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I don't play (bass) guitar, nor do I have a desire to. However, this question has been bugging me for quite some time now, as I have yet found the answer myself by viewing guitarists playing, mostly electric, (bass) guitars:

How do they typically stop a note from sustaining?

To sustain a note, I presume one simply lets the string vibrate (while keeping a finger on the fret, if applicable). If one wants to stop a note, I would assume you want to stop the string from vibrating. However, even after carefully observing, I never seem to see guitarists stop strings vibrating with the hand that picks (either with or without a plectrum) the strings.

So, how is this typically done? (And are the above assumptions correct?)

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It can be done with either the fretting hand or the picking hand and there are several methods that can be used such as:

  • The fretting hand can lift up slightly to mute a note that was just being fretted. Letting the pressure up and resting the finger on the string will stop it from vibrating.
  • The fretting hand can mute adjacent strings that is not being played. Typically notes are fretted with the tip of the finger, but the rest of the finger can lay across other strings to mute them or keep them from vibrating while playing on another string. This is kind of like a barre chord but without applying pressure to the barre, so the finger(s) is just resting on the other strings to mute them.
  • The picking hand can mute strings with the palm. This usually done when playing on the higher pitched strings to mute the lower pitched strings that are directly underneath of the palm. But it can also be done across all of the strings to stop them all from ringing and this would likely be a bigger motion (maybe even a rhythmic "thump") which would be more noticeable from watching them.
  • When finger picking then muting strings with the picking fingers is much easier to do as well. Although I suppose it's possible to mute strings with fingers not holding the pick, but I don't know how common that is.

The method of muting can also change depending on which direction you're moving from low strings to high strings or vice versa or if you are strumming chords. It all depends on whichever muting method is the easiest and makes the most sense given what is being played. Muting notes is a skill that has to be practiced and it plays a big part in how clean or sloppy your playing sounds.

  • "Letting the pressure up and resting the finger on the string will stop it from vibrating": A ha! I kind of suspected it had to be something subtle like that, amongst other things. Cause that's pretty hard to observe visually. ;-) Thank you for detailing the different methods! – Decent Dabbler Dec 20 '15 at 1:24
  • Muting the string with individual picking fingers is much less common than the others because it's easy to accidentally cause (ie. not mute) a harmonic. Everything listed here works for regular and bass guitars. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Dec 20 '15 at 5:18
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft, how do you know it is "less common"? You could just as well get a harmonic when lifting your fretting finger, if you happen to play a note on say, the 5th or 7th fret, not to mention buzz from lifting too slow. – Johannes Dec 20 '15 at 12:51
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft - It's what I do a lot of the time. Others do it all the time. Yes, the harmonics may be sounded, but it's very rare as merely touching a string that is still will not cause a potential harmonic to sound. – Tim Dec 20 '15 at 13:43
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    @Johannes - lifting a finger rarely causes a harmonic. The actual place you press the string down is not the actual place a node is. The node will be above the fretwire - you don't press a fretted note on the fretwire, so taking off your finger, even if it sticks a little, will not produce the harmonic - it's a few millimetres away. Possibly with fretless, but that's a different issue. – Tim Dec 20 '15 at 13:46
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Although the answers so far are pretty comprehensive, I think it's worth mentioning that it's hard to get a note to stop really fast (which is what gives nice 'tight' phrasing) using fretting-hand muting alone. To get a really tight stop, you often need to mute over (or near) the pickup - so even if you do lift the finger on the fretting hand slightly, you also use a finger on the plucking hand (which may be the one you're about to pick the next note with, if it's on the same string) to mute, or use the side of your palm if using a pick. Muting at multiple points along the string length helps dissipate the significant amount of energy in a heavy vibrating bass string.

There are another couple of ways that haven't been mentioned so far:

  • Using the left hand (fretting) thumb to mute the lower strings, particularly the E or B - this is unusual, but can be useful when your right hand is otherwise engaged.

  • using a physical muting device, such as a Gruvgear Fretwrap, which allows muting a string by leaving it open.

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You can stop a strong vibrating with either hand depending on what you need to do, timing-wise, and what type of stop you want.

Sometimes it is easiest to just damp with the left hand while the right hand picks the next note, but other times you may want a hard damp from your right hand.

  • Alright! But how do they damp with their left hand then? With the other fingers, perhaps? Or slightly moving the finger that's on a fret, maybe? I never quite seem to observe either of that either (but maybe I'm just poorly trained, visually, in that aspect). – Decent Dabbler Dec 20 '15 at 0:56
  • Yep, both of these. Other fingers, or releasing pressure on the fretting finger. – Doktor Mayhem Dec 20 '15 at 1:05
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It's a good question but has more implications than you might think. Since generally only one note is played at a time a lot of technique goes into preventing the other three from sounding / vibrating. Effectively the other notes need to be damped all the time. Muting the playing note just adds one more.

I find that the strings below (physically, not musically) the one being played can easily be muted by flattening out the playing fingers. The open strings above the note being played can best be muted with the thumb when plucking finger-style, an idle finger on the bridge hand, the palm or a fretboard finger.

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    I could be wrong, but I think almost everyone uses 'below' to mean 'lower frequency' - so rather than saying below (physically, not musically) you're better off just saying above. I could be wrong! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '15 at 13:08
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    Hence my clarification. The point here is that the hand comes in from the underside on the high notes. If I wanted to be pedantic I could point out that if the fingered note is above the 5th fret it would musically be above the string below it (physically and musically) which would cause even more confusion. But I don't, so I won't. ;^) – Transistor Dec 20 '15 at 13:14
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    (Even if you're fretting the low E-string at the 7th fret and the A string is open, I'm pretty sure most people would still call the E the string below, even though it's nether vibrating at a lower pitch nor physically lower!) Anyway it's a very minor point and I may be wrong but I was just thinking you'd be better off saying above (musically, not physically) to be clear, but also allow lazy people like me to say 'lower' and 'higher' using the conventional meanings without sounding like we're contradicting you! Anyway +1 on your answer, you're right - you use anything you can to mute! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 20 '15 at 13:39

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