"I think the perfect music is probably silence and, as musicians, all [we] really do is create a rather beautiful and ornate frame for that perfection that is… silence." – Sting
When you begin to learn to play guitar your efforts are all focused on learning to play notes. Your aim is to play as many notes as you can as cleanly as you can and you strive to avoid those muffled notes that don't ring out.
Through many hours of practice you gradually develop your ability to play chords with no muffled, buzzing or rattling notes in them. When you get to this point you feel quite pleased with yourself and you can learn to play a bunch of songs with a pleasant sound.
But as you progress and learn to play more songs you discover that often many of the notes you learned seem to be left out. For example, when you look at the tab of a favourite song you notice that only two or three notes of an otherwise familiar chord shape are missing.
Not a lot of guitar tuition I've seen teaches this, but to sound like a real guitar player you have to learn how to not play notes. In music, the notes you don’t play are as important as those you do play. Some goes as far as saying that making music is the art of playing the right silences.
How Do You Play Silence?
There are several guitar techniques you should learn to master the art of playing silences. Here's a list of useful techniques to practice.
1. Picking Skills
When first playing your guitar strums are probably not very accurate. You probably simply aimed to hit as many strings as you could with your pick or fingers.
You can learn to strike only certain notes by developing accuracy in your picking or strumming techniques. You should be able to deliberately strum only one, two or three adjacent strings. You can also learn skills such as hybrid picking to pick non-adjacent strings at the same time.
2. Pick Hand Muting
Another way to limit the sounds produced by the guitar is to mute strings with the strumming or picking hand. There are several ways to do this: palm muting, muting with the edge of the pick or a finger.
These techniques can be used to mute strings to stronger or lesser degrees so that the string is either completely muted or gives a short percussive sound.
3. Fretting Hand Muting
Your other option as a guitar player is to mute strings with your fretting hand. This can be done to mute all the strings to cut the duration of a note. You can also use your fretting fingers to mute strings adjacent to the notes you do want to play so that only those notes are heard.
Mastering the art of not playing notes on the guitar is just as important as learning how to play notes. Many sounds used by guitarists depend on muting or muffling certain notes just as much as getting other notes to sound cleanly.
Picture by fmerenda.