If your electric guitar is plugged in but not producing any sound, don’t fret: it’s not broken.
Well, it might be…but it could also be due to one of the following reasons instead. Check for these issues (with solutions) first before you go out and buy a new guitar.
1. Guitar Cable Doesn’t Work
If your guitar ever fails to produce sound (and the amp is on with the volume up), testing your guitar cable should be the first thing you do. Not only is this a common failure point, but it’s also one of the easiest (and cheapest) to fix.
If you have access to another cable, plug it in and see if this corrects the problem. If you only have the one cable, check for visible kinks in the line, which could indicate internal damage to the wiring. Unscrew the threaded casing at the ends of the cable to expose the soldered wires. Are any loose? Do they look corroded or damaged?
If you’re still not sure, bring it to your local music store and try it out there. You’ll be heading there anyway if your cable is broken.
How to Fix It
The best option for a kinked or damaged cable is to simply replace it. In most cases it’s not possible to fix a cable that has sustained internal damage to the wiring.
But I know good quality guitar cables can be expensive. So if the only issue appears to be that the soldered wires have come loose, you can try re-soldering them in place. Other than that, it’s best to fork over the money for a new cable.
2. Faulty Output Jack
A busted output jack could also be causing your issue. Your guitar’s output jack can suffer from the same issues as any of your guitar’s internal electronics. Over time, the wiring can come loose and prevent it from working. Or if you have a habit of ripping your cable out of your guitar when it gets caught around your feet, you can damage the jack.
If you’re using a cable you know works but still aren’t getting any sound, a faulty jack could potentially be the culprit…but how can we be sure? You know how you get a little feedback if you plug your guitar into a live amp and the cable end makes contact with the sides of the output jack? This is a sign that the jack has power running to it.
Try turning on your amp and plug in your guitar. No feedback at all from the output jack before the cable is properly seated? Your output jack could be dead.
Let’s take a closer look by removing the output jack. For guitars like a Fender Stratocaster, the output jack will be secured behind a metal plate which can be removed by undoing a couple of screws.
For guitars like a Gibson SG, the output jack is secured with a nut threaded right to the guitar body. Loosening this with a wrench will expose the jack.
Carefully pull out the jack and see if any of the wires are loose or completely disconnected.
How to Fix It
Loose wires can be re-secured with a bit of solder. Consult a diagram of your output jack so you know where to reattach these wires! You don’t want to short out your whole system and then need to replace the jack completely.
If no wires are loose but the output jack just looks a little worse for wear, you may need to replace it anyway.
Luckily, output jacks are relatively cheap and straightforward to replace. You can always take it to a professional luthier who can replace it for you, but if you want the DIY experience, make sure to disconnect all power sources (safety first!) and very carefully disconnect the wiring.
Damage any of this, and you may find yourself cracking your guitar open to rerun some wires…a much bigger project!
3. Ground Wires Causing Short
It requires some extensive wiring to make an electric guitar work. In general, all these wires can be separated into two categories: “hot” wires, which actively carry signals from the guitar potentiators (the knobs that change the volume or tone, also called “pots”) to the amp; and “ground” wires, which are necessary to safely discharge excess electric current.
Though a guitar doesn’t carry nearly the same amount of electricity as a power line, an ungrounded guitar can still be dangerous: some guitarists have been injured, and Yardbirds guitarist Keith Relf was fatally electrocuted in 1976 while playing an ungrounded guitar.
While ground wires are there for safety, sometimes they can do their job a little too well. If these wires are left too long and then stuffed into the back of your guitar, they can make contact with the hot terminals. If this happens, the shielding on the ground wires will immediately cut the signal.
With your guitar unplugged, unscrew the back panel and look for the shielded ground wires. If they look excessively long and are actively touching the hot pot terminals, they’ll need to be shortened.
How to Fix It
Luckily it’s rare this problem will occur in a guitar right from the factory. It’s more likely to occur in a guitar you’ve been tinkering with.
