Creating atmospheric textures using just your guitar (and a few pedals…)
Everyone knows guitars do ‘loud’ very well. We’ve all seen, heard and witnessed the power of an electric guitar playing through an enormous stack of amplifiers, and our ringing eardrums will bear testament to the fact that guitars are indeed very good at being very noisy. Almost as if they were designed specifically for that purpose…
What people perhaps aren’t so aware of is the ways in a which a guitar can, when used in conjunction with a few specific tools, become one of the most peaceful, soothing instruments there is. Not only that, the playing techniques involved aren’t all that difficult to learn and experimentation here will provide great results. It’s great for solo players too, so if shredding just ain’t your thing, or you’re looking for ways to spark a bit of creativity or add depth to your playing, ambient guitar could be just the ticket.
Here we’ll take a closer look at how to create ambient guitar sounds, including the gear you’ll need, some reference listening and a couple of playing techniques to get you started.
As a starting point, it’s perhaps worth considering a few examples of ambient guitar done well. If you’ve ever heard post-rock music, e.g. Mogwai, Sigur Ros, then you’ll already be familiar with it. Think long, evolving patterns of music, often without much ‘playing’ over the top. The track in the video above, by Mogwai, is a great illustration of what can be achieved using these techniques.
The consistent background sound in the outro, starting around the 3:30 mark, sounds like it was created as a synth but is actually layers of guitar fed through various reverb and delay pedals. The effect it produces is distinctly un-guitar like, in that you can’t pick out notes being strummed, or chords being formed, but what it does is provide an interesting base for other instruments, melodies or samples to take centre stage.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, artists like Meshuggah and Deftones have dabbled with ambient guitars as a way of breaking up the metallic onslaught, and to great effect. The Last Vigil, the closing track of Meshuggah’s Koloss album is a perfect example of what can be achieved. The track doesn’t necessarily ‘go’ anywhere, yet after the preceding 9 tracks of 200+bpm eight string mayhem it offers respite and allows the band to introduce an element of dynamic range, i.e. quiet/loud, to the experience.
Safe to say, this kind of playing requires a few key tools to have the full effect. A well-stocked pedal board or multi effects unit is vital to achieving most of the sounds in question. Primary tools in the ambient arsenal include delay, reverb, octave and volume, while a loop pedal can add even more variety and creative potential into the mix.
However, a basic ambient signal chain can be achieved simply by running the guitar into at least one delay pedal then into a reverb pedal set with a long release. These two pedals alone will drench your guitar in glorious, washy colour with which you can begin experimenting. You might try placing the delay after the reverb ensuring each time your delayed sound is triggered, that is the one slathered with reverb. If you’re feeling adventurous, try increasing the number of delay pedals; more than one adds opportunity for layering which is key to this kind of playing.
TC Electronic and Electro Harmonix make great quality pedals for this kind of sound. For reverbs, the TC Electronic Arena Reverb is outstanding. It features a load of different styles of reverb, from short slapback sounds through to more cavernous settings and, best of all, you can jump into the settings even further using the accompanying Tone Print software. There’s plenty of choice for delays too; the Electro Harmonix Memory Boy has been around for ages and includes vibrato and chorus modulation effects to add further colour to your tone.
From there you can consider any number of effects. Octave pedals, like the Boss OC-3, will allow you to incorporate lower and higher pitched sounds into your playing, which is perfect for filling out a sound and making it more interesting. Modulation effects, like tremolos and phasers, will thicken your tone and provide some movement so things don’t sound so static.
You might even go for something a bit off the wall, like the Electro Harmonix Superego, which ‘freezes’ notes and plays them infinitely to produce amazing, ethereal tones. The Superego also offers an in-built effects loop, meaning you can add further processing to the sound while not affecting the dry signal.
No ambient setup would be complete without some way of controlling the volume of the sound. This allows you to incorporate swells into your playing, where you start with the volume down, strike the chord and slowly raise the volume creating an effect similar to that of a violin. This can be executed by making use of your guitar’s in-built controls or, for more expression, you may find a dedicated volume pedal like the Boss FV-30L offers more control.
Other interesting tools include the eBow, a small hand-held unit which mimics the action of bowed strings. By using the eBow in conjunction with the right pedal combinations, you can produce wonderful haunting tones which would be out of reach using standard picking techniques.
There’s also more than enough call to include a basic loop pedal like the TC Ditto into the mix. The X2 also boasts a reverse function, which plays your loops backwards, as well as a half-speed effect to drop the pitch and tempo of your audio. Here’s a great video from TC themselves showing how you can get great ambient results from loopers.
For amplification, you ideally want something capable of as pure a clean sound as possible. Start with a tone which is too dirty or fuzzy and your subsequent sounds will all blend into one wooly mess. Fender are the masters at sparkling cleans; at the top of the price bracket lies the Fender Bassbreaker 45 Guitar Combo Amplifier. This amp offers beautiful, chiming clean sounds so would be ideal for this kind of playing. As a more cost effective option, you might consider the Blackstar HT-5RS Mini Stack. This 5 watt mini stack can produce a great valve-led clean sound, plus features a decent in-built reverb. If your amp has an effects loop then consider this a bonus. By running your pedals through the loop, you don’t end up colouring the sound with your amp’s preamp valves, making for a much more focused tone.
It would be fair to say that, when you’re lathering your signal in effects, the choice of guitar is perhaps slightly less important than it would be in other genres. By this we mean you’re not going to get better results by using a Strat over a Les Paul, for example, as it is all down to personal preference. The only real pointer would be that ambient guitar is perhaps better suited to using the neck pickup on your guitar, on account of its warmer, more rounded sound.
A harsh pick attack is definitely something to avoid in these situations, so while a bridge pickup is perfect for lead playing or heavier riffs, it’s probably not the best choice in these circumstances.
It is probably useful at this point to learn some of the techniques employed in the genre. YouTube musician Andy Othling has done a series of great videos explaining the different techniques involved, and explains very clearly how to achieve the sounds we’re aiming for here. You’ll see that each of the playing styles is well within reach of any player, from beginner to pro, and it can be hugely rewarding to hear these unique, otherworldly sounds coming from your amp or speakers.
To sum up, there is no ‘right’ way to play ambient guitar. Therein the beauty of it. Good sounds, even great sounds, can be gained through a combination of creative experimentation and thoughtfully chosen signal chains, and it needn’t cost the earth to get started.