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There are players who play like they mean it, and players who fall under the radar. If you take players like Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Hendrix, SRV—these guys attacked their guitars with fearless abandon. They play loud! Just the other day I heard an acoustic performance of Pete Townshend playing and singing “Tommy,” Just him and his guitar. It was powerful, in your face, intimate. Loud. The way his pick attacked the strings and punctuated the rhythm of the song was engrossing and all-enveloping. He played every note like it was his last and the end result was a feeling that you walk away remembering.
Another player who has a similar approach is Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day. Both he and Townshend tend to favor an explosive right hand, and both play it like they mean it. This style of playing (for me) lights up a room and projects that authority and attitude that we all love about rock and roll. And like many of these players, they are known for their loud volume…Pete’s even been open about his tinnitus as a result of many years of doing it. I don’t necessarily recommend standing next to your stack for the next 30 years (or letting your drummer detonate a small bomb at the end of your show directly into your ear!), but volume has its place.
Consider this. When you are first learning something new, be it guitar, woodworking, or drawing, your tendency is to be somewhat tentative. Because you don’t have solid footing yet there is a feeling of insecurity of blasting out the wrong note or cutting away more wood than you can put back if you make a mistake. It isn’t until you have some confidence that you begin to play louder. The better you get, the more confidence you have, and as a result you can project yourself at a higher level. The benefit of this is enjoyed by everyone, performer and audience.
Moving on to the actual volume part of playing loud, I honestly feel that we’ve lost something from the good old days with advances in technology. Back when P.A. systems were inefficient and couldn’t produce enough volume for the size of the venue they relied on high-powered amplifiers to get the job done. You can’t buy that kind of vibe no matter how hard you try with pushing a small amp through an efficient P.A. The impact created from sheer volume is something we all should behold at some point in our life. Sure, I use small amps all the time, but I’ve never captured the feeling of a Marshall stack with a Fender Champ no matter how hard I’ve tried. Aside from the fact that the volume is vastly different, the way you feel when you can barely control the guitar from going over the edge is a tremendously cool experience, and it makes you play very differently.
The point I’m trying to get across here is twofold. First, if you really want to be heard, playing loud in an attitude sort of way will definitely grab listeners by the ears and make them pay attention. Second, there’s nothing wrong with cranking it up every once in a while to bathe in that rock and roll spirit we came to know, love and appreciate, and most likely turned us onto guitar in the first place. And if you haven’t seen it yet I highly recommend checking out the fantastic movie It Might Get Loud with Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page.
Life is short, PLAY LOUD!