embrace it at times.

However, I understand the likeness of this sound is bipolar. Either people can't stand guitar because of it (and don't even realize that's the sound they hate) or can't get enough of it. It's good to find a nice mix of silence and this human aspect of playing the instrument. I mean, pick slides are the reason a lot of guitarists picked up the instrument in the first place!

P.S.

My picking hand causes some of these noises as well but I think the problem there is playing too cramped when playing fast and having a tendency to rest my hand on the strings too much.

...You definitely should learn to relax your hand if you intend on playing for a long time. It allows you to mute strings a bit easier, possible, but more importantly it's something too many guitarist don't focus on until it's too late.

  • 1
    +1 If I had answered this, I would have written something similar and also added that you can roll the tone control off on the guitar a little bit and get high-end brightness from the distortion itself. I also would have mentioned string/finger lubricants as Rockin Cowboy did. – Todd Wilcox Jan 14 '16 at 19:19
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    Some really good suggestions here, I'll have to experiment with these. Strings are changed reasonably often – Asciiom Jan 15 '16 at 9:20
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I play acoustic guitar primarily but I do use a great deal of sliding on strings to emulate bends that I would do on an electric guitar - and I like to keep the string noise toned down a bit. Most of the string noise I get comes from the lateral movement of my fingers down the strings which can sound like sawing wood on the wound strings as my fingers run across the ridges.

You asked about ways to minimize the noise. Shawn has addressed this question with technique - and with modifications to the electrical signal. I will offer possible ways to reduce the noise based on what you can do with your strings.

Shawn makes an excellent and valid point about keeping fresh strings on your guitar. Beyond that - what works for me is coated strings. I use either Elixir or D'Adderio EXP. They make these for electric guitar as well and they really help cut down on string noise on the wound strings.

If you don't like coated strings you have two other options. I see many electric guitar players (myself included) use a product such as Finger Ease (see picture below) which does a great job of reducing string talk. It's a spray on string lubricant.

Finger Ease

Another thing I have done on stage if the Finger Ease was not accessible, is to actually get some oil off my forehead and rub it on the strings. It works - but I do change the strings often.

Finally - if you don't like coated strings and don't want to spray stuff on your fretboard or strings, you can use flat wound strings for your wound strings. You can't make them talk if you try. But it does affect your tone if used with clean settings. I have not really tried the flat wound with hi gain.

That's what I know. Hope you can use one of my ideas to reduce the noise. Perhaps others will share what has worked for them. Good luck.

  • I will try a product like that, very curious how strong the effect will be! – Asciiom Jan 15 '16 at 9:21
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    @JeroenMoons read the label carefully before you spray it on. And protect anything that might catch any overspray. You might even try spraying it on a soft cloth and then rubbing it on the strings. – Rockin Cowboy Jan 15 '16 at 19:42
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Flatwound strings

It's an extreme option to be sure, but flatwound strings have drastically reduced scraping noises compared to roundwound. It's in their very design. Rather than a rippled profile like with roundwound, the edge of flatwound strings is nearly flat, with tiny gaps between the windings. When very new, they may have a slight very high pitched squeak, but this usually fades as they wear-in.

Tapewound strings

If flatwounds are not extreme enough, then tapewound is the answer. All the wound strings are encased in a sheath of nylon/plastic. There is literally nothing to snag on rims of your fingerprints. It's smoooooth.

Both of these options will also radically change your overall tone. Notes will have more fundamental and fewer higher harmonics. So you may need to boost the treble quite a bit to get closer to a roundwound sound.

  • Also, if you go this route with flat wounds you'll need to make sure you wipe the strings off well before installing. Otherwise you'll be posting a question asking why your new strings are turning your fingers black. – user6164 Jan 15 '16 at 4:47
  • I don't remember having that problem. But I've been using tapewound for a while now. Some flats have a coating or plating that may wear off. – luser droog Jan 15 '16 at 4:49
  • I tried some Thomastiks for a while that had this. Then I switched to D'Addario and it seemed pretty bad. Nothing terrible, just something to remember. I'm sure the tape coating on tape wounds prevents this "grind off" from sticking to your fingers like bare flat wounds may. – user6164 Jan 15 '16 at 4:54
  • I don't use coated or flatwound strings except for my hollow body guitar. The problem is less apparent there because of that obviously. I will try some, but I still have the feeling the problem is technique mainly. Thanks for all your suggestions in any case, much appreciated! – Asciiom Jan 15 '16 at 9:23

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