How to use palm muting to add weight and tighten up your playing

James Hetfield
(Image credit: Samir Hussein/WireImage)

Palm muting, which is often associated with rock and metal guitar styles, is an excellent technique to add extra chunk and articulation to riffs, chords and at times, lead lines.

Although often associated with the heavier side of genres, this technique dates back many decades and has been used by the likes of Buddy Holly in his hit That’ll Be The Day and in Bob Marley’s Stir It Up.

Green Day’s Basket Case shows how the technique is a staple of the punk genre and thrash acts such as Metallica just wouldn’t sound the same without the sound of James Hetfield’s picking hand digging into the strings for tight palm-muted sections. 

The combination of palm muting alongside unmuted notes provides an excellent contrast in tone to create interesting rhythmic and dynamic phrases, which you will see demonstrated in the examples below.

You will no doubt be familiar with this technique, so I don’t want to explain the mechanics of it. However, it is worth mentioning the best picking approach when palm muting, which is usually to use downstrokes exclusively.

If you were hold down an E5 chord using the open sixth string and the 2nd fret of the fifth string, then play palm-muted eighth notes, you will notice a huge difference between playing these with strict downstrokes compared to alternate picking. The downstrokes will provide a more consistent and tighter sound, which will sound so much better than if they were alternate picked.

This technique can be challenging at first (have you ever tried to play Metallica’s Master of Puppets with downstrokes?) but it is worth persevering to achieve that tight sound. Of course, alternate picking is also used when palm muting but this is usually reserved for fast single-string lines often found it thrash metal and  punk rock. Slayer are a perfect example of a band that plays at breakneck speed with very fast palm-muted alternate picking lines.

Another factor when palm muting is the choice of guitar tone. Now, of course there are plenty of examples of players palm muting with a clean tone, but to achieve the chug sound often associated with palm muting, a healthy dollop of gain or distortion is required.

The EQ settings of your amp should also be considered depending on the desired tone. Metallica’s scooped midrange is often referred to where the mids are rolled off while the bass and treble are boosted. Tone is often in the ear of the beholder and is of course subjective and personal, so be sure to take time and experiment. 

The examples below are inspired by some of the pioneers of thrash metal, so be sure to dial in a suitably heavy sound and dig deep with your picking hand, remembering to stay relaxed without tensing up too much so as to maintain fluency and dexterity.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 8, Bass 6, Middle 4, Treble 8, Reverb 2

A bridge pickup and a healthy dose of overdrive will get you in the right ballpark, as a distorted neck humbucker can get too flabby. However, with enough gain a single-coil or P-90 can be used to great effect (perhaps add an overdrive pedal to the above settings). Experiment with reverb and delay, as too much can confuse the sound (in-time slap-back often works though).

Examples 1-4

Example 1. Syncopated sixth-string pattern

Our first example is based around a syncopated pattern on the sixth string combined with some classic powerchords. Keeping your picking hand relaxed and following the picking directions will help with fluency and accuracy. 

Example 2. Combining muted and un-muted notes

Our next example combines palm muting and accented un-muted picking to provide a rhythmically interesting rhythm. This is a good example of why exclusive downstrokes should be used for consistency. 

Example 3. Making certain notes stand out

Here’s how single-string lines combing palm muting and un-muted notes can be used to great effect to make melodic lines stand out among a repeating pedal tone on the sixth string. You could experiment using upstrokes on the un-muted notes to give your picking hand a rest.

Example 4. Al Di Meola-style muted lead lines

This example demonstrates how palm muting can be applied to melodic lead lines, as often used by Al Di Meola. It can be challenging to use this technique on the higher strings so make sure that you adjust your picking hand to maintain the required clarity and definition.

Study Piece

Example 4. Al Di Meola-style muted lead lines

This example demonstrates how palm muting can be applied to melodic lead lines, as often used by Al Di Meola. It can be challenging to use this technique on the higher strings so make sure that you adjust your picking hand to maintain the required clarity and definition. 

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.