How Do YOU Add Dynamics Into Your Playing?

Crescendo SymbolMusic without dynamics is a bit like listening to music coming out of a 1980’s computer that could just do beeps. Sure, you could make it play a recognizable tune, but there were zero dynamics!

There’s much more to music than simply the tune itself. Dynamics is the often unwritten, un-talked-about element that makes a song go from the depths of a valley all the way to soaring mountain vistas…. or completely fall flat. In proper written music, you’ll find this already present, with terms like crescendo, decrescendo, staccato, and many, many others. But in 99% of popular music today, you’re not going to find written music that is accurate to that level of detail. Most of the time, you’ve got a simple chord chart – at best – and somehow you have to make it sound good – you have to interpret it for yourself.

If we all spoke in monotone voices, the world would be a boring place to be. Thankfully, we have all kinds of natural inflection in our voices: we change pitch (that refers to the notes played) but we also change the volume, intensity, and the speed with which we talk, depending on what and how we’re trying to communicate.

The question is – how do go about doing the same things on guitar?

I’m right in the middle of creating a brand new course that will be at least partially addressing this important subject, so I’ve got some thoughts of my own on the subject, but I really wanted to get the discussion going here, and open it up to YOU.

So – how do YOU add dynamics into YOUR playing?

Share your thoughts below and hopefully we can all learn something from the discussion!

Leave a Reply 22 comments

Ken - October 7, 2014 Reply

I am an intermediate player. I play a lot of covers and sometimes me and my friends will make up our own stuff. Mostly when we are drunk and being silly. However the stuff we make up sounds good. Most of the time it is also hilarious. However we are talking about dynamics. When playing rhythm I often use chord variations. To get heads bobbing I go back and forth between say a major chord and variation of that chord. I may use a hammer on and pull off to do this. For instance something I have been working on lately is a melody that starts with an A major with a hammer on and pull off between that and an Asus4 before changing major chords.

    Jonathan Boettcher - October 7, 2014 Reply

    Great point Ken, chord variations are a good way to change things up and say something “different” all while saying the same thing…

Steve Naples - October 7, 2014 Reply

I like to use accents on some notes, which is a common way that I know we all use. Also there are sometimes occasions that I like to add some legato in between notes or phrases, only small bits like in Celtic music where rolls or taps are used. It just gives it some extra feeling. Definitely also use muting and the volume knob if on electric.

Ummagumma - October 7, 2014 Reply

Make it emotional. Make me cry, laugh, hurt, whatever but make me feel something as the listener. Try to make it “feel vocal”.
Bends, vibrato, space and non uniformity (not all the same ie uniform).
Shredding and burning riffs just because you can does not sound good or impressive, imho.
Bends….different bends (1/4, 1/2, full, etc) at the right time can evoke emotion like nothing else.
Vibrato….BB King, SRV, David Gilmour all have their own for a reason, so should we. And don’t be afraid to mix and match different vibratos for different “feels”.
Space…Give the listener time to absorb enjoy what mood you’re putting out. Even if it’s hard driving and intense, occasional spaces of less intensity or even nothing actually add to emotional intensity. Intensity can lose meaning if it’s overdone.
NonUniformity….Nothing, and I MEAN NOTHING, sounds better than tastefully ripping off a minor pentatonic lick that has been slowly (or not so slowly) built up to (thank you Jimmy Page). If you’re just ripping these out the whole time without good spacing and techniques you’ll be emotionally flat.
Basically, learn the basics inside out and then just close your eyes and open your soul and sing with the guitar! If you’re not emotionally vested, how is the listener supposed to be.

Just my two cents
Onward through the Fog!

    Jonathan Boettcher - October 7, 2014 Reply

    Some great points in there, Ummagumma. Space is SO important.

    Rocknurse - October 8, 2014 Reply

    Two cents? Very humble of you. My wife always asks me how I can play without looking. I ask her “how does Jose Feliciano play”? How did Ray Charles play? If you learn the basics, you can hear where the notes are. That must be you that I bump into in the fog. I thank you for leaving such an intelligent, well written remark. I guess that there’s still a few of us around. “Feel it, Be it”. Don’t be scared.

