One of the keys to guitar mastery is dynamic control. Dynamic control is the guitarist’s ability to shape his or her sound at will using fluctuations in volume, intensity, and inflection. This allows the guitar to sound more vocal and lifelike as opposed to flat and wooden. The guitar is then able to be more articulate and versatile. There are many, many techniques that can be employed by the guitarist to achieve dynamic control. One of these techniques is the art of palm muting.
The palm muting technique is a form of dynamic control and is used to dampen the strings in order to limit the sustain. By placing the lower edge of your palm across the strings next to the bridge and moving it between there and the soundhole you can control the level of the dampening effect.
The most identifiable use of palm muting can be heard in hard rock and metal where the electric guitar has a “chunk” or “chug” sound that is more of a staccato nature. However, palm muting can just as easily be used with the acoustic guitar to control and shape the sound of a given piece of music.
This is a very important technique to get down for a guitarist to take their sound to the next level. When one is able to control the dynamics of the music they are playing, it opens up a whole world of musical possibilities. Here are some tips to learning and improving the palm muting technique.
1. Use The Outside Edge of Your hand
Start with a simple muting of a chord. Using a pick, strum a chord, then karate chop the strings with your pick hand.
There are two possibilities afforded to the guitarist just by using this simple action. For one, the guitarist can mute strings between chords to avoid any unwanted string noise while the fingers move around. A second benefit is this can be used to “pulse” a chord in a rhythmic fashion. One could even bring the hand down on the strings sharply to make the strings slap to mimic the sound of a snare drum
2. Keep Your Hand Back Towards The Bridge
Now place the picking hand on the strings and try to strum simultaneously. Pay attention to the position of the muting hand and note that the further forward (toward the fretboard) you are, the more the strings will mute. Too far forward, and none of the notes will sound.
There may be times where that is the goal. However, as mentioned before, the palm muting technique is more of a dampening than an actual muting of the strings, meaning we still want to hear the notes, just in a more muffled form. Keep the hand further back toward the bridge to achieve this sound.
You may even find that the muting hand is resting on the bridge saddle. This will give the guitar that chunky sound, particularly on the lower notes.
3. Relax Your Hand
Keeping a relaxed hand is important to use this technique well. Pressing too hard the strings will affect the muting sound and it can also stretch the strings out of tune. If the hand is too tense, it can also create problems while trying to use the pick. Just a little touch is all that is needed to dampen the strings. There is a delicate balance between keeping the pick secure, applying just the right pressure to mute the strings, and being able to move the hand freely to mute and unmute as needed. I get it – it can be complicated due to the muscle memory involved, but developing that muscle memory can only be done with lots of repetition, i.e., “practice”.
4. Utilize Your Pinky Finger
There are plenty of times where a piece of music calls for a rapid succession of muted and unmuted notes. The hand must be ready to palm mute at any given time for the purposes of rhythm or inflection.
But be careful! If your hand is forced to rush and hits the strings while moving too fast, a number of unwanted sounds could result – a harsh “slap” or hitting the strings on an electric guitar so hard that they actually come in contact with the pickup. One needs to be expeditious and efficient, not clumsily fast.
The pinky finger can be used for control and stability.
For those with smaller hands that have a hard time with palm muting across all six strings, this can be a way to extend your reach. Using the pinky has the added benefit of being closer to the strings than the other fingers of the picking hand, so it can be used to guide the hand to the strings quickly, but softly rather than the hand being allowed to move at such a speed that it crashes into the strings.
When finger picking, don’t use the pinky as a picking finger. Instead, use it to plant on the guitar to give your hand the stability it needs to not rocket outward after plucking the strings.
In this regard the pinky is being used to hold the weight of the arm and hand, keeping the hand relatively still so that the palm can be more easily accessed when the time comes to mute a note or a chord.
5. Stay Close and Avoid Wasted Motion
This is important when a guitar player is muting select beats rather than keeping the hand on the strings. The hand needs to be ready when the muted notes are called for. Therefore, it’s beneficial not to swing the arm too much while strumming, or allow the hand to get too far away from the strings.
Rather than hinging at the elbow and letting the forearm swing like a pendulum, rotate the forearm and keep the wrist loose.
This way, you can maintain strength while strumming, but not allow the hand to venture too far from the strings and be ready to mute when called upon.
6. Try a Thicker Guitar Pick
There’s a lot going on with the rhythm hand of a guitar player. This single hand is strumming, grasping a pick, muting and unmuting, picking single notes; it can be a lot. It can also be frustrating when the desired sound is not being achieved.
When using the palm muting technique, there may be times where one notices that a bit more force is required out of the pick to get the note to resonate. When palm muting in order to “chunk”, the note needs to be dampened, but still clear enough to distinguish.
When strumming an acoustic guitar and using this method of palm muting, a thin pick often will not be strong enough to provide enough force to squeeze the sound of the chord. Try moving up in gauge to a medium or heavy pick.
With both the acoustic and the electric guitar, the heavier pick helps get the sound out of the chord without having to use a lot of force from the hand, thereby helping keep the hand more relaxed.
