Tech / Tech Articles

Quick Guide to Diagnosing Differential & Driveline Noises



We don’t know which sounds worse—car guys singing show tunes in the shower or a howling differential. While there is no help for our singing, we can help you diagnose the sounds coming from a differential gone bad.

A clunk, whine, or howl can signal a worn-out pinion gear, bad bearings, or a faulty gear installation. Sometimes, the noise is not differential-related, but is caused by other driveline or axle components. This guide will help you match up the noise you’re hearing with the differential or axle component making it, or at least get you in the ballpark.

Noise: Howl while decelerating (gears previously quiet)
Cause: Loose pinion bearing preload

Noise: Howl with whir or rumble while accelerating at any speed (gears previously quiet)
Cause: Worn rear pinion bearing or worn gear set

Noise: Howl without whir or rumble while accelerating at any speed (gears previously quiet)
Cause: Worn gear set due to lack of lubrication or overloading

Noise: Howling while accelerating over a small speed range (gears previously quiet)
Cause: Worn gear set due to lack of lubrication or overloading

Noise: Howling after gear set installation
Cause: Faulty gears or improper installation

Noise: Low-pitch rumble at all speeds over 20 miles per hour
Cause: Worn carrier bearings

Noise: Whirring during acceleration/deceleration at about 10 miles per hour
Cause: Worn pinion bearings

Noise: Banging or clunking while making a turn, backing up, or rapid deceleration (like on a freeway off-ramp). Noise gets worse in warmer weather
Cause: Posi chatter due to improper lubrication; worn clutches or spider gears; improper assembly

Noise: Banging, crunching, or popping while making a turn. Noise not affected by temperature
Cause: Badly worn or broken spider gears

Noise: Banging or heavy clicking every two to three feet during acceleration and deceleration
Cause: Damaged or broken pinion gear tooth or teeth

Noise: Banging or heavy clicking every two to three feet during acceleration or deceleration, but not both
Cause: High spot or heavy chip on pinion gear tooth

Noise: Banging or heavy clicking every eight feet during acceleration and deceleration
Cause: Damaged or broken ring gear tooth or teeth

Noise: Banging or heavy clicking every eight feet during acceleration or deceleration, but not both
Cause: High spot or heavy chip on ring gear tooth

Noise: Clicking while decelerating from 20 miles per hour to a complete stop
Cause: Worn carrier case-side gear bores

Noise: Rumble or clicking that gets worse during hard turns
Cause: Bad wheel bearings

Noise: Driveline squeaking or grinding at any speed
Cause: Worn or damaged U-joints

Noise: Clunking when depressing the throttle pedal (takeoff)
Cause: Worn U-joints; worn spider gears; worn axle splines; excessive gear backlash; loose yoke splines; worn slip yoke splines

Noise: Clunk immediately after taking off from a stop
Cause: Worn slip yoke splines

Noise: Steady vibration that increases with speed
Cause: Worn U-joint or out-of-balance driveshaft

Noise: Cyclic vibration that varies in intensity. Intensity increases at a specific speed range, worsens during deceleration
Cause: Pinion angle too low (not parallel with front yoke on driveshaft)

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  3. clanging or rattling at rearend yoke on 1979 f-100 4×4;comes and goes

  4. Nice write up,
    I would like to include the (TC) transfer case to this board
    I experienced a sudden breakage when a loud burring grinding noise came from TC while accelerating thru first 2-3 gears under light load, avoidable by creeping slowly up to speed
    Engagement of 4WD eliminated the noise, except sometimes in reverse
    My 1997 K1500 had blown its TCs rear retainer snap ring on its NP243 (NP241) new proscess transfer case

    It is accessable by removing rear driveshaft (4 bolts at U-joint 12mm) and then removing rear cover of transfer case (four 15mm bolts) while still in vehicle

    You may want to empty TC fluid first to check fluid for metal shavings, or just expect a small amount to come out of back housing

    You should see remainder of snap ring in there, stock replacement at GM runs 8 dollars or beefy upgrade part (“TC Saver”) around 50 online ( I have broken two stock rings…)

    You may need snap ring reverse pliers to install stock option but not needed for TC saver

    Good time to clean and lubricate driveshaft and bearings. I believe a sticky spline on driveshaft contributes to this common breakage

