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Why Not Leave Some Space?

Play less, leave space, and listen to the results

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 like @#$%.

So why not leave some space?

It tends to

draw attention

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 the instrument.

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.