Building a strong foundation for a mighty skyscraper takes time, energy and a willingness to synthesize and combine various materials and skills together in one cohesive structure. The same can be said for the construction of a musician's abilities as well as the application of those skills on his or her instrument. Consequently, it may very well benefit you to familiarize yourself with the previous three installments of this article series in order that you have the necessary information to build upon and establish an impregnable and fortified skill foundation from which you can build upon for years to come.
As mentioned previously, the expression “palm muting” is in fact, a misnomer in lieu of the fact that the palm itself is rarely used as to mute the strings of the guitar. Numerous other areas of the hand are frequently employed in the process but the palm is usually inaccessible due to its recessed nature in the construction of the hand.
Palm muting, more accurately refers to the process of muting or dampening the guitar strings with any area of the strum hand (usually the right hand), most frequently with the flats or outside region of the fingers beneath the fingernails, the opponent's pad or the meaty area underneath the thumb, or the outside ridge of the hand or the area directly beneath the pinky finger. These three areas are often employed but any combination therein can be used to mute strings as long as the method serves the purpose for the player. Two key hand formations come to mind though that can help you to access those areas of the hand for muting purposes.
The Race Car
This is the technique that I have been using for some time. The reason I call it the race car is that the strum hand is positioned such that the fingers are folded over and the thumb is tucked in making the hand compact and streamlined, like a race car. You could also visualize the hand as if it were a fist with the fingers suspended outward so that the tops of your fingers make a clean line with the top of your hand.
In this formation, the pick (if you use one) should be held between your thumb and first finger in a relaxed yet firm fashion. This may sound confusing but the manner in which you hold your pick can often dictate the quality of sound emanating from your instrument. Too tightly held and the sound may be rough, unpleasant to the ear. Too loosely held and the pick will fall out, often into the sound hole of the guitar, a frustration most of us have experienced. So finding a balance with your pick in the race care is of the utmost importance (see also Acoustic Guide to Strum Mastery #1 for more on pick posturing).
The relative position of your hand to the guitar is important as well as the race care needs to be aligned with “the track,” or the strings, in this case. Try and position your strum hand and arm so that you are parallel, or nearly so to the strings. As you will soon see, the more contact that your hand maintains with the strings the more control you will have over the type and amount of muting that you will achieve.
Now that you have your hand shaped and positioned properly on the guitar strings, it's important to address how you will be using your hand to mute. Developing a sensitivity to the strings is an important first step. This can be achieved by first laying your hand in the race car position across all six strings and simply allowing your hand to rest there, completely muting all of the strings. Now begin to strum using a C chord.
Keep your hand, flats of the fingers and opponent's pad in full contact with the strings. This will produce a fully-muted sound and give you an idea of the extreme end of the muting spectrum. The sound you are producing now can be used in some applications especially in lieu of its percussive nature and its contrast to an open, full strum. You should still hear a little of the sound of the chord come through even though most of the sound is muted.
Now, still fretting the C chord open up your strum and play the chord making contact only with the pick and still keeping your strum hand in the race car shape. This is an important point as it's critical to maintain continuity in the general shape of your strum hand in order that you can switch back and forth from muting to non-muting smoothly, seamlessly and quickly. Yes, of course you will likely need to make slight changes in the position of your hand as you change from a muting to non-muting stance but keeping the general shape in tact can be helpful. The more we continue applying these concepts the more this point will come crystal clear to you.
Now try and go from muting all of the strings, to playing all of the strings in an open strum and back and forth again and again. The more you do this the more you will increase your level of sensitivity to the strings as well as familiarize yourselves with the technique.
Achieving the various degrees of muting in between a full-on mute and no-muting at all can take some practice as well. With the race care technique you are muting primarily with the opponent's pad, the flats of the fingers and the meaty area beneath the pinky on the inside of the hand (as opposed to the side of the hand). Consequently, these areas of the hand need to become both toughened up as well as more sensitive to the strings. The toughness will come from those areas becoming more calloused as you play, allowing you to strum for hours without developing sore spots and blisters. Patience and diligence are necessary steps in this process as when you first start these exercises you will more than likely see redness and feel some soreness, especially on the flats of the fingers and on the opponent’s pad. Over time though you will form callouses on those areas of your hand just as you have on the once-tender tips of your fingers.
But those same areas will also need to become more sensitive in terms of a heightened degree of responsiveness to the strings of the guitar. Developing this enhanced level of sensitivity will allow you the skills and freedom to make the necessary adjustments on the fly between the various and almost infinite levels of palm muting. Let's use the A maj7 chord to practice this...
Play the above chord and get your strum hand in the race care position. Do a full mute first to get a feel for that, and also situate your strum hand comfortably where you want it to be on the strings of the guitar. Remember, your strum hand should be parallel to the strings, roughly speaking. This will depend on the size of your hand and arm as well as the musculature in your body. But ideally, you'll want to get in an approximately parallel position.
