Why Does My Acoustic Guitar Sound Bad?

Disappointed with the sound of your acoustic guitar? There may be something you can do about it. 

Your acoustic guitar will sound bad if the guitar isn’t in tune, or won’t stay in tune, the strings are old and sound dull, the guitar has poor intonation, or the neck relief and/or action is not sufficient to prevent fret buzz. If the relative humidity is very high, moisture absorption may also cause the guitar to sound muddy and less responsive.

In the following article, we’re going to look at some possible causes and provide some tips on how to improve a poor-sounding acoustic guitar. 

Why Acoustic Guitars Sound Bad

Identifying the Problem with a Poor Sounding Guitar:
Quick Fixes

While guitar tone is subjective, a bad-sounding guitar either sounds dulllacks clarity, sounds out of tunebuzzes and/or rattles, or lacks volume and sustain.

While many factors can impact the sound of an acoustic guitar, some are simple maintenance issues that are easier to fix than others. Before diving into some of the more complex causes responsible for a poor-sounding guitar look for easy wins (like those listed below) first:


Are you just expecting too much?

Old, Beat Up Guitar Top

‘Budget’ acoustic guitars will (in most cases) never sound ‘great’.

While there are exceptions, don’t expect as much from cheaper guitars compared to a more expensive guitar. There are reasons (workmanship, quality of materials, etc.) for the massive price differences between entry-level and premium acoustic guitars.

An obvious sign of a quality guitar is the inclusion of bone or tusq nuts and saddles and high-quality tuners.

Do you have the wrong guitar?

Acoustic Guitar Body Styles and Sizes

There are many things to consider when designing an acoustic guitar, as a result, some guitars are better suited to specific genres and styles of playing.

If you have the wrong guitar for the job the problem will be attributable to the size, body shape, or materials used to build the guitar.

For example, larger guitars (dreadnought’s, jumbo’s) sound louder when strummed, however, when playing more intimately e.g. fingerstyle, a smaller bodied guitar will have advantages in terms of responsiveness when played with the lighter touch of the fingers and being smaller will simply be more comfortable.

Solid Wood V Laminate
Solid wood is almost always used exclusively on higher-quality guitars and sounds superior to laminate top guitars. While laminate has some benefits in terms of resistance to humidity a laminate top simply isn’t as resonant.

Technique: Are you the problem?

The most common chords on guitar

You Are Not Pressing Down Hard Enough On The Fretboard

Practice increasing the amount of pressure you impart on the strings with your fingertips. Try to find a good balance, that allows for clean sounding notes without causing discomfort, or your fingers won’t cope over longer durations.

Your Fingers Are Positioned Too Far Back On The Fret

If you are fretting the note toward the rear of the fret e.g. closer to the preceding fret wire, the extra string length you are allowing for may result in fret buzz, (a metallic sound caused by the strings buzzing against the fret wires.

To address this problem don’t fret notes in the middle or rear of the fret. Adjust your finger position so your fingertip is closer to the fret you are playing.

You Are Not Fretting The Notes With Your Fingertips 

If you are fretting notes with the pad of your fingers and not your fingertips you are using a less defined area (this is where fat is deposited on the fingers). And, while it may feel more comfortable in the short-term, fretting notes in this way will result in poorly defined chords, making a huge difference to the sound emanating from your guitar.

Adjust your playing style to ensure you are fretting notes with your fingertips. To do this successfully in many cases will also mean adjusting your palm position to be closer to the underside of the guitar neck, allowing more room to position your fingers accordingly.

Your fingers may experience some discomfort initially, but if you play enough you will develop calluses on your fingertips which will help immensely.

Is the guitar in tune?

Accurate tuning is essential for a good-sounding guitar. If you are new to the guitar, you may not be tuning the guitar precisely. If so, get yourself a reliable digital tuner and learn how to use it.

Is The Guitar Going Out Of Tune?

Some tuning pegs can be adjusted (look for adjustment screws). If this isn’t the case you may need to consider taking the guitar in for repair or attempting to upgrade the tuning pegs yourself.

New guitar strings will also stretch when first installed causing tuning issues. Speaking of which….

Have you changed your strings recently?

New strings can make a world of difference to the sound of an acoustic guitar. Strings that have remained on a guitar for too long lose vibrancy, sound dull, and become less responsive.

When installing new strings, it is always best to tune the guitar to standard tuning and then stretch the individual strings carefully by pulling them away from the fretboard and releasing them. Repeat this for all strings and then tune the guitar again. You may need to repeat this step 4 – 5 times before the strings remain in tune.

Have You Experimented With Different Types Of Strings?

Your choice of string, including gauge, and winding material e.g. brass or bronze will have a big impact on tone and playability which indirectly affects tone.

Changing The Strings

The older the acoustic guitar, generally the better the tone but the same cannot be said for your strings. Old strings tend to lose their vibrancy and sound dull.

