At what point does an aid become a crutch, and how do we make that distinction? In the world of music production, the line between helpful tool and straight up studio magic is hard to draw. Auto-tune would be an obvious example. At first it was a subtle polishing effect to perfect an already strong vocal line. As time went on, we relied on the effect more and more until a “oh don’t worry about it, we’ll fix it with auto-tune” attitude developed. With today’s mentality towards music production, we’ve ended up with some singers who have never been heard without some kind of auto-tune or other pitch correcting effect. This isn’t just limited to pop stars and hip-hop artists, it has even leeched into our scene through the polarizing Metalcore genre. And yes, now we can auto-tune guitar too. There are those who will say that in the studio, anything goes. Do whatever you need to get the sound you want. But what about live? How true to the recording does the live performance have to be? We can’t all be Manowar and bring the Czech Phil-harmonic on the road with us. So samples are ok? What about drum samples? Vocals? Guitar harmonies? And what about guitar effects? Should the player be running everything, creating his own sounds, or is it OK that the guitar tech is operating the Wah pedal from off stage? Let’s not even get into Quantization. Do these devices and methods illustrate a continuing trend towards musical laziness or simply the gradual symbiotic evolution of musicianship and the industry that it supports? These debates go on and on, but today I’d like to look at one device in particular that comes up again and again in the world of shred guitar, the String Dampener.
WHAT ARE STRING DAMPENERS?
String dampeners are simply devices which mute open strings. They drastically cut down on unwanted string noise and feedback, especially in high gain environments. There are essentially 4 major designs. The first design includes variations on a simple mechanical system built into the guitar itself, typically by the bridge. These are commonly used in genres such as Bluegrass or slap-bass technique where a muted sound is preferred most of the time. These designs use felt or rubber to press against the strings near the bridge and in some cases can be turned off and on, but often are permanently active.
The second design would be an electronic pickup system like the one found in the Moog Guitar which uses strong electromagnetic fields to limit movement of the strings. It’s the same idea as sustainer pickups, but in reverse. One rather nit-picky complaint of high-output pickups is that the larger magnets typically employed can kill sustain. Amped-up electromagnets take that to the next level, effectively muting the strings. This has a mixed bag of pros and cons. You have the convenient ability to activate or deactivate the muting with the push of a button, and since the entire system is built into the guitar’s electronics, it won’t change the aesthetics of the instrument (we’re picky about that aren’t we?). On the down side, the muting system effects every note, not just open strings. If you’re shredding non-stop, all day, every day, that’s fine but any slower playing is out of the question. And lets not forget that all this takes some very specialized electronics. Not easy or cheap to add to your existing rig.
Next up we have sleeves and inserts. These are basic wraps or inserts which go around the neck or between the fretboard and the strings to limit string movement. These are of course the simplest and cheapest and are made by a variety of companies. Dirty socks tied around your neck fall into this category. Typically the player will move these around the neck as they play, to fine tune the amount of muting, or simply get them out of the way of their fretting hand. A few examples of players who use this style of dampener would be Guthrie Govan, funk master Victor Wooten, Andy James and neoclassical and fusion virtuoso Greg Howe . Greg is an especially noteworthy example thanks to him always color coordinating his dampener to his guitar. Props Greg. We notice things like that.
In our forth and final category we have mechanical add-on devices that mount on the guitar’s headstock. These typically employ a hinged mechanism to press a material, such as felt, onto the the strings usually between the nut and the 1st fret. The muting material can be lifted up out of the way should you need to play open chords or otherwise not want the muting effect. These offer the advantage of being able to be added to almost any guitar and can be “turned off and on” quickly and completely, something you can’t really do with wraps. Price wise they come in slightly more expensive than wraps or inserts but still much less than a bridge mounted device or electronic system. Classic examples of this would be the Michael Angelo Batio or Jennifer Batten dampeners. The main difference between the Batio and Batten designs are in how they attach, clamped or screwed on, respectively.
WHEN DO WE USE STRING DAMPENERS?
For average licks and standard-issue blues based guitar techniques, dampeners don’t make much difference one way or the other. Between palm muting and the unused fingers of your fretting hand, you’ve got your strings covered, literally. There are however, a number of techniques and musical situations that don’t lend themselves to traditional styles of muting. Let’s look at a few of them:
- Hammer-ons From Nowhere: This technique, popularized by neoclassical and fusion virtuoso Greg Howe, requires tapping or hammering-on a note with your fretting hand, as the first note of a line. Typically it will combine tapped notes from both hands, often alternating. The increased strength and speed that you need on your fretting hand generally requires that you increase the “striking distance” of your finger, coming in at the string from a higher “altitude”. This increased distance from the strings makes it much more difficult and sometimes impossible to do any substantial muting with your fretting hand. When both hands are tapping, you encounter the same issue, at the same time, with your picking hand. In a case like this a string dampener makes a world of difference, essentially providing a 3rd hand to take care of muting.
