14 Top Tips to Clean Up Your Guitar Playing

This week's article is all about cleaning up your guitar playing. Here are 14 top tips to help you clean up your guitar playing and the sounds you produce.

Ultimate Guitar
This week's article is all about cleaning up your guitar playing. I have 14 top tips to help you clean up your guitar playing and the sounds you produce. Overall, we are going see two different approaches in play. The first is making sure that all the notes/sounds we don't want, cannot be heard, and the second is making sure that the notes we do want are very strong and clean.

1. Left Hand Muting

The goal here is to use mostly your first finger to do a lot of the grunt with the muting. There are two simultaneous muting devices going on with one finger here: the very tip of your first finger is going to always gently touch the string above it, as you move up to a different string or a different note then always maintain that the tip of your first finger is touching and muting the string above. At the same time, while fretting your target note, the fleshy part of your first finger should be gently resting against all the strings underneath your target note.

To use an example and to combine the two: if you are playing a note on the 5th fret of the D string with your first finger, the tip of your first finger should just be touching and muting the A string while the underside of your first finger will be gently touching and muting the G, B and high E strings. Again, test this by strumming from the A to high E string and with a bit of luck, you'll only be able to hear the one note. Now, obviously this should only be used when there are not any notes on the surrounding strings that you want to sound. You probably don't want to be using this approach on open chords for example.

Also it's worth mentioning that you can mute with the tip of your other fingers although it's generally not quite as easy, and you may find yourself fretting with your third finger and still muting underneath with your first finger if it not being used elsewhere. As a cheeky little side tip, if your hands allow it you can also wrap you thumb over the top of the neck to mute the low E string (and the A and D string too if you are Paul Gilbert).

2. Solid String Contact

This is something that's easier to fix at the start of your playing but it's fixable later on if you focus on it. The tip/trick here is to make sure you are pressing hard enough the give the string strong and consistent contact with the fret wire. At the same time try to get each finger placed just to the left of each fret wire (the closer the better) but be sure not to press directly on the fret wire itself. Getting each finger to always fret this way might take a little practice but it's worth it in the long run.

3. Finger Strength

Building finger strength is going to help give you more consistency in your legato lines and ultimately help clean up some of your legato playing. Practice single hammer-ons and pull-offs, trills, and longer legato lines and try to aim for consistency in note volume and overall dynamics. Try to also play the same lick over and over with varying dynamics. This will help to give you more control over the articulation of your legato lines.

4. String Bending

Be careful when bending strings that you don't accidentally snag another string on the way back down. To help ensure that you don't catch other strings, push into the fretboard as you push upwards, this will make sure the other strings pile up on your finger tip rather than get caught underneath your finger.

Another trick is to use your right hand to mute when you bend. To explain, let's say you bend a note up on the B string, just after you pick the B string rest the side of your thumb on the string above (G string) and use a right hand finger such as your middle finger to touch and mute the string below (high E string). This is going to give you absolute confidence that ONLY the string you are intending to play and/or bend is going to sound.

5. Right Hand Muting

Right hand muting can happen two ways as well. Firstly you can rest the fleshy part of your palm on and strings that aren't being played, for example a note on the G string means you can effectively palm mute the E, A and D strings. If you pick with an open hand you can also rest any unused fingers on strings high in pitch that the one you are playing on. For example, the previous example of a note on the G string, you can rest some fingers on the B and high E strings for muting.

6. Pick Muting

Pick muting can be used to give staccato elements to your playing. The technique involves picking a note and then immediately bringing the pick back to rest on the other side of the string. So if you pick with a down stroke, then you immediately do an upstroke but instead of picking through on the upstroke you just rest it against the string. Likewise, if you pick with an upstroke you immediately go to do a down stroke and rest on the string (again don't actually pick through on the down stroke, just rest solidly against the string to mute it).

Another way to achieve a similar but slightly different affect is to release the pressure on the notes with your left hand, your fingers will still be touching the string in the same place except for the fact that you will not be pressing the string against the fret wire. This is very common in funk rhythm playing and gives you that super clean choppy rhythm vibe.

