Here’s a riddle for you:
I give funk music that extra edge. I add help fit the bass in the context of the drums and the guitar. You can feel me more than you can hear me.
What am I?
Muted notes, of course!
What is Muting on Bass Guitar, Anyway?
Muted notes are notes that are “choked off” and not allowed to ring out. These are the notes that can be though of as “place holders” for where notes would actually go. Rather than letting a note ring out when you pluck it, pick it or slap it, to make a muted note out of it simply means to remove enough of the pressure off the string so you’re getting a *thunk* sound to come out of it rather than a pitch. Muting is also referred to as ghosting (see Rocco Prestia) or playing dead notes.
How to Write Out Dead Notes In Tab and Standard Notation
On paper, muting is represented in different ways. In tablature notation, muted notes are usually shown with the tabbed note in parenthesis like this:
In standard notation, muted notes are represented by an “x” where the note you’re playing would be (see below).
Three Different Ways to Mute:
1. Palm Muting
Palm muting is characterized by using the meaty part of your palm to damped the sound of the strings as you pluck them.
and then positioning it so that it rests against the bass close towards the bridge area like this when you’re muting with your thumb. Notice how the meaty part of my hand is resting on the strings as I pluck with my thumb:
Scott Devine also has a great lesson on palm muting worth checking out if you’re really looking to up your muting abilities quickly and Andrew Pouska has some valuable insights worth checking out on the technique as well.
2. Muting with a Pick
Muting with a pick is no different then palm muting without one. The only difference now is that rather than trying to play with your palm against the strings and maneuver your thumb and occasionally your index finger, you’re now maneuvering a pick.
The meaty part of your palm is the best thing for a mute the same reason why your thumb is great for getting a thud sound when you play: it’s thick. Moreover, your palm in this case is serving the same purpose that a slide guitar player’s palm is doing by preventing additional overtones from ringing out and cluttering the mix and your playing.
Personally speaking for a moment, I find palm muting is great for playing with a pick more than it is for fingerstyle simply because my hand is already positioned in a way that is optimal for dampening notes.
In this position, all I need to do as a player is settle my hand in a normal playing position but position my hand a little more against the strings.
When playing with a pick, your hand is already positioned in a way that your meaty part is ready to place against the strings. When playing fingerstyle, you need to contort your wrist to make the meaty part of your hand reveal itself and place it in an optimal way to place against the strings for muting.
3. Muting from the Left and Right Hands Together
Now that we’ve covered muting from palm, lets now look at muting with your fingers ala Jaco Pastorius, Rocco Prestia, and Bootsy Collins.
Unlike the palm muting approach we broke down above, muting with your fingers means choking notes off selectively throughout a bass line rather than deadening the entire sound of the bass like with palm muting. Some call it the right hand muting technique, others call it left hand muting and some (like myself) just call it muting with the left and right.
Finger muting, we’ll call this version of muting, can take a little bit more time to get acclimated to and can be looked at with 2 different starting points: at the left or at the right. When playing, you will need to remove your left hand off the fretboard just enough to choke off the note while plucking with the right hand. Muting like this is, at is core, this simple, the challenge comes from being able to synchronize releasing your left hand and continuing to play with the right at the same time as to not throw off your time, playing and overall groove.
The video below goes much more in depth into this as it can be difficult to explain in text alone without any opportunity to see or do it yourself.
Being able to do this at fast speeds with dazzling precision like Rocco Prestia or Jaco Pastorius will certainly take time and a practical, sustainable practice routine to develop. Ultimately, your two hands will be working together in this particular case to create a muted note.
Don’t Want to Use Your Hands to Mute? Check Out These Pieces of Gear Instead
Twisting your wrist to conform so you can mute effectively can be painful if done for a long time. As a result, gear manufacturers have taken to their labs to develop equipment for your bass to give you a dampened effect without having to contort your hands for prolonged periods of time.
1. GruvGear’s FretWraps
Victor Wooten made a video for YouTube some time ago (which I can’t seem to find, unfortunately) showing how to use a hair scrunchie to mute all of your strings at the same time and to dampen the bass’s over tones and when combined with a fuzz pedal can create some pretty wild and unique sounds. Who would have though to use a hair scrunchie of all things on a bass guitar would have worked so well and serve such a unique purpose?
Well, GruvGear might not be making hair scrunchies for bass per se, but they are making the next best thing: a refined version of the concept exclusively for bass players and guitar players called FretWraps . The company even alluded to the scrunchie-similarity aspect in their headline:
FretWraps come in a pack of 3 with different sizes ranging from extra small to extra large, with a corresponding size chart of what each size equates to for a bass and a guitar:
Before we started putting wraps and scrunchies on our bass’s necks to dampen our sound, we were cramming foam and other soft materials at the bridge to get that desired thud in our playing. BassMute has stayed true to that way of getting a consistent thumpy sound without having to bend out your wrist and hand.
BassMute works by setting in place a series of small rubber foam mutes underneath the saddles of your bass’s strings. Each of the saddles can be changed out independently and adjusted to the millimeter of your string’s size, height and distance. The apparatus even has a lever on the side for quickly engaging or disengaging the muting feature on your strings.
3. A Good Ol’ Piece of Foam from Your Local Hardware Store
Cheap, convenient and used by everyone from Paul McCartney to Family Man Barrett at least one point in their career.
Last but not least, check out this week’s latest Smart Bass lesson for a more comprehensive look at muting on bass guitar (plus some examples at the end to help you practice):
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