10 Tips to Make Your Chords Sound Cleaner

Many beginning guitarists have problems getting each and every note to ring clean in their chords. So the hands that you have can and will work fine with a few helpful tips along the way. Here's the helpful tips right here.

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Many beginning guitarists have problems getting each and every note to ring clean in their chords. People with small hands complain their hands are too small. People with big hands complain their hands are too big. I've seen huge dudes play ukuleles and tiny women playing giant Gibson jumbos. So the hands that you have can and will work fine with a few helpful tips along the way.

And what do ya know?... Here's the helpful tips right here.

Important: Like everything else on guitar, this is about developing muscle memory.

Practice and patience will take you a long way here. These tips aren't a magical immediate cure-all, but they will make the process go faster. But you'll have to have patience with yourself to make these tiny adjustments over and over as your fingers learn where they're supposed to be.

I think all of us at one time or another would have happily thrown our guitars out a 10th story window than attempt that stupid F chord again. When frustration sets in, take a break for a few minutes and come back to it.

There are only 3 reasons a note doesn't come out clean:
  • Your finger isn't pressing down hard enough
  • Your finger isn't close enough to the fret
  • A finger on the string next to your dead note is rubbing up against it
Let's look at some ways to avoid those problems...

1. Work on just two chords at a time.

If you're playing a song that's got 6 or 8 chords in it, you'll go insane trying to learn them all at once. Break them down into pairs and go back and forth between those two chords until you've got them both clean. Then move on to the next pair.

For best results, overlap your pairs. Example: Your chord progression is C G7 Am F. Work C and G7 together. Then G7 and Am. Then Am and F. Then F and C.

2. Make sure your fingers are as close to the fret as possible.

There's sometimes confusion on this. So to be clear about this, I'm talking about the fret wire immediately higher on the fretboard from where your finger is. So if you're playing a note on the 2nd fret, your finger should be right up against the 2nd fret wire, not the 1st.

You won't always be able to get every single finger in the chord right up to the fret, but come as close as you can. The further back from the fret you are, the harder you need to press down. Otherwise you'll get a buzzy sound instead of a clean note.

3. Make sure you're pressing down hard enough.

This may seem obvious, but I have had students so new to the process that they didn't realize they had to push the strings down at all. If you've checked off everything else here and you're still getting a dead or buzzy note, sometimes a little extra pressure will do the trick.

You shouldn't have to press down super hard if the rest of your hand is in the right position, as you'll see in the next step. But if you feel like you need to work on the strength of your hands, you can exercise them.

Instead of buying one of those expensive guitar finger strength trainer things, go to the tennis department at a sporting goods store. You should be able to find a little foam grip exerciser that only costs a couple bucks. It's a bit more effective than just using a rubber ball of something because it keeps your fingers in a relative guitar-like position.

4. Make sure your thumb is in the right position.

Ah, the notorious thumb... An incorrect thumb position can sabotage everything else you try in cleaning up your chords.

The pad of your thumb should be on the back of the neck, flat, and pointed towards the ceiling. It may move around slightly from chord to chord, but that's your best default position.

DON'T use any of the following thumb positions:
  • Thumb popped up over the top of the fretboard - Later we'll use that when bending strings, but not now. Having your thumb popped up over the top means you're using the little muscles at the base of your fingers to press with instead of the giant muscle attached to your thumb. You're working too hard! If someone watching you play from the front can see your thumb, it's probably to high.
  • Thumb pointing towards the headstock - This sort of move, where your whole thumb is laid out lengthwise along the neck, inhibits the movement of your fingers drastically. Keep it pointed towards the ceiling to open up your stretch and mobility.
  • Thumb bent at the first knuckle - Bending at the knuckle changes the angle of your palm and fingers in ways that make things more difficult. Make sure to keep you thumb straight.

5. Use the tips of your fingers, not the pads.

You want to use the smallest and hardest part of your finger to press the strings. That's the tip (where you'll be developing a lovely set of calluses) rather than the squishy pad of your finger.

Related to this idea is making sure that your fingers are arched like a hook. You don't want straight, flat fingers. Put a little curl in them and stay up on the tips of your fingers. You should be able to slip a pencil under the arch of your fingers if you're doing it correctly.

6. Check each string of the chord to make sure it's clean.

While holding down the whole chord, pick each individual note to make sure it's clean. When you find a muffled one adjust the finger on that string (or the one next door if it's rubbing) just enough to get the string clean.

This is the real patience portion of your practice. When you adjust one note another might go out of whack. Keep adjusting each note until all the fingers hit the right spot and the chord is clean. Then release the chord and do it again.

