When you picture yourself as a guitarist, you probably think of playing loud on stage in front of lots of people. The image of struggling through practice sessions at home when you know you can’t make a lot of noise is not the most romantic.
However, having the option to play quietly is great if you don’t want others to hear what you’re up to (or to save their ears if you’re a total beginner). Alternatively, if you’re living close to other people in an environment like an apartment, playing loud might be prohibited late at night or early in the morning. Practicing heavy metal at 3 am? Expect a complaint from the neighbors pretty quickly!
So, how can you play the guitar quietly without sacrificing your playing experience?
There are a huge amount of nuanced methods and specific tricks for establishing your own technique for playing quietly. Everyone has their own way of doing it. How you quieten your guitar may depend on the space you are in, your style of play and even the guitar you own.
We explore the tips you can use to establish your own way to play without annoying the neighbors below.
Acoustic / Classical Guitar
- Practice quieter playing techniques and methods like palm muting which are useful for playing and project less volume.
- Make small, temporary alterations and modifications to your guitar which can cover or fill the sound hole and lower the projection volume.
- Use a feedback buster.
- Consider buying an electro-acoustic guitar and using the pickup to play through headphones.
- Opt for lighter strings. You might alter the sound of the guitar, but it will generally be quieter as a result.
- Play in a space which ‘soaks up’ the sound.
Acoustic guitars present more of a challenge for playing quietly. This may be the opposite of what you expect, but the way electric guitars are amplified gives you far more control of the volume. Acoustic guitars have more volume to start with, which we then need to try and take away, or at least reduce, using the methods we explore below.
The one way that requires no specific alterations to the guitar itself or the space you are in is to learn more about palm muting. In a lot of different genres such as funk, palm muting is a really important playing technique, but it can also be used to avoid annoying the neighbors.
Palm muting isn’t the most difficult thing to learn. The palm of your strumming hand should sit on its side against the strings. This softens the tone and means the strings do not ‘ring out’ for anywhere near as long. Imagine little ‘stabs’ of sound being played instead of long strums. You need to get the hang of allowing just enough tension on the strings for it to have an attack and some sound, without letting it ring out for a long time.
Palm muting is great for acoustic or electric guitar, but there are more effective methods for playing electric guitar quietly, as explored later in this guide. Muting is a good technique to learn to open up a world of new effects and styles, so it is strongly recommended.
Fingers over Picks
If you play with a pick or plectrum and have ever tried to practice without one, you may have noticed that there is a noticeable difference in the volume. A pick gives a firmer ‘pluck’ on the string which then gives a faster and louder attack to the sound and also means it rings out more. If you play with your fingers, you will naturally play a little softer and also the skin on your fingers will act as a bit of a dampener for the sound, resulting in a lower volume.
There’s nothing wrong with transitioning back to playing with a pick once you’re back in an environment where you can play a little louder. Playing in one style doesn’t mean that you’re committed. If anything, this will be enhancing your repertoire of skills.
To know how to alter the volume of an acoustic guitar, it is important to think about how the guitar actually works. If you think about the body of the guitar, this is like a big reverb chamber. The soundhole is where the vibrations from the strings enter the body, reverberate and become louder before the sound reflects and projects around the room.
It is natural that making changes to the soundhole or body of the guitar change the way it projects and therefore makes it much quieter (if done right).
Filling the Body
The body of a guitar is where the sound echoes and is projected from. Think of it as someone shouting loudly into a cave or an empty hall. Now imagine putting a pillow over this person’s mouth. Suddenly, the volume is greatly reduced as a result. The same sort of idea applies to filling the body of the guitar. Suddenly, it can’t reflect around and increase in volume. The sound level drops much more quickly.
A pillow is actually one of the best ways to dampen the sound in this way when it comes to acoustic guitars too. If you are able to stuff the sound hole with a pillow, it means that the guitar’s volume will be significantly reduced.
If you’ve spent a significant amount of time with drummers, you may have seen this technique used on their kick drum before recording or performing. This can dampen the sound and change its qualities as well as making it quieter. This is because the chamber in which the sounds reverberate and ‘grow’ is now disturbed and doesn’t have the same impact.
Pillows aren’t always the easiest item to put into the sound hole, especially if they are larger. Try a smaller pillow or if you can’t, something else which is soft can work properly. Feed in a blanket, lots of paper towels or even try putting plush toys in there. You shouldn’t have to buy anything specifically for this. Just make sure whatever you put in there isn’t impacting upon the strings and stopping you from playing normally.
The general rule for what will be effective is based on whether it is absorbent or not. Generally, if something will absorb water, it will absorb sound well.
Dullen the Vibrations of The Strings
This is the ‘stopping at source’ method of trying to quieten the guitar. The strings vibrating is where the sound of the guitar is generated. Think of an elastic band being plucked and the sound that this creates. If you then put your finger on that band it will quieten or stop making sound altogether.
By placing an item underneath the strings, you can have a similar impact on the sound. This means the strings do not vibrate as much and as a result, the sound is not as loud. There is a specific method of doing this.
