Atmospheric textures and sonic soundscapes are closer than you think…
Everyone loves a rip-roaring guitar solo and wall of noise aesthetics, standing in front of a Marshall stack chugging power chords is incredibly satisfying but creating minimalistic, ambient textures can be just as fun and rewarding. From peaceful and soothing to ominous and foreboding ambient music encompasses all aspects of sounds. One of the strengths of the guitar is that it can be utilised in a variety of forms with just a few added extras to create some pretty out-there sounds, which lends itself particularly well to the ambient styles of music.
You don’t have to be able to sweep pick at 240bpm to create moving music and in fact, for ambient playing, the ethos is definitely less is more. Through some small utilisation of effects and good note choice, you can create some really amazing sounds that don’t require you having to practice scales for twelve hours a day!
What is Post Rock?
What do we mean by ambient in the modern era and in terms of guitar playing? The genre most typically associated with this style is dubbed ‘Post Rock’ whereby spacious sounds and changing dynamics are utilised to create crescendos that are almost orchestral in feel. After being pioneered by bands like Bark Psychosis, Don Caballero and Mogwai in the mid-90s, Post Rock came to garner mainstream appeal at the start of 00s with bands like Explosions in the Sky and Sigur Ros bringing the ethos of big yet sparse guitar tones with heavy use of time-based effects to a wider audience.
Before we get to the technical talk, here’s a couple of examples to get you started, I recommended getting a brew on and giving these tracks your undivided attention to really get into the feel of them.
From their seminal album ‘The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place’ Explosions in the Sky are masterful at crafting huge sounds from simple, clean guitars with a few effects, more of which later. ‘Your Hand In Mine’ is an exercise in simplicity. Note how sparse all the guitar lines are, just a few notes are being played initially and yet as effects are added and the lines are played more aggressively, it builds and builds and builds to something far greater than its individual parts. EITS manage to make a huge sound with minimal input, proving that you don’t need a million notes a second or eight Marshall stacks to sound huge!
No discussion of Post Rock would be complete without Mogwai. Although they didn’t create the genre (and actively eschew the Post Rock tag) their early efforts were massively influential on the modern scene, combining simple repeating riffs and use of effects leading to vast swathes of noisy guitars. This track again embodies simplicity, it’s essentially the same riff over and over, but it’s all about dynamics and the effects added that give space and change the tone of the guitar to create something incredibly interesting despite its repetitiveness.
Now we’ve got an idea of the sounds we want to create, how exactly are we going to achieve this?
Delay is a frequently used effect in all forms of music, from Classic Rock to EDM. Delay allows you to replicate a sound over and over and when used subtly it can add texture, but when used excessively can create some pretty wild sounds. In both instances, you’re doubling your sound, making your guitar seem larger than it would do on its own. Delay pedals typically have settings for ‘Delay/Time’ and ‘Feedback/Repeats’ which control the main parameters of sound scoping. For those who are new to delay pedals, ‘Delay/Time’ sets the amount of time between your played note and the repeated note, whereas ‘Feedback/Repeats’ sets how many times the played note is repeated. Some pedals, like the BOSS DD-7 have a timing knob that lets you quickly dial in your delay times in milliseconds, with others you may have to experiment.
By setting both of these controls to low settings you get the ‘slapback’ effect, a short sound that only repeats abruptly which is great for lead playing as it gives the effect of two guitars playing at the same time. It works equally well for chords and is often used in country music to add space and spice to a basic clean tone.
Set your ‘Delay/Time’ to low and your ‘Feedback/Repeats’ to high and you get an almost reverb like quality, great for moody lead lines without many notes and chords where you’re just playing at the start of the bar and want to let the effect ring out. This technique works really well at adding texture without being overpowering, as the original note is still really clear in the mix.
Set them both high and you’ll get some spacious ethereal tones that add tonnes of character to simple chords or single notes. Experiment with the settings and you can really start sculpting those huge-sounding guitar lines, even lining the delay up with the tempo of your playing to add a really percussive effect. If you want to get some really wacky sounds a neat trick is to play a note or chord and let it ring, reach down to the pedal with your picking hand and move the ‘Delay/Time’ and ‘Feedback/Repeats’ knobs around. This will get you the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear during an alien invasion, great for ending an epic song or show.
Reverb is probably the most commonly used effect in all of music. Reverb creates a space for your sound to sit in, so whether that’s a small in stature as seen in the ‘Room’ setting or the huge caverns of a ‘Hall/Church’ setting. It’s a useful effect for creating the illusion of an acoustic space, which is why when recording it’ll be used on pretty much everything in varying amounts, whether that’s guitar, bass, vocals or drums. When combined with Delay you can start getting some incredibly wide and long sounding guitar lines, particularly when you utilise the bigger settings.
Most Reverb pedals have a preset for sounds, with the usual suspects being room, hall, plate and spring plus many more. This is usually accompanied by other knobs that let you determine how much of the effect you want to hear versus the amount of dry guitar signal. One of the most commonly found knobs is called ‘Time’ which lets you control how long the reverb rings out for, alongside a ‘Tone’ knob that’ll give you a warmer tone if you set it high and give a washed-out tone at lower settings. ‘Decay’ also features on a few Reverb pedals which lets you control how quickly the Reverb cuts off. Various pedals have differing names for their controls, but the base controls are essentially the same.
