Disappointed with the sound from your acoustic guitar? There may be something you can do about it. 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.
Acoustic guitars often sound bad due to problems with intonation and action resulting in fret buzz and a guitar that is not in tune with itself. Additional problems can occur if hardware, such as tuners are loose, causing mechanical vibrations or when the strings become old and start to lose their vibrancy. If the guitar is subject to high levels of humidity moisture absorption may also cause dampening.
The ways in which an acoustic guitar can sound bad
So your acoustic guitar sounds bad? Unlike electric guitars, tone isn’t something you can tweak using different amplifier settings or pedals, not if you are trying to reproduce the sound you are hearing acoustically.
But before you get too down about how your guitar is sounding, consider the following simple fixes that can make the world of difference to a bad sounding guitar:
- Are you comparing apples to oranges?
Some acoustic guitars are designed for specific purposes. Concert size guitars guitars don’t always sound as good as a larger bodied dreadnoughts when strummed.
- Are you taking care of the guitar?
A good maintenance routine will keep your guitar in good working order.
- Have you changed your strings recently?
New strings can make a world of difference for a variety of issues in regard to tone, and sometimes fret buzz and are always a good starting point.
- Have you checked your intonation?
Intonation problems may be addressed by adjusting the neck relief and action, which may also address fret buzz.
- Is your guitar kept in a particularly humid room?
If your guitar is kept in a humid environment e.g. absorbs too much moisture it will begin to sound dull and lifeless.
- Are you expecting too much?
‘Budget’ acoustic guitars will (in most cases) never sound ‘great’. Don’t expect too much from a cheap acoustic.
A key difference between electric and electric/acoustic guitars
This article is mostly about the sound of your acoustic guitar unplugged and there’s a good reason for that. Electric guitars are, in large part, influenced by electronics when it comes to tone with a secondary focus on the materials and construction methods used.
Alternatively, acoustic guitars derive much of their tone from the methods of manufacturing and construction materials e.g. the tonewoods, and the shape and size of the body. When an acoustic guitar is amplified, in the majority of cases the primary goal is to reproduce the tone, rather than influencing or coloring the tone.
With this in mind, this article will mostly focus on improving a bad-sounding acoustic guitar, when played acoustically. If you are looking for information on improving the amplified sound of your guitar, be sure to check out our article on pickups which explains the key differences between the four main types of acoustic guitar pickups and what to expect from each.
Identifying The Problem
To fix issues with acoustic guitar tone, we need to identify specifics. Saying your guitar sounds bad, or that it doesn’t sound as good as another guitar you’re familiar with isn’t going to be all that helpful.
The first thing you should do is identify in exactly what way the guitar sounds bad.
The list below shows a few examples:
- Your guitar sounds out of tune or won’t stay in tune
- Your guitar sounds out of tune, but only when you play in certain places on the neck
- There’s a buzzing sound e.g. the strings are buzzing against the fret wires, especially when you strum the guitar with a heavy attack.
- Your guitar rattles when played, especially when strumming
- The tone of the guitar is overly bright and thin
- The tone of the guitar is muddy and lacks clarity
If any of the symptoms listed above are problems you are experiencing, don’t fret 😉 In many cases, there are ways to fix or improve these issues and many of them are simple fixes.
Of course, some of the issues noted will be attributable to the size, style, and body shape of the guitar itself, not to mention the materials used to build the guitar.
With this in mind let’s first discuss setting realistic expectations.
Are you expecting too much from your guitar?
First things first. What is the build quality of the guitar? This doesn’t necessarily mean how expensive the guitar was to buy or who the manufacturer is, although these are indicators of quality. For the most part, I’m talking about the top, or soundboard of the guitar and the materials used.
Unfortunately, some acoustic guitars are just never going to sound amazing, and won’t be able to go the distance on your journey from an inexperienced to an experienced guitarist. Not without slowing your progress.
You may not have noticed this when you were first starting to play but over time as your skills have improved and more importantly your ear has become a more sophisticated judge of tone you may find this starts to bother you more.
