The electric guitar can be
a noisy beast. I’m not
talking about the amount of
musical volume it can generate
(we generally don’t refer to that
as “noise,” though innocent
neighbors and long-suffering
family members may disagree).
I’m talking about the unwanted
variety of noise that can accompany
an electric guitar—buzz,
hum, hiss, radio stations, and
more—all picked up by the
guitar’s pickups, its wiring,
or something else in its signal
chain. Onstage, that background
noise can be an annoyance,
but in many cases you can
deal with it by simply ignoring
it. However, in a recording
situation, where every track is
under microscopic scrutiny, any
amount of noise can be noticeable
and problematic. Let’s look
at ways we can reduce or eliminate
Let’s begin at the source: the
guitar itself. There are several
ways that noise—EMI (electromagnetic
interference) and RF
(radio frequency) noise carried
through the air—can get into
an electric guitar rig’s circuits.
Any noise picked up will be
amplified right along with the
desirable sounds. And, the higher
the gain, the more the signal
and noise are amplified, and the
louder the noise will seem.
The coils of wire
used in a guitar pickup essentially
function as antennae, picking
up radio waves and other types
of interference in the air.
pickup is the obvious solution,
whether it’s a traditional
side-by-side or stacked singlecoil
design. Another solution
is to equip your guitar with
active pickups. But if your tone
depends on a traditional singlecoil—
whether Fender-style or
P-90 (in my opinion, the latter
is noisier than the former)—
then neither of those solutions
will work for you. In this case,
you might consider installing a
dummy coil. The dummy coil
doesn’t pick up sound from the
strings, rather it picks up the
same unwanted noise picked up
by the regular pickups and cancels
it out. Suhr is one manufacturer
that offers a dummy-coil
solution (the BPSSC).
Another solution is a noise-suppressing
device. One I’ve
heard work well with singlecoils
is the Electro-Harmonix
HumDebugger. I won’t claim it
is artifact-free when operating,
but it does a decent job of fighting
single-coil and P-90 hum.
In some cases, you may be
able to control the amount of
noise you’re amplifying by simply
changing the direction your guitar
is facing—it all depends on
where the noise is radiating from.
Like pickup coils,
the other electronics in your guitar
can also pick up airborne noise
and send it along to the amplifier.
Shield the guitar
to prevent noise from getting
in. This entails wrapping the
pickup and control cavities with
metal foil or conductive tape and
grounding it. Shielding can get
a bad rap, as some players feel it
changes the tone of the guitar.
However, if shielding is done
properly, it will not affect tone.
If it isn’t, it can function as a
capacitor that sucks off top end.
You! We’ve all
experienced how the noise a
guitar produces drops dramatically
as soon as you firmly make
contact with the strings. This is
because the strings are grounded
to the amplifier. Most players
assume that when you touch
the strings, you ground the guitar.
But this is backward—your
body functions as an antenna,
picking up noise. When you
touch the strings (assuming the
strings are grounded internally),
the noise from your body is
dumped to ground.
Noisy pedals or
noise resulting from the huge
amount of amplification provided
by overdrive, fuzz, and
Using the tips
above, kill the noise before it
enters the pedal. If there’s no
noise going into the pedal, a
cleaner signal will come out.
However, gain pedals—especially
fuzzes and high-gain overdrives—
can also generate their own noise.
In this case, you need a noise
suppressor after your gain pedals.
There are two types of suppressors:
a gate and a noise reducer.
Gates work like a door that slams
shut when no desired signal is
present, cutting off the noise.
Noise reduction systems pull
down the level of the noise using
various electronic techniques.
Gates can be tighter, but if
they’re not set correctly, decaying
notes or quiet sounds you want
to hear may get chopped off.
Noise-reduction devices work
best when the noise is “steady-state”
or constant. The Rocktron
Guitar Silencer and the Rocktron
HUSH systems are two popular
examples of noise-reduction units.
Another affordable but effective
solution is the Boss NS-2 Noise
either the amp is picking up
noise or its internal circuits
are making noise of their own.
One quick way to find out is to
turn the amp on and crank it
up with nothing plugged into
its input. If you don’t hear any
noise, then the source is something
plugged into the amp. If
you hear noise with nothing
plugged in, then the amp itself
is the noise generator.
If the amp is making
its own noise, there may not
be a lot you can do other than
look for noisy components—such
as a bad tube—or see if moving
the amp or reorienting it helps.
Your assignment for this
month is to go through your rig
and assess its noise level under
different conditions. Once you
know where the noise is coming
from, you can take steps to
control or remove it.
Next time around, we’ll look
at ways to deal with noise after
the fact—after you’ve already
made a recording, but you discover
that there is a noise problem
in your tracks.
the former editor in chief of
magazine. He’s written
more than 1000 articles
and six books on recording
and music technology, and
has released an instructional
DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is
entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate
Electric Guitar Sound
. To learn more, visit