With multiple voices swimming around in a piece of guitar music it is all too easy to leave strings ringing, long after the note has finished on the page. The campanella quality of the instrument, which is one of the guitar’s defining characteristics, provides a beautiful sonority, however, in order to create distinct musical lines and capture the listeners ear with articulated melodies a guitarist needs to be aware, and in control of stopping strings from sounding when they are not supposed to. Stopping strings is an ability that needs to be developed for all six strings, although, the most common offenders are the bass strings which will be dealt with in this article.
To outline the issue clearly, have a look at figure A and B. Figure A is a common bass line movement on the guitar from E on the 6th string to A on the 5th string. With the thumb playing the E and then moving across to the 5th string to play the A there is nothing to stop the 6th string from ringing on and creating, in actuality, what is written in figure B.
This kind of string crossing happens frequently in guitar music and the result of strings ringing over one another is a blurring of the harmony and the melody. Part of the reason that the overlapping of sound is often left unchecked is that it is simply unnoticed by players. The fast sound decay means that the effect is less obvious than, say, two singers overlapping melodic lines and for beginner guitarists there are so many other aspects to focus on that stopping strings is rarely considered an important issue. However, once you start stopping strings and begin to take care, the difference in articulation and sound clarity is so much better that you will wonder why you hadn’t started stopping earlier! If you watch some of the great players you will see their thumbs jumping around like grasshoppers as they manage their bass lines.
Bass stopping often involves using the RH thumb to silence strings as needed and there are several ways to do this, they are all quite straight forward but require some dedicated practice to get results.
- The most common method is to re-place the thumb lightly on the penultimate note. If we use figure A as an example, then the thumb would return quickly to the 6th string after sounding the A on the 5th string and lightly dampen the string. Inevitably, there will be a small amount of time where the string is ringing while the thumb is returning although with practice the overlap is unnoticeable.
- A second method is to angle the thumb so that in the process of sounding the fifth string, the sixth is dampened by the side of the thumb. This technique will only work with a lower, adjacent string however it is perhaps the easiest and most fluid way to stop basses.
- Using a rest stroke with the thumb can also be an effective manner in which to stop basses
- Playing on the same string is perhaps the easiest and the most convincing way to make a bass line sing. This is a perfect example of how left hand fingering affects the musical nature of a piece and requires very little effort!
A very effective etude that flexes your bass-stopping muscle is Etude No.23 by Napoleon Coste (available on the sheet music page in the collected studies). As you can see in the excerpt below, the composer has gone to great length to place rests between most bass notes indicating that the student must stop each bass note. As the piece progresses the bass stopping techniques change making a few passages a real challenge to play. Played up to speed it is a beautiful piece of music and a very effective study.
Do you know any good bass stopping pieces/exercises? Tell us in the comments below…