If this is the case, it’s not the guitar that has developed a problem or that the tone has deteriorated over time, it’s mostly because it was never a great-sounding guitar, to begin with, and it took time for your ears to catch up.
And that’s fine. Budget guitars serve a useful purpose and are inexpensive for a reason. The materials used and the workmanship that goes into a budget guitar just aren’t the same as a top-line acoustic guitar. But most of us wouldn’t want to shell out the kind of money a top-line acoustic will cost when first starting out.
And, sometimes a budget guitar will just happen to sound great. I’ve heard budget acoustic guitars that punch well above their weight. The Gretsch Jim Dandy is a great example of this, Yamaha also makes a number of inexpensive but great-sounding acoustics.
Other times, the guitar just has a synergy about it e.g. the combination of shape and tonewoods just works (wood is an organic product after all) and the guitar sounds better than the price tag would otherwise suggest. This is less common but it does happen.
Solid top guitars, in most cases, sound superior to laminate top guitars. Although, some Taylor and Martin guitars utilize laminate along with a proprietary bracing system that produces a wonderful, warm tone.
Laminate also has advantages in that it is more resistant to humidity and is a stronger material due to how it is constructed.
Different Body Shapes and Sizes, Materials etc.
The other problem that occurs when comparing guitar tone is, depending on the shape, body style, and tonewoods used, the two guitars may have been designed for a completely different purpose, then the style of music you are using it for.
This is the equivalent of comparing apples to oranges. e.g. comparing a dreadnought to a parlor or 000 size acoustic guitar is not a fair comparison if comparing how both sound when strumming open chords.
Likewise, when playing fingerstyle, the smaller bodied guitar will have some advantages e.g. greater responsiveness when played with the lighter touch of the fingers compared to a jumbo or dreadnought. For example, my Guild concert size guitar is no match for my much less expensive dreadnought when strumming open chords.
And that isn’t even taking into account the influence different tonewoods have on acoustic guitar tone.
With this in mind, make sure you are comparing apples to apples and not expecting something completely different from a guitar that has been designed and built for a specific style of music.
The First thing you should do — Inspect the guitar
Now that we’ve discussed setting realistic expectations, we need to take a good look over the guitar to see if there are any major issues causing the guitar to sound bad.
When inspecting the guitar look for obvious issues such as:
- Are there any cracks in the body of the guitar?
If you notice a crack or separation anywhere on the body, including your bridge unless you are experienced you really should take your guitar in for repair. Cosmetic issues such as dents are easily fixed (you can follow our tutorial here to learn how) but structural issues tend to get worse over time due to the nature of how acoustic guitars project sound through vibrational energy. If you spot a structural issue and value the guitar, take it to a professional.
- Are there any gaps in the seams of the body?
Particularly near the heel of the neck on the back of the guitar.
- Is any of the bracing inside the guitar loose?
You can check this by inspecting carefully and additionally tapping the body, both front and back and listening for any sound associated with a loose strut.
- Is there a problem with the bridge?
e.g. is it cracked or lifting off the guitar body?
- Is the action particularly low?
Check by fretting every note on the high E string and listen for the sound of the string buzzing against the fret wire.
- Are the tuners loose and rattle when the guitar is moved or played?
- Is the neck of the guitar twisted or warped?
You can check this by holding the guitar directly in front of you and looking down the neck.
- Do the fret wires feel jagged or protrude past the edge of the neck?
- Is the intonation correctly set?
- Is the nut or saddle damaged in any way?
The Nut and Saddle
Do you know what your nut and saddle are constructed from? While these may seem like trivial items, both play a huge role in how a guitar sounds.
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 to a large extent. Nuts and saddles are either constructed from plastic, bone, or graphite (and in some cases brass) for the most part and 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 which is largely responsible for the sounds your guitar produces. If your guitar utilizes a plastic nut, saddle or both a relatively inexpensive way to improve your guitar’s tone is to upgrade to either bone or graphite.
