Why doesn't mine sound like that? Dynamics for Guitar.

We've got our Open Day coming up at Ben Plant Guitar on June 24th, which means lots of students are preparing songs to perform.

One question that always comes up during performance preparation is "How do I make the song sound like the original? What am I doing differently?"

It's a great question, which often has a thousand tiny answers, but today I'm going to focus on the biggest one: Dynamics.


What are dynamics in music?

Basically, it's just how loud or soft you're playing. 

Sound easy? It is. But like most techniques, it takes a long time to master.

To expand on this definition of dynamics a bit, a dynamic piece is one that takes you on a bit of a rollercoaster - there will some soft parts, some energetic parts, and a lot of stuff in between.

Most modern pop songs don't have a heap of dynamics, tending to be either loud or soft overall, whereas a symphony has very extreme dynamics, alternating between quiet strings and big full orchestral cacophonies.


Hang on, does that mean I only need dynamics for classical guitar?

Not quite. Even though a song may not be very dynamic, you almost ALWAYS want to be dynamic with your guitar playing within a song.

Confused? Let me give you an example.

In Tommy's version of Moonriver, no two notes are picked the same way. Some are quiet, some are strummed loud, some have vibrato to really stand out.

Overall, the song is not super dynamic, however, as it's all a quiet, relaxing solo guitar piece.

The song would sound completely different without these dynamic differences in Tommy's playing - much more mechanical, far less feeling and a lot less interesting to listen to (you can probably find a bunch of other covers online if you want examples - I won't be mean and link bad examples here).

All it takes is experimenting with picking a little softer at times, and a little louder at other times. It's not complicated; you can start trying this on any song you already know today! It'll really make your songs come to life.

You can also experiment with some legato techniques to give cool dynamic effects too. For example, if you want a not to be a bit softer, try sliding to the note instead of picking it.


Dynamics on the Electric

Often, our amps control a lot of dynamics on the electric guitar, but you'll definitely want to make sure you adjust your technique to get the effect you want too.

Want to have a bit less noise, take things down a bit? Use palm muting. 

Want to have full energy? Strum all the strings hard, maybe even getting a bit of extra string noise for effect.

Maybe you just want a softer tone overall? Easy, pick softer and roll back your tone knob.

The sky is the limit here - you'll probably spend years working on all of these different techniques across a bunch of different genres and styles before you have them all mastered.

You can hear the big difference in this Nirvana song is the amp tone, but he's also picking the guitar very softly in the intro, using some palm muting in the verses and strumming hard in the chorus. 

These differences in dynamics give it the energy, making the performance come alive.


So how can I practice dynamics?

  1. Listen to the song you're working on performed by the original artist or a cover you really like and pick out when the guitarist plays softer and louder. Focus on sections that make you feel the music really strongly, as that's when the dynamics are working best.
  2. Copy them. Exaggerate the dynamics initially, so if you think you should go quieter, go REALLY quiet. This will help you get used to the concept faster.
  3. Switch off your brain and just play. Dynamics work far better when you feel them rather than thinking too hard about them, but it may take time for you to get used to altering your technique whilst playing, so only move to this step AFTER step 1 and 2.

Remember to focus on songs you already know pretty well, as it's tough to focus on learning a song, remembering the parts, nailing the techniques AND getting good dynamics all at once.


A note for you heavy players

"I don't need dynamics, I want to play hard all the time!"

Tough. Humans adapt to our surroundings extremely quickly - even in the space of a song. If you play hard all the time, our ears get used to it and it stops sounding loud and energetic and starts sounding boring very quickly.

If you REALLY want to sound heavy and loud, here's the big secret: play something quiet, THEN play heavy and loud immediately after. 

The contrast will blow your audience away, every time. Trust me - once you start experimenting with dynamics, you'll never look back!


Go forth and have fun with this topic! The best part about dynamics is that it's all about your own interpretation of the song. If you want to do a high-octane rock version of a song, that's totally fine. If you want to do a quiet, laid back fingerstyle arrangement of a song, that's also fine. 

And if you want to do a mix between the two extremes, you'll have something special and unique.

The key is to make it interesting by varying your technique and making yourself (and the audience) feel the performance, not just hear it.

P.S. For those in the area, come along to our Open Day to hear some dynamics live!