By Richard Charlton
Even within the bounds of conventional playing, the timbre of each individual guitar player’s tone varies vastly more than the players of any other instrument. While any instrument’s timbre can widely vary depending on things like material, mouthpiece or reed, or the room it’s being played in, the variables increase tenfold once the electrified piece of wood is strapped on. Everything from the string gauge, length of the patch cord, pedals the signal is being run through, amplifier, age of the amplifier tubes to speakers the amp is pushing all combine to make a very unique fingerprint for each player. Despite all these things, the electric guitar often serves a very similar role in most mainstream productions, whether it be powerful flexing power chords, soaring leads or funky staccato rhythm playing. I’d like to walk you through some techniques I have found to improve the variety of my playing and increase the amount of sonic textures that can be created with just a single instrument.
1. Expanding Your Picking Hand Arsenal
Guitar is most commonly strummed with some form of plectrum or plucked with the fingers. The two techniques offer a wide spectrum of dynamics and expressivity, but can quickly be identified by the ear as guitar related sounds. Incorporating simple tools into your rig can expand your sound palate immensely and unlock a new realm of sonic possibilities. E-Bows are battery powered magnetic devices that can help a player achieve the sustained, bowing like tones of a violin or cello. Infinite sustain and amplified harmonics take the guitar out of its preconceived place in a mix and add a haunting, wailing ambience to your production. Guitar Trillers are relatively inexpensive tools that help imitate the percussive strike of a piano key, adding attack and brittleness to your tone.
2. Expanding Your Fretting Hand Arsenal
Guitar slides can be a good way to break away from the rigid glissando transitions between notes of a standard fretted board for smooth, floating melodies. Slides can also transcend the limitations of the fret board and help a player achieve ear-splittingly high registers. Fret board tapping can also break past its associations to 80’s hair metal and shredders to create a bright sounding keyboard like playing style. Watch performances of the Chapman Stick to truly appreciate this technique. It is also important to remember that not all notes played have to be generated on the fret board. Exploit the sympathetic harmonics of the strings to craft ghostly melodies and experiment agitating the strings on different parts of the body (plucking behind the bridge, above the nut, etc.).
3. Expanding Your Foot Arsenal (Pedals!!)
While pedals are certainly nothing new as part of a guitarist’s rig, dozens of new builders have popped up over the last five years or so, making handmade and boutique circuits a lot more affordable than they used to be. Everyone knows what a distortion pedal or wah wah is supposed to sound like, it’s when you start delving into stranger circuits like ring modulators or pitch shifters that starts to make your guitar not sound like a guitar suddenly possible. Resonant filters and flangers can help achieve the sounds of deep-sea creatures while phasers and delays will help your tone reach the distant cosmos. It’s important to experiment with the signal flow of your guitar and trying your pedals and different stages of the chain. Strive to coax unconventional sounds out of your circuits and finding great sounds using a combination of several pedals.
There is no right or wrong answer to how to set up an electric guitar rig. Everyone is a different player who has different preferences. What is important is that you continually improve on your niche of playing that gives your playing style it’s uniqueness. Happy experimenting and happy soundscaping!