An epiphany struck me from a rather unusual source recently: a guitar pedal. I never would have realized this critical and fundamental thing were it not for a Blues Brother-esque trade that I made. Okay, it wasn’t a car for a microphone, but I’m still going to use the metaphor.
I recently traded a slew of gear for, well, a
slew of gear with a fellow guitarist at work—the trade included everything from an older
iPhone and Mackie Onyx mixer to a $400
keyboard stand. Thankfully, the exchange
reunited me with a long-lost favorite, the
Boss DD-3 Digital Delay pedal. After a few
days (and after I realized that one can never
own too many 9-volt batteries), I plugged it
into my AC15 and just sat noodling for hours.
It was during this session that I couldn’t help
but notice how the timing and tone for each
note became crucial because I was hearing it
repeat four or five times.
You know how it goes. Two seconds back
on the proverbial bike again, and you recall
old songs or patterns you played, which only
that specific piece of gear lets you make. It
might be a Rat, a Strat, or a Jazzkat, but if
you’re reading this, odds are there’s a piece
of gear in particular that inspired you to find
new sounds that became verses, that were in
turn the basis for an entire song. The DD-3
was my muse for years, and it has been again
over the past few months.
And here’s why: One of the inevitabilities of
delay pedals is that you’ll be either entirely
encumbered by them or you’ll be forced to
learn how to have some reserve with your
playing. As a guitarist, I struggle with what
I’ve found to be a relatively common dilemma: I don’t need to play all of the notes in the
song all of the time. Whether you’re in a band
or not, this applies, and I would challenge you
to tell me that space doesn’t determine quite
a bit of how your tone sounds.
Anecdotally, I was plugged into Guitar Rig or
some such modeler the other day, and was
adjusting the amount of reverb (the amount of
room). It is simply incredible what the difference is between hearing this when you palm
mute a note and when you just strum straight
through a verse. It’s absolutely night and day,
and this tells me that (again) silence is still gold
en, perhaps nearly as important as the notes
being played, the order they are played in, etc.
Famous orchestral conductor Leopold
Stokowski once said, “Musicians paint their
pictures on silence.” A blank canvas is what we
start with in most artistic mediums, and having
done a good bit of recording of bands and
solo acts over the past several years, I think
it’s safe to say that the ear can be just as lazy
as the eye. What I mean by that is our ears
can lose the faculty for detail, especially while
we are being bombarded with all things over-filled, over-compressed, and over-the-top. This
isn’t to be negative or to beat the worn-down
drum of “music these days sucks,” but really,
take a listen to Elgar, to Bon Iver, or put on
“Since I’ve Been Loving You” and tell me that
they need “more.” Less is already great.
And more will make your DD-3 sound
So why not leave some space?
It tends to
to certain things.
As a matter of course, we’ve probably all
played too many notes at one time or another. This limits the other instruments in the
band, or the vocal part’s dynamics, or even
the song’s ability to change and to stay interesting. Go outside of your genre and listen
to how carefully orchestrated a symphony has
to be. You might have a particular instrument
take a four-measure pause with only the most
nuanced stroke at a certain moment that
triggers an emotional response. Nothing else
would do—that’s silence for you.
Give this a shot: play the music, not
Forrest Powell is a Sales Engineer at Sweetwater, a consultant, a producer, a songwriter and an audio engineer. He has
worked on independent albums with bands and solo acts since
2000, and is currently recording a project for Andrew Gamez.
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