It’s important to fine-tune these settings to get the sounds that you want and also to note that this will change when you play at a higher volume. A setting that sounds clear with subtle overtones at bedroom volume might completely wash out your original guitar signal at higher volumes. Another useful tip is to put your Reverb and Delay in your amplifier’s FX loop, a link to a more in-depth guide on that can be found at the bottom of this article.
Some pedals have additional effects to those traditional settings that can be really useful in an ambient setting. A Modulated Reverb as found on the BOSS RV-6 adds modulation to a regular Reverb effect, giving a really spooky sound to your verb as it subtly shifts the tone of the reverb tails. A lot of newer pedals also feature the Shimmer effect as found on the Strymon Big Sky, which is a really beautiful sound generated by adding high octaves to the Reverb tail, giving you a glittery sound that washes really well with loads of lush sounding overtones.
When creating atmospheric textures sometimes a single guitar won’t do, to get those huge-sounding riffs we need to add more guitar lines to create that huge conglomerate of sound. A Looper can be a powerful tool here, allowing you to play over your original guitar and in some instances, stacking multiple guitar lines on top of one another, so your single guitar riff becomes four or five different guitars without having to cram a whole bunch of people and gear into once space and let’s face it one guitarist is plenty enough for most people!
A Post Rock (sometimes dubbed Post Metal) outfit who utilise this effectively is Russian Circles, who are only a three-piece yet create some incredibly dense and textured sounds live, thanks to the use of the looper pedal. As evidenced in the video below around the 2:13 mark, you can see guitarist Mike utilising his looper pedal to start playing ambient overtones over a riff he’s laid down previously.
Loopers abound aplenty nowadays thanks to their popularisation by Ed Sheeran and you can get simple units that just loop one line to completely dedicated floor units that let you stack 100s of loops on top of one another. A lot of delay pedals also feature a built-in, short looper function, although bear in mind this will usually prevent you using the delay itself.
The great thing about a looper is it takes away the need for a second guitarist, particularly when you only want to utilise the second guitar part of the time. With a looper that lets you stack loops, you can give the effect of multiple guitarists, putting together simple lines in a minimalistic fashion to generate those huge atmospheric sounds.
One of the tough things about looping is getting your timing right, especially during live performance. It takes a lot of rehearsing to nail this but some pedals, like the BOSS RC-10R give you a visual cue, others, like the HeadRush Looperboard, has a mode that only lets you record in time with however you’ve set the loop up, preventing you from stopping the loop too short or going too long.
4. Adding other effects
Delay, Reverb and Loopers are the basis of a lot of ambient guitar music. However, it’s only by experimentation that we start to get some really unique sounds so feel free to add whatever you like. If you take a long Reverb and Delay and add heavy distortion, for example, you’re gonna get some seriously noisy results. Octave, Modulation, Filters and Phasers add further textures to your tone, the great thing with making ambient music is that experimentation is key.
Adding a volume pedal can do wonders for your sound in general, as well as allowing you more control over volume swells, which make a frequent appearance in ambient and atmospheric music. You can still use the volume control on your guitar if you like, but a dedicated volume pedal like the BOSS-FV30L allows you fantastic control over the dynamics and you will find a dedicated volume pedal on a lot of pro pedalboards.
If you’re going for an ambient sound you may want to look into Multi-FX which have all of the aforementioned effects and more, and though arguably individual pedals do a better job in terms of tone, a Multi-FX is great if you don’t want to sink a couple of grand into a pedalboard and want something that’s easy to transport and set-up.
With amplification, it’s advised to start with as clean a tone as possible when you’re going for the twinkly spacious sort of sounds and it also makes a great foundation for when you do want to add drive or distortion. Amps like the Fender Twin Reverb or the BOSS Katana (which has the legendary Jazz Chorus clean on it) have some amazing clean tones, with the Twin Reverb being the standard clean tone for most recording studios. The reason for this is they give you a really strong base to work with and take pedal-based effects really well. It can get messy with all these effects flying around so unless you’re going for that really noisy aesthetic take care to fine-tune the amp EQ to give you the clearest sound. The truth is any amplifiers Clean channel will give you a great platform to start sculpting those spacious sounds and if you do want to get really noisy then switching to the Gain channel will give you some seriously noisy sounds.
This article is designed to advise not dictate. One of the key features of any style music is that innovation only comes from trying different things so use this article as a starting point then start experimenting with whatever gear you have to try and find an ambient sound of your own. Ambient music has many forms and almost limitless sounds so don’t be afraid to try different pedal orders, different effects, amps and guitars to find something truly standout.
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Matt is a multi-instrumentalist, music geek and current Content Creator at Dawsons Music. He composes, records and produces out of his home studio in Manchester as well as playing in two bands, China Moon and Sawbones.