Palm-muting is a guitar technique that utilizes the side of the palm of the rhythm hand to dampen the sound of the strings to create dynamic variation. It is an important technique to learn in order to give a guitarist more control over the inflection and gait of a given rhythm.
With electric guitar, the palm-muting technique is what is behind the deep, guttural “chunk” of the heavily distorted rock guitar sound. With acoustic, muted strums and plucks give variation in sound and energy levels to make a piece of music more interesting.
This can be a tricky technique as it requires a bit of finesse and discipline. A balance must be struck so the strings are not completely stifled, but are restricted enough to provide that semi-muted staccato sound. As with any technique, the key to mastering palm-muting is lots of practice to develop muscle control and dexterity.
Everyone is different, so there needs to be a certain amount of experimentation to determine what is right for you to be able to attain the sounds you want in the most effective way possible. Let’s take a look at five exercises you can add to your practice regiment that will help you improve your palm-muting technique.
In the same way an athlete warms up before hitting the weights in the gym, we need to warm up as well and make sure we get the basics of the mechanics down before getting into the meat of the exercises.
First, ensure you can do a proper palm mute. The key to getting just the right sound is to have the hand resting where the strings meet the bridge on the saddle. On the acoustic guitar, this is the piece of bone or plastic that sits in a little slot on top of the bridge. On most electrics, these are individually adjustable metal pieces where the strings attach to the bridge assembly.
Pay attention that your hand is not too far forward where the strings are not as taught as this could completely mute the strings.
Next, don’t let your hand press down on the strings too hard. A light touch is all that is needed to get that dampened, staccato sound. As you pick the strings, be sure to maintain that contact with the strings to keep them from ringing out and sustaining.
If the strings are deadened, move the hand back further toward the bridge and/or ease up on the pressure that is being applied to the hand.
Start by 10-15 minutes of a concentrated practice or musical meditation. Without pause and without deviation, pick a chord (E5 power chord for example), apply the palm mute, then strum. Do not leave the chord or note you have chosen – stick with it the whole time. This keeps your attention on the muting hand.
10 minutes is a good warm-up, but try extending it if you are having trouble achieving a good palm-mute sound. Feel free to move the palm back and forth along the length of the string to see how it sounds in other places. Try using different parts of the palm and different angles.
Experiment with the way you are holding the pick. There are so many minute details that can be altered that can potentially make a big difference in your technique.
This first exercise uses the three main power chords for the key of E. Try to maintain the mute (P.M.) throughout and repeat several times. You are looking for a good, clear chunk. Heavier strings tend to produce a better sound, but if you are using light strings, that’s okay, too. There will just be less low-end resonance.
Practice with a metronome and keep the beat consistent using all down-strokes.
Palm-muting exercise number two is a variation of the first one using a shuffle rhythm and some note movement. First, note the triplet feel annotation at the top. This means that all of these eighth notes have a “triplet feel” and the beat uses the first and third notes from the triplet set to create the beat.
A triplet rhythm can be vocalized as “TRIP-a-let, TRIP-a-let, TRIP-a-let, TRIP-a-let” for a full measure with the “TRIP” as the downbeat or quarter note. With triplet feel shuffle, remove the middle beat: TRIP-a-let. Or, one can think of it as 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3.
Next, notice the movement of the E and A chords. In blues, this can be referred to as an embellishment. Apply the triplet shuffle to the chords and you have the stereotypical blues line. Again, apply the palm mute throughout.
For number three, we need to change things up a bit by only muting some of the notes. When using an accented rhythm (where certain beats are louder than others), palm mutes can be used on the notes that are not being accentuated in order for the accents to stand out even more. Much of rhythm and melody is about exaggeration; make the quite notes really quiet and loud notes really loud!
For this mixture of accent and palm mute, one of my favorite musical examples is the classic “Use Somebody” by Kings Of Leon. This accent pattern is the most popular and is usually the accent patter first learned by students who are learning with the aid of a lesson book.
The accent is 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&…
As you hit the accents, twist your forearm ever so slightly to kick the side of your palm away from the strings to release the mute. Then, bring the hand right back down to the strings to dampen them again for the non-accents. The trick here will be consistently reapplying the mute in the proper fashion to keep the notes from being deadened.
This next one is typical of an electric guitar rhythm for hard rock or metal. As with number 3, this one will release the mute at certain beats. For the rests, just use the palm to mute the strings so they stop on beat “4”. Because this exercise uses 16th notes, there will need to be an up-stroke of the pick.
Alternating down and up can be a challenge while palm muting, so start this one off slowly. Maintain a healthy grip on the pick, but don’t squeeze too hard. The palm-mute still needs a light touch and squeezing the pick too tightly can cause the player to inadvertently press on the muting strings with too much force, thus deadening the strings. Holding the pick correctly will keep the pick secure without having to squeeze.
This can be used with any power chord combination, so feel free to experiment with the chord structure. I would encourage you to even branch out from this rhythm and alter it slightly.
In our last exercise, we can look at single notes. I will suggest alternating between up- and down-strokes of the pick with this one as well. Start this one off with muting all the way through the “Crazy Train” riff, then you can change things up a bit to make it a little more interesting.
Experimenting with muting some notes and releasing the mute on others is a good way to see how the personality of a piece of music can change based on simple changes of inflection.
Hopefully, these exercises will help you improve your palm-muting technique. Musical examples are always superior, so be listening for the palm-muting sounds in some of the music you listen to, then try to imitate it when you go to practice your guitar.