musical dynamcs

I would never dare call myself an expert at guitar.  However, I still am an evangelist for two things; phrasing and dynamics.  Regardless of your level of theory knowledge, playing speed or arsenal of licks; having competence in these two areas will make your playing stand out.  It’s what creates that personal playing style that you can recognize anywhere1.

When you get into more complicated guitar playing 2 you can argue there is still some degree of phrasing going on.  Maybe this phrasing is similar to your girlfriend who talks for 8 minutes without inhaling, but it’s still kind of there in most cases.

But dynamics?  Often thrown out the window.  Largely because such a huge part of the music revolves around displaying expert technique.  Accenting various notes could be seen as a flaw, I guess.  It’s a shame, because it makes the music horribly boring to folks who don’t drool over technique.

Here’s a prime example3:

Petrucci uses a compressor, so he’s actively trying to fight too much variance in his attack.  I doubt he needs it since he’s really really good at guitar.  But regardless, we end up with guitar that basically stays at the same volume throughout.  No note is more important than any others.  During the verses, you get the impression some stuff is being accented just because of his EQ settings.  Even as James heightens the tension in the second verse with his vocals, John remains a rock.

Look, it is entirely possible to be a guitar god and still have dynamics…  Check this.

Right from the start, we’re hit with some bouncy/jazzy lines, and then things suddenly slow down and get quiet.  The whole song is full of peaks and valleys and moments where things build and build.  The solo isn’t even the moment of greatest tension – right after there’s this peak where Eric is banging out chords with more force, causing his clean amp to overdrive quite a bit.  The whole band gets involve, bass is slapping, cymbals are clashing.  And then we’re eased back out of it all at the end.  Maybe John Petrucci can play faster, but this is a far more impressive song.

Half of you probably think I’m an idiot or a jerk or both by now, because I an insinuating that John Petrucci is a bad guitarist.  That’s not what I’m trying to do, but I know how these things go, so let’s focus on the other half of you.  Do you want to improve your dynamics?

I like to think of dynamics as a more psychological concept.  You have to take your song somewhere, you have to incite some sort of emotion from your audience.  Jim Morrison would talk about trying to start a riot, and say how you had to keep building up the tension4 or pressure in the crowd.  You need to let them down again so they don’t boil over, but then bring them back up.  And eventually, they can’t take anymore and then comes the release.  This sounds a lot like sex.  Jim seemed to think the release would be an eruption of wild behavior.  Take it however you wish.

Hell, Rob Gordon’s explanation of how to make a mixtape follows the same kind of philosophy.

He’s talking about through a collection of songs, but the thought process is spot on.  Your songs should be sort of an emotional journey5.  Think of it like a book.  You have some sort of initial incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.  Having a song go ABABAB doesn’t necessarily fit into that model.  The actual playing needs to accompany these changes in the story.  You need to build toward something, whether that’s a guitar solo or a really intense key change or something.  And once you get there, the audience needs to be brought back down.  You can’t leave people in a heightened state with no release6.  Whether you accomplish that with an outro, or one last verse that’s really subdued, is up to you.

To better demonstrate, how about this song that we’re all familiar with:

It’s so painfully obvious where the rising and falling happens.  Stevie even has those moments where he starts to pick up the volume and the drums get a little heavier only to bring everything to an immediate halt.

So I know, this has all been very conceptual.  You probably want something you can actually sink your teeth into and practice.

Paul Gilbert has some tips.  Yeah, seriously.

Try these ideas out yourself.  One of the most important things to focus on is separating dynamics from playing speed.  Take any lick or riff or progression and work hard to increase and decrease picking attack without changing speed.  Conversely, ensure you can speed up or slow down without varying your attack.  This is the concept we always ridicule drummers for, but so many guitarists have the exact same problem.  You need to be technically sound here.  Say this to yourself in the mirror every night before bed, “speed and dynamics are separate.”

Once you’ve got that down, try messing with how you pick.  Not just your attack, but the way you hold the pick (looser grip for some variance in your strumming), where you pick (closer or further from the bridge) and even strum with your nails or fingers here and there.  That last idea works great if you have kind of a dreamy verse with chords that meander along before moving into a real bombastic chorus where you want to bring the pick out and really emphasize everything.

Beyond that, if you’re not using the volume knob on your guitar, start doing it!  If you play distorted, hopefully your guitar will clean up a bit as you roll back on the volume.  Seriously, it’s insane how many guitarists never touch their volume knob other than to go silent between songs.  It’s almost like cheating when you use it, because it’s such an easy way to get some changes in dynamics throughout a song.  Bonus points if you play a Les Paul or another guitar with two volume pots.  Setting one pickup to a lower volume and then using the pickup selector between parts of a song is a cool way to get some dynamics.

Finally, if you’re in a band, pay attention to everyone else.  Most of the time your drummer will instinctively play louder and softer throughout a song.  Experiment with when to match their intensity (which is most often the case) or when to let the guitar either take a back seat to an intense drum section or jump out in a quiet part.  There are even slightly more subtle cues, like closed verse open high hats generally correspond to quiet verse loud guitar playing.

Listen to the singer, see when they are doing one chorus louder than another, or even when one section of a verse gets a little louder.  If they are really pushing their voice, help them out.  You don’t always have to follow the rest of the band dynamically, but it generally helps move the song along.

Please, work on this stuff.  Everyone listening to you will be thankful.

Finally, I’ll leave you with another nice example of dynamics at work in the context of insane guitar playing7:

  1. The way Steve  Vai jumps out on his Whitesnake album, or EVH with MJ
  2. Guys who play really fast
  3. Fanboys, here’s your signal to attack, but I’d appreciate if you’d hear me out
  4. I know I keep using the word tension, but I really think it’s the perfect word for what dynamics should do in the concept of a song
  5. I felt so dirty writing that
  6. More sexual innuendo
  7. Although the intensity of Vai’s hair fan lacks any dynamics.  It’s always at 11