When you have completed the inspection of the guitar make a note of any issues you have discovered. You can then decide if it is something you can handle yourself or whether it requires professional repair.
If unsure, the next section of the article will outline some solutions to common tone problems that you can either do yourself or have a professional carry out the work for you.
The second thing you should do — Change the Strings
While it makes sense to address each concern on their respective merits (which we will do as we continue through this article), one simple thing you should do if unhappy with your tone, or your guitar has an issue with fret buzz is to change your strings or consider having your guitar set up by a professional.
What is a guitar setup?
Having your guitar setup typically involves restringing the guitar, checking the amount of relief in the neck (more on this shortly), checking the intonation of the neck, and inspecting the nut and saddle. We’re going to cover most of these below but a professional setup (if you are not inclined to do the work yourself) will address many of these issues.
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 begin sounding dull:
- 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.
Addressing specific issues
After, inspecting the guitar you may have found some additional problems that need addressing. Even if you gave the guitar a clean bill of health after your checkup, we can still improve specific problems you may hear, rather than see.
The section below lists some common issues that affect acoustic guitar tone and what you can do to fix the problem:
Fixing Tuning Issues — Tuning stability
If your guitar is proving difficult to tune, or won’t stay in tune you have an issue with tuning stability. There can be a number of reasons for this:
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|You are using new strings New strings take time to adjust to their tension requirements.||When installing new strings, it is always best to tune the guitar to standard tuning and then stretch the 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.|
|There’s an issue with the slots in the nut The nut is the (often) white component made from either bone or plastic (sometimes graphite or brass) that separates the headstock from the fretboard. The slots in the nut are cut at different heights and widths to accommodate the different string thicknesses. If the slots are not an ideal width the strings can get stuck and not slide through the slots easily causing tuning issues.||Remove the strings and, taking a graphite pencil, mark the slots with the pencil, leaving graphite to reside within the slots. The graphite will help the string slide more easily through the nut slots when tuning.|
|You are using cheap strings You tend to get what you pay for when it comes to acoustic guitar strings. Cheap guitar strings, break or crease more easily and therefore are not as stable with regard to tuning stability.||Consider spending a little more on strings. Coated Elixirs are highly recommended.|
|You are storing your guitar in a humid environment Changes in humidity cause changes in the properties of wood. Expanding and contracting of wood indirectly affects the tension of the strings.||Use a humidifier to maintain the humidity in the room you are storing your guitar in, and consider storing the guitar in its case. If you can’t do either, consider another room that is less prone to changes in humidity.|
|Your tuners are loose Loose tuning pegs can cause issues with tuning stability.||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.|
|You are too heavy-handed Once you have exhausted all other possibilities you may need to consider your technique. If you happen to play the guitar with a heavy attack on the strings, in some cases, this may be enough to detune the guitar.||Consider making changes to your technique or guitar.|
Fixing Intonation Issues
Does your guitar sound in tune in open chord positions e.g. the first four frets but when you venture up the neck the notes sound a little off in comparison? If so, you have an intonation problem.
Intonation refers to pitch accuracy e.g. the guitar’s ability to be in tune with itself across the neck.
For instance, in standard tuning, an open E string should be the same pitch (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 a little off when compared to the open string. As a result, having the action of your guitar set too high can introduce intonation issues.
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|The guitar isn’t correctly intonated You can check your intonation by comparing the pitch of your open E string to the E in the next highest octave e.g. note produced when playing the 12th fret. You can also check intonation using harmonics e.g. fret the low E string with a finger directly over the fret wire and compare to the sound produced by the open string. The pitches of both should match.||The first step is to change your strings. Secondly, check the amount of relief the neck has and if required make minor adjustments to the truss rod. (We’ll be covering this in more detail in the fret buzz section if unsure how to do this) If the above does not work, try adjusting the action of the guitar by reducing the height of the saddle (This will also be covered in the section on fret buzz). If neither of the above options helps you may need to take the guitar to your local music store where they may make adjustments to your saddle. Saddles are installed on an angle to provide additional length for heavier gauge strings that are under higher degrees of tension. Or they may install a compensated saddle and may also make adjustments to your nut by inspecting and servicing the nut slots.|
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 Issues
Fret buzz is that annoying sound you may hear when the strings of the guitar vibrate against the fret wires.
