Guitar Squeak: Get Rid of Guitar Noise
At some point in every classical guitarist’s life, there comes a time when we realize we squeak.
The awareness comes slowly at first, then builds over time to a deafening crescendo that simply cannot be ignored. Much like the coming-of-age in a boy’s life when he starts to realize that he stinks, and starts deciding to bathe more frequently.
We think, “Oh my! I squeak! This won’t do: I must act!”.
Understand Thine Enemy
As with anything, to eliminate squeaks on the guitar, we first have to understand them.
You squeak when you slide a finger on the wound strings (which is another name for the bass strings).
This can be with pressure (pressing down a string) or not. Squeaks are not particular.
Some of the loudest and sharpest string squeaks happen when beginning a shift to a new position. You move up or down the fretboard before completely lifting the finger(s) and it creates a loud squeak.
String squeaks can also occur as you wiggle around on a note you are already playing, finding a different or better “footing”. You aren’t moving much, but it’s enough to bring on “The Curse” of guitar squeak.
Listen Like Crazy for Squeaks
Step number one in getting rid of squeaks in your guitar playing is to become aware of them.
Listen like your life depends on it. Then even more.
This sounds obvious, but it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.
When you play, you actually hear two things simultaneously. You hear what’s coming out of your guitar, and you hear (in your head) what you want it to sound like.
Often, the louder of the two is what happens in your head. You think you’re actively hearing the guitar, but if you record it and listen back, you will likely hear something different than you heard while playing it.
I call this “Hearing the world through rose-colored earmuffs”
I call this “Hearing the world through rose-colored earmuffs”. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because we need both the internal and external representations. You try to match the two, and that is one of the main goals in practicing a piece.
Practice Hearing Both
The way forward is to “stay in the room” in your practice, hearing what is actually coming out of your instrument, while at the same time developing and refining your inner version of the music.
This way, you have an ever-evolving tune in your head that you aspire to. You’re also sober enough to recognize what is actually happening in real time.
Over time, with practice, the two start to resemble each other.
Slow Down and Problem-Solve
Guitar music is fast. Even slow songs are fast.
We have multiple lines of music, and complex “inner-visions” of what we want to accomplish (like we were just talking about).
One of the best and most useful practice skills you can nurture is your ability to slow down.
One of the best and most useful practice skills you can nurture is your ability to slow down. And I don’t mean just a little bit for one spin. I mean so slow that your muscle memory goes out the window and you have to actually know what you’re playing.
When you play at a crawl, you can observe (calmly, we hope) exactly how each note connects to the next. You begin to understand how the hand moves and subtly shifts its weight to go from this note to this note.
As you put the microscope on your playing, you begin to recognize the exact point that a squeak occurs. And this is where you strike gold, because this is where the fix has to happen.
This is where you strike gold, because this is where the fix has to happen.
If you can discover exactly when and how the squeak happens, you can set a plan to eradicate it. Until then, you’re just hoping, which will likely just distract you and/or lead to frustration.
Nip It In the Bud
Of course, if you learn the piece well to begin with, you can troubleshoot these spots as they arise.
If you already are playing the music by muscle memory and just blast it out at high speeds all the time, it will be much more difficult to get rid of the squeaks.
Buckle Up for the Long Haul
As you set out to clean up your playing and get rid of squeaks, keep in mind that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
You have to develop the habit of listening first. Then practice identifying where and how squeaks happen. Then practice eliminating them.
It’s a habit of constant attention to each and every note, paired with the patient desire and dedication to connect them beautifully.
In time, you recognize common pitfalls, and move in advance to avoid them. This is the ultimate, and this is what you’re shooting for. It’s a habit of constant attention to each and every note, paired with the patient desire and dedication to connect them beautifully.
Enough Already: How to Not Squeak
First Release, Then Lift, Then Move
Squeaks often happen when we begin our move before releasing the prior note.
To move along the wound strings, you have to first lift, then move. Up, then over.
1. Release the Pressure
However, if you lift your finger off the string too quickly, you risk sounding the open string and creating string noise.
So first release the pressure (stop pressing). In this step, your finger stays on the string. Simply let your finger tip “de-activate” and stop pressing.
2. Lift Straight Up
Next, lift your finger straight up off the string.
It doesn’t have to move very far off the string, it simply needs to break contact with the string.
Because you released the pressure first, this step should be absolutely silent.
3. Be On Your Way
Now you are free to move where you like in absolute stealth.
Mind, however, that when you land in your new position, that you continue to listen to how to press the new notes, and be sure to place your fingers accurately to begin with so that you don’t have to shuffle around or adjust.
The more attention you give this in your slow practice, the quicker it will become habit.
This 3-step process will eventually be the way you naturally move.
Until that time, practice it slowly with great attention and awareness to each step.
The more attention you give this in your slow practice, the quicker it will become a habit.
Big, Intentional Slides and Glissandi
Sometimes, the music demands a big, fat glissando. You need to slide up a wound string, and ideally make it sound good.
Use the Puffy Pad
Your fingertip may be calloused and hard, which leads to more squeaking.
But the pad of your finger is pillowy and soft, and mutes out many of the high metallic overtones and sounds that scrape and squeak.
As a general rule, we don’t use the pad so much because we can be more accurate and use less muscle with the tip. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
This makes it so that you are putting more finger on the string, and much of that is the soft skin on the side of your finger.
This one can come in hand in more technically challenging spots, or in fast passages.
Lick It (Discreetly)
Moistening the tip softens the skin and leads to quieter slides.
It’s especially good if a piece starts in a big slide. That way your have all the time in the world, and you get off to a good start.
This can look a bit crass on stage, so be discreet. A fingertip brushing the lip is more subtle than sticking out your tongue. Though if you need to wet all your fingers (sliding a chord), do what you have to do.
If this is your plan, be sure to practice it just like any other choreography in your pieces. Watching a video of yourself doing it will tell how well you’re pulling it off.
As a side note, lute players frequently lick their fingers (mainly right hand fingers, but still..). They’re not ashamed. It’s a regular part of technique and is widely accepted as the norm.
Lute players frequently lick their fingers. They do not appear to be ashamed of this.
When In Doubt, Slow Down and Figure It Out
If I had to guess, I would say the biggest practice mistake people make is going too fast.
It’s very hard to figure anything out if the notes are flying past quicker than you can truly hear them.
If you want to change anything in your playing, you should start with slowing down and discovering exactly when, where and how every little thing is happening.
From there, you can find solutions and actually make a difference.
Slow and steady wins the race.
Add a Squeak Tip!
How about you? Have you come across any methods or tricks to clean up your playing? Have you had any experiences where slowing down and taking stock worked out well for you?
Did you know that there are other types of strings that claim to reduce the number of squeaks that are made? Some brands market them as “Recording Strings”
They reportedly squeak less than normal strings. However, they are also said to have a very short life. In other words, they wear out more quickly.
Hi, I’m Allen Mathews.
I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
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