Premier Guitar

Tone Tips Q&A: Tackling Noise

April 21, 2009
Greetings, fellow gear geeks. This month, I thought I’d open up the lines and take a few questions. Please feel free to email me with your questions:

This past month I received emails asking for advice on the everlasting dilemma: getting rid of noise in your rig, pedalboard and guitar. You may never get rid of all noise permanently, but it can be reduced. I’ll offer up a few suggestions:

Mike Elzey writes:
Do you have any tips for eliminating hum? On occasion I still run into problems at some venues with serious hum. With my Keeley compressor and a distortion box engaged the hum is so loud it’s distracting. It’s a low level, probably AC hum. I have a (not wireless) pedal board with a Furman power conditioner built in, and I tried using a power filter at one bad gig but to no avail. It’s worse with single coils, of course!

Ahh yes… We all step into the typical club that is buzz central due to poor AC power—where all the circuits are being shared and drained by cash registers, neon beer signs, house and stage lights, and power for PA and stage. The result is a bad buzz in your rig and/or an anemic-sounding amp tone (mostly with tube amps that like to see their proper voltage and current). Singlecoil pickups? Forget about it. Noisy as hell and hard to overcome, short of riding your guitar’s volume knob between every riff. Over the years, I’ve seen our soundman back in the AC mains box rewiring on the fly to isolate the PA from the lights and house… definitely guerilla club fare, not for the inexperienced!

I’ve written previously in PG about using a Variac to isolate my rig and boost the AC to proper voltage and current (“Tone Sucking Low Voltage,” August 2006) and it’s still consistently the best sound remedy in most situations. But it’s an investment ($550 or so for the proper Staco 10 amp Variac with builtin Digital Voltmeter), and you have to use it carefully! But it’s worth it if you’re playing clubs constantly. There are other potential remedies. Try a power conditioner, like those offered by Furman. But if the club’s power is bad or suffering low current, sometimes even the power conditioners can’t solve the issue. A Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor can help if placed after the compressor and distortion pedal, but if the AC-generated buzz is so loud, it certainly won’t clamp it down entirely.

A wireless guitar system can reduce noise considerably by eliminating the cable connection to your rig (and AC). It’ll at least break the ground between your guitar and the microphone, saving you from mind-altering shocks and the accompanying blue flash in your peripheral vision as your lip touches the mike. If all else fails, use a guitar with humbuckers for this gig and leave the single coils on the stand. Sometimes you just have to muscle through it until you’re out the back door heading to the next town.

Allen Randolph writes:
My rig is a Fender Hot Rod DeVille 212 with a pedal board with a Dunlop Wah, Barber Compressor, Xotic RC Booster, Fulltone Fulldrive2, Fulltone OCD, BBE Stomp Sonic Maximizer, Ernie Ball Volume pedal and Fender Tuner in the front, and a Boss Digital Reverb, Visual Sound H2O Liquid Chorus/ Echo and an Electro-Harmonix XO Stereo PulsarTremolo pedal through my effects loop on the amp. I use mostly Strats and Teles and want to get rid of the hum from the single coils and board. What is the best hum cancellation unit? Is there one worth trying? What would you do?

First of all (if you’re not already doing it) add a quality pedalboard power supply, like the Voodoo Lab Pedal Power 2 Plus or the Juice Box from Then, follow a process of elimination for finding noise in your pedalboard, mostly relating to the DC power. Start with the first group of pedals on the floor, with the second group disconnected from the loop on your amp. With amp volume up and guitar volume down, remove one pedal at a time from the chain until you find the hum-causing culprit.

Many old-style Germanium transistor distortion or fuzz circuits use a reverse DC polarity (center positive); you can either get a cross cable for your power supply or just use a 9-volt battery. These pedals are usually very low draw, with a battery life of up to 9 months. Use the isolated 9V power options on your DC power supply for a pesky pedal. Most have at least two independent groups of 9V or other DC level outputs specifically for this purpose.

Hum canceling for single coil? There’s nothing available yet that really works, short of switching to specially designed active pickups or humbuckers. But again, a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor (not a noise gate) behind your compressor and distortion pedals will help. I usually set my NS-2 to clamp down the noise generated from the pedals, not hum from the guitar. Still, it’s best to ride your volume control on the guitar when you’re not playing.

Peter Stroud
Peter is co-founder of 65amps.