Strum the strings making sure you are making as much contact as possible with the three key areas of your strum hand. You should be completely muting the strings of your guitar at this point. This is a good time to pay close attention to the precise points of your hand that are doing the muting and this will be slightly different from person to person. So now that you have established a baseline position, lift your strum hand slightly from the strings allowing the flats of the fingers and opponent's pad to lift slightly. When your pick comes into contact though you will make more contact with your hand on the strings. In other words, the three key areas of your strum hand will lift slightly but when your pick comes back into contact between strums your hand will make contact again almost as if you are slapping the strings.
Practice this technique repeatedly moving the strum hand away from the strings at various distances and paying attention to the manner in which your muting changes as a function of that distance. We'll be using the race car manner of muting in combination with other techniques so please take some time to gain a general mastery of its particulars. An important point to remember here though is that each person will adopt these techniques and apply them in their own way so don't get frustrated if you don't do it in the exact same way that I described to you.
The various degrees of palm muting will help you to gain a general mastery of the muting process as well as sound and dynamic control. Controlling your dynamics on the acoustic guitar is especially important especially if you're playing “unplugged” or are playing without effects of any sort. Muting becomes an even more important tool in this scenario due to the fact that you're unable to rely on technology to change your guitar sound.
Side of the Hand Muting
This is the other prevalent style of muting, again not relying so much on the palm itself to mute the strings but rather the side of the hand beneath the pinky. This is a particularly beefy area of the hand and certainly well-suited to handle the rigors of the muting process. Many guitar players mute in this fashion including finger style players whose hands are generally a little more elevated from the strings than many flat pickers.
In this technique, the hand is kept slightly more open and slanted upwards with the meaty side of the hand under the pinky exposed to the guitar strings. Many people who use a flat pick with this technique hold the pick between their thumb and first finger and mute with the side and underside of their pinky finger as well, incorporating the entire side of their strum hand into the process, from pinky to the beginnings of the wrist. Again, this is a subjective issue though and each player will need to find their own way in the process.
The bottom of the strum hand in this technique is basically aligned in a nearly parallel fashion with the high E string, although that will vary from player to player and some will have their hand more in a diagonal fashion across the strings. As we did before with the race car technique, you can basically rest your hand on the strings, or keep it close in proximity in order to keep a high degree of contact and control over the amount of muting you desire.
One way to visualize the shape of your strum hand in this technique is to think of your thumb and first finger holding the pick with your three remaining fingers thrust outward in a straight line. You could also bend the three remaining fingers as well to suit the musculature in your hand or your particular tendencies. But no matter what specific shape your hand adopts in this technique, you are relying on the side of your hand to produce the muting effect as opposed to multiple areas in the previous technique.
Pressure can be applied to the strings in the same manner as the race car or the hand can be moved upwards and downwards (laterally) moving closer or further away from the sound hole of the guitar. This can have the effect of changing the quality of sound emanating from your guitar and even the volume as well.
Pick posturing is important here as well so make the necessary adjustments so that your sound is clean and beautiful and your pick is relaxed and comfortable in your fingers. If you find that your sound is perhaps a little loud for your own personal tastes or harsh sounding, lighten up your strum and try to relax your wrist as well. Let's experiment with this by simply strumming the following chord.
Leave the strum hand down on the strings to completely mute. Again, develop an awareness of what it feels like to completely mute all of your strings and then play the strings with an open strum. Now explore all of the various degrees of muting in between by applying various levels of pressure to the strings as you strum. It's important to become familiar with all of the various shades and colors of muting in order that you can utilize them as tools for future playing. The more you master the subtleties and slight variations, the more you will be able to apply this technique to your playing.
The Beauty of Gray
As stated previously, developing strum technique including expanding one's ability to mute, is a subjective process the outcome of which will depend on the individual's musculature, skeletal characteristics, past injuries as well as simple personality differences and playing style. The beauty of developing muting skills is that each person will develop her or his own style making their playing unique and individual in a veritable sea of musicians. So ultimately it can be helpful to have an open mind and allow oneself the freedom to experiment with the various styles and perhaps find one that is perhaps in the middle of the road. Your style of muting may lie somewhere between the two techniques mentioned above or may evolve into a completely new form never seen before by modern man (or woman for that matter). Flexibility in this matter is paramount so allow yourself the freedom to express yourself through this incredibly powerful and utilitarian technique.
Muting with the Fretting Hand
Just as there are multiple ways to approach palm muting, the same goes for chord muting. Muting with the fretting hand can be used to enhance palm muting and add some interesting options to your overall strum strategy.
Basically this variety of muting is done by lifting the left hand (usually) slightly off of the chosen chord until the strings are muted. Many guitar players find themselves muting strings with their fretting hand when they're learning chords, and struggle to make clean connections with the fret board. But this type of muting lies more in the category of a controlled technique, rather than accidental muting as a result of inexperience or insufficient finger strength.