- Over-the-Neck Playing: A flashy and perhaps under-utilized technique developed by players like Akira Takasaki, David Shankle, Michael Angel Batio and Mike Orlando, this technique has both of your hands coming over the neck instead of your picking hand over and your fretting hand under. This creates an unfortunate circumstance when trying to mute the higher (musically higher) strings. Both hands are pointing the same direction and if you’re playing, let’s say on the D string, there’s nothing to cover the G, B and E strings. Mr. Takasaki is unique in this situation in that he has developed a way of using his little finger as a sort of “bar dampener” to mute the strings in some arpeggiated runs. For most scalar lines though, the problem remains. This technique is another that benefits greatly from the application of a string dampener.
- Tap/Slap Only and Djent Style Playing: For some musical styles you simply don’t want a lot of notes ringing out together. Tapped double-stops common to fusion bass lines and Djent style guitar need a very fast note release with an equally fast decay. These styles require a percussive kind of sound and again, the string dampener helps substantially in this regard.
- Playing more than one instrument simultaneously: OK, let’s be honest, not many people do this, but if you’re playing guitar and your picking hand is busy doing something else (playing a 2nd guitar in Michael Angelo Batio’s case, or yo-yoing in Jason Becker’s), then you’re left with not much other choice than to use a string dampener to control muting.
ARE THERE RIGHT OR WRONG WAYS TO USE A DAMPENER?
The aforementioned situations are cases in which there is a fully legitimate need for additional muting, which the string dampener provides. But as I’m sure most of you know, the most common use of string dampeners is to simply ‘clean up’ regular solos on studio recordings. This is more of a gray area and where we get into the ‘ethics’ of string dampeners. Often they’ll be used in the studio but they won’t be used live for the rather petty reason that guitarists can expect a certain level of shit-talking from other guitarists, usually with their arms crossed over their Fates Warning t-shirts (like Dream Theater but before being like Dream Theater was cool). The typical argument is that we’re simply trying to replace a well practiced proper muting technique, and that by relying on a string dampener, it becomes a crutch and lets us take the easy way out. It’s fair to say that in a real-world live show, no one is going to notice a 10% change in the cleanliness of your playing. Between the live energy, the booze, the questionable house mix and the bassist spilling his beer on the kick-drum mic, there’s simply too much going on for differences of that amount to stand out. It’s a safe and easy choice to leave the string dampener that you used in the studio, at home. But is that the right choice? And are we making it for the right reasons?
Consider this: Are we taking the easy way out when we play a guitar with a thinner neck profile and better fret access? What about light gauge strings? They are easier to bend after all. What about bigger frets? Picks that are easier to hold? Or how about a guitar that just weighs less? Again, is that the easy way out? Or just preference? Different players will give different answers to those questions, and you will have to come up with your own, but somehow I doubt that you’re going to say that playing a comfortable guitar is cheating. We pick and choose our equipment so that we can consistently create and perform at our best. How about we look at it from a more artist perspective… Let’s say we use the dampener in the studio but then choose to not use it live. In that situation, an argument could be made that we’re giving a less authentic and deliberately less accurate performance. Like using a clean electric guitar to play an acoustic part. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to use it consistently as a regular part of your setup? It certainly seems more honest than having it kept as a “secret” studio tool. And as for the dampener haters, how are they different from the guys who say that you only use a tuner because you’re too lazy to tune by ear. Few players would take that statement seriously.
I agree with those who say that it’s sometimes a good idea to make things a little hard on yourself when you’re practicing. Rehearsing songs while standing up and walking around as apposed to sitting down with a perfectly positioned footrest for instance, or practicing in the dark or at least in dim, stage-like lighting. This kind of worst case scenario preparation can go a long way when you’re starting a tour or debuting a new song. At some point though the practicing stops and the performance begins. That’s the time when we should give ourselves every advantage, be it live or in the studio. When you go into battle, you don’t take your knife and leave the canons at home. You take every available weapon and march forth with hopes of conquering your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. As guitar design and the technology around it continues to evolve, who are we to pass over the sharpest weapons of our time?
– Max Carlisle