Muting the notes or chords you play on your ʻukulele at the right times can really change the feel of the song. It allows you to control the beginning and also the end of notes. This leads to a tighter sound and can really improve the clarity of what you play. Stylistically it is also useful.
When you mute, you stop a note or chord before it would normally trail off. Muting can also refer to action of suppressing unwanted string noise by clever hand positioning – muting of the strings. My article, Playing Clean dives into detail about that. In this lesson I want to discuss how to shorten the length of notes and chords.
Types of Muting
There are several ways of “killing” a note. I’ll discuss the main ones here. They all have their place and can be used interchangeably, but can also work together for an even stronger effect. They are presented in order of difficulty.
Strum Hand Muting
The easiest way to begin muting is to do so with your strumming hand in between attack motions (strumming or picking). To achieve this, simply strum a chord and then open your right hand and place it onto the ringing strings in the same area you normally strum. You want to intentionally stop the strings with the palm of your hand.
This video on reggae strumming discusses each of the three main muting techniques (strum hand muting from 2:40 to 3:24):
This is a simple motion, but can be tricky to implement in a complicated strum. That’s why there are other options for muting. It doesn’t always make sense to mute with your palm if your fretting hand can do the same job more seamlessly.
This technique works best if you are using a closed position shape or “barre” chord. This allows for all of the strings to be covered by your fingers. To mute the chord, just strum and then lift your fingers up so that the strings break contact with the frets.
Instead of holding the chord and only lifting off for the mute, it’s easier to think of it as holding the mute and then just adding the chord when you need it. So you keep your fingers hovering right over the proper frets for the chord, but don’t push down except when you want to sound the chord.
Try this reggae beat with a mute after every chord (upstrums are widely used for this kind of playing). You play on beats 2 and 4 and mute on beats 1 and 3. The numbers above the tab are the beat counts. For an easier version, play on 1 and 3, mute on 2 and 4.
.....1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 A |-----3-----3-|-----3-----3-|-----5-----5-|-----5-----5-| E |-----3-----3-|-----3-----3-|-----5-----5-|-----5-----5-| C |-----4-----4-|-----4-----4-|-----5-----5-|-----5-----5-| G |-----5-----5-|-----5-----5-|-----7-----7-|-----7-----7-|
The second chunk from the video discusses lift mutes (3:24 to 5:31):
The last way to mute discussed here is with your fretting hand pinky (or other fingers). With this technique you just let your pinky fall onto the strings and silence the notes.
To do this, play a chord that doesn’t use your pinky finger and hover it over the strings on standby. When you want to mute, let the pinky drop flat onto the strings.
You’ll have to work at this muting technique. Getting your pinky to land on the strings evenly takes some practice. But once you get it, you can play some very sophisticated stuff.
Pinky muting is not practical all the time for muting closed position chords. It’s instead slightly more useful for open chords and weird rhythms. You can practice on the same chord pattern as above, just play the open form chords (C – 0003, Dm – 2210).
The last piece of the video covers pinky muting (5:31 to 7:56):
When you first learn muting, take your time and try to mute on simple, patient strums. It’s much easier to practice the technique with a slow D D D D strum than trying to learn it with a complicated DXUUDU strum.