Richard - October 7, 2014 Reply

In my playing, I like to remain with the basics of varying the rhythm, tempo and attack on the strings, keeping it simple and focusing on the actual music instead of special effects.

    Jay Silverberg - October 7, 2014 Reply

    It’s the old saying, “Sometimes, less is more”.

    Jonathan Boettcher - October 7, 2014 Reply

    That’s a good point Richard – there’s no sense going for pyrotechnics unless the basics are completely mastered… and there’s so much that can be done with those “basics” !!!

Matthew nazaroff - October 7, 2014 Reply

As an advanced guitar player in my mid 16’s (I have been playing since 5) I have come to a sudden realization that great dynamics come through simple yet smooth licks in between chords. I will playing the chords with a nice beat and if I am jamming with my friends, I will just stop playing chords for a few seconds and quickly just rip out a nice 3-5 second lick and Jump right back into the chords. Not only will this mix it up and sound great, but it also makes you an better and smoother player

    ken - October 7, 2014 Reply

    Thats a big statement to say your an advanced guitar player. I would like to hear some of your playing. Also what kind of music do you like to play the most? Please email me at kenparks77@yahoo.com I would love to learn from someone who has a better knowledge and understanding of the guitar than I do.

Rocknurse - October 7, 2014 Reply

I’m 60 years young. I still love guitar driven ROCK. All of my solos I attempt to to tell a little story, If it’s only a verse long then it’s a short story, My aim is to have you feel the emotions that the guitar is conveying. If it’s a sad ballad, one note will suffice. Hang on it, Bend it slowly and only a little bit for feeling. Try to make the listener know that you’re very sad. If you’re burning through a lot of notes, a guitar player might say “wow” but the lay person won’t get it. I even do this on acoustic leads.

Lem G - October 7, 2014 Reply

Dynamics are such an integral part of developing skills as a musician that even as an elementary school student, I was fascinating by the subtleties of its many uses. Developing listening skills and performing with other like minded musicians who are better than you was one of the first things I recommend to beginners. As a harmonica soloist in various bands and recording sessions, my skills as a songwriter were crucial to ensuring that the lyrical or melodic flow of a composition were honed to a point that I could perform precisely what was needed and without drawing undo attention to my solo. The performance piece has an an ebb and flow to it and learning the nuances of volume control, intensity, harmony and knowing when NOT to play are all individual traits that comprise the proper use of dynamics.

    Jonathan Boettcher - October 7, 2014 Reply

    Ah… listening skills! You don’t find many people talking about that, unfortunately. Take two guitar players who can play equally well – the one that listens to the band better is the better of the two. Great points you made.

      Rocknurse - October 7, 2014 Reply

      Excellent comment. A great band all listen to each other. As for your comment, I have found that with 2 equally good guitarists in a live situation, the one that knows how to use body language is thought to be better by lay people.

        Jonathan Boettcher - October 7, 2014 Reply

        Can you explain more what you mean by body language? Are you referring to communicating with other musicians via body language? Or crowd-pleasing body language?

          Rocknurse - October 7, 2014 Reply

          Certainly, crowd pleasing body language. When I was 18 years old, a GREAT 25 year old guitar player and I took turns on stage playing lead to Blue Suede Shoes in the key of A. I know that he was much better than I was so I decided to prance around the stage and eventually go down on my knees and let my long hair whip around. It’s sad but at the time it was “better to look good than to play good”.

    Ruth Blizzard - October 12, 2014 Reply

    very interesting. bout to fall asleep Good Night.

Minh Hoang - October 7, 2014 Reply

Dear, I am just a basic guitar player, so I have never thought of about dynamics and what it is. Perhaps, here is the first time I heard such a strange thing. And I curiously wanted to know or understand more about it. Can you give me some examples?