String Things To Consider

  • Strings will corrode if not played regularly.
  • If you don’t wash your hands regularly gunk will begin to build up impacting the energy and richness of sound the strings produce.
  • You may be using the wrong gauge of strings for your guitar.

A Word On String Brand And Gauge

The brand and gauge of strings you play with can also have a large impact on your tone. Some guitars are just better suited to specific brands of strings and it may take time and some experimentation to find the string brand and gauge that will get the very best out of your guitar.

Tommy Emmanuel (who knows a thing or two about acoustic guitars) believes every guitar has a unique tone that can be matched to specific strings, and who are we to disagree.


Have you tried a different pick?

While it’s one of the simplest changes you can make, considering the pick is the item that comes into direct contact with the strings, it is worth experimenting with different pick gauges, shapes, and materials.

How does the room sound?

The room you are playing in can have a huge impact on what you are hearing from your guitar. A muddy guitar sound can be attributable to sound reflections bouncing around a small room, consisting of flat, reflective surfaces, causing a build-up of low-end frequencies. Try moving closer to the center of the room, try a larger room, or consider acoustic treatment.

Does Your guitar sound muffled?

Humidity

If your guitar is kept in a humid environment e.g. absorbs too much moisture it may begin to sound muffled/muddy and lack note articulation as the wood expands.

Use a humidifier to maintain the humidity in the room you are storing your guitar in, or consider storing the guitar in its case.

Advanced Issues Affecting Poor Sounding Acoustic Guitars

If you have ruled out any of the items listed above, consider the following:

Poor Intonation

Does your guitar sound in tune in open chord position e.g. the first four frets but when you venture up the neck the notes sound sharp or flat?

In standard tuning, an open E string should be of the same value e.g. the same note (despite being a higher octave) as the E produced when playing the 12th fret. The difference here is one is an open string while playing the E at the 12th fret involves applying downward pressure and shortening the length of the string, subsequently increasing tension on the string.

This change in tension can result in a note sounding off when compared to the open string. As a result, having the action of your guitar set too high, meaning the string is pushed down from a greater height and subsequently has more tension applied, can introduce intonation issues.

How To Adjust Intonation

To adjust intonation on an acoustic guitar, you can adjust the truss rod which controls the degree of neck relief, make adjustments to the height of the saddle, or replace it with a compensated saddle. Essentially by doing either you are affecting the action (height of the strings from the fretboard) or the length of string able to vibrate which affects intonation.

Compensated saddle
Compensated Saddle

What’s a Compensated Saddle?
Compensated saddles feature grooves that change the point of contact for the string as it crosses the saddle. This results in a slight change of length and tension on the strings affected by the compensation, mostly the treble strings (E, B, and G strings).


Fixing Fret Buzz

Fret buzz is that annoying sound you hear when the strings of the guitar vibrate against the fret wires.

Fret buzz is often caused by a neck that is either too straight or bows outward, as the diagram below demonstrates.

Fret buzz

Low action may also be the cause. If adjusting your action and neck relief does not remove your unwanted fret buzz, the problem may be the frets themselves e.g. uneven frets, or loose frets are a combination of both.

If so, you will require the experience of a guitar repairer or luthier who can perform specialized fretwork e.g. fret levelingre-crowning, or in some cases refretting.

If unsure, a guitar setup will usually identify common issues such as these.

What is a Guitar Setup
Having your guitar set up by a qualified guitar technician usually involves restringing the guitar, checking the amount of relief in the neck, checking the intonation, inspecting the nut and saddle, and doing any work required as a result. You can click here to read more about the costs of having your guitar set up.

What is fret leveling?

Checking Fret Height with Fret Rocker

If your fret wires have worn on some frets more than others you will find they are not of the same height and fret buzz can develop.

You can identify uneven frets by removing the strings and adjusting the truss rod until the neck is straight (you may also find removing the tension of the strings does this also).

You can then measure the evenness of the frets using a steel rule and identify gaps above any of the fret wires against the underside of the steel rule.

Unless experienced you should not attempt to redress the frets yourself. However, identifying the issue itself is relatively simple. Click here to read more on identifying uneven frets.

Identifying Problems with The Nut

If your fret wires have worn on some frets more than others you will find they are not of the same height and fret buzz can develop.

You can identify uneven frets by removing the strings and adjusting the truss rod until the neck is straight (you may also find removing the tension of the strings does this also).

You can then measure the evenness of the frets using a steel rule and identify gaps above any of the fret wires against the underside of the steel rule.

Unless experienced you should not attempt to redress the frets yourself. However, identifying the issue itself is relatively simple. Click here to read more on identifying uneven frets.

Identifying Problems With The Nut

Do you know the materials your nut and saddle are constructed from?

When you consider the nut and saddle are the last points of contact for the strings, it makes sense that both influence the sound of your guitar. Nuts and saddles are constructed from either plastic, bone, Tusq, or graphite (and in some cases brass). The different materials available vary in quality relating to their density.

