The electric guitar can be a noisy beast. I’m not
talking about the amount of
musical volume it can generate
(we generally don’t refer to that
as “noise,” though innocent
neighbors and long-suffering
family members may disagree).
I’m talking about the unwanted
variety of noise that can accompany an electric guitar—buzz,
hum, hiss, radio stations, and
more—all picked up by the
guitar’s pickups, its wiring,
or something else in its signal
chain. Onstage, that background noise can be an annoyance, but in many cases you can
deal with it by simply ignoring
it. However, in a recording
situation, where every track is
under microscopic scrutiny, any
amount of noise can be noticeable and problematic. Let’s look
at ways we can reduce or eliminate the noise.
Let’s begin at the source: the
guitar itself. There are several
ways that noise—EMI (
electromagnetic interference) and RF
(radio frequency) noise carried
through the air—can get into
an electric guitar rig’s circuits.
Any noise picked up will be
amplified right along with the
desirable sounds. And, the higher the gain, the more the signal
and noise are amplified, and the
louder the noise will seem.
Problem: The coils of wire
used in a guitar pickup essentially function as antennae, picking
up radio waves and other types
of interference in the air.
Solutions: A humbucking
pickup is the obvious solu-
tion, whether it’s a traditional
side-by-side or stacked single-
coil design. Another solution
is to equip your guitar with
active pickups. But if your tone
depends on a traditional single-
coil—whether Fender-style or
P- 90 (in my opinion, the latter
is noisier than the former)—
then neither of those solutions
will work for you. In this case,
you might consider installing a
dummy coil. The dummy coil
doesn’t pick up sound from the
strings, rather it picks up the
same unwanted noise picked up
by the regular pickups and can-
cels it out. Suhr is one manufac-
turer that offers a dummy-coil
solution (the BPSSC).
The Suhr BPSSC (Backplate Silent Single-Coil System) replaces the
tremolo-spring cavity cover on a Strat-style guitar with a passive
dummy-coil device. This dummy coil doesn’t pick up string sounds, but
cancels noise much like a humbucker. Photo courtesy of Suhr Guitars
Problem: Noisy pedals or
noise resulting from the huge
amount of amplification provided by overdrive, fuzz, and
Solutions: Using the tips
above, kill the noise before it
enters the pedal. If there’s no
noise going into the pedal, a
cleaner signal will come out.
However, gain pedals—especially
fuzzes and high-gain overdrives—
can also generate their own noise.
In this case, you need a noise
suppressor after your gain pedals.
There are two types of suppressors: a gate and a noise reducer.
Gates work like a door that slams
shut when no desired signal is
present, cutting off the noise.
Noise reduction systems pull
down the level of the noise using
various electronic techniques.
Gates can be tighter, but if
they’re not set correctly, decaying
notes or quiet sounds you want
to hear may get chopped off.
Noise-reduction devices work
best when the noise is “
steady-state” or constant. The Rocktron
Guitar Silencer and the Rocktron
HUSH systems are two popular
examples of noise-reduction units.
Another affordable but effective
solution is the Boss NS- 2 Noise
Problem: Noisy amp—
either the amp is picking up
noise or its internal circuits
are making noise of their own.
One quick way to find out is to
turn the amp on and crank it
up with nothing plugged into
its input. If you don’t hear any
noise, then the source is some-
thing plugged into the amp. If
you hear noise with nothing
plugged in, then the amp itself
is the noise generator.
MITCH GALLAGHER is
the former Editor in Chief of
EQ magazine and the author
of six books on recording
and one instructional DVD
on mastering. He operates
MAG Media Productions
and the Sound Sauna studio, and is
Sweetwater’s Editorial Director. His upcoming
book is Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate
Electric Guitar Sound. mitchgallagher.com