There can be a number of reasons why your guitar doesn’t sound good when playing chords.
The problem can be either your guitar, or (shock…horror) you!
Some reasons for bad sounding chords can be old strings, bad tuning or intonation, fretboard problems, or simply the way you are fretting the chords. More experienced players can usually eliminate their playing style; for them it’s more likely to be a guitar-related issue.
The good news is you can fix the problem once you know what it is, and in a short time have your chords sounding a lot sweeter.
I’ll go over this in two sections: first you the player, and then your guitar. Just jump down to the second section straight away if you are sure the bad sounding chords aren’t a result of your technique.
Why Your Guitar Chords Sound Bad – Playing Tips
If you’re fairly new to guitar then there’s a lot to think about when trying to get those first few chords to sound like the ones you heard your friends play.
As long as your guitar strings are in reasonable condition, and your guitar is tuned (see the section below for that), you should be able to make a chord sound fairly good.
1. Beginner Guitarists: Fretting Tips
Starting out it takes some effort to hold the strings you want at the frets you want, without muting strings or making them buzz. We’ve all been there, I know what it feels like!
Step 1 – Test Each Note
Hold the chord you want to play with you fretting hand, and then pluck each string one at a time from the low to the high string. If you hear muted and/or buzzing strings, then you need to adjust the way you fret the chord.
Step 2 – Muted Strings
If you are getting muted strings, then check you are holding the strings with enough pressure (not too much though). Then check each finger tip carefully to see if the fleshy part of a finger is accidentally touching another string.
If the fleshy part of a finger is touching the string below it, then you need to move your thumb down the neck a little. This will help your fingers to touch the strings at a better angle, moving the fleshy parts away from the other strings.
You can also get muted strings when your thumb is too high on the neck, or flat against the neck pointing at the tuners. This causes your hand to sit too close to the fretboard.
Step 3 – Buzzing Strings
If your fingers are touching each string on your fingertip and other strings are clear, then make sure each finger is holding the string near the fret, and not half an inch away.
Each fingertip should be as close to the fret as possible without being on top of it.
You can also get buzzing strings when you hold the strings with too little pressure, causing string rattle on the frets.
This can be a big problem when first learning barre chords, as you need more finger strength to hold down 3 or more strings with one finger.
Sometimes you can just adjust your finger position slightly to fix the problem, or just keep trying for a couple of weeks until your hand becomes stronger.
Step 4 – Too Much Pressure
If you have been through the above steps, you are getting clean notes but the chords still sound bad – then you could be fretting the strings too hard!
This is especially a problem for learners who have an electric guitar, as the strings are thinner than acoustic guitars, and are easy to hold with too much force.
Holding the strings too hard will make the notes sound sharp, and a few sharp notes payed at the same time sounds really bad.
Try pressing the strings a little softer, but if you get buzzing then it is too soft.
2. Beginner Guitarists: Strumming Tips
Even when you get your fretting hand sorted out, if you don’t strum the strings very well then the chords can sound quite average.
An experienced guitar player can make a simple chord sound great, and the secret is knowing how to vary their strumming pressure, and how to strum rhythms with good timing.
You will also find that chords often sound best when you focus on strumming different strings for up and down strokes. Try to strike the lower strings on down strokes and higher strings on up strokes, and you will get more character in your sound.
These are things you can practice to make your chords sound even better, and it’s worth spending time learning some solid basic strumming patterns, keeping in time.
Why Your Guitar Chords Sound Bad – The Guitar
When you’re sure your playing technique is good and not causing bad sounding guitar chords, then it’s time to check your guitar for problems.
1. Old Guitar Strings
This is probably the number one reason for a guitar to sound bad, as we all leave strings longer than we should.
If you can’t remember when you last changed your guitar strings, then it’s time to do it now!
Looking at your strings, make sure they don’t have the following problems:
- Dark sections on the strings.
- Broken outer winding.
- Shiny flat spots where the frets are.
- Visible dust and grime.
- Generally dull looking.
Electric guitar strings are normally a shiny steel color, acoustic guitars are either a copper or yellow-bronze color, and nylon classical guitar strings will have 3 clear strings.
If your strings look quite shiny near the tuning posts but dull where you play them, it’s probably time for a string change to get the best sound from your guitar.
Strings don’t have to be expensive to sound good, and it’s a good idea to get used to changing them 2 or 3 times a year to keep your guitar sounding good.
2. Bad Tuning or Intonation
Old strings can make your guitar really hard to tune, but there can be other problems that cause bad tuning too.
Step 1 – Winding the Strings Correctly
If your strings are not wound on the tuning pegs correctly, then they can slip while you play and go out of tune very quickly. This can also happen with nylon strings at the bridge, as they are tied into place.
Check some online tips on how to do this correctly.
Step 2 – Are the Tuning Pegs Working?
Sometimes old tuning pegs get loose, worn out, broken, or just hard to turn. This makes it very difficult to tune a guitar correctly, and sometimes impossible.
Loosen the string tension off each tuner a little, and check that the tuners turn easily without any notchiness.
Some open gear tuning pegs can be fixed with some lubricant, for others you will need to open them up to fix them, or sometimes even have them replaced.
Step 3 – Check Your Tuner & Tuning Technique
Electronic tuners are very accurate, with even free mobile app tuners being plenty accurate enough for most people’s ears.
Check that you have your tuner set for 440Hz (standard C tuning), and that it is also set for chromatic tuning. Some tuners have many options, and you could find your tuner was set for open tuning, half step down tuning, or something else that isn’t standard.
As you tune up a string (especially the thick strings), it can change the tension and tuning of the other strings. Tune your guitar strings from low E through to high E, and then check and fine-tune all six strings again one or two times.
Step 4 – Is the Intonation Good?
A guitar with good intonation will have notes that sound very close to perfect on each string and at each fret.
No guitar is perfect, however poor intonation can make one string sound sharp while another sounds flat, and playing chords will really bring out the worst in these pitch changes.
Intonation can be adjusted at the bridge on electric guitars, and is done by changing the string length between the nut and bridge.
Acoustic guitars are more difficult to intonate, as the saddle needs to be adjusted, or could also have a problem at the nut.
Use your chromatic tuner to check that each string is still in tune at the 12th fret. If you find the open string tuning is different to the note at the 12th fret, then your intonation may need to be improved to make your guitar chords sound right.
3. Action & Fretboard Problems
The action of a guitar refers to how high the strings are from the frets.
- If the action is too high at the nut, you will get sharp sounding notes at the first few frets, and chords will sound bad as a result.
- If the action is too low at the nut, then you will get fret buzz at the first fret, and will result in buzzy-sounding open chords.
- If the action is high and the neck has too much relief (back bow), then notes can sound sharp in many places on the neck, resulting in poor sounding chords.
- If the action is too low (usually on poorly set up electric guitars), then you can get fret buzz at many places on the neck, making chords and single notes sound bad.
Aging guitars all have fret wear, and as frets wear down in places you will find chords and notes at some places will sound bad due to muted or buzzy strings.
Low action combined with fret wear are a recipe for bad sounding chords, and it’s best to have a professional guitar tech check your guitar if you think this might be the cause of your problems.