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There are many reasons for muting your bass strings. Here are just three:
1. A set of new strings also brings undesirable harmonics, overtones and newly intensified finger-squeak when moving your fingers up and down the neck. The trick is to get these unwanted sounds under control without killing too much sustain. Lightly muting a new set of strings can cure a multitude of ills and make you sound like a seasoned professional, even when playing sustain dependent styles like slap and fusion.
2. Even with strings that have "settled down" muting is an indispensible effect when trying to emulate a certain thumpy tone such as Motown legend James Jamerson's tightly compressed sound or Bert Kaempfert Orchestra bassist Ladislav "Ladi" Geisler's staccato "Tick-Tack" upper midrange heavy "Knackbass" tone.
3. If you are a pick player, proper muting can make pick playing sound much less clicky.
Sure, there are aftermarket muting devices you can buy and install. Some of these devices, while certainly well designed marvels, are very expensive. They also have a hidden cost because more often than not they require modifications to your instrument such as drilling mounting holes or replacing the stock bridge which may also requires drilling extra holes. I'm sort of "anti-hole drilling" and modifications to some instruments are not recommended since extra holes will destroy collector value on any collectible instrument such as a Pre-CBS Fender. So, I thought I'd share my "no-mods-required" muting techniques for both roundwound and flatwound bass strings. The plain truth is that these have long been "trade secrets" of recording bassists.
HOW I MUTE ROUNDWOUND STRINGS:
(This foam mute trick is so old I forget who I stole it from! I've been using this method on rounds since the mid 1970's at least.)
1. I slip a chunk of spongy foam UNDER the strings as close to the saddles as I can get it. Moving the foam away from the bridge increases the muting impact. Using a larger foam chunk intensifies the muting effect too. You can usually find some foam lying around for free. You can use about any type of low-density spongy foam like packing foam or ATA case foam cutouts.
2. I usually make the foam in a wedge shape so that there is more foam on the E & A string and less on the D & G. But you can use any shape you like. Maybe you want more muting on the D & G than I do, so start with a thick square chunk and then whittle on it with some scissors until it sounds like you want it to sound.
3. Putting the foam right next to the bridge saddles kills the undesirable overtones on new strings without killing so much sustain that the strings sound dead. Also, a bridge cover completely hides it!
4. Experiment with size, thickness, shape and placement to get the effect you want. I've seen Bob Babbitt play Motown stuff using a about a six-inch long hunk of foam that is about 1.5 inches wide. It sticks out way more toward the top and lower bouts than the discrete little foam wedges I use. He does this I think so he can adjust it laterally in relationship to the bridge by sliding it up and down easily to modify the muting impact or even pull it completely out quickly. I just whittle away on the wedge until it sounds good to me and then leave it in place until the bass sounds better without it than with it, which usually takes a month or two. It can take even longer with the Thomastik-Infeld strings or similar lively strings. Then I put the wedge in my parts drawer until I put new strings on that bass again.
Here's my '51 Reissue foam mute under the stock Fender 7250ML rounds. Notice the wedge shape:
Felt rectangles can be bought at about any craft store in about 100 different colors for about 80 cents per sheet. (Some of the expensive aftermarket muting devices use piano type felt, which is a very similar material.)
TIP: Take your bass with you to the craft store for a closer match than I got. There were about 18 shades of red and I obviously picked the wrong one. I understand Wal-Mart also carries felt rectangles in their craft section, but you can buy single sheets at a craft store in a much wider color range. You only need one sheet.
HOW I INSTALL A FLATWOUND FELT
2. Wrap the felt around the strings in overlapping layers around all four strings so that it makes contact but is not so tight you can see that it is bunching up the strings. The end of the felt strip on the inside next to the strings is NOT attached to anything. It just is laying across at least two of the strings. I do my wrap so the E & A string get the extra felt layer and therefore more pressure. You can do it so that one or even all 4 strings get the extra layer. So experiment.
3. Using about a one-inch piece of Scotch Tape you tape down only the outside end of the felt directly to the underlying layer of felt. The tape should only contact felt, so that you are only taping felt to felt. Do not tape anything to the strings!
4. I slip the felt wrap as close to the bridge saddles as possible. Moving the wrap away from the bridge will intensify the muting effect.
(If using a bridge cover skip this step.) Once the outside end is taped
down, rotate the felt around in the direction of the wrap slowly & carefully so
as to not break the tape contact with either the end or the underlying felt
layer. This will hide the tape and the seam from view when it is on the back
side of the strings.
After the strings settle in, remove your mute device and see how it sounds without it. Eventually it will sound better without the mute for most things after the strings settle down.
I've also heard of using old socks under roundwounds in place of foam or even smearing flatwounds with Kentucky Fried Chicken, but I prefer the above foam and felt methods as they are much more controllable. Another reason is...I would never waste perfectly good fried chicken like that.
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