Basic String Muting
When you first start playing the ukulele, you often will be doing your best to not mute any strings at all. As you practice new chords it is common to play each string to make sure each note in the chord sounds. All fretted strings need to be pressed down firmly right before the frets and any open strings can’t be touched by any of your fingers. However, there will come a point where you will want to purposely mute strings. We mute a string by barely pressing down on that string that we do not want to sound. Using your index finger cover all the strings on the second fret, this will be a barre chord Bm7.
Play this chord as normal, making sure each string is sounding. Now take much of the pressure off the fretboard so your finger is barely laying across the strings. When you strum you should be getting a percussive sound, this is what happens when you mute a string. Sometimes it can be done for only one string in a chord. Take the G chord and mute the 3rd fret of the E string (by barely pressing your middle finger down on the string).
Play the G chord and try muting different strings, of course the top open string can be muted by slightly resting your thumb on that top string. Muting on the ukulele can be done for a couple reasons, perhaps you are trying to leave a particular note out of a chord, but most often it s used to give the strumming a percussive effect. Essentially you’re giving the strum a stronger attack and dampening the sustain. It takes quite a bit of practice to get the hang of muting strings fast, you have to teach your fingers when to press down firmly and when to release pressure to get the muted sound.
Certain musical styles rely on muted strings. When you play reggae music you will strike the strings like normal and then quickly release some pressure with your left hand while striking the strings again with your right, when done properly it gives that well known reggae strum. You can also mute the strings with your pinky, the key is to only strum the strings on the 2nd and 4th beat, the 1st and 3rd will be muted strums. Muted strums can also help you with a funky beat. Being able to mute strings will allow you to get a great percussive effect that can open up many styles of playing. It seems really simple that muted strings could really add so much to your playing, but you would be surprised.
The ultimate goal of muted strings is strum blocking. Strum blocking is a method of muting 3 strings and while only playing a 4th string. It’s not easy to do and takes quite a bit of practice to learn how to quickly move from chord to chord while strum blocking. This technique adds some percussion and attack to a simple melody line. Here is perhaps the most well known example of strum blocking. Notice much of the time he is only playing a simple one note melody line, but with the added muted strings, it gives the song a whole new character.
This is an example of what strum blocking looks like in tabs:
It doesn’t seem complicated, notice the simple melody line. However, it takes quite a bit of finesse to mute all the strings around the melody line. It really depends on your comfort which fingers you use to mute. Of course the thumb works for muting the top G and C strings when necessary and the rest of your fingers can mute the bottom two. In some cases, you can use your left hand index finger as a barre mute while the middle and ring fingers play the notes. Not only do you have to get the finger pressure just right, you also have to get the “feel” of the strum down.
To be honest, strum blocking can be very frustrating for many students, their natural inclination is to press down on all the strings. Muting one or two strings is not too difficult, but muting 3 strings each time you strum… it’s no walk in the park. It will take dedication and preferably a larger size ukulele, as it is a bit tough on the sopranos and concerts. I have found that a good song to initially practice strum blocking on is Sunshine of Your Love by Cream. We almost all know that song, it is one of the most recognizable riffs in history.
-5-5-3-5-X-X-X-X-X--X---- -X-X-X-X-5-4-3-X-X--X---- -X-X-X-X-X-X-X-2-5~-2---- -X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X--X----
First play the melody a few times with your left hand ring finger and ignore the X’s (the muted spots). Now after you have that down mute the other strings with your index finger. Just lay it right across the strings enough to barely touch them. Strum and make sure you have a full mute. Once you have the mute down go back to playing the melody with your ring finger. It will take a few tries but once you have it down it will make the riff to Sunshine of Your Love sound rather funky with the muted percussive effect. It’s actually a pretty cool version of the intro.
Once you are getting the hang of this simple intro you can move on further in the song. Try other popular and well known riffs, muting all the strings around them. Sometimes it will work other times it may be too difficult. It really helps knowing the melody of what you are playing that way you can concentrate on the string muting rather than the song you are trying to play. As you practice you will be able to branch out into more difficult pieces and maybe eventually get to be as good as James Hill in the video above! When it comes to playing reggae, funk, and rockabilly with muted strings, it’s not just about technique, it’s about the feel. It’s not easy to explain but the ska, the funk, the reggae… it all comes from deep within. Do your best to channel it when playing your ukulele!