The first job of playing acoustic guitar is to make those strings ring, with a clear and rich tone. The second is to make them stop.
This second aspect of playing, controlling how long notes ring by way of muting, is often underappreciated, yet it’s essential in every kind of music. Muting adds necessary space between the notes and makes melodies and rhythms pop. Leo Kottke, whose signature sound is built with extraordinary control over the duration of notes, memorably said in these pages many years ago that letting the strings ring all the time and bleed into each other is “like drooling—there’s a beginning to everything but no end.”
To minimize the drool factor, you can employ several techniques for muting on guitar, using both the fretting and picking hands. This lesson runs through the basics and gives you practice muting single notes as well as chords, with examples drawn from rock, reggae, and blues.
Fretted notes are the simplest to mute on guitar. To cut a note short, you just stop pressing down with your fretting finger and leave it resting on the string. Practice that in Ex. 1, a little melody forever lodged in my head from high-school sports games. In the last measure, instead of shouting “Go big red!” (or your team of choice), strum a G barre chord. I’m using this example because the notes are cleanly separated and therefore require muting. Even where there are no rests between notes, pay attention to the staccato marks (the dots), which mean play those notes shorter than indicated—a staccato, or dotted, quarter note should sound more like an eighth note followed by an eighth rest, for instance. Pick the note (whether with a flatpick or your fingers) and then quickly release your fretting finger to stop it from ringing. Make sure you don’t lift your finger completely off the string—that may start it ringing again. The same goes for the G barre chord: After you strum, release your fretting fingers right away but hold the shape, lightly touching the strings.
Follow the suggested fingerings: Use your first finger for notes on the second fret, second finger for the third fret, and so on. This keeps you in position and gives you muting practice with all your fingers.
Muting Open Strings
Muting open strings is a bit trickier—you need to touch the ringing open string with one (or more) of your fingers. Try Ex. 2. The notes are exactly the same as in Example 1, but the line now includes the open fourth and third strings. To mute the open-string notes, touch the string with your fret hand’s first finger. It’s harder to play open-string notes staccato compared with fretted notes, but you’ll get better with practice. Be sure to keep your fretting fingers close to the strings when you’re not using them so you can quickly put them into service for muting—this is a good all-around playing habit to minimize the movement of your fingers.
Now play the same pattern in the keys of A (Ex. 3) and E (Ex. 4). In Ex. 3, keep your first finger in position for a barred A shape at the second fret, and after you pick the open fifth string, mute it with your fourth finger. In the second measure, mute the open fourth string with your first finger, and on the final A chords, mute the open strings with any free fingers. If you use a first-finger barre for A, your second, third, and fourth fingers are available for muting. Just lay them lightly across the strings. Use a similar strategy for Ex. 4. When you’re holding down an E chord, use your fourth finger to mute the open strings.
The next example uses a 3–2 clave-rhythm pattern, aka the Bo Diddley beat. This variant is a bit like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” as played by the Grateful Dead. The groove relies on chord chops separated by rests, so muting is essential.
First play the pattern using G and C barre chords in Ex. 5. As with Example 1, muting is straightforward because all the notes are fretted. On the C chord, use a third-finger barre at the fifth fret so you can shift quickly back to the G. In Ex. 6, try the same pattern in the key of E, where you’ve got to deal again with open strings. On the E chord, use your fourth finger to mute the open strings. (You can also get your fret hand’s thumb into the action, by reaching around the edge of the fingerboard to touch the sixth string). For a little extra help with muting, flatten out your fretting fingers while remaining in the E shape so they touch the open treble strings.
With the quick change from E to A, try using a third-finger barre for A as you did with the C in the previous example. That way you can keep most of the fingers in position for the E shape.
Reggae is good for muting practice because it’s all about staccato chops on beats 2 and 4 with rests in between. Check out Ex. 7, which moves between Gm and Cm barre chords—think Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Again, barre chords make for simple muting, so for a little extra challenge try Ex. 8—the same pattern with open chords in E minor. If you fret the Em chord with your first and second fingers, you can use your third and fourth fingers for muting. On the Am chord, mute with your fourth finger.
Now Try Palm Muting
Your fret hand doesn’t have to do all the work of muting. You can also mute by touching strings with your pick hand’s fingers or with the side of that hand’s palm. That’s the focus of Ex. 9, a basic 12-bar blues shuffle in E. You can play this pattern with no muting, but it doesn’t sound, well, bluesy. For a thumpier sound, lightly rest your palm on the strings near the bridge while you strike the bass strings. (This is easier to do when you’re playing with a flatpick or thumbpick than with your bare fingers, due to the angle of your hand.) Experiment with the placement of your palm: The closer you are to the soundhole, the deader the sound. If you rest your palm right on top of the saddle, you’ll mute the strings just slightly.
To dial in all those eighth-note triplets, which have a rest in the middle, you’ll need to mute with your fret hand, too. As in the previous examples, touch the open strings with any available fretting fingers.
Even when you’re not keeping your palm on the strings for a thumpy blues sound, you can use your palm to help dampen the sound. If you’re strumming, say, the clave or reggae rhythms from earlier in this lesson, try landing your palm gently on the strings at the end of the strum motion—rather than striking the strings and then moving away from them. This sort of palm muting, in conjunction with fretting-hand muting, will add some thump to your rhythm.
As these last examples suggest, your muting motto should be: all hands on deck. The fret and pick hands work together to keep the notes contained and the rhythms nice and tight. And, of course, when the music calls for it, let those strings ring. Muting is great for contrast—it makes sustained notes and chiming chords sound even bigger.
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