7. Inside/Outside Picking

Experiment with both inside and outside picking and see how that effects the sound/feel of your playing. I'll quickly explain the difference. Outside picking is when you are alternate picking two adjacent strings, you down pick the lower string (B for example) and up pick the higher string (high E for example) like this: ->  |   |  <-

Inside picking would be up picking the B string and down picking the high E string. So you are picking from the inside of the string pair like so: | <-   -> |

What you might find is that if you outside pick, when you down pick the first string you might accidentally catch the second string with a down pick as you're on your way around that string to get it with an up pick. This is going to give you an extra "click" and unwanted noise which might happen often if you're picking fast. In this situation choosing to inside pick the lick will prevent any accidental "string clicking" and clean up the lick a bit. It might even feel easier to play which will give you more consistency because you're not fighting against your physical limitations. Experiment with both inside and outside picking for your licks.

8. Hand Sync

Getting your left and right hands in sync is going to be a big deal for how clean you sound and something I'm personally trying to improve myself. You want mechanical precision between when your left hand finger comes down to fret the note and when your right hand picks the string. Getting this movement robotic isn't going to make your playing sound robotic because you can still choose to place notes behind/in front of or dead on the beat. It's just that your placement of the note will become more accurate and precise. Bad hand sync is going to give you unwanted staccato notes or maybe string clicks because at the microscopic level because you might pick the string, and then fret the note with your left hand afterwards.

9. Play Full Notes

Another tip to clean up your playing is to let notes ring out for their full value. If you are playing 16th notes, don't rush to raise your finger off of the notes in order to hit the next note in time because you will get the note short and give an accidental staccato sound. Sure, if staccato is what you're after then that's great but you want to be doing this because you choose to and not because it's the only way you know how. Bad technique in this area will become more apparent at higher speed when you might notice your lines don't sound as fluid as you would want them to be. 

Most of the time if your playing isn't sounding as clean and controlled as you would like, it's going to be your technique that needs to be addressed. There are occasions though, when the changes you need to make are outside of your playing, although luckily not outside of your control. The final 5 tips involve gear setup, maintenance, and accessories.

10. Gear

Noise gates can be used to cut any amp/pedal hiss and uncontrolled string noise. It's not going to replace decent technique but it may help you out mid gig in unfamiliar situations. Maintaining your gear is very important; loose connections, dodgy soldering, old tubes, wobbly jack inputs, dirty volume/tone pots and noisy pickups are all going to give you unwanted noises that you don't want coming out of your amp and cluttering up your pure tones and your crystal clean playing.

11. Proper Guitar Setup

This can be linked to "Gear" but is a little closer to home. Improper/poor guitar setup is also going to get in your way when you play. Your action could be too low causing string buzz and fret noise. Your truss rod may need adjusting causing certain frets/strings to cut out when you bend upwards and hinder sustain. Your intonation might need adjusting making your single notes sound out of tune and giving your chords in certain places a strange chorus-like effect. In all of these are situations you will be fighting against your guitar if it isn't set up properly, and if fixed it will not only make your notes sound cleaner and clearer but also your guitar will feel much more pleasurable and easy to play.

12. Neck Mutes

There are several places on the guitar where resonating frequencies can cause certain parts to vibrate and emit sounds. A few of these include unmuted open strings, springs in the trem cavities of floating bridges, strings between the nut and machine heads, and also loose screws. The screws can be tightened but the others are sometimes harder to control. You can buy neck mutes sometimes called fret wraps to cover the open strings near the nut, these are almost essential for recording (providing no open strings are being played) and if you don't want to buy one you can use a loose fluffy hair band, or even a loose thick sock!