Want to make this process go faster? Do this step with your eyes closed. We navigate the fretboard by touch, not sight. And eventually you'll be able to clean up a muffled note just by the feel under your fingers.

Your fingers are the second most touch-sensitive part of your body. (I'm sure you can guess where the first is...) and closing your eyes will enhance your sense of touch. So making these adjustments with your eyes closed will further engage both the parietal (touch) and occipital (visual) lobes in your brain.

7. Practice partial chords first.

This isn't my favorite tip, but it works for some people. If you're working on say, a C major chord, trying getting just the 4th and 5th strings clean first, without worrying about holding down the rest of the chord. Then add in the 3rd string. Then the 2nd and 1st.

The reason I don't particularly like this idea is that every time you add a new finger in, it slightly changes the position of the other two and you're almost starting over again. But for some people it works well. And it offers little rewards for your work along the way. So feel free to try it out.

These next two tips are specifically for closed position (barre) chords.

8. Roll your first finger to the side.

On a barre chord, your first finger has a lot of work to do. Instead of pressing down with your first finger flat (on the squishy pad part), roll it slightly out (towards the headstock) to use the harder side of your finger. This should also open up the mobility of your other fingers a bit too.

9. Start with chords higher on the neck and work your way down.

Part of the reason that dastardly F chord is harder is because it's right next to the nut where the string tension is highest. So you have press the strings a lot harder.

Start by practicing barre chords higher up the neck in the 5th or 7th fret area where the strings are a little easier to press. Then work your way down to the 1st fret.

10. If you've been patient with yourself over a period of weeks working on this and you're still not able to get a nice clear, chimey chord sound, there are a couple things you can try.

If you're having trouble pressing the strings down hard enough, you can try a lighter gauge of strings. Depending on your guitar, you may need a new set up on it to get the guitar to tune right.

If you're still having trouble keeping your fingers from rubbing up against the other strings, you might try a guitar with a wider neck. That will give you a bit more space between the strings. Hit a guitar shop and tell them you're looking for something with a wide neck. Then sit down and play some chords on it and see if it helps.

Beyond these 10 tips, the most important ingredient is patience. When your fingers and your brain get tired, leave it for a few minutes, do something else, and come back to it. Don't give up. Everyone's hands are a little bit different and take some experimentation to get everything in the right place. You wouldn't expect to be able to hit a 3-pointer with a basketball every single time without a lot of patience and practice. Your guitar is no different.

You can do this. Just keep doing it.

Also, there is one other concept you need to know about that is really the best way to learn guitar and put me out of business.

