February 9, 2015

Clean Up Those Dirty Power Chords, Part 1: High String Noise

Power chords are the sound of rock.

As such, they are typically played with a heaping helping o’ distortion. Guitar veterans call that sound “dirty”.

But just because the chords don’t sound clean, doesn’t mean we can’t play them clean.

Of course, by “clean”, I mean not slopped up with unwanted noise. We want the distortion without the extra squeaks, squawks and out-of-tune notes.

Make no mistake, rockers – that beautiful distortion will bring our every technique flaw front and center. So it pays to use the best technique possible.

If you’re having trouble making your power chords behave, then you’ve come to the right lesson. Armed with some simple muting techniques you can get ’em tight and get ’em right.

Let there be rock!

High String Noise

The most obvious type of noise that beginners deal with is high string noise. This is the noise that occurs on strings 1, 2 and 3 while you’re busy jamming on strings 4, 5 and 6.

Remember that the sound of power chords comes from the low strings; the higher strings must be muted just like your first diagrams probably taught you:

Unfortunately, beginners often have trouble getting just the right amount of pressure on the high strings, resulting in all sorts of sonic ugliness. Following are the two types of high string noise you’ll encounter.

OPEN STRINGS

The first type of high string noise is the sound of open strings clanging.

This is the result of no finger pressure on the high strings as you play the power chord. It usually happens because you’re playing the low strings too high on the fingertips, specifically finger 1.

You can get rid of the open string noise in a two-part process:

1 – Make the angle of finger 1 very shallow. Pressure should be applied more on the flat part of the fingertip (farther from the nail) than on the very tip (closest to the nail).

2 – This shallow angle will allow your hand to gently lay down across the high strings, effectively muting them.

FRETTED STRINGS

By contrast, fretted string noise is the result of too much pressure on the high strings.

Gently laying finger 1 down across the strings is the key to proper muting. You’re just looking to stop the vibration of the strings. Anything more than that is too much and will cause random notes to squeak out.

This is probably the trickiest type of muting because two things are seemingly at odds here: you need to focus pressure into the fingertips while the rest of your hand lightens up considerably.

Power Chord Muting Drill

Follow this series of 4 steps to ensure that your power chords are ready to rock:

1 – Hold a power chord like the one shown above but don’t apply pressure to any string. Strum across the strings. If your fingers are lightly touching, you should only hear a muted “click” of the pick on the strings.

2 – Apply pressure only into the fingertips while staying as relaxed as possible on the high strings. Test it out by plucking the low strings and then immediately strumming the higher strings. When the low strings ring and the high strings “click” simultaneously, you’ve got it.

3 – Now release all pressure on the chord (don’t release your fingers from the strings altogether) and apply the correct pressure again. Repeat this “squeeze and release” step until it feels completely natural.

4 – Finally, practice maintaining your good muting technique by shifting power chords up and down the fretboard. Start at fret 1, squeeze the chord and play, then release the pressure and shift to fret 3. Repeat at two-fret intervals up and down the neck, listening closely for any stray notes.

Final Thoughts

When you can accurately execute step 4 with no high string noise, you’ve got it – congrats! Now apply what you know to as many power chord riffs and songs as possible.

In the next segment, we’ll fix the other type of power chord noise: low string noise. Rock on!

QUESTION: Do your power chords sound clean? Got any tips to share? Leave me a comment below!

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

© 2012 Jim Bowley All rights reserved.
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