Fret wraps and hair bands are favored by many technically efficient players and players that use right hand tapping frequently and although they are also not a replacement for good muting technique they can help a lot. For trem cavities you can use a slice of foam or a hanky and another sock for the post-nut strings. Sure, it doesn't look very "rock 'n' roll" but if you are in the studio, there's nothing worse than really nailing that perfect take, only to hear that your guitar is ringing out with some funky dissonant chiming sound that ruins the take.

13. Don't Hide Behind Your Amp

Distortion is going to cloud and hide your mistakes. Mistakes that you might not have even known were there before. Try playing your favorite riffs and ideas with as clean a tones as possible, don't crank the bass, don't drip it in delays or reverbs, just a clean pure even tone. Distortion and higher gain tones naturally compress the signal anyway so it will kill your dynamics a bit and bring up the quieter details in your playing which is effectively hiding inconsistencies in your technique. Even more so when repeats from delays and dreamy reverbs are swirling around. So cut all the effects or even play unplugged and try to get your playing/tone as clean, articulate and consistent as possible. If you can get used to playing this way and even out your technique, you'll hear/feel a real difference when you plug back in and crank it back up.

14. Play It on Acoustic

If you're struggling to play a difficult riff cleanly, switch to an acoustic guitar preferable with thicker gauge strings and a high action. The thicker strings and the fact that your fingers need to press harder and a greater distance to sound the notes, combined with the thicker neck is going make playing even harder. Also the unforgiving nature of the pure acoustic guitar tone will in no way cover the sound of your own incompetence. So if you can nail the riff on a hard to play acoustic, switching back to an electric guitar again is going to make everything feel and sound a lot cleaner.

So there you have it, left hand muting, solid string contact, decent finger strength, string bending tips, right hand muting, pick muting, inside vs outside picking, good left/right hand sync, playing full notes, well maintained gear, a proper guitar setup, neck mutes, not hiding behind your amp and switching riffs to acoustic. If you put some time in and master each of these I can personally GUARANTEE you that your playing will sound and feel cleaner, more concise, more articulate and easier to play. Try it, record an idea or riff, spend a decent amount of time on each one of these tips in turn. Only moving on when you feel you've really cracked it, then come back and record the same idea again and compare the two. It WILL sound better, even if only in the details. They do say however, that the devil is in the details and it really is the details that will be the difference between something sound good, and something sounding great.

About the Author:
By Steven Martin, www.stevenmartinguitar.com. If you enjoyed this, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.

12 comments sorted by best / new / date

    No. 14 is a lifesaver. I use that all the time. If I can't get it sounding clean and such on acoustic, it won't sound any better with distortion and/or effects.
    14 is just too accurate, for the past year or so, whenever I go to learn a new song I've started by learning basics of the song on electric, then practising on acoustic until I've got it 100% down, and my playing has picked up so much since I've started doing that! Great article, very informative.
    One thing that I cannot recommend is to raise the action on your guitar a little bit. That forces you to know exactly where you are and what you're doing. Dud notes fall away faster and anything you accidentally hit ring on clearer, it really cleaned up my playing. Of course, now I'm so used to a higher action I never re-lowered mine. So I guess that backfired a little.
    Great, valid tips, some more so than others, that I remember using many years ago.
    Great tips. My guitar teacher has helped me with a lot of this already but they are really useful and make a huge difference!
    This article actually helped me make up my mind about getting an acoustic guitar. Now I know what I'll ask for christmas.
    just had a flick over this. I saw the inside outside picking bit, and realised I do that subconsciously - I didn't realise it had a name...
    Another use for a hair band: Using the thinner ones (not the big fluff muffins), wrap it around your fingers on your left hand (you may have to finagle it to fit tightly and evenly across all of your fingers). It makes playing a little harder and teaches your hands to only move as much as they have to (and encourages lighter pressure and less tension). Great for practicing and building comfort in a smaller amount of time. Seems to work different muscles than the 'acoustic method', but the principle is the same.
    Hmmm have to disagree with #1, unless you're making a barre your fingers should only be touching the string which they're playing. This puts all of the energy of the finger behind the finger tip and allows you to play with less tension.