48 comments sorted by best / new / date

    bullseyestrat
    Great tips. Only thing I'd add is make sure your guitar is tuned, intonated, and set up properly. Because if not then you'll have issues with the sound regardless of the cleanliness of your technique.
    rockgodman
    These are all extremely useful tips. I've been teaching guitar professionally for about 3 years now and all of these tips are things I tell kids everyday. #8 is one i rarely see people talk about but is one of the most important tips when talking about barring. Keep in mind everyone has different hands and certain things will not work for everyone but these tips overall are great. BEGINNERS PLEASE READ Edit: Although wrist position should probably also be mentioned
    esky15
    This was a great lesson and gave me new tips to give to people who ask. The only thing I don't agree with it the thumb position section. Usually when I strum chords, my thumb is naturally resting on the top of my neck. I can probably play all 6th string notes with my thumb if I wanted to.
    sideslick
    That's actually how I play barre-chords based around the low-E. It's also how I play the intro to "The Pretender", by Foo Fighters. My thumb frets the E and I just fret my other fingers accordingly. I've got fairly-big hands, so it's really not a problem to me.
    jasomano
    I got a bit worried with the thumb part too. nearly all open chords have my thumb up over the fretboard, and then barre chords have it pointing towards the headstock.
    retroguy02
    same, especially if you're trying to play stuff by Hendrix or RHCP where to get the 'muted strumming' sound on the thicker strings you pretty much have no other choice but to use your thumb. Actually John Frusciante was the reason I started using the thumb-over technique, when I was learning some RHCP songs. I initially learnt to play the 'proper' way (thumb against the back), and then had a bit of a struggle getting my thumb over the top (I'm a small-handed guy and have an Epiphone LP). I think everyone should at least know the thumb-over technique, it's very handy for muted strumming and preventing accidental ringing of the thicker strings.
    shaundp
    I'm so bad with thumb placement. I think my guitar teacher spent half the time he was teaching criticizing how it was above the fretboard.
    buddy1991
    With electric guitar its not a huge deal if your thumb is over the neck because the neck is pretty small. But if you ever play classical you will realize why it can be a big deal. Move your thumb up and down while you play a chord. You will notice that if you keep your thumb lower then your fingers have way less chance of muting other strings below them.
    Clarkinator
    My thumb naturally does that when I play certain chords (D is a good example). I've never fought it, if it feels natural I'd say go with it as long as it doesn't brush the E string.
    victor224
    My hands are huge but it never bothered me on how my thumb usually dangles over the fretboard. As a matter of fact, it feels more comfortable for me soloing with the thumb over the board than having the thumb behind the board. It all depends on your personal feeling on how you play the guitar. Your structure of arms, feeling, wrist, and fingers all change the way you play. For example. Michael Angelo Batio has a unique way of picking and uses most of his arm to move. Chris Broderick on the other hand has a more relaxed motion centered around the wrist for minimal movement.
    K33nbl4d3
    For lead it's fine to have the thumb over the fretboard. The point here is that chords, especially barre chords, are much harder to make clear if you don't have your thumb on the back of the board helping you clamp down. MAB isn't a great example, considering that he's trained himself to use a technique not just difficult, but not even physically feasible for most people.
    steven seagull
    Nice spam at the end there. Yes I'm really sure that people visiting YOUR website would put YOU out of business. Is it really that difficult to be honest?
    daflame
    I thank you for number 8, but the spam at the end was not too great. I already knew most of these but the few that I didn't were really good tips.
    JB95
    Having the thumb over the fretboard isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can help with muting, and some chords require an additional finger (thumb) to be played. A D chord with an F# in bass at the low E-string for example. Still useful tips though.
    buddy1991
    I'd advise against using your thumb to ever play notes, but hey if that's your preferance go for it.
    GuitarGod610
    You can rearrange the fingers and play the low F# with your first finger for that. It's a lot easier than trying to reach the thumb over the neck to play a note on the low string.
    op4blushift
    Not necessarily. I found using my thumb to fret difficult at first but I'm fairly comfortable at using it now, although I only use it for chords that really need it. Also, muting with the thumb is also a fairly handy technique, especially when combined with muting from the rest of the fretting hand and the picking hand.
    beginnerguitarn
    I see I hit a tender spot with the thumb position stuff. There are certainly times when bringing the thumb over the top is useful. Bending, for instance. However, most people that are having trouble cleaning up their chords, in either open or barre positions, are struggling with finger independence, which leads to muted notes. The thumb position I mentioned, is a good home base position because it uses better muscles groups and allows full movement of the fingers. Since this is an article for beginners, that position gives the best chance at having things come out clean. Later as you get to know how your own hands work, thumb over the top stuff is perfectly ok, based on what works for you. But doing it early in the process (and I speak from my own experience here) means having to undo that habit when you run across something that it doesn't work well with.
    khalil1220
    this is good advice, but you didn't mention anything about the importance of the strumming hand, which has to get good at being able to strum strings in isolated groups, you may play all six, maybe 5, maybe 4 or 3, each requires precision with the right hand. Also the strumming hand is huge in controlling the balance of the voices, and general dynamics. Theres a lot more it can do, but it had a huge impact on the cleanliness of a chord
    imogen.shinoten
    I have the opposite problem when it comes to having the thumb over the fret board , I have the smallest, most petite hands out of anyone I know and i have a lot of trouble with getting my thumb near the top of the neck. I have trouble doing chords and scales as well. Bummer :L but I'm sure with practise I can learn a way of playing
    jammindk