Fret buzz is often caused by technique e.g. the way you fret the notes on your fretboard. It can also occur due to a neck that is either too straight or bows outward, as the diagram below demonstrates.
Fret Buzz is not to be confused with other unwanted noises emanating from your guitar such as the rattle sound caused by having loose tuners or the buzzing noise associated with a loose truss rod or strut inside the guitar body. (more on both of these shortly)
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|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. This will take time and focus to improve. Your best judge will be your ears.|
|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 may result in minor fret buzz.||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 mostly). And, while it may feel more comfortable in the short-term, fretting notes in this way will increase the chances of developing fret buzz and poorly defined chords.||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 neck, allowing more room to position your fingers accordingly. Your fingers may experience some discomfort if you haven’t previously made this adjustment but if you play enough you will develop calluses on your fingertips which will help immensely.|
|The strings are too old Older guitar strings create problems, especially the wound bass strings, as the windings can become loose over time and vibrate against the fret wires.||Install a new set of strings on the guitar.|
|The nut slots have worn down The slots carved into the nut of your guitar are of different depths to compensate for the different thickness of strings e.g. treble compared to bass strings. Over time the slots can wear down, becoming too deep, particularly for the thicker bass strings. This can create fret buzz or the strings may begin rattling behind the nut.||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 to an extent and prevent them from vibrating against the nut if the slots are worn. Electric guitarists 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, as there is the chance that when removing the nut you will tear a section of the headstock wood or a section of the fretboard. 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.|
|Your guitar has uneven fret wires 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 identifying 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.|
|The neck is too straight or has an outward bow Fret buzz is often the result of the neck of the guitar not having sufficient relief. Guitar strings vibrate in an elliptical pattern, meaning the most likely place that strings will vibrate against the frets is toward the middle of the neck. Many people believe a guitar neck should be straight, but a neck that is too straight or bows outward will cause your strings to vibrate against the fret wires.||You will need to loosen the truss rod by turning the truss rod nut counter-clockwise. Be careful to only turn the truss rod, at most, a quarter turn each time before testing the neck.|
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.
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|There is a crack in the body or separation in the seams of the guitar or the binding is loose Any obvious structural issue the guitar body has, has the potential to produce unwanted noise and may get worse over time.||If your guitar has a crack or issue with its structural integrity unless you are experienced you really should take the guitar to a luthier or repair shop for a quote.|
|The pickup, pickup wire, or battery compartment lid for your EQ is loose Loose electronics have a capacity to rattle, especially less dense materials such as the battery compartment lid of a preamp.||Listen carefully for where the sound is coming from and apply pressure to prevent the rattle sound. Once identified, either adjust the loose part or secure it further to prevent the rattle sound.|
|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 you are advised to have worked on by a professional. To reduce the chances of this occurring be sure to store your guitar in a humidity-controlled environment or at the last store your guitar in its case. You can learn more about combating humidity and acoustic guitar storage here.|
|Your tuners are loose Bushing are essentially dampeners. The bushing on your tuners 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 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.|
|Bridge pins are not seated correctly e.g. they are sitting too high Loose bridge pins have the capacity to vibrate and create a rattling sound.||Start by loosening the strings. Next, push down the ball end (gently, don’t crack the top of the guitar) while at the same time pulling the strings up toward the ball end of the bridge pin.|
Fixing a guitar that is too bright sounding
If the tone of your guitar is described as overly 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 harsh and abrasive, highlight errors in your technique or emphasize string noise.
There are many reasons why this can occur e.g. the size of the room you are playing in and the amount of sound reflection. There may be an issue with the strings you are using in combination with the guitar e.g. they are too light or you are using a thin plectrum. Or the cause may be a combination of things including a bone saddle in combination with a specific tonewood and lighter gauge strings.