The item has to be placed on the strings as close as possible to the bridge. Along the fretboard or anywhere near the soundhole may make it very difficult to actually play the instrument. Next to the bridge (lower on the body than the soundhole) is the perfect space for it. So what are some suitable items?
People have tried all sorts of different things. Similarly to the soundhole materials, something soft and absorbent will probably do a decent job, but this might kill the sound altogether. Try an old t-shirt, a sponge, a piece of cardboard or packaging materials like polystyrene. It needs to be thick enough to wedge in there and to touch the strings in order to have the muting effect.
Combining this with some of the other methods such as filling the soundhole or covering it can have a drastic impact upon the volume.
The feedback buster is an invention to stop feedback from occuring in electro-acoustic guitars or acoustic guitars which have pickups attached. The sound reverberating in the body and this being recorded on the pickups can create a feedback loop.
Though it is invented to stop feedback issues, it works to quieten an acoustic guitar, too. A feedback buster effectively just sits over the soundhole, and in the process makes it much harder for the sound to be projected loudly. It basically just moves vibrations away from the soundhole where it would otherwise get ‘amplified’.
Feedback busters won’t make your guitar sound any nicer! They are just a tool to make the soundhole of your guitar more or less redundant. The tone may suffer, and it is harder to create dynamics in your playing, but this is just a temporary measure.
Feedback busters are affordable, you can buy one here for super cheap at Amazon and are also really easy to attach and detach from the guitar. For some people, this is the favorite way of making the guitar quieter for those late night sessions.
Thinner or “Lighter” Strings
The thickness of your strings is to do with how they are wound. A thicker would string will feel chunkier, and will also produce a heavier sound with more mid-range in it. Think of the sort of guitar sound you’d associate with chugging metal riffs. Thinner strings have more high-end in them, meaning they’re not quite as good for some chords and have more of a ‘shining’ tone. They’re good for soloing.
A big advantage of thinner strings is that they have a lower volume (generally speaking). Think about swapping out the strings you normally use for thinner strings. Even if this isn’t the exact sound you want when it comes to performing, it doesn’t change your technique. Think of thinner strings as a temporary compromise in order to allow for practice at unsociable hours. They feel a little different, but you’ll quickly be able to adjust to this.
An added bonus is that thinner strings are easier to play for beginners. They don’t have the same level of roughness and allow your fingertips to become more firm over time and not be exposed to dense, heavy strings which cause callouses.
The standard acoustic string gauges on the market are as follows. They are commonly referred to as:
Extra light: .010
Custom light: .011
The measurement in the above list is just for the thinnest of the strings. The gauges of all six strings for these settings are:
Extra Light: .010 .014 .023 .030 .039 .047
Custom Light: .011 .015 .023 .032 .042 .052
Light: 012 .016 .025 .032 .042 .053
Medium: .013 .017 .026 .035 .045 .056
Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039 .049 .059
If you aren’t comfortable changing strings yourself, there are many music stores and guitar techs that can do this job for a small fee. It is a good skill to learn as a guitarist, though.
Think About Room Acoustics
Acoustics can be a very confusing and complicated topic, but when it comes to volume, especially for acoustic guitars, it needs to be considered at least a little bit. If you’ve ever been in a recording studio or rehearsal room and seen acoustic treatments on the walls, these are usually in place to kill the reverb of the room so that you get a ‘dry’ recording and can choose whether or not to add reverb later. They also have another effect, though.
By putting acoustic treatments on a wall and reducing reverb, you also reduce volume. This is similar to when you add a cushion to the inside of the body of the guitar. It has a soundproofing impact, and though actual soundproofing can be expensive, this can be a cheaper alternative and something you can do yourself. Consider:
- Buying some affordable acoustic treatments to try and soak up the sound.
- Making your own acoustic treatments out of rock wool or Owens Corning and a wooden frame. More info on how to do so can be seen here.
- Hang duvets up on the wall and try and get some extra bean bags for the room. Put as much furniture in there as possible. It sounds silly, but it works. The rule of if it absorbs water then it can absorb sound definitely applies here.
If you have a choice of room to try and alter the acoustics, go for a smaller, carpeted room with as much furniture already in there as possible.
The “Silent” Guitar – Is it Worth it?
It sounds counterproductive, I know. There are silent guitars on the market, though. Silent guitars aren’t 100% silent. Playing one without amplification feels a little bit like playing an electric guitar which isn’t plugged into an amp. However, the strings are slightly different to give more of an acoustic or electro-acoustic feel.
The most popular silent guitars are those made by Yamaha. The SLG200S is their steel string model which has a pickup within and a headphone out slot. This means the sound you hear when you plug in the headphones is similar to the sound of an electro-acoustic guitar, but your friends, family, and neighbors won’t be able to hear anything while you are playing, it will be more or less silent.
These aren’t cheap items. The Yamaha model especially will set you back a fair amount of money. There are some cheaper alternatives on the market but these aren’t quite as reliable. There are plenty of electrics that can go wrong with a guitar like this, and you will definitely need a decent set of headphones if you want to hear the sound in good quality. If you find yourself in a scenario where you can’t make much noise a lot, it might be worth buying a specific piece of kit like a silent guitar.
