A huge aspect of guitar mastery is the proper use of dynamics. Dynamics can add a great deal to your ability to move the audience, sometimes literally: play something soft and gentle to draw people in, or play something loud and brash to get people jumping up and down in excitement.
The essence of creating and playing music is to ellicit an emotional response from the listener. As a musician and performer this should be the first thing on your mind when you play in front of a crowd. You want to be able to move your audience with your music, and dynamics plays a huge part in this.
I talked about dynamics before in my post “Adding Depth To Your Playing: Dynamics”. It is a good exercise to watch and listen to the two videos in that post, and then imagine what they would sound like if everything was played at the same volume.
Proper use of dynamics — choosing which part of a song to play at which volume — is a matter of artistic taste and insight, but the mechanics of it falls into the realm of guitar technique. It requires some practice to be able to play something at different volumes. The emphasis, however, lies on some practice; it really does not take much time to master the mechanics, but the effect it has on your music can be many times greater.
Here are two exercises that you can incorporate into your regular practice (or playing) routine that help you master dynamic control.
Exercise #1: The fade-out
Pick up your guitar, and play something: a song or part of a song. Start off playing it at the volume you would usually play it. Now, while you are playing, gradually soften the volume, as if you are listening to the end of a song that gradually fades out. Make sure that you keep in time as you get softer. It is all to easy to change the tempo as you fade out. Resist this temptation. Tap your foot or use a metronome if you need to.
Make a point to relax your fingers, hands and wrists as much as possible throughout this exercise. Proper control is a side effect of relaxation.
Keep on fading out, until you can barely hear the notes. By this point you should barely be strumming the strings, in fact the sound of your fingers moving across the frets, or your pick (or fingers) of your picking hand touching the strings should be louder than the notes actually played.
Can you do this?
Exercise #2: Three different volumes
Again, pick a song or part of a song and play it. Start off playing it at normal volume. Do this for a couple of bars, then play it at a soft, brittle volume for the next few bars. Then play it at a LOUD VOLUME for the next few bars. Rinse and repeat.
Again, make a point to relax your hands, fingers, and wrists. Read my post “Building Finger Speed: Relaxation” if you are having trouble with this.
As with Exercise #1, try to stay in rhythm, don’t slow down or speed up as you play at different volumes.
Pick or no pick?
You will notice that it is easier to incorporate dynamics when you don’t use a pick. Try and master these exercises both with a pick as well as without.
Also, it is generally harder to play softly when you are strumming chords as opposed to playing a melody, or a chord melody. On the other hand, it is easier to play loud while strumming. Again, choose songs for these exercises that force you to learn both.
And that’s it. The beauty of these exercises is that you can easily incorporate them into your existing routine (or lack thereof). Once you have gained dynamic control, it’s up to you to choose the appropriate volume to play at when.
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