Hai - October 8, 2014 Reply

Dynamics starts with the simple or maybe not so simple fact of keeping up your improvisations in the right beats and bars

Farley Fox - November 18, 2014 Reply

I guess I would call myself an intermediate player (I guess). I play mostly traditional stuff on a flat top box. I don’t do a lot of covers but prefer to put bits a phrases together to make my own compositions. I find that a strategic use of bends, hammers, pauses and sustains can give amazing power to relatively simple tunes.

Jim - January 15, 2019 Reply

I am now 38 and been playing since I was 14. The best advice I can give for adding dynamics to your playing is create a solo over normal songs that don’t have them. Songs you like are songs you can add to regardless if you view the song as being already a finalized cut of the song. This give a very good start to creating melodic phrasing. Run scales ascending and descending but only do it over 3 strings at a time. The beginning of Serrana by Jason Becker does it on the extremely fast scales. thick e to d string and back down leaving off the first 2 notes you started with which leaves the thick E out and ascend to include the G string then descend to exclude the A string and ascend to include the B string etc etc. You can push it further by moving further up on the thin e string. Another good dynamic is mimic bends in the way David Gilmour does it, this usually means you are going to bend a string at some point 2 to 2 1/2 notes higher than it started then bring it down only halfway and slide into your next note.

A good example I have personally done is I always liked the chord progression in the song “Science Fiction, Double Feature” Which although a lot of them are only major chords it is still a good song to make a ton of changes to. I use a scale run to do the build up that is done with strings in the song as long as you end on a D note your good. Then I run a ascending arpeggio in D and descend ending on the E note at that point you should be at the walk down the singers do and end on A to do another ascending arpeggio and descend and immediately change to an F#m arpeggio. Now this if done too many times (since the chorus repeats a lot especially at the end) it will get repetitive so I will do a small scale run that allows me to do hammer on’s and pull offs at a correct speed to match notes hit by the singer on the high e kind of a walk down legato.

Pull offs alone can add to the dynamic of playing as well if done back to back and no hammer on happens before. Same idea as a walk down legato but your kind of really attacking the string at the start of each pull off.

Also it is important to use all the equipment when adding dynamics and if you got a floyd rose then you better know how to do a flutter and a Dimebag dive bomb otherwise you will look retarded. The flutter can accent the crap out of a note especially if the bar is angled back and you do it with the thumb, not only does the flutter effect happen but it also adds a minor sharpness to the note especially if you catch it a little with the thumb before slipping off it.

Honestly just practice techniques by John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, Jason Becker, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Chris Impellitteri, Shawn Lane, Elmore James, Chet Atkins and only if you have to resort to the safe Kirk Hammet method of a pentatonic scale mixed with the classic 2 bar run of the same hammer on pull off on high e and grabbing a single note on the b string and then change positions (I like to call this “what you do when you blank out”).

One final dynamic I can think of is on a descending scale run the notes backwards as if you were ascending 15-17-14-15 high e 17-14-15-17-14-15 b string 12-14-10-12 high e again 14-12-10-12-14 b string 10-12-14-12-10 high e 14-12-10 \9 b string then you should be around the area where you can continue down and work in an odd jump on the G string to give a bit more character something like 12-10\4 -5-7-5-4 g string 5/3 d string 7-5-3-7-5-3-5 a string 5-3-2-3-2-3 2^3^2^0 thick e string. Naturally most people want ascend when they play a higher note than the previous one so this breaks up things quite a bit. The stretch between the 7-5-3 will also help exercise your fingers. Notice this hybrid type of scale ends on an open note with a perfect opportunity to lower a whammy bar slightly to get a low grumble.

Oh and also raking strings on a highly sustained whole note when you sort of rake into the note by muting strings with your fretting hand can accent that note. The key to getting melodic phrasing in a solo is listening to songs where a singer is doing the melody and try to mimic every note you hear to substitute for the words. A good song to do this to is the chorus in “Angel” by Sarah Mclachlan or “Que Sera Sera” Pink Martini version and when in doubt always move back to classical. But then again I am a person who finds value in any song regardless of what it is or who performed it and is probably why I can play “All about that bass” by Megan Trainor but most of what I play centers around heavy metal and neo classical.

Music is already dynamic you just have to recognize when you hear something unique in a song.

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