The term “dynamics” in music can indicate a number of qualities about the way a note or series of notes or chords are played, but typically “dynamics” refers to variations in volume — the degree of loudness or quietness with which a part of a performance is delivered. And the “part” part is important. To employ dynamics while performing a song or composition involves playing some sections louder or quieter than others in order to create contrast that draws the listener in or expresses emotional nuances.
Dynamics have long been a fixture in classical music, but are beneficial to all styles. As any post-grunger knows, Kurt Cobain was a master of dynamics, and his loud/soft arrangement for “Teenage Spirit” was one of the hooks that made the song pop out of the radio.
Check out Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Tin Pan Alley” on Couldn’t Stand the Weather, where he repeated builds intensity by singing and playing powerful phrases at low volume and then letting brief passage rip. It’s an edge-of-your-seat, Alfred Hitchcock-level-of-suspense performance thanks to his brilliant use of dynamics.
Or, in the instrumental camp, digest Jeff Beck’s incredible “ ’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers.” Beck’s control of volume and attack, including extended technique like volume swells, contributes greatly to one of the most emotional electric guitar performances ever recorded. The song is a textbook on how to invest deep feelings in a tune without vocals.
It’s easy to get caught up in the particulars of executing a song — the excitement of being on stage, the difficulties of playing within loud bands and other factors — that can obliterate dynamics. But practicing different techniques of playing with dynamics regularly can help keep this important aspect of music making on your front burner.
The easiest method, since it doesn’t even involve plugging in, is working on picking technique to gain greater control over dynamics — essentially to develop “touch.” Whether you’re playing acoustic or electric guitar, the harder you hit the strings the louder they will sound. So play a simple three-chord pattern you’re familiar with — and do it hard, hitting the strings full bore. Then do it softly, lightly touching the surface of the strings. Next work on playing different sections of that pattern loudly and softly. Note how the chords sound more controlled and precise when they’re played softly, with fewer ringing overtones. Being able to add or subtract harmonic “noise” by controlling the attack of your chording opens up the door to greater expression.
Now try the same thing with single notes, employing a scale you know very well. Use alternate picking and when you’re in the flow begin hitting parts of that pattern more lightly with your pick. Pause to throw in a bend at low volume, or play a loud phrase and then choke it off for a moment before returning — more quietly – to repeating the scale. Soon you’ll be at the gate to more nuanced playing.
If you use a pick, palm it for a few chords and try using your fingers. At first you might need to use your thumb for strumming chords and your index finger’s nail for down picking single notes. The use of flesh and nail on strings, instead of a plectrum, produces a quieter and more nuanced — albeit less precise — sound, unless you’re really bashing.
There are mechanical ways to achieve dynamics as well, but they also require practice to dial in the volume and tones you desire. The easiest is a volume pedal. If you’re not a big effects user, you’ll want to stick with the basics: a non-powered mono pedal with a volume sweep that ranges from full “off” to full “on.” Some volume pedals have adjustable low ends, which means they can be locked in at a specific minimum volume, so you can never accidentally shut your sound off. However, it can be advantageous to sweep the pedal to zero if, for example, you whip up a storm of feedback and want to make it stutter or stop abruptly for effect. Keep your interests as a player in mind. Using a volume pedal correctly takes some practice, but it can certainly help improve dynamics without relying on picking technique and can be used for neat moves like faux pedal steel sounds and swells, too.
Of course, the volume pots on your guitar can do the same thing, but it takes a certain degree of comfort with the instrument to pick and control the volume pots at the same time. And if you’re playing, for example, a Les Paul Standard or SG in the middle position, with both pickups activated, you’d need to manipulate two pots at once to decease or increase volume evenly. That’s a tricky move with an increased probability of error. No such problem with a volume pedal. But practicing adjusting the guitar’s volume dials in mid-performance is a valuable exercise that improves overall control of the instrument and will ultimately help make you a more creative and flexible musician.
The other obvious mechanical means of raising and lowering volume in a flash is using an amp with channel switching and simply setting one channel louder than the other. Most players set up a rhythm and lead channel, but by blending a volume pedal or pot control and your own touch with channel switching the entire loud/soft palette becomes exponentially larger and more complex. Stomp boxes, like preamps and overdrives, can boost your volume as well. But it’s best to develop the ability to create dynamics in your hands, so it’s transferable to every fretted electric or acoustic instrument or amp-and-effects rig you encounter.