It’s hard enough to sound the right notes at the right times. But what about when we want the strings to STOP ringing?
What’s the best way to mute out strings in our classical guitar pieces?
Below you’ll find seven methods you can choose from.
The Ends of Notes
Each note we play has three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end.
We focus most often on the beginnings of notes. When we play a note, we use our bodies (fingers) to sound the string. This moment of sounding the string is the beginning of the note.
When we let a note ring, fretted or unfretted (open), we hear the duration of the note. This is the middle of the note.
And when we either stop the note or it fades completely away, we have the end of the note.
A main goal of classical guitar technique is to play smooth and connected (aka legato[tk – legato]). This means that one note ends at the exact moment another note begins. In this way we make the music more lyrical and vocal, instead choppy and separated.
And sometimes we need to end a note on purpose, at a specific time. This could be at the end of a section or tune, or it could be at a rest or dramatic moment.
In these cases, we’ll need to mute the note.
Muting Method #1: The Left-Hand Lift
One way to stop a fretted note from ringing is to stop pressing the string with the left hand finger.
When we lift either one finger or the entire hand, we release pressure on the string.
We don’t need to lift our fingers all the way off the strings, as this could create noise and re-sound the strings on accident.
Instead, we can stop pressing. We can “let go” of our grip.
This may happen on accident when playing chords[tk – chords]. In that case, we’ll want to recognize it and keep the pressure steady.
Also, if we release pressure slowly, we may create a buzzing sound. So we can either release the pressure quickly, or combine this method with the next…
Muting Method #2: The Left-Hand Touch
Another way to stop a ringing note is to use a left-hand finger to touch the string that’s ringing.
We can use the entire hand, or just send one finger over to do the job.
This can take practice not to press the string, but only to touch it lightly. We’ll need control if the other fingers are pressing other strings.
We can also play a note “sloppily” on purpose to mute the adjacent string. When we do this, we play more on the pad of the finger and let the tip touch the next string, muting it.
Muting Method #3: The Right-Hand Thumb Mute
We can use the right-hand thumb to mute strings. This could be simultaneous with a preparation for the next thumb note.
Using the side of the thumb, we can mute one or more strings
This can also be combined with…
Muting Method #4: The Plant
“Planting” is when we prepare our right-hand fingers on the strings before playing them.
We can do this to increase confidence and security in our playing. And we can also do it to mute one or more notes.
Ideally, we keep our right-hand technique[tk – /arpeggios] as intentional as we can, so we’re in the best position to continue playing.
Muting Method #5 The Karate Chop
Using the outside (little-finger side) of the right hand, we can stop all the strings at once.
This method is great at the end of a song, when we want a hard cut-off.
We can “chop” hard enough to stop the strings abruptly, but not so hard that the strings click against the fretboard. The result is an accented[tk – accents] silence.
As a bonus performance[tk – better performance] tip, freeze all body motion for a moment when using this technique. It gives a professional closure to the piece.
Muting Method #6: The Fade
For a different ending effect, we can “karate chop” directly onto the bridge, behind the strings, then roll our right hand forward. This creates the effect of a volume knob being turned down.
It’s a softer ending than the full “karate chop”, but still has an air of finality about it, perfect for an ending.
Muting Method #7: Pizzicato
Also known as “muted bass”, pizzicato is a technique where we play the thumb while the side of the hand lightly rests on the strings near the bridge.
The effect is like an upright string bass: woody, thuddy, round and without much sustain.
If you do “The Fade” from above, you’ll be in the perfect position to play pizzicato.
The right hand chops down onto the bridge, behind the strings. Next, we roll our hand forward, over the strings. The side of the hand lightly covers the strings (often just the bass strings when playing pizzicato). Then the thumb plays the bass strings.
Which One Should I Use?
Which one we use depends on the situation and our comfort levels with each technique.
The important part is that we learn to hear how notes end. With practice, we can notice when a note rings too long, creating a clash with the next note. Or we can hear when a note ends too early, creating a clipped sound and breaking the line[tk – long line]
Eventually, we use a number of these methods almost by instinct to clean and polish our music as we go. But to start, we have to develop the tools, and learn to hear the ends of the notes.