Palm muting is a technique you can use to dampen and deaden the strings on your guitar.
From a more general perspective, muting is an important part of guitar playing, and oftentimes both the right and left hands are used to mute in different ways at different times.
Palm muting, however, is essentially a picking hand technique (for right-handed players, that's your right hand, and for left-handed players, your left). It requires a bit of skill, because you need to be able to mute and play notes simultaneously.
So how do you palm mute, and why would you even want to? Let's get into it.
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How To Palm Mute
“Palm muting” is a bit of a strange term in the sense that you don't exactly use the palm of your hand to do it. You actually use the fleshy part of the side of your hand, the part connected to, and directly below, the outer part of your pinky.
Palm muting is achieved by simply resting your hand on the strings, but there is a bit of a trick to this. There are two steps you need to follow to get it sounding right:
- You need to place your hand right next to the bridge, if not directly on it (you should still feel the strings on the side of your hand). Muting any higher than this (i.e. on top of the soundhole or next to the fretboard) will more or less deaden the strings completely, not allowing any sound to come through. This defeats the point of palm muting altogether unless your intention is to kill the sound.
- You need to have a bit of a light touch. The harder you press down, the more muted the strings become, but again, you risk killing the sound of the strings completely if you press too hard. The heavier the string, the more pressure you can apply before it dies. The lighter the string, the more finesse you're going to need to use. Muting the top three strings, especially the first and second string, is very difficult at first (though possible), so it's best to practice on the lower (bass) strings first.
When you play a note without any muting, it rings out clearly and for a longer duration of time. When it's muted, the resonance lessens. You get a bit of a “chug” before the note dies out.
You can see video examples of this by taking some good electric guitar lessons.
Why Would I Want To Learn How To Palm Mute?
I can think of quite a few reasons, but let's go over what I think are the most important:
- To gain more control over your instrument. As I said at the beginning, muting is a key part of becoming a skilled player. Once you learn how to palm mute, you'll be able to exercise more control over the sound coming out of your instrument. There are few riffs or songs where you would be muting the entire way through. But when you're able to move freely between muting and not muting, you can play more dynamically.
- To achieve a particular effect. Rock, metal, punk, blues… there are a lot of popular genres in which guitarists use palm muting to great effect. Fingerstyle blues players often mute the lower strings while letting the higher strings ring out. The “dead thumb” technique keeps the beat alive, while they play more interesting licks and fills on the higher strings. Rock, metal and punk players often use muting to achieve that “chug” sound, and it's fair to say it's an essential part of metal playing, particularly for accenting dramatic chords.
- To become a more effective player, both onstage and off. In a live situation, you can get away with a lot of things that might not “fly” in the studio. Even so, mastering palm muting makes you a better player onstage, because it enables you to create dynamics within the music and accent when other players are accenting. In the studio, it's dramatically more important. A quality microphone will reveal every imperfection in your playing, and if you don't have any facility with muting, tracking your parts could prove to be an uphill battle.
Examples & Application
Palm muting can be applied to both rhythm guitar and lead guitar.
A great example of palm muting in a rhythmic riff is Greed Day's “When I Come Around”. You can hear how Billie Joe Armstrong mutes notes in between chords he lets ring out for longer. This is fairly common usage for palm muting, though there are instances where palm muting is used for longer stretches of music (take a listen to the verse section of blink-182's “All The Small Things.”).
The master of palm muting in lead guitar is unquestionably Nuno Bettencourt. Take a listen to the breakdown section in Extreme's “Cupid's Dead” (the last three minutes or so of the song). The vast majority of the notes in this section are palm muted. In fact, if he's playing the fourth, fifth or sixth string, he's usually muting them.
Is palm muting the right technique for every situation? No. In fact, most solos probably shouldn't be palm muted, because the goal is usually to cut through the mix and to bring the song to a different place.
Intricate finger-picked songs (think “Stairway to Heaven” – and no, it's not illegal) aren't usually muted, because it could take away from the delicate and beautiful nature of the song, and it can also be difficult from a technical standpoint.
On the flip side of the coin, if you're backing up a soloist, and you aren't palm muting or at least cutting back your volume, you probably haven't mastered the art of rhythm guitar and accompaniment yet.
Palm muting is a technique every guitarist should at least learn how to do. It isn't used all the time in every musical situation, but from electric to acoustic guitar, its practical uses are fairly broad.
If you're an aspiring professional, you should strive to learn every aspect of muting, not just palm muting. With enough practice, you can get it to the point where it's second nature, and you can do it without even thinking.