For example, plastic is less dense than either bone or graphite and as a result, less of the energy produced from the strings is transferred to the soundboard. If your guitar utilizes a plastic nut and saddle a relatively inexpensive upgrade you can make is to replace it with boneTusq, or graphite.

String Dampeners

If the nut slots have worn you can purchase a dedicated string dampener, or wrap a band of soft material e.g. a thick hairband around the strings on the headstock side of the nut. This will muffle the strings and reduce the amount of string vibration against the nut if the slots are worn.

Electric guitar players such as Guthrie Govan use this method. If the nut is very worn, you will need to install a new nut. If you haven’t done this before you may be better served to have a professional perform the task for you.

Replacing The Nut

If you plan on replacing the nut yourself, take your time and tap the nut with minimal force until the glue seal is broken and the nut is loose. Use a piece of timber to cushion the impact and be careful not to pull the nut up from the headstock until the glue seal is broken. When ordering a new nut, be sure to measure the width of the nut you have removed as nut width can vary quite a bit on acoustic guitars.

Fixing Hardware Rattles

There is nothing more annoying than a guitar that has a rattle that you cannot identify. Remember, acoustic guitars essentially work on vibrational energy and resonance. So anything loose on the guitar may also vibrate, resulting in the dreaded rattle sound.

While some reasons for this may be obvious e.g. there is a crack in the guitar body, other causes can be far more difficult to identify e.g. a loose truss rod nut or a loose battery compartment if your guitar is an acoustic-electric.

Loose Tuners Causing Buzzing

The bushing on your tuners are essentially dampeners. They are the metallic sleeves inserted into the holes occupied by your tuners. If they become loose they can vibrate against the edge of the tuning peg assembly holes.

Tighten the nut on the top of the bushing. Be careful not to overtighten and leave an indented rim in the headstock wood. Use a small drop of glue to secure the bushing in place.

The Pickup, Pickup Wire, Or Battery Compartment Lid For Your EQ Is Loose

Loose electronics can rattle, especially less dense materials such as the battery compartment lid of a preamp.

There Is A Loose Strut Inside Your Guitar

This is often the result of a guitar that has absorbed too much moisture and as it dries out and expands, the bracing is affected and a strut may become loose.

This is another repair job that is best handled by a professional. To reduce the chances of this occurring be sure to store your guitar in a humidity-controlled environment or at the least store your guitar in its case.

The Truss Rod Or Truss Rod Nut Is Loose

A damaged or loose truss rod or truss rod nut may vibrate against the edge of the truss rod channel and create noise.

Check the truss rod nut is not loose. This doesn’t mean tightening the truss rod, just check the nut on the truss rod is not loose and if so tighten ever so slightly without adjusting the truss rod itself.

If you suspect the truss rod is damaged or loose you will need to take the guitar in for a professional opinion.

Fixing A Guitar That Is (Too) Bright

If the tone of your guitar is described as excessively bright this will often result in decent note clarity, but like most things, the dose is what makes the poison. A guitar that is too bright sounding will tend to sound tinny and abrasive.

There are many reasons why this may occur. For a full roundup on addressing an excessively bright-sounding guitar click here.

Fixing A Guitar That Sounds Muddy

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause for an acoustic guitar that sounds ‘muddy’. The term ‘muddy’ can mean different things to different ears but is often used to describe poor note articulation (clarity) or note separation, which is often the result of excessive overtones dominating the fundamental tone.

In some cases, relative humidity is to blame, after all, we need moisture to make mud.

Summary — What Makes A Great Sounding Acoustic Guitar

Acoustic guitars rely on resonance. Resonance, when it comes to acoustic guitars comes down to how well the energy you impart on your strings is transferred to the soundboard and internal cavity of the guitar.

Having a light, yet strong top or soundboard is generally considered key to this transference of energy being as optimal as possible. Much of this comes back to the quality of the wood, and how light the soundboard material is concerning its ability to vibrate while maintaining its structural integrity. For this reason, solid top guitars, in most cases sound superior to laminate top guitars.

The most resonant combinations of materials also tend to be the most expensive e.g. Sitka Spruce or Adirondack Spruce, which is usually matched with the perfect accompanying back and sides timber and handcrafted by an experienced luthier. This is why your beautiful-sounding Martin, Gibson, or Guild acoustic also costs well over a thousand dollars.

So, while many of the suggestions above may help improve a bad-sounding acoustic guitar, in simple terms, all guitars are not created equal and you are paying for far more than just a name when you do purchase a guitar from an established manufacturer.

1 thought on “Why Does My Acoustic Guitar Sound Bad?”

  1. Great article. For me, as an intermediate level Classical guitarist; I have witnessed the “opening ” up process with a hand-made Spruce top. I was told to play every note as a warm up (to the 19th fret). With this as a warm up plus 3 octave scales, arpeggios, barre’ chords and Music pieces, I have noticed a dramatic change in tone. This Guitar is getting pretty resonant with a full tone, and depending on the RH; some days she sounds better that others (70% RH now, so I expect her to sound “plump” when I practice).

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Marty

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My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.