How to stop worrying and embrace string rattle

Throughout my years of teaching guitar, and also setting them up, there is one thing that seems to bother more students and players than anything else, which is odd, because it doesn’t seem to bother the musicians who made them want to play in the first place. It’s string “buzz”, or what I refer to as “rattle”.

The first thing to do is to ascertain the difference between string buzz and string rattle (also, sometimes, called string slap).

String buzz is an unwelcome phenomenon caused either by the string not being pressed firmly enough to the fret, or by a vibrating string coming into contact with the next fret, because that fret is too high, or because the string is pressed against a worn fret, making it lower than the others (or, in the case of an open string, the first fret, because a nut slot is too deep). In these cases, the string will sound fuzzy no matter how softly it is struck.

String rattle (or slap), on the other hand, is where a string is struck with sufficient force, on a properly set up guitar, for it to vibrate against the next fret, or the first fret if the string is open. There’s no doubt that this can happen inadvertently, but good players can do it deliberately as an effect.

The best way to illustrate this, I think, is with a few examples. I’m only going to reference two guitar players here, David Gilmour and Neil Young, both of them legendary and highly regarded by generations of players and music fans alike. Neither of them are particularly technical players, but both are very expressive, and both are great for the purpose of this post.

Here’s David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd, playing an acoustic version of Breathe from the Dark Side of the Moon album on a Martin D-35.

Listen to the low E string when he digs into the E minor chord. It rattles. Look at the bridge saddle to get an idea of how low the action is on the guitar. This, and the rattle it engenders, is a deliberate choice by Gilmour. The guitar plays cleanly with a moderate attack, but when he attacks it more forcefully, the effect is of the guitar growling, and it makes the guitar sound alive and organic.

The same is true of his electric guitar setup and sound. Here’s Have a Cigar from Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album, played on a Fender Stratocaster.

Listen to the intro where the guitar part is more isolated, and hear how much the low E string rattles, both open, and at the G note on the 3rd fret (the other wound strings will do the same to a degree). The point again is that he’s digging into the strings quite hard, and the result is the growling, snarling effect you hear.

Here’s a Neil Young example, and it’s a cracker, that illustrates the main issue concerning string rattle; technique.

This is You and Me from Neil Young’s 1992 album Harvest Moon. This was most likely played on his Martin D-45, and it’s in Drop D tuning (low E string tuned down to D).

This track is strummed, but I believe he plays it with his fingers and not a pick, hence the softer tone, although the playing is still dynamic. Note how there’s barely any string slap at all until the first chorus begins at 1:28, when he starts to lean into the low string with his thumb, and then it only happens when he wants it to.

And that’s the point; to have your guitar set up properly and to learn how to get it to do what you want. This means knowing how hard to attack the strings, and at which point along the string length, to get the tones and effects you want, all of which, of course, takes time and practise. Playing close to the end of the neck will yield a thick, bassy tone, and will make string rattle hard to control. Move close to the bridge, and the sound will be brighter and harder. In between these two extremes is usually best, somewhere between the centre of the sound hole and the edge nearest the bridge.

To finish here’s Neil Young playing Old Man at the BBC in 1971 on the same Martin D-45. This audience got a preview of what would be a highlight of 1972’s Harvest album.

All those hammer-ons wouldn’t sound so good if the action were too high, and the guitar wouldn’t sound so vibrant either. Lots of strings rattle here, open and fretted ones, and all of it’s deliberate.

Embrace string rattle. Learn to control it. It’s all part of playing guitar.