If you’ve recently replaced any pickups or pots and the accompanying wiring to that hardware, you may have inadvertently caused a short by leaving the ground wires too long.
Disconnect the ground wire from its terminal, trim it to the appropriate length and reattach it, ensuring the shielding filament has been trimmed back as well. Even a single thread from this filament will short out the system again if it contacts a hot terminal.
The video below will show you what to look for and how to correct this issue:
4. Faulty Effects Pedal
If your guitar isn’t producing sound, it may not be a problem with your guitar at all. Your guitar, amp and any effects pedals you use make up a circuit: if a single part of that circuit is broken, the whole system goes offline.
Let’s trace our way down from the guitar to the next potential failure point: the effects pedal(s). If you use any pedals, they’ll be daisy chained with their own little cables in between your guitar and your amp.
If there are any wiring or other issues here, it will interrupt the signal coming from the guitar before it reaches your amp.
How to Fix It
You can usually open up your effects pedals and take a look inside to see if any of the wiring is loose or damaged, though these pedals are a little more complex than replacing an output jack, so it’s a good idea to take it to someone who knows what they’re doing.
However, just like we did with the guitar cable, make sure the cable connecting the effects pedal to the amp isn’t the problem before we go tackling a more complex job.
5. Amp Has Blown Tube(s)
Moving on from the pedals, the next stop on our diagnostic journey is the amp itself.
Many guitarists use tube amps for their ability to boost distortion, which is preferred for many music genres. These amps use vacuum tubes to amplify the electronic signal produced by the guitar’s pickups.
However, sometimes these tubes can blow, especially with heavy use. Power down your amp, unscrew the back panel and you’ll see a lot of tubes…so how do you know which one(s) may be damaged?
One way to check is to turn your amp on, take a non-electrically conductive object (like a pencil or drumstick) and gently tap each tube. If any of them crackle or pop, they’re due to be replaced.
How to Fix It
Removing and replacing tubes is pretty easy. Once you’ve identified the offending tube, turn your amp off (and unplug it) and let it cool. Just like lightbulbs, vacuum tubes heat up the longer they’re left on, so be sure to give your amp a long cool-off period before you touch anything.
If a preamp tube is blown, you’ll need to remove the metal cover first by pushing up and then twisting it off. Then you can wiggle the tube out of its position.The bottom of the tube has little pins that hold it in place, so line these up before installing the new tube.
If a power tube blows, it’s recommended that you replace it along with the power tube adjacent to it. Amps have an even number of power tubes, and tubes are sold in matched pairs. These pairs have been tested with each other to ensure they draw the same current and won’t negatively affect your amp’s sound.
6. Acoustic-Electric Preamp and Pickup Issues
Acoustic guitars can also suffer from sound issues…well, acoustic-electrics that is.
Acoustic-electric guitars rely on a preamp (usually mounted on the side of the guitar) and a pickup (often found inside the soundhole) to produce tone when plugged into an amplifier.
While these guitars will resonate like a regular acoustic when not plugged in, the ability to plug into an amp makes them more versatile than a standard acoustic.
However, if your acoustic-electric just isn’t producing a louder sound when plugged in, it could be the preamp or pickup to blame.
How to Fix It
Test to see if the preamp is working by powering it on. Acoustic-electric preamps are battery powered, so if it doesn’t turn on…the battery is dead. Preamps usually run on a 9V battery, so replacing it will solve this problem.
Next, check the pickup connection. As the wiring is found in the soundhole, you can use a flashlight (and one of those little dental mirrors if you have one) to get a better look inside.
If you see any loose or disconnected wires, this will prevent your pickup from doing its job: picking up vibrations from the strings and transferring it to the amp.
Due to the cramped space inside the soundhole, it’s best to take your guitar to a professional for repair unless you have enough experience to tackle the job yourself.
Check out this video for help diagnosing and correcting your acoustic-electric preamp or pickup problems: