HOW TO MAKE YOUR GUITAR PLAYING SOUND INSTANTLY MORE EXPRESSIVE
By Aldo Chircop
As students of the art of guitar, I think we can safely say that all of us would like our guitar playing to sound more expressive, more distinctive and more unique.
If you agree, then read on, since in this article I’ll talk about one way to instantly sound more expressive, which also happens to be extremely powerful while being very easy to understand. The best part is that no matter at which level of guitar playing you happen to be, you can start applying this concept right now. No advanced level of technique or deep understanding of music theory is required.
As good as this sounds, it always amazes me how most guitar players seem to completely ignore this very powerful and expressive concept, despite it being so relatively easy to apply. Ironically, this concept is nothing new and has been widely utilized for centuries in classical music. It’s just modern guitar players who seem to ignore it, thus robbing their playing of a big part of the expressiveness it could contain.
OK, that’s enough of a preamble. Ready for it? Here’s what I’m talking about:
Dynamics, or ‘dynamic range’, simply refers to how loudly or softly a specific note, chord or passage is played.
In classical music, this is one of the most basic ways which musicians use to convey a range of emotions and to vary the ‘energy level’ of their playing. So much so, that dynamics were typically an integral part of a composer’s vision when writing music of that period. If you examine any music score written for piano or orchestral instruments, you’ll very often find that it contains markings that direct the musician on how to manage dynamics while playing the piece. The composer will tell you which passages he envisaged as being played softly or loudly, which parts should be accented, and so on.
The invention of the piano was considered revolutionary at the time, since – as implied by its full name ‘Pianoforte’, which is a combination of the Italian words ‘piano’ (softly) and ‘forte’ (loudly) – it was the first keyboard instrument which allowed the player to control the loudness of every note. Older keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and pipe organ did not allow the player to control dynamic range, every note being produced at the same constant level of loudness.
As it happens, we guitar players also have control on our dynamic range and making use of it simply boils down to consciously controlling how hard we pick a note, chord or passage. Simple, right?
Unfortunately, even though the electric guitar allows us to use a vast array of very expressive phrasing and ornamentation techniques, many guitar players largely overlook the use of dynamics in making their playing even more expressive. A real pity.
So, how can you go about injecting more dynamics into your guitar playing, especially if you’ve never payed any attention to it until now? Here are some ideas to get you started:
EXPAND YOUR DYNAMIC RANGE FIRST
The first thing I recommend is to simply discover how wide your dynamic range can be, and a very simple way to do this is to ‘seek the extremes’.
Take any material which you already know how to play. This could simply be a scale, a riff or strumming a chord (I would suggest you practice doing what follows with all of those and anything else you can think of, in fact.)
Select your practice item and do the following: alternate between playing it as softly as you can, and as loudly as you can. Really seek to expand your range here by shooting for the extremes. Go from the gentlest of whispers to thundering loudness that threatens to break your strings. Keep going back and forth between the extremes until you feel that you can ‘switch on’ either one at will.
START TO INCLUDE ACCENTED NOTES
After having discovered just how wide of a dynamic range is possible, we can now start moulding that ‘raw material’ into something more refined.
Accenting certain notes is a great way to do this and is also immediately applicable to actual musical situations. An accent is simply a note that is played louder than the surrounding notes for more emphasis.
I suggest you start learning this with any scale you already know. First play the scale up and down a few times at a ‘medium’ level of loudness, playing every note with even dynamics at first. Then practice adding accents in various groupings.
For example, when playing in eighth notes you typically want to accent the notes that fall on the strong beats (the 1,2,3 & 4 if you are playing in 4/4 time.) To do this, conceptually divide the notes of the scale in consecutive groups of two, and accent – ie play louder – the first note in each group. Strive to make the loudness of the accented notes even with each other, and likewise, play the non-accented notes evenly to each other as well.
To get a 16th note feel, see the notes in the scale as being divided in groups of four and accent the first note in each group.
To get an 8th note triplet feel instead, divide the scale in groups of three notes, with the first note of each group receiving the accent.
You can of course keep expanding on this and experiment with different groupings. How about playing the scale in groups of 5, 6, 7 etc.?
PRATICE VARYING THE DYNAMIC LEVEL OVER A WHOLE PASSAGE
Now that you have a good grasp and control of dynamics from softest to loudest, and can also control the dynamics of individual notes, it’s time to refine your ‘volume control’. Specifically, you now want to not only be able to play either very soft or very loud as well as accent specific notes, but also learn to continuously vary the dynamic range from soft to loud and loud to soft, over a whole passage.