  5. charles neilson says:

    I have a 2013 370Z Coupe which has been howling in a cyclic manner most notably around 60 to 80 mph. It sounds like Ooooooooohhhhhh…..pause…..Ooooooooohhhhhhhh……pause Oooooooohhhhhh. It’s pitch correlates to tire speed and not rpms. Just previous to this noise starting up, I ran over some round stone markers that divide the street from a metro railway in downtown Houston which I never saw while sitting in this low car (it was at night). I felt a nasty bump-bump-bump-bump before I pulled off these dividers. I checked my affected tire (left front) and found a visible bubble (“aneurysm”) and put new tires on both fronts as they were needed. But driving on freeway, that ghost-like howling was noticeable (and I wear hearing aids). There was no steering wheel rumble/vibtrations at different speeds. I thought about wheel bearings but the tires were tight but I found two 1 and 1/2 inch rim bangs only one of which was obvious. I took a one pound rubber mallet and brought the rims closer to the tire but definitely not perfect looking on one of the two sites. The howling persisted. I just got the left front wheel straightened and the wheel looks perfect again…….and the howling is gone. In fact it was gone when I put another wheel on the left front while I waited for my wheel. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this Ray’s 19inch forged Nismo styled 2013 wheel would make a cyclic ghost-like howling down the highway….but it did. I think that is the end of the problem. Chazz46

  6. Major Flewellyn says:

    I believe I have a “Worn gear set due to lack of lubrication or overloading” issue. Do you think me checking for low differential oil, and if low, then draining fluid and replacing with new fluid will fix this problem? Or would I still have to take apart the differential and possibly replace parts?

    Thanks, Any information is appreciated.

    • OnAllCylinders says:

      Checking & changing the fluid is a great idea. Also, while you have the rear cover off you can inspect the gear set for discoloration due to low fluid and any abnormal wear patterns. If this exists, an overhaul is suggested before it lets you down. If there is no noise and no signs of wear or discoloration, fix the leak and refill with fresh gear oil.

  7. I have a 94 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4 liter 4 by 4, when I start accelerating my truck is fine but as I level out in speed around 30 to 40 miles an hour I get a humming whine from the floorboard that doesn’t go away until I come to a complete stop. Then when I accelerate it again it’s gone until I level out or hit roughly 30 or 40 miles an hour and then it starts humming again? Any help thank you

    • OnAllCylinders says:

      Noises are truly one of the more difficult things to diagnose on a vehicle. There are just so many moving parts and rubber bushings that by this time in the vehicles life (20 yrs) could be relaxed allowing things to rub the body; that it’s hard to know where to start. One suggestion would be to check worn motor and transmission mounts. If the noise is not there under power, but when you are cruising, these mounts could be allowing the motor to lay over to one side putting pressure on shifter levers, exhaust pipes, fuel lines or cables forcing them to rub on the body of the vehicle. Happy hunting!!

  8. Dear Mr David, I had a FJ40 year 1980, cluncking/cyclic sound heard when the vehicle in movement with any gear speed (1/2/3/4) and this sound pitch was not correlated with rpm, but the clunking noise was gone if I depressed the clutch OR let the vehicle in moving on the road without the gear in (no load to drive line)
    I had tried so many things, replacing all bearings in transfer case, gearbox, rear differential, new propeler shaft, new clutch…..but the clunking noise still happened.
    (the noise was at the rear side)
    I had replaced the pinion gears, side gears, shims, adjusting spacers, but the only parts that not yet been replaced was the ring gear and the drive pinion in the rear differential, it’s seem both were in good condition.
    Kindly give your comment on this problem.
    many thanks and best regards

    • OnAllCylinders says:

      Backlash is something you haven’t mentioned. On an older, high mileage vehicle the backlash will open up. This wider space between the ring and the pinion gear will allow a clunking type sound like you describe. A new gear set targets .006 – .010” of back lash. An older set such as yours would be acceptable at approximately .010 – .015”. Anything more than that may be a clunker!

  9. Dear Mr David,
    many thanks for your fast response………could you send me the picture/photo of that ring gear and pinion gear? and How to measure the backlash?
    best regards

  10. Mr. David –

    I have a 2008 Jeep Wrangler with a front Dana 30 axle (plus an ARB air locker). After much research, I suspect my pinion bearing is starting to go bad;I hear a loud whirring noise at low speeds, which goes away once the axle has reached operating temperature.

