Muffled or muting of the strings is a very common problem when starting out on the guitar. Because the tone of the guitar is produced by what the fingers do, unlike a piano (where the tone is produced by a mechanical mechanism inside the piano), learning how the fingers work to produce a clear tone is the first step in learning to play the guitar. It will take some time and patience, but if you understand how the fingers work, you will be able to achieve a clear tone while playing notes and chords.
Why does my guitar sound muffled? The guitar strings will sound muffled or muted when there is not enough finger pressure or the fingers are placed in the wrong position on the guitar.
The Guitar Muffle Problem
The majority of tone production on the guitar happens with the left hand or fretting hand. There are two things that control the tone of the string: finger pressure and finger placement. If the string is not pressed down with enough pressure or the finger is in the wrong position, the tone will not sound clear. The difference between a clear tone and a muted tone in terms of hand pressure and position is very small.
On one hand this can be frustrating because a small amount of pressure change or finger movement can make a big difference; however, on the other hand, because it is such a small change that produces a muffled or clear tone, a small adjustment will also take care of the problem.
When you understand the mechanics involved, you can make these small adjustments and improve the clarity of your tone. Let’s break down the left-hand technique to understand these mechanics and how to fix the problem.
The Solution: Developing Left Hand Technique
Finger Pressure And Correct Placement
If there is not enough pressure from the fingers being applied through the strings to the fretboard, the string will not ring out clearly. If there is too much pressure, the hand will become fatigued quickly and muscle soreness may develop. The key is to use the least amount of pressure necessary to sound the string clearly.
This takes practice and patience. Also, if the finger placement is incorrect, the string may sound muted or buzz. The “sweet spot” of placement is right next to the fret, but not on top of it. The best way to develop this sense of touch and correct placement is to play single string melodies or exercises. One of the quickest ways to develop clear tone is to play the major scale as a daily exercise.
By doing this, you will learn to apply the correct amount of pressure and correct finger placement in order to play with clarity. It is also a great way to gradually develop finger strength for playing chords clearly. See the exercise below:
Note: Play in the following order starting on string three: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Take time to make each note ring clearly. Allow your thumb to apply pressure from the middle of the back of the neck. This will help to create a clear tone when using fingers three and four which are weaker than fingers one and two.
Playing Chords With Clarity
Many chords require the use of two, three, and even four fingers at the same time. Two main difficulties arise when playing chords: uneven finger pressure and incorrect finger placement as a result of the overall position of the hand. Both of these situations will result in a muffled or muted sound when playing chords. Let’s break things down and take a look at a method for fixing these issues.
Let’s start with a chord that can be tricky for beginners: the D major chord. It uses three fingers on adjacent strings; and so, we have to balance the finger pressure and try to avoid having the fingers touch the strings around them.
First, form the chord. After the chord is formed, pick each individual string, starting on string four and moving down to string one. Take note of which string or stings are not sounding clearly. For example, let’s say that strings one and two are muted. We need to figure out if it is a pressure issue or a placement issue.
Next, remove all of your fingers except finger two on string one and play the single note using only the first string. Make sure you get a clear tone. Now, while holding that finger down add the third finger to string two. Can you still hear string one when you play it? If not, adjust your third finger on string two and see if you can get string one to ring clearly. Take mental notes on what you did to correct the problem.
Chances are you adjusted your third finger so that it was more perpendicular to the fretboard and therefore not touching the first string. In order to do this, you had to move your hand and thumb; again, take note of the small adjustments that resulted in the clear tone.
Now that you can clearly hear strings one and two, add the first finger on string three and repeat the process of listening, analyzing, and adjusting. Once you can hear each string clearly by itself, strum the full chord.
Word Of Advice
This type of practice is intense, not only from a mental standpoint, but also from a physical one as well. Be careful not to overdo or become too “obsessed” about getting it right the first time. This is a process that will happen over time. A little of this type of practice (five to ten minutes) each time you practice will payoff in the long run.
Also, try to compartmentalize this type of practice and don’t consciously bring it into your song playing. When you are playing songs, play the chords and play through the song. Don’t become discouraged if a string or two is not clearly ringing out when you are playing your song. In this case, the whole is greater than the parts.
One of the reasons the guitar is such an expressive instrument is that the tone is produced through the fingers. As a beginning guitarist, you will need to give your hands and fingers time to develop into the expressive tools that you will use as a guitar player. Keep in mind the wise adage, “Slow and steady wins the race.” The best thing you can do to develop your playing ability is to play, be patient, and include some technique building exercises in your practicing routine.