What in the world is that buzzing sound from your guitar? It sounds like a swarm of ticked off wasps and you’re not even touching the strings! So what could be causing this auditory train wreck?
There are many reasons for guitar buzzing when not touching strings. The most common of these is a grounding issue from some component of the guitar but it could also be a faulty electrical system or feedback. Other potential causes are dirty/damaged pickups, dusty electronics, interference or fret buzz.
We’ll provide a detailed review of the most common causes and how to correct them. Even still, the guitar’s intrinsic function is to make noise. Therefore, some buzzing is natural, especially as it ages.
1. Grounding Issues
In most cases, the buzzing sound coming from your guitar is because some component has a grounding issue. You’ll know this is the case if the buzzing stops when you touch the guitar. Another sign is when a popping sound stops the hum but the hum comes back until another pop lowers it again.
Unfortunately, this could come from a number of places, so you’ll have to evaluate each component in a process of elimination.
- Cable: Try a different cable and see if the humming stops. This means the problem likely comes from the place where wires solder onto a connector. Alternatively, ensure you are using high-quality cables. It’s not uncommon for cheaper ones to create a buzzing sound.
- Power Outlet: Another common cause is an old electrical system. However, you can try another outlet on a different circuit to see if it ends. If the buzzing ends when you plug it in somewhere else, your wiring is causing the noise. But if it doesn’t, call an electrician ASAP!
- Pedals: Pedals can be the culprit of guitar buzz. If you have a fancy setup, like a daisy-chained power supply for multiple pedals, then disconnect your guitar from the pedals and connect it only to the amp. Then, one by one, connect each pedal. Remove the one(s) causing the issue.
- Amp: If you travel a lot, the grounding wire in your amp might come loose and this can definitely cause guitar buzz. It’s not advisable to fix this problem yourself. Take it to a repair shop and find another one to use temporarily.
- Guitar: Check for a black wire behind the electronics panel and look for signs of detachment, breakage or other damage in the wiring. If there’s a problem, you should take it to a luthier for the necessary repairs.
Yet another frequent cause for guitar buzzing is feedback. There’s too much volume and/or the guitar is sitting too close to the amplifier.
Just turn down the volume on both the guitar and the amp or move the guitar away from the amp.
Electric guitars have sensitive electronic devices called pickups. These bar-shaped transducers capture vibrations and sit below the strings, projecting a magnetic field. These little devices must remain free of dirt, debris, dust and damage because they will cause a guitar to buzz.
To check if this is the problem, flip the switch for the pickup selector to another pickup. If the noise stops, the problem is with the pickup you disabled. This will be obvious when you select the disabled pickup again.
Simply clean off the pickup with a clean microfiber towel, gentle forced air and/or a very soft clean brush. If cleaning doesn’t take care of the problem, then damage might be afoot. If this is a concern, take in for a check.
Buzz from pickups may come from the type of pickups on the guitar, specifically single-coil ones. Their inherent design lends itself to buzzing because these are overly sensitive to electromagnetic interference (EMI). While the noise is part of the charm of these pickups, it can still be annoying.
Get away from or shutoff any kind of electronic appliance or device in the vicinity. This includes lamps, light switches, computers, televisions, air conditioners, etc. You can also try the following:
- Protect the pickups with copper tape (more on this later).
- Use a noise-eliminating pedal like a hum-eliminator or noise gate. However, this will only reduce the problem, not get rid of it entirely.
- Completely replace them with noise-reduction pickups. This will be the most expensive option and it will change the guitar’s sound.
3. Dusty or Dirty Electronics
Any dusty or dirty electrical component can cause a guitar to buzz as if it were a mutant bee. This includes anything like power supplies, jack inputs, cables, amplifiers and pedals. Guitar switches and pots are magnets for the stuff. Combined with the circuitry’s sensitivity, humming is inevitable.
Even the smallest dust particle can force short circuits and stray electrical charges to occur. So, take a gander over every inch of these things along with a clean microfiber towel and some forced air. Gently wipe and blow away the dust and debris. Use a cotton swap with a dab of isopropyl alcohol for jack inputs.
Always attempt to keep your guitar as clean as possible and get into the habit of cleaning it at the same time you change the strings. Also, wipe down your guitar with a clean microfiber towel after each time you play. Store the guitar in a safe place when not in use, like a hard shell case.
Because we live in a world full of electronic and computerized devices, they all emit electromagnetic interference (EMI). Wireless routers, computers, tablets, laptops, smart phones, toasters, washing machines, televisions, stereos, speakers, microphones and electrical systems will all project a certain amount of EMI.
The easiest solution would be to turn off all the devices in the vicinity, one by one, until the humming stops. But, this may not be possible depending on where you are and what you’re doing.
So, you can shield your guitar by applying copper tape to the inside of all the holes your pickup sit in and other such cavities in the guitar. This isn’t the easiest thing to do. So, it’s advisable to go to a professional or find a luthier to do it for you.
5. Fret Buzz
Sometimes, the humming or buzzing sound might be coming from a mechanical issue with your frets. The following list indicates what those problems could be. But, understand that regardless of which you’re able to discover on your own, you’re still going to have to take it in for repairs or adjustments.
- Poor Leveling: If the frets aren’t even with one another, it will cause the most annoying string buzz. The taller frets touch the back of the strings and this is what produces the noise. Turn the guitar on its side and use your eyes to see the gap between each fret and the strings. If you have to, slide a piece of paper between the strings and the frets. If you feel any pulling or tension, this might be the problem.
- Neck Relief: If the guitar’s neck has a concave or convex bow, it will cause the strings to buzz. Either you will have to replace the neck or buy a new guitar altogether. This happens over time from things like humidity, dryness as well as tightening the truss rod and strings.
- Nut Slots: Some guitars have headstock nuts that are not cut well or they’re too low. Either way, it will create a buzzing sound and only a luthier will be able to fix it.
- Low Action: Lower action on a guitar makes it easier to play. But, if it’s too low, it will cause the strings to buzz because they’re too close to the frets. Use a string action gauge to find the perfect balance of low action without buzzing.
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Can playing technique affect string buzz?
Yes, buzzing could be due to the way you play your guitar. If you hit the strings too hard or not fretting properly, these will eventually cause your guitar to buzz when not touching the strings.
How much buzzing is normal? When is buzzing a concern?
Because guitars are intrinsically noisy, you should expect a certain amount of buzz when you aren’t touching it. So, it really boils down to what you prefer and how much you find annoying. But, if it’s problematic, then you can use the techniques above to mitigate it.
Final Thoughts on Guitar Buzzing When Not Touching Strings
Guitar buzzing when not touching it is often the result of a grounding issue, an electrical system problem or feedback. But, it could also be your pickups, other dusty components or it’s coming from a problem with the frets. To control the noise, you must first isolate the issue.
This means going over each point above and evaluating your guitar in every nook and cranny. This includes the environment at the time you hear buzzing since it could come from EMI. If you go through all these checks and the buzz won’t reduce at all, take it to a luthier.
My name is Howard Matthews and I have been playing the guitar since I was knee-high. My parents like to joke that I was pulling the strings even before I was born. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my dad’s guitar, wreaking havoc on the chords.
Now, 40 years later, I can attest that I play them much better than I did back then. I have followed in the footsteps of both my parents – much to their delight – and have been the main guitarist in my band for the best part of three decades.
Music has always been my passion, and until recently my life has been so consumed with it that I haven’t had a moment to have a breath (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!