One of the least explained and most overlooked (or avoided) techniques in all of guitardom, is string damping. String damping is the use of the left and right hands to completely deaden any strings that you are not using. Why would we want to do this? The guitar is a very resonant instrument, and when you strike a single string, it will cause the other strings to vibrate sympathetically. This is great if you want shimmering ringing arpeggios (a good example of this is cascades which are commonly employed in country music). If you’re attempting to achieve pure single note lines, however, an open ringing guitar is the worst thing possible. When playing single note lines, ringing strings interfere with the notes you are trying to play. This problem is increased when you use distortion, overdrive, or fuzz to add sustain and body to the sound.
So how do we control the instrument and stop the strings from ringing in an objectionable way? The answer is surprisingly simple. Let’s assume a situation where I am fretting a note on the “G” string with my index finger. In this scenario, we want to hear the “G” string and nothing else. This means we have 5 strings to deaden with both hands.
Let’s start with the right hand. For most players it is natural to use the palm side of the right hand to deaden strings (not the underside of the thumb). If you use another part of the right hand for damping, I wouldn’t recommend it, as other methods sound very clunky in comparison. In this case the “D” “A” and “lowE” strings will be deadened by the palm of the right hand.
Now for the left hand. If you use proper classical posture (thumb on the back of the neck and wrist arched) left hand muting, as well as playing difficult passages will be much easier. Using proper posture, it is easy to lay the index finger across the strings to provide string damping. In our scenario, the index is fretting the “G” string, the right hand palm is now deadening the “lowE” “A” and “D” strings, and the left hand must now damp the “B” and “highE”. If your posture is on target, the underside of the index finger can deaden the “B” and “highE” strings, while the very tip of the index presses down to fret the “G” string. Okay, but what if I’m fretting with a different finger? No problem. Let’s assume you’re now fretting with your middle finger. Your index finger can still lay flat behind your middle finger (which is now fretting the “G” string) to mute the “B” and “highE” strings. While it’s laying there damping, the index also sits in position to play a note on the “G” string, so we kill two birds with one stone. I would wager that 90% or more of left hand string damping is done with the index. There are a few situations where a particular pattern will require using the underside of the ring or pinkie (for a split second) to damp unused strings.
The system I’ve just explained is the most efficient to use. Having said this, there are a number of amazing guitarists that use completely different, slightly bizarre string damping systems. A perfect example of this is Steve Morse. Morse uses his right hand palm and pinkie to damp around the string he’s playing. If you’ve ever tried this, you’ll discover how weird this feels, and how inconsistent it can be. Morse, however, must have beaten this method to death and forced it to work for him. There are plenty of examples of players that have forced inefficient methods to work, however, I wouldn’t recommend their methods.
So let’s sum things up. We’re using our left and right hands to deaden the unused strings. The right hand damps any string below the string you’re fretting (in our example the “lowE” “A” and “D”). The left hand damps any string higher than the fretted string (in our example the “B” and “highE”). The system simply moves to encircle the fretted string.
This system may seem difficult at first, but if you practice it along with your picking and scale exercises, it will become second nature and completely logical over time. It will allow you to play cleanly and control the instrument. After all, what good is playing fast if it sounds like a sloppy mess? Have fun becoming the cleanest guitarist on the block!