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Different Types of Muting on the Guitar

It is a point I have made many times whilst teaching or writing, but being a successful guitar player (professional or not!) is often about everything but the playing. This could be interpreted as being punctual, or polite to everyone you meet. However, we are going to be looking at this from a more literal standpoint - muting.


Muting is an all encompassing name for a number of techniques that stop, or mute, the guitar. This could be a note, a chord and everything in between. When reading a piece of music, you may need to mute the strings for rhythmic reasons or for different articulations. Occasionally you may find that the specific technique is written into the music, though it is sometimes suggested through context.




What Kinds of Muting Are There?


Palm-muting

I think this technique is extremely important, and I use it a lot in my own time, therefore, I am giving palm-muting its own section. Palm-muting is pretty much what the name suggests; you must mute the string, or strings, with the edge of your palm on whichever hand you pick with. When reading tabs, this is typically notated with a ‘P.M’ symbol, followed by a dotted line up to the point the palm-muting should stop. 


Aggressively palm-muting the lower strings especially creates a rhythmic, chugging sound that is almost devoid of any note. Whilst there are situations that call for this, the technique is usually applied to the point that the string is clearly muted, but not so much that the listener cannot hear the differences in the note. 


Here are some famous examples of this technique:



Using alternate picking, or downpicking, is going to change how effective your palm-muting is. In my opinion, it’s worth learning a few riffs that use both so that you are prepared for any eventuality - this is probably more enjoyable for you than just simply practicing the technique with a single note!


Certain songs might have a section commonly referred to as a ‘breakdown’ - you could also hear this in a live situation when a phrase similar to “bring it down low” is used. Palm-muting is a useful tool for controlling the dynamics of one's playing, and I find it allows me the extra control I need to be playing really quietly. 


Right-hand Muting

This differs from palm-muting because you are not playing the notes that are being muted. This technique is quite tricky to get right, hence the proliferation of fret-wraps, or even hair scrunchies, to mute the strings in lieu of proper technique (this is not necessarily a bad thing!).


You may need to mute with your right hand when performing techniques such as palm-muting (this goes without saying!), sweep picking, flat-picking and raking. Below I have listed one example of each technique (apart from palm-muting as you have a list of examples above!). 


Why don’t you check out:



Actually executing this technique will differ from player to player. Some will treat it more like a palm-muting exercise, whilst others will use the very edge of their hands or parts of their fingers to mute the strings. Whilst you should always make every effort to follow proper technique, feel free to experiment to find the best balance of ease and result for you. 


Left-hand Muting

Staccato is an articulation that is used in almost every style of music. Producing a general muted sound for strumming, or a stylistic effect, is also popular and both are done with the left hand. 


You must press on the strings with a certain amount of pressure in order to cleanly produce a note, and staccato is when you cut that note short. You should release a tiny bit of that pressure to end the note prematurely. It sounds easier than it is, but those of you practicing the technique should try and apply it to single notes, chords and in different places rhythmically. Some common examples of staccato would be:



Muting all of the strings is a tricky exercise to get right for beginners. Many people instinctively press too hard, and therefore can hear notes clearly which is not what we want in this case. It is similar to staccato, except the muted sound is perpetual and you are almost always playing more than one string.


Some great examples of this are:



‘Voodoo Child’ is unique amongst these examples because it is purely muting in the first few measures of the intro. However, the other examples mute all of the strings as a rhythmic device to fill in the space between key points of the riff. In fact, both songs omit the technique during the chorus to give a more punchy, hard-hitting sound which is useful given the extra distortion in the guitar tone.

 

Alternative Ideas

As we have discussed, muting is a skill that requires you to use your hands and requires consistent development. However, certain musicians have taken it upon themselves to mute a piece of music in an alternative way.


For example, Tom Morello (of Rage Against The Machine fame) utilizes a three-way switch on his guitar. The trick is to also have a separate volume control for your pickups (like on a Les Paul style guitar) and to have one of the volumes turned all the way down. That way, when you play a note, you can quickly switch between them and get a ‘chopping’ effect. You can hear it on the Rage Against The Machine song ‘Wake Up’ or at the start of a live solo by Buckethead here.


The noise gate effect is typically set so that unwanted hiss, or noise in general, is removed by cutting a signal off when you are not playing - some of the controls are based on sensitivity (how loud in the signal entering the effect is), Attack (which is how quickly the signal is muted) and release (the speed that the signal is allowed to pass through). Bands like Periphery like to use a noise gate effect set to extreme levels. This means that the sound is artificially cut off really quickly by the effect and not the player. There is almost a robotic quality to the sound and is a great example of creativity; the band creatively used an effect in a way that was not originally intended. Check out their song ‘Icarus Lives!’ to hear it in action!




In Conclusion

Effective muting technique, however you need to achieve that, is extremely important. Too many players lack this essential skill, and it is something I was guilty of for a long time too. Like with anything on the guitar, you will have your preference, in both how much you like the sound and your feelings towards actually playing it. 


Muting can help elevate your riffs and melodies to the next level, and maybe even further than that. Muting, when used correctly, can make your playing seem more polished, professional and mature. Even those with no musical training can hear if something you play is messy, so don’t let it slide.


Keep on practicing, one step at a time and you will be muting like a pro before you know it!


Alex

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