    I removed the front driveshaft as part of my troubleshooting, and the noise went away. Note that the driveshaft is fairly new and in excellent condition.

    If my pinion bearing is in fact bad or going bad, is it expected that removing the driveshaft would stop the noise? I am not sure what to think.


  11. I have a 96 chevy z71. I hear a grinding/whirring noise when i 1st take off from a cold start. It only happens when the truck is cold and its cold outside. When i turn it gets louder. It only happenes when the transmission is pulling it when im not giving it gas and when i do it goes away

    • OnAllCylinders says:

      When you turn the steering wheel a higher load is being applied to the power steering pump. With age, miles and cold weather it is completely possible that your power steering pump is in early stages of failure. You could try to flush the system with some fresh fluid but, by the time the noise starts it is generally too late!

  12. catherine simmons says:

    I bought our 2011 2LT RS Camaro brand new (74 miles), back in 2011, have had this vehicle checked numerous times due to loud clunk noise made only when going from park to reverse, at take off…, feels and sounds like universal joint problems (a lot of play), can you help me out with this one, cause the chevy dealership can’t find anything wrong, but it’s a loud bang noise, so it sounds like something’s wrong…
    Catherine Simmons

  13. hi everyone
    i have problem with my xterra2005, (second gen)
    when i turning on/off 4LO, it sounds terrible; sound comes from transfer case; it engages, but with some crack up noise,
    on dashboard, the 4LO ligth turns on/off as usual,
    before it happened, i was on a little offroad trip, nothing special, and after that i noticed that sound; before it had normal, engaging sound (i think as it must be)
    i checked oil in transfer case but it seems normal
    have u any idea?

  14. P.S i read this guide, but i didn’t try to drive while in 4LO

  15. Pete Alkema says:

    I have an interesting issue. I have a 1990 Dodge dakota convertible that very recently had all of the bearings replaced in the rear end. My mechanic said it was a carrier bearing that was making the noise I was hearing at low speed. The pinion bearings were replaced as well since the seal was leaking. So now all is almost well, except when I make a right hand turn with my foot off the throttle. It sounds like a gear mesh issue to me. My mechanic now says he thinks it’s a rear axle that might be causing this new noise. Is this possible?

  16. David Black says:

    I have a 2003 Mustang GT with only 50K miles on it. According to your diagnosis, it would be the spider gears, …groan and crunching at low speed turns…….why would this happen with only 50k miles?

  17. I recently had a diff rebuild. After about four weeks I noticed a high pitch howling noise which appears-to come from the left rear when I do a sharp right turn particularly at round abouts and after the car has been running for about half hour or more. Only right turns no noise with left turn. Not when cold.
    Any ideas on cause. Could it be rear wheel bearing.


  18. I have a vu ss commodore after driving normal for at least 20 minutes I slow to a very low speed ie 0 to 10 klm I Will hear a klunking noise from rear end. I replaced centre tail shaft bearing n diff oil but to no avail. Any ideas

  19. Not once did you mention backlash or gear pattern on setup. A noise doesn’t always mean that something is worn out (yet). What about pinion depth and PTTR, TTTR. I would sooner suspect pinion depth (setup) or backlash than worn components. Need to pattern the gears and check backlash first unless of course during inspection you see all of the teeth broken off. Just sayin.

  20. Hi, I have a 96 Jeep Grand Cherokee, permanent 4 x4. The rear wheel bearings were a little noisy so I set about changing them and whilst I was there I also changed the rear shocks and brake pads. All easy stuff and things I have done many times before. However, once back together it makes the most horrible of noises when turning at low speed and the inside the rear wheel judders. At first I thought it was a loose shock as it sounded like a rubber rubbing sound, so I tightened them, no use, I swapped back to the old ones, that did not work. I removed the hand brake shoes and all components as it sounded like the springs twanging, It made no difference, I have just opened up the diff again and removed the half shafts and changed the bearings back to the old ones, there is no unusual wear in the diff all looks fine nothing seems to have moved so I bolted it all back together and it has made no difference at all. I have never experienced this before.
    Does anyone have any ideas?
    Thanks in hope of a solution

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