7. Mute on The Beat
There are uses of the palm mute with guitar chords – to dampen an entire passage of music using a “chug” sound, or muting selected beats to really emphasize a rhythm.
In the case of using palm muting to beat or rhythm, one isn’t just muting at random. This muting does more than affect the sound of a chord, it is a crucial tool in creating a groove. The mute itself needs to occur on a specific beat. The most common groove that is created can be heard in many acoustic songs where the guitar part is very percussive.
For example, John Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland” is being fingerpicked and the hand is performing a percussive, slapping mute on beats “2” and “4”, just like a snare drum would. The slap of the strings gives that drum-like sound. When the hand comes down on the string, it also places the fingers back on the strings to come right back up with a pluck. It’s a very efficient and natural movement for the rhythm hand.
That song example is fingerpicked, but this same principle applies to a song that uses a pick.
8. Alternate Muted and Unmuted Notes to Create Accents
Accented notes are also used to create a groove or rhythmic motif. One way to think of an accent is to just make certain beats louder than others. Those louder notes or beats are thereby the accents. Another way to think of it is not to make the accents louder, but make all the other notes quieter.
A continuous palm muting technique achieves this idea. Rather than using the palm mute to create a rhythmic accent in the case of the John Mayer song, the unmuted notes of a continuously muted progression provide the rhythmic articulation. This is probably most identifiable in rock guitar, particularly with heavily distorted electric guitars.
The default position for the guitarist in this example is the palm-muted position, with the rhythm hand all the way back on the saddle of the bridge. Remember, we are dampening, not actually muting. In order to create an accent, rotate the forearm to force the pick outward and the side of the palm off the strings to “open up” the chord. Return the pick to the strings and the side of the palm back to the saddle to dampen the strings again.
For a simple illustration of this technique in use, I often point to the song “Use Somebody” by Kings Of Leon. The accented rhythm is 1-2-3 – 1-2-3 – 1-2. The chords are being muted, but are briefly unmuted on those accented notes to create the groove.
9. Play With Touch
Playing on stage and in the studio, I learned a very important idea: Don’t overplay! To play with touch means to play with discipline and to know that you have an amp for a reason. There’s no need to go nuts on the strings and play too hard.
Palm muting allows accents to be more exaggerated, so there’s no need to overdo it… unless you want to, of course!
10. Clean Up Your Tone
A classic difference between an amateur and a pro electric guitar player is that the amateur tends to use too much distortion. Too dirty of a sound can really put a damper on the dampening of the palm muting technique. Rollback the distortion a bit and you may find that the “chug” sound will improve.
Playing around with your EQ is a great way to experiment and find different tones if you plan on using palm muting quite a bit in your electric playing. For example, dialing back the distortion and increasing the high mids will result in less of a “chug” or “djug” tone and make more of a “djent” sound in your muting.
In fact, this sound became the name of an entire genre – the underground metal music known as Djent, with bands like Meshuggah, Periphery, and Animals As Leaders being some of the pioneers.
11. Use Heavier Strings on an Electric Guitar
Using the hand mechanics mentioned above, experimenting with pick thickness, and playing with the amp settings are all things that will help you improve your palm muting sound. Here are couple more tips you may not have thought of.
As an electric player, the heavier string gauge can result in a deeper “chug” on the lower strings, and more definition on the upper strings. For acoustic palm muting players, a bigger, more defined sound will often be the benefits of the heavier strings. Most performing musicians change to heavier strings shortly after their career starts due to the overall tonal improvements.
Just note that switching string gauge has a big impact on the neck due to the change in tension. Any guitarist making this change on their guitar will need it to be set up by a professional guitar tech or luthier.
12. Musical Meditation
After learning about this idea from Steve Vai, I have used it in my practicing ever since. When working a new technique, the “usual” 20-30 minutes/per day practice regiment just isn’t enough. The “usual” practice is the one that starts with a little piddling around to warm up, followed by about 5 or 10 minutes of working on the material, then the rest of the time typically gets eaten up by a distracted, musical A.D.D. “jam session”.
That is not necessarily a bad thing. The guitar is supposed to be fun after all. But, if you really want to get better and really take your abilities to new heights, the practice sessions require a bit more from you.
Enter musical meditation. This is where you put on a timer for an hour and work on one technique, with little to no variation. Here’s the link to learn more about it. It’s not for the faint of heart, but try it a few times and watch what happens to your playing, you will be a believer, too!
Palm Muting Exercises You Can Use
To close, here are a couple of exercises you can try to work on your palm muting. Maybe try some of these with the musical mediation idea.
The first one is from “Use Somebody” by Kings Of Leon. This is a very common musical motif that you may recognize in many other songs.
This next one is a little more difficult – John Mayer’s “Your Body Is A Wonderland”. You can drop the 6th string down to a D note and finger pick to achieve the specific sound of this song, or you can use the idea utilizing the palm to mute the rests, applying whatever chords you wish. Use a pick or fingers.
Just be sure on this one to use the palm mute as a rhythmic tool, not just to cut a chord short. For added effect, don’t simply place your palm on the strings. Give it a little force to create some string slap.