Let's use a simple open chord to take an initial look at this process. Beginning with simpler chords and then moving into the more complex can be helpful. Let's start with the Em chord.
Play the chord like you would normally but select one of the two varieties of palm muting from the above options, race car or side of the hand. In this fashion you will be able to practice keeping your strum hand in the muting stance while working on left hand muting simultaneously.
Begin by muting your chord completely with the fretting hand. The best way to do this is to gently rest your fingers on top of the frets and try to apply as little pressure as possible. You should still hear some sound coming out of the guitar although it will be a muffled, muted sound. Get a good feel for how much pressure it takes to get this amount of muting and practice it, over and over again until you really start to develop an inner awareness of that feeling.
Now fret the Em chord the normal way making sure to get full contact with the fret board, and strum the chord. Now, go back and forth, back and forth paying close attention to how much pressure is necessary to go from muted to non-muted. Just as you did for the palm muting techniques, you will start to develop an innate sense of how much pressure it takes to mute the strings, not enough and you're basically playing the strings open and too much will fret the chord as normal. Sensitivity is the key word here (as well as in palm muting) and developing that and being able to play it on the fly are the ultimate goals here.
Let's try this again using the Bm chord.
Again, start by muting all of the strings completely, and then playing the chord as you usually would. Now change up between muted and open and get a feel for the pressure differential between the two. This process should be similar to the above exercise where you played the Em chord. Simple right? But playing chords on the barre can offer different options, unique options that can add technique tools to your ever-growing tool box.
This technique is fairly self-explanatory although it takes a little practice to make it happen. Using the Bm chord again for this exercise, play the chord and mute it with your fretting hand as you were doing previously. Now remove your middle, ring and pinky fingers from the fretboard so you are left with this chord:
More simply stated, leave the barred portion of the chord in place. Practice muting and unmuting the barre to get a better feel for the process. Now put your other three fingers back on the fretboard and then off again making sure that the barre portion of the chord is still making good contact with all of the strings. This can be challenging for some so make sure and spend time with this until you've got a good feel for it. The ultimate goal here is to use the barred portion of the chord as a leverage and muting device.
Barre muting can be used in two ways:
Muting with Arpeggios
1. Simply as a way to mute the barre chords you're using at the time, and add an extra element of muting to your style or...
2. Playing off of the Barre - This technique involves using the barre portion of the chord as a sort of lever. In other words, leaving the barred portion on and lifting the remainder of the chord off and on.
This effect can best be achieved by playing a barred chord such as Bm, holding the barred portion while lifting the other three fingers off and on and off etc as you go through your strum pattern. You could also hammer the non-barred portion of the chord if you desire as well. But regardless of how you use the technique you need to make sure that the barred portion of the chord, your first finger, makes good contact with the fret board during the entire process.
Tip-you can really “lean” or apply a great deal of pressure to the barred portion of the chord as you use this technique. Fretting the barred portion a little harder can, in effect, help you to slingshot the rest of the chord in place. You'll really start to feel the muscles in your fretting hand become stronger and stronger as well which will help you to get a handle on this technique.
As you gain a mastery of muting over time, you'll more than likely want to spice up your strumming patterns with a little riff here and there. Muting arpeggios can have a profound and beautiful effect on your rhythm playing and add substance and style. For this technique, please try and use the race care technique as I've found it to be the most effective way to mute individual notes.
First, let's use the strum pattern down, down-up down (last d-u-d should be snap strum, see Guide to Strum Mastery Pt.1 for more on this) making sure that your strum hand is in the race care position and is resting neatly and comfortably on the strings. You should be fully muting the chord to begin with and getting a feel for the strings.
Now, release a little of the pressure on the strings so you have a nice balance of muting and openness in your strum. Unlike muting across the entire fretboard, muting individual strings takes a little more precision and at least one of the muting areas, the opponent's pad, flats of the fingers etc (you can also mute individual strings with your thumb and first finger, this is also known as pinching) needs to be in contact with the string you're muting at the time you strike it with your pick. So....timing is of the essence!
Let's play around with this little descending arpeggio in A major, with standard picking before we move into the muted style.
Now, with your strum hand in the race car position play the scale again but make sure that some part of your strum hand is touching the string that you're playing. You will likely need to play around with this process for a period of time to make sure that you're muting enough to get the desired effect, but not too much so that you cant really hear the note. Remember, sensitivity is a key point here and the more you develop a feel for how much pressure and how much muting sounds good to your ear, the more you'll be able to master this delicious technique.
Strum the above pattern while muting, down, down-up-down and then play the arpeggio. Once you get a handle on this effect this process will become easier and easier for you. We'll delve deeper into this technique in the next installment.