In classical music, the expressive device of gradually increasing the loudness of a passage is called a ‘crescendo’. The opposite – varying the loudness of a passage from loud to soft – is called a ‘decrescendo’ or ‘diminuendo’.
I suggest you start by simply alternate picking the same note or strumming a static chord with an even rhythm.
First try to play a ‘crescendo’. Start picking that one note very softly and gradually increase the loudness of your picking over what would be a few bars of music, going from very soft to as loud as you can make it. Then try to do the opposite: start playing very loudly then gradually reduce the loudness of your picking as you play the note, going from very loud to whisper quiet. Practice until you can smoothly control your dynamics over any length of time.
Once you can do this reliably on a single note or chord, it’s time to apply it to a whole passage of notes. Again, a logical place to start practicing this is with a scale pattern which you already know well, so you can concentrate most of your attention on your picking dynamics.
Practice playing the scale in crescendo style – start soft and get gradually louder – as well as decrescendo / diminuendo style, where you do the opposite and start loudly and get gradually softer. You can do this in many ways. A couple of obvious ways would be playing a crescendo as you ascend the scale, then diminuendo as you descend to the note you started from. Then try the opposite: start loud and get softer while ascending, then get louder again while descending.
Of course, you are not restricted to the high and low ‘end points’ of the scale pattern, so also try varying your dynamics in other ways. You can play a crescendo followed by a diminuendo, or vice-versa, during the same ascending or descending half of the scale. Or you can extend the same crescendo or diminuendo over both halves of the scale, treating it as one whole passage. Experiment with as many ways as you can find.
Here’s another important point I want to add:
When practicing variations in dynamics, make sure that you retain independent control on your timing. This means that you should be able to play as loudly or as softly as you can without it affecting your control on speed. So, make sure you can play with accurate and even tempo even while varying the dynamics. It’s a good idea to practice this with both slow and fast tempos.
In other words, don’t make your volume control and speed control one and the same. Make sure you can control both independently!
PUTTING ALL TOGETHER
Congratulations! You now have radically better appreciation and control of dynamics than what you started with. 😊
The next step is to apply your new-found dynamic skills to actual musical situations. Here are a few suggestions:
Whenever you are learning a song or playing a solo, whether written or improvised, get used to making conscious decisions on how you should manage dynamics.
Which parts should convey a delicate or subdued feeling, and hence are better played softly? Which parts should convey high energy emotions -such as joy, passion or fury – and hence should be played very loud for best effect?
Are there any notes which create a climax point in the solo or song? Then try to reserve your most powerful dynamics for those spots.
Are there any passages where a crescendo or diminuendo would sound really effective? Remember that in a crescendo you are bringing the energy up (hence a crescendo is a very logical choice during a passage that is leading you towards a climax point in the music), whereas in a diminuendo you are bringing the energy down again.
Also, how about injecting some strong accents on certain notes to really outline the melodic and rhythmic contour of a phrase or riff, and make your listeners really move with your music?
It will also serve you very well to listen to guitar players who can use dynamics very effectively, since you can learn a lot from them.
Here’s one of my favourite performances from one of my favourite guitar players, the late, great, Gary Moore:
In this splendid performance, Gary takes us across practically the whole range of emotions a human being could feel – from gut wrenching sadness and nostalgia, to blinding fury, to salvation and joy, and everything in between.
After picking your jaw up from the floor, however, note that a significant part of the enormous emotional impact of this performance comes from Gary’s absolutely masterful use of dynamics (along with all the other colours and nuances available on the electric guitar.) Pay attention to the huge dynamic range being used here, from the most delicate and soft touch, to absolutely crushing intensity and power. The guitar whispers, cries, screams in agony, crushes us with its fury, or caresses us with the most mellifluous and soothing tones, at will. A veritable emotional journey that keeps us on the edge of our seat from the very first to the very last notes.
Certainly, one of the most effective guitar performances ever and something we all should aspire to.
Happy playing! Oh, and be sure to make it as dynamic as possible. 😊
About the author:
Aldo Chircop is a guitarist, composer, producer and guitar teacher based in Malta. He is president and chief instructor of Malta Rock Academy, home of the best blues, rock and metal guitar lessons in Malta.