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Damping Part 1

by Martha Masters

Have you ever listened to a young pianist who has just discovered the sustain pedal? The resonance is amazing, but the clarity is lacking. As guitarists, we have a type of perpetual sustain pedal, in that once we play an open string, it sustains until we stop it, or until it decays naturally (this can be a long time on a good instrument!). In addition to this unique capability, we also have the ability to sustain a fretted note simply by not lifting the left hand fingers. This can be a great asset, allowing us to play beautiful polyphonic music. But it also can lead to voices "bleeding" into undesired harmonic territory. How to manage duration of voices is our focus for this issue of Guitar Sessions®.

The issue of bleeding notes is painfully evident when changing harmonies- for example, in many etudes by Fernando Sor, especially any etude in the key of A. There is frequently a lot of back and forth between tonic and dominant, meaning a lot of playing the open fifth and sixth strings. It is very common to hear the return to tonic played as if it were a 6/4 chord, with the dominant ringing in the base. This weakens the return to tonic, and hence the overall musical impact. So, what to do about it? Step 1 is to teach your thumb how to habitually go after damping those bass notes. This should be done slowly, and out of the context of the piece.

First, play an open 5th string; then play open 6th; if you play a rest stroke on the E string, you'll automatically kill the 5th string. That was easy, right? Now it gets a little trickier. Now your low E is ringing, and I want you to play the A again. We want to cut off the E as soon as possible after playing the A, but NOT before; this would create a break in the line, which is an equally grave mistake. So, with the E ringing, we play the A, and the thumb returns immediately to rest upon the 6th string, as if you were going to play it. That's it. The motion should be relaxed and natural, and quick enough that the ear doesn't perceive any bleeding of the E into the new harmony. The two notes are connected, but not perceptibly overlapping.

When you are comfortable with this exercise, try alternating between the 4th and 6th strings. This will force your thumb to do a little string jumping to make the damping possible.

Once that technique is under control, you're ready to see how your new technique can be put to use in the repertoire. In this example by Fernando Sor, first identify the two bass notes that will have to be damped. (Hint: two get blocked automatically, two must be purposefully damped.) Then, try reading through it slowly, applying your new skill.

Another way we can lose clarity in our playing is by allowing the left hand fingers to sustain notes that should be dead. This is particularly important in counterpoint. Let us consider an example by J. S. Bach. In this passage with two-voice counterpoint from the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998, it would be much easier to let certain notes ring while using barres in measures 3 and 4. See if you can identify which notes tend to ring past their notated duration in this passage:

Did you find the notes? The typical problems are: the A on beat 2 of measure 3, the D on beat 3 of measure 3; the E on beat 4 of measure 3; the C# on beat 1 of measure 4; the F# on beat 2 of measure 4; and the B on beat 4 of measure 4. Six notes in two measures that we need to be aware of! This is one of the reasons playing the music of Bach is so difficult. How to stop each note? In order: I would stop the A by lifting the half barre at the end of beat two; stop the D by lifting the finger; stop the open E by blocking it gently with the left finger preparing to play the next note; stop the C# by hinging off the barre (leave the tip of the finger on the A to sustain it for the full beat); stop the F# by blocking it gently with the left finger preparing to play the next note; stop the B with the "i" finger, which also serves as preparation for the first note of the next measure.

Sometimes, we sustain notes because we aren't clear about whether notes are part of a scalar passage (or simply a melodic line), or if they form part of an arpeggio. There are great examples of this in many of Bach's works, for example this passage from the BWV 1001 fugue.

This passage alone could be the subject of an entire article. This is a good place to look once you have a grasp of the concept. I put it here to illustrate the complexity of the issue. For our purposes, let's start with a clearer example, an excerpt from The Czech Fairy Tales by Stepan Rak.

In this excerpt, the first two measures indicate quarter notes, meaning each note would only last one beat. I think many guitarists would interpret this passage thinking of it as an arpeggio, allowing the bass note to ring as long as the harmony is constant. So the D on beat one would hold the length of a half note (while playing beat two as a separate voice), and then the D would be stopped immediately after playing the A on beat three. The bass note A on beat three would last while you play beat four, and be stopped immediately after you play the downbeat of measure two. This is a way of interpreting the written notation, which could certainly be subject to discussion. However, what definitely should NOT happen is for the D on beat one of the first measure to ring throughout the entire measure! You must decide at what point you want to stop it: either literally according to the score, or musically according to the harmonies. In measure four, be sure to stop the open E after you play the next note on the second string - this should sound like a line, not an arpeggio.

Composers don't always write that all of the notes of an arpeggio are to be sustained, but it is a natural musical tendency. For example, in measure 3 of the Sor etude above, most people would let those notes ring over one another instead of playing them literally as eighth notes. Why? - Because the notes form a chord, whereas the previous measure exhibited scalar movement. What we have to avoid is the tendency to let notes bleed into changing harmonies simply because the technique of the instrument makes it difficult not to. We should listen instead to what the music is trying to tell us. It is easier not to let go of notes, not to block them. So unless you take the time to think about these issues, your listeners may be left a bit confused about where the melody is going, or what exactly is the harmony. When you hear a great piece played with all the right notes, it sounds very nice. But when you hear a great piece played with all the right notes AND with this level of detail, the genius of both the piece and the interpreter shines through.

Some of these cases of bleeding notes are more difficult to spot than errant bass strings ringing. But if you slow down, and really listen to what is sounding at any given time, you'll find the spots. Then to fix them, each case requires a different solution. Sometime, you have to lift a finger; sometimes, you have to use another finger (left or right hand) to stop the string; sometimes, you have to re-finger the whole passage to make it work in a manner that makes musical as well as technical sense.

On an even deeper level, the guitar has a lot of really beautiful sympathetic vibrations. However, these vibrations can also interfere with the power of a change in harmony. There are times when we have to pay attention to stopping the vibration of strings that we haven't even played! But the power of a single note or a clear chord is worth the effort. Listen for these in your playing, and get creative in finding ways to stop those errant sounds. My favorite technique to stop sympathetic vibrating in the basses is to plant my thumb on the fourth string and just roll it back quickly to touch the fifth and sixth strings (assuming you don't want any of those strings to ring). Again, I would practice this technique outside of your repertoire to get used to it.

String damping is of a high level of detail, but an issue of great importance. Details are what make the difference between good players and great players. If you're ready to take the next step, slow down, and open your ears. You may be surprised at what you hear.

Note: If you find it difficult to listen critically while you play, try recording yourself. I find this to be an invaluable tool. Though nothing substitutes for a great teacher, you ultimately have to go home and become your own guide. You can learn a lot about your playing if you look from different angles.

Best wishes,
Martha Masters


Musical excerpts in this article were derived from the books shown above.

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