Electric Bass Mute 101: The “Magic” Sponge

Electric Bass Mute

There is a beautiful decay in James Jamerson’s sound. Just listen to the intro of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. With a foam mute under the strings of his 1962 Fender P. Bass, Jamerson was able to achieve that perfectly tapered decay. This mute, which use to come stock with Fender basses from the early 60’s, was a secret weapon he kept hidden under the chrome bridge cover of the instrument.

There are several electric bass mutes you can buy online ranging in price from $19 to over $100. However, as a poor starving musician I’ve had to improvise over the years. I’ve stuffed hand towels, T-shirts, and socks –virtually everything and anything in my dresser drawer (besides the undies) — beneath my strings to achieve that vintage muted bass sound.

After experimenting, I found a microfiber Car Wash Sponge (NOT the one you do the dishes with) to be the most affordable and effective method. You can find these sponges at most stores in the automotive department with all the car cleaning supplies.

Instructions:

Items you will need:

  • Microfiber Car Wash Sponge
  • Scissors
  • Bass

1. Cut Sponge into a 4″ x 1″ x 1/2″ rectangular piece. These specs are specific to the setup on my bass. My string height is pretty high, so you might have to adjust the measurements. Working with a large car wash sponge is nice because there is plenty of room for trial and error.

2. Insert the mute under the strings. Note: There are 2 settings with this mute. You can either have the 1″ side touching the strings or the 1/2″ side, depending on how muted you want it. I prefer the 1/2″ side touching the strings.

3. Angle the bass mute so that the G string end is closer to the bridge than the E string end. Note: I like to have excess sponge hanging off the edge for easy removal from either side.

"The Magic Sponge"

4. Plug in and enjoy!

There is no wrong way to do this. Use your ears and experiment with different widths, lengths, and angles to find the amount of muffle you are looking for.

Here is a recording I made playing Jamerson’s line on Stevie Wonder’s “You Met Your Match” with the mute.


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Comments
7 Responses to “Electric Bass Mute 101: The “Magic” Sponge”
  1. David Panzer says:

    great info!

  2. Spencer E. Zubrow says:

    Well that worked great thanks so much!

  3. BaileyMan says:

    Sounds really good! I recently placed a piece of foam under my strings too to go for that Jamerson muted tone. I love it, but I’ve noticed that it’s affecting my intonation. Any ideas about addressing that issue?

    • hookmaster says:

      Thanks BaileyMan! Great question!

      The sponge method of muting does affect intonation. As far as addressing this issue, from Jamerson’s vantage, try to stick to the lower first and second fret positions whenever possible. These positions are less affected by the mute in terms of sustain and intonation. Jamerson also uses open strings more than most people probably realize. Again, open strings are going to be in tune and are often interspersed when he does venture into the upper register of the instrument. Slight string bending techniques and grace note glissandi/slurs may also help when playing in the higher fret positions. Although the intonation of notes in the upper register are more affected by the mute, they sustain much less and are therefore less noticeable. Try to avoid playing anything beyond fret 4 on the E string, fret 6 on the A string, fret 10 on the D string, and fret 11 on the G string. Jamerson will also use the harmonics at the 12th fret. Again, this is probably because (like open strings) they are more likely to be in tune.

      I hope this helps give you some perspective in terms of how Jamerson addresses the intonation issues that come with the territory when playing with a mute. Beyond intonation, what’s really interesting is how playing with a mute affects the way Jamerson creates his lines…I could write a whole book on that topic, but that’s for another day.

      • BaileyMan says:

        Thanks for the input hookmaster! I’d never thought about altering the way one plays to overcome the intonation issue (aside from staying in the first and second positions). I’d love to read your book on the topic of how playing with a mute affected the way Jamerson constructed his lines. Let us know when it comes out. 😉

        In the end I adjusted the intonation at the bridge…which is great until I pull the mute out…

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