For many session guitarists and bassists, letting open strings ring out can be a major detriment to their overall tone. Many of these players will go so far as to use a string mute any time they’re tracking to eliminate any accidental ringing from occurring.
At the same time, you can’t just ignore those notes as a part of your instrument. Acoustic players know exactly what I mean. Open strings and sustain longer and contain more overtones than any fretted note could. This distinct ring only comes from playing an open string on the guitar.
Today, I want to discuss some of the stylistic reasons an electric guitar player might choose to let those notes ring out, plus one way to make their absence REALLY pop in the mix.
Adding Power With Open Notes
It’s no secret that genres like metal and djent pride themselves on crafting gnarly, heavy guitar tones. Bands are constantly pushing the boundaries of low end with extended range guitars and down tuning. As a result, they’re also some of the most likely candidates to use open strings in their productions.
The reason is simple: the guttural resonance of lower strings when left to ring open. Much like the acoustic players who enjoy the overtones of open strings, the undertones of a low string ringing out can be extremely powerful, especially if doubled with a bass note played down an octave.
This pairing relies on the string’s ability to ring out unaffected by changes in the pressure of your finger on the fret dampening the tone or bending it ever so slightly out of tune.
Clarity for Clean Guitars
Clean guitar parts are often made all that much clearer with open strings being included in the performance. In especially dense mixes, their overtones help them cut through the mix and provide an ethereal sense of “floating” above the mix when paired with the right time-based effects.
A great clean guitar part with open strings, reverb & delay can be the perfect juxtaposition to heavier rhythm parts.
And Suddenly, They’re Gone.
In some productions, open notes work to create a sense of comfort and consistency for the listener before the band pulls the rug out from under them. Riff heavy, prog-rock guitarists should be familiar with this concept, where the same riff might be repeated with open notes throughout a song until the final chorus or outro where they suddenly drop to a muted version of the same thing.
Alternatively, bands will sometimes use a completely different riff in their bridge section that’s much more controlled and muted. This shift creates tension – after several minutes getting used to the massive size of the open string riffs, the song suddenly shrinks into itself without them. Ultimately, the tension gets released as the open string riff returns heavier than ever after the bridge.
Check out this great example of all three techniques used by Kolton Lee:
As you can see, his use of open strings really added impact to the distorted rhythm parts and weightlessness to the clean ones. By the time you get to the bridge around the 1:30 mark, he drops down to a muted lo-fi riff before building back up to the full power of the distorted rhythm.
Adding Variety to Your Guitar Parts
Open strings are just one of many ways a guitarist is able to drastically alter their tone without the need for any rigorous training. Other methods range widely from different pieces of equipment to effects to digital editing after tracking.
Check out some of our favorite techniques for tracking and editing guitars with our Gigantic Guitar Tracking Guide. Inside, you’ll find over 50 pages of resources and techniques we’re using to build massive guitar mixes starting right from the source.