Strings and plectrums are inexpensive and as a result, should be your starting point before looking into other causes. 99% of the time this can be addressed by finding the right match of strings for your guitar.
Otherwise, this may be the natural sound of your guitar in which case you may have a choice to make with regard to upgrading.
Under saddle piezo pickups
I mentioned this article wouldn’t be addressing tone problems for plugged-in acoustic guitars, but I’d be remiss not to mention under-saddle piezo pickups. If the guitar only sounds thin and abrasive when plugged in, chances are you are using an under-saddle pickup. Under-saddle pickups are renowned for producing a thin, overly bright sound due to their positioning (at the highest point of tension beneath the saddle). And, while some guitarists appreciate them, I’m yet to hear one I’ve truly liked.
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|Your guitar strings are new Newer strings can often sound overly bright. When played in strings tend to ‘warm’ up over time.||Give the strings some time to play in and ensure you are installing new strings at least a day or two before playing in public. If you particularly dislike the tone produced, try a different brand or gauge of strings. Try also using a fretboard conditioner or string conditioner to reduce string noise.|
|You are playing with light gauge strings or a thin plectrum||Try a change of string and consider a thicker plectrum or worst-case scenario, try tuning down a half step to reduce tension on the strings. If you play fingerstyle try to use more of the fleshy part of your fingers and reduce contact with the fingernail.|
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. e.g. some may consider ‘muddy’ as being an overly bass dominant sound. This can occur over time as the bass response increases while the mid-range and high-end volume reduce due to changes in moisture content, resulting in a bass-dominant-sounding guitar.
Muddy, may also be a term used to describe a lack of note articulation (clarity) or note separation, which is often the result of excessive overtones dominating the fundamental tone resulting in less clarity.
In some cases, relative humidity is to blame, after all, we need moisture to make mud 🙂
|Cause of bad sounding guitar||Solution|
|Excessive humidity or changes in relative humidity A higher moisture content will add weight to a soundboard in much the same way certain laminates or heavy gloss finishes will also. This affects not only the weight of the soundboard but also the stiffness of the body of the guitar, which affects its ability to resonate. In other cases, it may be the complete opposite e.g. the bracing loses moisture content over time and becomes less rigid, which in turn changes the stiffness of the soundboard. In most cases, this would result in a less articulate tone when the guitar is played with a heavier attack but you may not notice a significant difference if playing with a light attack.||Control the humidity of the room you are storing your guitar in. Humidifiers can be useful and can be purchased to control the humidity of a room or just your guitar’s hard case. It can be useful to identify the timeframe e.g. how long did this problem take to develop. If over many years, chances are the characteristics of the wood have changed. If it is only a recent problem, humidity or even a dud set of strings may be to blame. In most cases, the best course of action is to start with the simplest changes and work up from there. The simplest and most inexpensive change to make is to install a new set of strings. If this fails to make a noticeable difference, consider installing a new saddle. Failing that, consider controlling the relative humidity of the room the guitar is stored in. If that fails it may also be worth paying for a professional setup.|
Summary — What Makes a Great Sounding Acoustic Guitar
Acoustic guitars rely on resonance. Resonance, when it comes to acoustic guitars really comes down to how well the energy you impart on your strings is transferred into sound waves produced by the soundboard and internal cavity of the acoustic 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 with regard to its ability to vibrate while maintaining its structural integrity e.g. lightness and flexible strength. A light yet strong soundboard will produce a richer, more vibrant sound. For this reason, solid top guitars, in most cases sound superior to laminate top guitars.
Why expensive acoustic guitars are worth the money
The most resonant materials or combinations of materials also tend to be the most expensive e.g. Sitka Spruce or the even more expensive Adirondack Spruce, that has been painstakingly 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 still help improve the sound you are hearing from your guitar, in some cases, it is the build of the guitar itself that is the problem, and this cannot be rectified by anything other than trading up to a more expensive e.g. better-made 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.