how to make your guitar playing sound better

A while back, I was having trouble trying to sound better while playing the guitar – I had extra trouble trying to make my acoustic guitar sound better .  I felt like I knew the basics on the guitar.  But still, it seemed like my guitar playing sounded amateurish.  Beginner guitar players sounded better than I did even though I knew more than them and I had been playing longer.  Their playing just sounded better.

I knew something was off – but wasn’t quite sure what it was…..

Until I discovered something that immediately made me sound ten times better.

The trick was to start using dynamics.

If you want the fancy definition of dynamics, here’s the wikipedia entry.  But for our purposes dynamics basically mean volume.

Dynamics dramatically impact how your music sounds.

Let’s take “Stairway to Heaven” as an example.  The song starts off very quiet, then picks up volume slightly, and by the time they hit the guitar solo the song is LOUD.   It almost sounds like an entirely different song.

Perfect example of dynamics in action.

Now think about how that can impact your guitar playing.

The best part is: altering the dynamics of a song is actually pretty easy.

The Problem:

When we first learn to play the guitar we primarily focus on learning chords, strumming patterns, and maybe a scale or two.  We may learn a cool riff, we may even learn to read music.

All of this is necessary.

But all of this won’t necessarily make our guitar playing sound interesting.

The problem is, when we start strumming along to our favorite songs we’re usually just banging away at the guitar strings at full speed and full volume.

Or we brush the strings with our thumb, gently and quietly.

The result is that the song sounds…….. okay.  It sounds correct.   But it just doesn’t sound great.

Everything is at the same volume (which sounds boring)

Dynamics allow us to mix things up and make our music a little more interesting…. add little more emotion.

The Technique:

Implementing dynamics is actually pretty easy.  It’s all about the right hand.

For our purposes we’re talking about strumming chords and we’ll be using a pick.

(Note: The techniques I’m discussing apply to other types of the guitar and other styles of playing, but they’re most easily implemented and noticeable on an acoustic guitar with a pick). 

1.  Make sure you’re holding the pick correctly.   I go into detail about that here.

2.  Check your pick grip.  Now this is important: How hard you grip your pick determines how loud your guitar sounds. Try it:  Grip the hell out of your pick and take a few strums.  Now take a very loose grip (as though the pick will almost fall out of your fingers) and take a few strums.   There should be a difference   Hard grip = Loud.  Soft grip = Quiet. 

3.  Practice with this.  Chances are (if you were like me).  You had a pretty heavy grip on that pick.  Practice with grips of different strengths.  Don’t worry about dropping your pick… it happens.  Just get used to changing your pick grip while playing.

4.  Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, let’s put it to work in a song.  Choose a song you’re comfortable with.

Start off the sound with a quiet strum.  You don’t have to change your strumming pattern.   Just go easy on that pick grip.  For the first verse of the song play quietly.

Once you hit the chorus tighten your pick grip and strum loud.  Immediately you should hear a difference.  When you get to the next verse quiet down.  Repeat this pattern.

5. Practice variations of this.  Here are some ideas:

  • Start quiet and gradually get louder throughout the song.
  • For quiet songs, experiment with different levels of quiet.
  • Play everything loud, except for one or two lines… play these softly.
  • Play everything softly, except for one or two lines… play these loud.
  • Alternate between strumming chords and picking chords (this can add depth and dynamics simultaneously)

You get the idea.

It’s up to you!

Get creative.  If that’s too hard, listen to what your favorite artists do and try to copy their techniques and patterns.  Chances are, if you’ve never thought about dynamics before you will now be more aware of them (in your playing and in the playing of others).

Bonus Tips:

  • Don’t overdo it.  Too many dynamic shifts can sound awkward and unnatural.
  • Choose whatever pick you like… but something around .70 mm (a medium pick) will probably give you a good variance between loud and soft.  If your pick is too thin you’ll struggle to get a loud powerful sound.  If it’s too thick it will be harder to get a quiet sound.
  • Not every song needs a shift in dynamics.  Some songs are just awesome loud all the way through.  Some should be quiet the whole time.  Play around with it.
  • Having said that, don’t be afraid to take a typically loud song and make it soft and quiet.
  • If you’re not using a pick, dynamics can still be implemented.  Play around with the force you pluck or strum the strings with your fingers.
  • If you’re serious about music, you should probably learn and use the technical terms and their varying degrees:
    •  p for piano = soft or quiet
    • for forte = loud

 

Dynamics won’t save everything about your guitar playing.  But dynamics are often neglected and hard to figure out if you’re not aware of how to use them.  Play around with them, have fun and experiment.

(Jake Posko does Online Guitar Lessons and Coaching as well as in-home lessons in the Annapolis, Maryland area including: Annapolis, Edgewater, Severna Park, Pasadena, Crownsville, Arnold and Kent Island, inquire about lessons by e-mailing him at jake@jakeposko.com).

(Photo Credit: Tim Walker)