    Great tips, thanks. I've found (as well) that I alter my thumb position according (pun intended) to which chord I'm playing. But being aware of it is a good thing, helped me finetune my musclework a bit. :
    travois
    Excellent tips, all useful. Here's one more I saw that's been quite useful for a "slow last finger" (I believe credit is to Brad Carlton at Truefire)_: Usually a chord is formed, timing-wise, with the forefinger, then the next finger, then the next finger, then maybe the pinky as well. As you improve, these start to become all positioned ("collected") more or less simultaneously. But sometimes the last finger becomes habitually "last" and delayed in moving into position, only after the others are in place. The suggestion is to reverse the order, and place ("collect") the last, or "slow" finger (i.e. maybe the pinky) first.
    travois
    Just found one more tip for Barre chords: It's a killer tip! Wow It's called "Jennifer's little secret" by Douglas Niedt (google search). Essentially rather than squeezing with the thumb to get a good barre, keep the thumb relaxed, and pull the neck slightly toward the body.
    Decode Music
    Yes! I like #1 and #2 especially. I'd like to add to make sure you put your fingers on in the proper order to start (ie fattest to skinniest strings). Beginners especially have a tendency to put their fingers on the fretboard and strum in opposite directions which takes a tonne of time and becomes frustrating when trying to play along with the track.
    midnightmoon828
    Amazing thank you very much I hope it will help me get the note cleaner .Do you am really happy that I found the perfect tips thanks u awesome )))
    shawnkenneth
    Hey guys.. I've been playing for two years now.. I just wanted to know, I read somewhere that while playing(almost anything like notes and chords) your fretting hand wrist must be perfectly straight.. is it true?
    travois
    For joint health, and minimizing carpal tunnel, tendon strain, etc. the straighter the wrist joint the better. This isn't always going to happen, or be possible for some chords, but it should be the general goal (in addition fretting /squeezing with the BARE MINIMUM of pressure necessary). It becomes more important as greater forces or greater movements are occurring (i.e. sustaining a barre chord; fast soloing finger movements)
    RED777
    this was good. i don't really need it now but any beginner or anybody having trouble needs this.
    adam.zurek.129
    I believe that the part on lighter gauge might be especially useful for those who found their acoustic guitar somewhere eg. in the cellar and now struggle with the strings. After a few years of a guitar lying tossed (and often it ranges to several years) those strings become extremely hard (and useless, really), but for someone who just wants to try and does not have enough knowledge/experience it seems that they're fine and it is just their inability in the way. Wrong. If this is a case, get yourself a decent, new set of strings. (dunno if it refers to nylons as well, never tried ooold nylons)
    sideslick
    I remember the electric-guitarist in my old school's jazz-band. He never changed strings, based solely on the fact that they never broke because he had a really light-touch. He didn't really care about tone or playability, and it always kind of peeved me to think about. He never even adjusted his truss-rod! He always was the weak-link in the band, and most-everyone but the conductor saw it. He let me play his main-guitar and the strings were absolutely stiff-as-f***. It just played like absolute-crap! He doesn't care about his tone or his instrument! What kind of monster does that to his guitar!?
    riaki1998
    I've only just got my electric guitar a couple of days ago, it was a second-hand Stagg guitar. I've never had an electric guitar before although I do have an old acoustic guitar that I recently took out of the case from 6 years ago (I had a really rubbish guitar teacher back then in primary school, long story), how do you know when to change the strings? It's just that both guitars are pretty old and I'm not sure if I'm just rubbish at guitar or my strings need changing. I don't have a music store where I live so I don't know how to find out.
    juckfush
    Great methods and very well explained. I've been encouraging use of the very same strategies with my students for the past two years, with great results.
    .Ashley.
    I play acoustic guitar and my thumb is up over the fretboard when I play regular chords such as G, D, Am etc. It only lays flat on the neck and pointing up when I'm doing barred and power chords. It's the most comfortable/natural feeling position for me. Been playing this way for around 7 years now, is that wrong or a bad habit? Or does the thumb position stated in the article only apply to barre chords?
    buddy1991
    Do what feels good to you. Unless its affecting you in a negative way it does not matter.
    AlluminatedGuy
    Learn a simple chord based song using the chords you've worked on as a comparison between how you sound and how the recording sounds!
    talljoe
    My thumb doesn't bend at the middle joint, so I find it impossible to have it any way other than pointing at the headstock if I want to put my fingertips on the strings. If I do point it at the ceiling it is like a solid stick from my wrist and my fingers can't reach around to the fretboard. Is there anything I can do about that ?
    Crimfan
    One trick that is helpful but often overlooked is to capo your guitar up. This exploits one of the guitar's biggest features, namely that its geometry is the same up and down the neck but the tension is easier with a capo on and the frets are closer together. Capo 5 and practice the chords until you can play things smoothly. Then move down a half step to capo 4. Practice until it gets smooth. Rinse, lather, repeat... pretty soon you'll be comfortably playing in open position! This trick also works if you want to stretch your vocal range. Learn a song in a comfortable key and move it up or down a half step. The principle I'm making use of is called "zone of proximal development" in the scientific literature on learning. By working where you find it challenging but not overwhelming, optimal learning happens. But buy a good capo and one of those headstock tuners. $20 makes all the difference in the world to being in tune. There's no point practicing on an out of tune guitar. You just reinforce being out of tune.
    rromyy
    Another small tip. Make sure your nails cant touch the strings. i did that as a biginner and it sounded horrible
    mambro.carmine
    I am at the point where I'm about to throw my guitar through the window or use like the Honky Tonk man! I can't get the C major chord to sound clean. I get a buzzing sound and I often find my fingers rubbing on the open 3rd string. These tips sure sound useful. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one experiencing frustration.