String Muting - Part One
What Is String Muting/Damping?
String muting means preventing certain strings from sounding while we play other strings. String Damping means stopping the string we are playing from vibrating with its usual freedom, and "dampening" the sound so that a muffled type of tone is produced. When we damp, unlike when we mute a string, the actual pitch of the note is still evident.
The reason we need to mute strings at times is because otherwise the vibrating strings will interfere with the music we are making. For instance, in doing many rock licks, the bending and release of a higher string will cause lower bass strings to vibrate, either because we actually bump into them, or because they start to vibrate "in sympathy" with the ones we have played.
The reason we damp notes (usually bass notes) is because the tone produced is itself an expressive musical device. For hundreds of years, string players have done it, and in classical music it is called "pizzicato". On guitar we find it in many places, most notably, for playing the bass line of a fingerstyle blues tune, where the bass "walks" the whole time (a la Chet Atkins). This muffled tone produces a nice percussive effect.
So, the ability to mute and damp strings is mandatory for all guitarists. However, I have seen quite a number of students have a difficult time with getting comfortable with this technique, and so I have devised a foolproof approach for getting the proper positioning of the hand.
How is it done?
The way we mute or damp strings we don't want to hear from is by touching the string with the skin of the side of the hand. If you do a karate chop on the table, the part of your hand touching the table is the part used to mute the strings.
This is the same position we use to mute the strings, however, there is more to the story. We have to make smaller adjustments to the hand as we play and move from string to string. Here is an exercise for getting into the right position, and for teaching the hand how
to make those smaller adjustments.
The Difference Between Muting Position and Damping Position
The hand itself is in the same position in relation to the strings for both techniques, but the position of the hand itself is different. Since we do not need any tone from the note in muting, it does not matter where along the length of the strings we place our hand, as long as we silence the strings.
For damping, since we need a discernable pitch, we must place our hands down by the bridge and only partially cover the strings, right at the point where they meet the bridge. We have to leave enough string free to vibrate.