Left Hand Muting for Chords

Jun 23, 2021

When you are strumming three or four strings at time on the mandolin, sometimes it’s great to let the notes on each string ring out until the next pick stroke. Open string chords sound great like this.

However, in most styles of music with a beat or a “groove,” you’ll need one more essential add-on: left hand muting.

Muting the strings with your left hand fingertips provides you with precise control over the length of each strummed chord’s sustain.

With more control, you’ll be able to leave space between each strum. 

And it is this space in between your strums that is essential to create exciting rhythmic accompaniment.

Let’s use this basic voicing for the C major triad as an example. This voicing is the most frequently-used one for C major when you play the so-called “chop” on beats 2 & 4.

If we strum quarter notes as written, listen to how each note will sustain into the next.

But now listen to how one actually strums this chord in swing or bluegrass…

The actual notes of the chord now are crisp, staccato, with empty space in between. This is left hand muting at work.

Now, let’s take a look at the mechanics behind this technique. 

First I press the three frets of the C chord like usual. Second, I strum across all four strings. So far no surprises.

Step three is “left hand muting” and it is hard to see what's going on. Immediately after strumming the chord, I release the pressure in my left hand that is causing the strings to touch the frets. But I DO NOT lift any of the fingertip flesh off of the strings.

Try it for your self in slow motion in this exercise: 

The goal is for you to make an aggressive rest on beat 3 by releasing the pressure of your fingertips on each of the three strings. But without lifting the flesh off of the strings.

Here’s another way to master this technique: make the muted sound (where your fingers touch but DO NOT press the strings) your default setting for fingering a chord shape. 

Play along here with the muted sound for four beats, and then one brief press to sound beat one of the next measure:If that went well, then try this out: alternate the muted “default setting” with a measure of very short, “staccato” voiced chords. I like to imagine that I squeeze down only for the precise instant that my pick is hitting the strings. And then I quickly un-squeeze.

If you’ve had success with this lesson, take a second to go back to my improvisation over “I Can’t Give You Anything (But Love)” at the start of the video.

You’ll hear a variety of rhythmic effects that are only possible with left hand muting. 

The fluidity and free form of an improvisation in this style is only possible for me because I always have my left hand fingers in the “default mode” - muted.  

And then I can choose to squeeze the strings and get a voiced chord only with precise pick strokes to create a solid basic groove, and to add the exciting unpredictability of syncopation at will.


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