The Technique That Will Completely Change Your Style of Play
It’s that time of year again. The sun’s taking a step back, there’s a chill in the air, and the rustling of russet leaves has become the soundtrack to our shivery days.
Whether we like it or not, summer has passed, and autumn has arrived, and with Halloween just around the corner, now seems the perfect time to delve into the spookiest of all musical techniques…the ghost note.
Don’t worry if you’re easily frightened. Despite the haunting name, ghost notes have nothing to do with dead anything. On the contrary, providing a melody with a pulse, they’re the very thing that brings a piece of guitar music to life!
They can take a flat-sounding passage and electrify it, Frankenstein’s Monster-style, giving it flavor, swing, substance, and spice. Sounds good, right?
Well, let’s take a look at what these mysterious notes are, how they’re used, and how you can incorporate them in your own playing.
Ghost Notes on Guitar — A Definition
Ghost notes are not unique to guitar music. Much like Count Dracula, they’ve been around for centuries, and can be applied to the music of many string instruments, but what the heck are they?
Before we get into the meat of this definition, it’s important to understand two musical terms: pitch and rhythm.
Pitch is basically how high or low a single note sounds. Pitches can be stacked into chords, layered into harmonies, and staggered into scales. Two notes with different pitched values will alter each other’s character when combined.
Rhythm refers to the temporal nature of the piece of music, the timed elements…the stuff that makes us want to dance. These aspects of music don’t have a pitch in the traditional sense — they’re just beats.
If you added a rhythmic note to a pitched note, it would not change the character or melodic context of the pitch; it simply adds a punchy backing for the pitch to sing out over.
If a musical note is referred to as a ghost note, it means that it has a rhythmic, rather than pitched, value. It’s a percussive technique rather than melodic.
Have you come across a piece of guitar music that required muted strings yet? Well, that’s exactly what ghost notes are…muted notes, to the point where there is no discernible pitch. You’ll also hear them called false notes, dead notes, and silenced notes.
While they’re used in pretty much every genre of music, one style in particular that relies heavily on the rhythmic touch of these pitchless notes is funk. Ghost notes are what give all our favorite funk songs that amazing danceable magic!
What Do Ghost Notes Look Like in Musical Notation and Tablature?
Now that you know that ghost and muted notes are the same things, you’re probably realizing you can already identify them on the stave or in a tab. They’re the little “X” shapes placed on or between the lines.
How To Play Ghost Notes On Guitar
There are a few ways to mute a note on the guitar, but they all follow the same principle, which is to prevent the string from vibrating, thus creating a short, percussive sound. You’ll hear the strike of your pick on the string, but no subsequent pitched reverberations.
The easiest way to mute a note on the guitar is to place at least two fingers of your fretting hand lightly over the string so that you’re making contact, but not fretting the note. Hit the string with your pick as you normally would, and that’s all there is to it, really.
The reason you should use two fingers is to prevent any natural harmonics from ringing out. Natural harmonics will resound from certain areas of each string without the note being fretted. These areas are called nodes. The addition of a second finger deadens the resonance of these harmonics.
If you’re looking to make some particularly punchy ghost notes, try muting multiple strings and hitting them harder with your pick. The extra oomph will give your notes tons of attitude!
The Jimi Hendrix Muting Method
If you watch a video of Hendrix playing guitar, you’ll notice he almost never uses barre chords. His wrist is never down low beneath the neck of his guitar, but behind it, with his fingers wrapped around the fretboard.
This hand position allowed him to bring his thumb up over the top of the neck and use it to fret or mute the E-string note of any chord, providing the melody with a rhythmic quality not just in between the notes, but alongside them.
How To Use Ghost Notes
Ghost notes can be taken to some truly insane places. Some funk and neo-soul players can use them to such effect that you can’t believe they’re not accompanied by a percussionist. However, as you’re only just familiarizing yourself with the concept, you’ll be happy to know they can also be employed in a simple yet powerful manner.
To start with, practice splitting up sequences of one note with ghost notes, changing the pattern from time to time, like this….
Next, apply the same thing to chords…
Once you’ve got those muting techniques down, why not try throwing in some raked ghost notes? Raked notes are achieved by dragging the pick across muted notes with the eventual destination of a standard pitched note.
This kind of ghost note technique is typical of flamenco music, but it can be used to give almost any piece some flavor and nuance. Here’s what it looks like in notation and tablature…
It’s Aliiiiiiive — Summing Up Ghost Notes On The Guitar
As is always the way, there are no magic tricks to master ghost notes quickly. It will take time and effort, but listening to artists renowned for their use of ghost notes, such as Tom Morello, Cory Wong, and John Frusciante, will help speed things along significantly.
By filling out the gaps in your music with ghost notes, you’ll feel it become a lot more lively and engaging, and once you’ve refined your technique, you can apply them to any stage of your melody — who needs a drummer anyway!