Engineer Martin Holmes and I debate the best technique to reduce strings noise, but after much deliberation, we come to the conclusion that it could be a good idea to enlist the help of someone with exceptional acoustic tone. With that in mind, I send a message to the ever-helpful Martin Simpson, who responds by saying he’s “more than happy to offer his two penn’orths.”
I’ve been spending more and more time playing fingerstyle acoustic guitar in recent years. Finally, I’ve written and practiced enough material for an instrumental folk EP, with John Renbourn as my primary influence and other fingerstyle masters like Pierre Bensusan and Sheffield’s Martin Simpson as constant sources of inspiration.
So I booked the studio, practiced the material, and prepared the guitars. However, there is one snag… While rehearsing the songs I want to record, I realized that some of them have sliding licks that, eight out of ten times, generate an unwanted strings noise that is tolerable in the room but jarring on a recording.
I’m a little concerned as I call, wondering if his response will propose a total revamp of my tunes or fingering style. However, when we start talking, Martin reveals that there are two really simple things anyone can take to reduce unwanted handling noise on acoustic recordings.
Solution of How To Reduce Strings Noise
So the first half of the solution for reducing strings noise is satisfyingly straightforward: try a new set of coated strings. However, throughout my recording practices, I was able to uncover a couple of technique dodges to eliminate strings noise. The simplest solution is to alter the composition somewhat to eliminate slides that cause squeaks – but, of course, sliding licks are sometimes an integral part of the piece’s flavor.
When I’ve been compelled to preserve such licks, I’ve tried a few methods including lifting any fingers fretting wound strings for a split second and just doing the slide on notes fretted on unwound upper strings.
That helps a little, but I’m sure Martin has some more useful technique advice to share – and, of course, he does: “I usually say the single best thing you can do in terms of left-hand technique is to be as close behind the fret as possible,” he adds.
“For starters, it improves your intonation because you don’t have to press down hard on the string to make it fret. Because, you know, the closer you are to the fret, the faster your string and fret contact will be. A hammer-on that is [fretted] further back from the fret, in the direction of the nut, is more likely to be buzzy and rattly.
“It’s possible it won’t even play the note you desire.” And because you’ll have to press down so hard, it’ll be sharp when you finally strike it. Because you’re playing immediately behind the fret, you can use much less pressure. That has a significant tonal impact. But the other thing is that you’re more likely to have clean [free from strings noise] slides if you’re not pressing too hard.”
So there’s more to playing acoustic without strings noise than that, and it entails paying attention to the finer points of your technique. That makes sense because an acoustic guitar has fewer options for varying or enhancing your sound.
You must perform everything with your fingertips, and your ear must become sensitive to minor flaws. It takes some discipline and effort to do things properly. But, if all of that seems tedious, I can joyfully declare that pursuing a cleaner technique has become one of the most rewarding aspects of playing acoustic guitar – at least for me – since the payoff is sounding like a ‘real’ acoustic player.
“To begin with, you must pay extremely close attention to where your fingers rest,” Martin says of proper fretting technique. “As a result, you must be aware of it at first.” But now I’m at the stage where I honestly just want to pat myself on the head when I look at my left hand [laughs]. But it’s simply the feeling of thinking, ‘That’s precisely how my hands should appear.’ That’s why it sounds so good, don’t you think?”
This is how you can reduce strings noise.