The Squeak

October 14, 2019

I can remember sitting in the high school practice rooms on a lunch break with one of my violinist friends. I was doing some work on Villa Lobos Prelude 2, desperately trying to prepare for my upcoming college auditions. I reached the B section, fraught with full bars and shifts spanning the entire neck of the guitar. I’d started to think I was finally getting the hang of things, when I see a look of complete disgust from my friend in the corner. I realized that I hadn’t had the piece for long, but good grief! It didn’t sound that bad…I inquired as to why my playing was so unpalatable, and the answer caught me completely off guard. “The squeaking! There’s so much squeaking!” While I had practiced reducing string noise, there was still some sound with shifting. What amazed me was that I didn’t even notice! My friend however couldn’t hear anything else.

Whether you’re a violinist, guitarist, or a wind player, there are always “quirks” and odd noises particular to your instrument of choice. It might be sharp breathing in between notes, bow noise, etc. For guitarists, this seems to be string noise associated with shifting- particularly in the basses.  However, is this something we can eliminate? Or perhaps is it like many acquired tastes, and the string noise is just a part of the guitar’s sound? There are of course techniques and exercises we can implement to help reduce the string noise. Some of this extra sound can be avoided by releasing the pressure in the left hand when shifting. There are even sets of polished bass strings that are designed to help minimize noise! Nonetheless, none of these things completely eradicate this sound. 

The good news for the guitarists out there who are irked by the sounds of finger movement on the strings is that realistically, this is not something that’s glaring or apparent during a live performance. Especially in a hall, much of the string noise that we hear as players will be lost with the transfer of sound in the hall. This is not unlike the somewhat scratchy or rough sound that a bowed instrument makes when volume is being pushed- much of that sound doesn’t carry in a hall, and isn’t obvious unless the audience is a few feet away from the performer. Recording can be an issue since the sound is not only run through a microphone, but is usually done in close proximity to the player (unless it’s a live recital recording). Luckily, most recording software is equipped with editorial tools that allow us to clean up this noise if we feel it’s necessary.

In my opinion, the dreaded squeak is not something that bothers me. It’s part of the beautiful, raw nature of the unamplified guitar. In fact, I would go so far as to say that completely eradicating all string noise would change the nature of the guitar’s sound. It might even sound electric or mechanical! So, while it’s important to practice proper and efficient shifting technique and strive for “perfection”, it’s also important to accept that noise happens. Embrace the squeak! 

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