- Play your electric guitar without any amplification.
- Use a mini or pocket amp.
- Use headphones. There are devices which can allow you to plug headphones straight into your guitar, or you can plug into the amp for private practice.
- Run the audio through a laptop.
Electric guitars don’t really feel like they should go with the word ‘quiet’. However, there are plenty of ways you can alter the volume of an electric guitar, and though we all love to crank it up to 11 and play our favorite jams, we can’t always do so. If a neighbor hears so much as a note of electric guitar at an unsociable hour then there is every chance of them making a complaint. If you’re trying to avoid your mother hearing and telling you to turn it off, you need to find a way to play quieter. So how can this be achieved?
Play With No Amp
There’s no denying that an electric guitar with no amp is the easiest way of playing guitar quietly by some distance. You need no extra equipment or setup. In fact, the setup is even easier if you aren’t using an amplifier, with far less to go wrong.
There are plenty of reasons why people don’t like to practice without an amplifier. It is nowhere near as fulfilling to strike a chord on your electric guitar and hear a volume which is a fraction of what you’d hear playing an acoustic guitar. Also, you won’t be able to hear any effects or the signature crunchy sound a lot of amps can give you. You’ve chosen to play electric guitar for a reason, and it probably isn’t because it is quiet!
In spite of not being quite as fun as some of the other ways, this is a strongly recommended method. You don’t have to change your playing technique at all or make alterations to the guitar. When you plug it into an amp it will have exactly the same feel, this can help you to get comfortable with the instrument and more confident with it rather than changing to something different to play quietly.
Mini Amps, Pocket Amps, Lunchbox Amps
Whatever you call them, these all pretty much mean the same thing. An amplifier which is far smaller than a standard model which you would associate with gigs or practicing with others. If you’re playing on your own then this is a great way to play guitar quietly. Think of it like plugging your guitar into a speaker with the power of a stereo. This can be turned down to a volume which is quiet enough that people in other homes or even other rooms cannot hear. It is easier for you to hear than playing with no amp at all, and also means you can still use effects pedals, digital tuners and more.
A mini amp can be a relatively affordable addition to your arsenal. The chances are that this will only ever be used for playing in private or small groups and therefore the sound quality doesn’t have to be amazing, as long as it is clear enough. You’re never going to use one of these types of amp on tour!
Where would we be in the modern age without headphones? Luckily, a lot of guitar amps have a headphone slot, which allows you to hear the audio through your headphones instead of through the main amp. This means any inbuilt effects units can still be in use and means you can avoid annoying people living within a 200-yard radius of you!
There are also ways you can plug almost directly into the guitar. Headphone amplifiers are available, which plug into the line out of your guitar and have space for you to plug in your headphones. Brands such as Vox, who are one of the biggest players in the world of amplification, offer this kind of product.
Headphones can also be used in another very creative way of playing electric guitar quietly…
Plug Into a Laptop
We live in the age of the laptop musician. I don’t just mean people making dubstep, EDM or grime in their bedrooms, I mean guitarists, vocalists and other instrumentalists, too. Through an audio interface, you can plug into a laptop with such ease. Some of these are USB models which don’t even need you to install a driver to work. Though the sound isn’t going to be equal to a guitar recorded at Abbey Road, they certainly offer some interesting options.
As well as being able to play and listen live on your headphones, you can have a world of new sounds at your fingertips. Software like Guitar Rig means you can access loads of varieties of amp modeling which allow you to add endless effects.
Plugging into a laptop also allows you to record your practice sessions. You never know when inspiration is going to strike and you will have a record of that riff you improvised or the chord progression that sounded good. It also lets you play to a backing track or just listen back to your recording to see where you made errors or how you can improve.
The whole thing sounds expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re a Mac user, you can do all this using Garageband and there is a free version of Guitar Rig you can trial. Windows users can look into other more affordable software such as Reaper, which will work with your audio interface. In fact, the interface may be the only thing you need to buy at all.
Should I strum or pick more gently?
Ideally, you shouldn’t have to change your technique at all. The goal is to be able to play naturally and then you don’t need to worry about adjusting when you do get the chance to open up and play loudly.
Should I use a different pick?
This does make some difference, but honestly, not a huge amount. The tops we’ve listed above will have far more impact on the sound. Thinner guitar picks have a marginally quieter sound, but don’t focus too much on this.
Do I have to spend money to quieten my guitar playing?
No. Though there are some options which will cost you a little something, using old t-shirts to fill a sound hole or paper towel under strings should be virtually free. If you have an electric guitar already, all you need to do is play this without an amp.
What if I just can’t make my guitar quiet enough?
If you’ve got fussy neighbors or you’re sharing a room, for instance, there may not be a great deal you can do in terms of playing the guitar, but there is no harm in watching tutorial videos with headphones on or learning more about music technique and theory. Even reading up on how to play guitar or specific areas you’re struggling with can be helpful to your playing.