Dynamics In Guitar Playing

Energy levels in your playing and songs

Overview of Dynamics

Dynamics can be described as the energy level of the music at a given point within a song. If a band were to come out and play only at its highest/peak energy level, it would get very boring, very quickly. A song must have peaks and valleys, emotional shifts, and builds and breakdowns, in order to maintain a listener's interest. Dynamics also help to highlight the focal point of different parts of a song, whether it is the vocals, a guitar solo, a bass line or a drum beat. Dynamics is not the same as volume. A low dynamic level can still be very loud and easily heard from anywhere in the club or concert hall. Differences in dynamic levels have nothing to do with changing your volume.

A band like Van Halen will have 5 different energy levels in a typical song. Take the song "Panama" for example: Level 5 (highest energy level) would be the intro and chorus - Level 4 would be the pre-chorus parts after the main verse - Level 3 would be the verses and most of the guitar solo- Level 2 would be the very end of the solo where it breaks down and Roth does some laid back vocal ad lib - Level 1 is the start of the build-up after the solo and breakdown, the crescendo that leads back to the chorus. Try doing a dynamic level break down for "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" or "Right Now". You'll find the same 5 energy levels in these songs as well.

A band like Nirvana has 2 energy levels. Subdued verse and top energy, full throttle chorus. It is the almost shell-shock difference in the 2 parts that will grab the listener. Rush will have about 9 energy levels in a song including well balanced crescendos that will lead into and out of certain song parts. While it is the job of the whole band to get these levels right, I want to give examples of techniques for the individual instruments to achieve different dynamic levels.

Lower Dynamic Levels
Mute rhythms - mute the strings with the palm of the pick hand.
Open up space in verses - fewer chords, less busy rhythm
Pick Out notes of chords - flat-picking the chord structures
Switch to Clean Channel - combined with flat picking will achieve excellent results
Pinch-Pick with fingers - gives a softer feel, used often by AC/DC and Van Halen in breakdowns.

Higher Dynamic Levels
Less Muting or No Muting of strings
More Overdrive/Distortion
Busier Rhythm
More Aggressive Strumming/pick-hand technique
More Fills

Other Instruments:
Bass - You would always want the notes of a bass to ring clean and not change the sound drastically during a song. For lower dynamic levels I would suggest to open up space in the verses using fewer notes. For higher dynamic levels a bass player would use busier bass lines and more fills.

Drums - play a key role in dynamic changes during a song, specifically the use of cymbals. Match the dynamic levels of a Van Halen song with the use of cymbals by Alex Van Halen.

Low level Dynamics - tight high-hat
Mid level Dynamics - sloshy high-hat
High Level Dynamics - Crash cymbals played with many of the beats and accents.

In some songs, just playing a beat on the Tom-Toms (no cymbals) creates a super low dynamic level (ex. Everybody Wants Some - VH). The use of fills and how busy the beat is, also play important roles in the dynamics of the song.

Vocals - The dynamics of the song structure usually allow the vocalist the most freedom of expression for a song. It allows the vocalist not to have to scream all the way through the verses and enables nuances in pitch and style to shine through.

The songwriting structure - Some very simple ways to create dynamic differences comes with the actual structure of the songs. You can have a part of the song, (usually a verse) with just the guitar, drums and vocals -or- the guitar can be cut out and just have the bass, drums and vocals. Ballads often start with just a lone guitar (or piano) and the rest of the band comes in later as the dynamics grow.

It is important for all the band members to know the energy levels in each part of the song. Make a chart with numbers, breaking down the different song parts the same way I did for "Panama".

More good examples of Dynamics

2 level dynamic songs deliver a strong contrast between the song parts creating an almost shocked reaction and anticipation for the high energy chorus.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana
"Beyond the Realms of Death" - Judas Priest
"Highway to Hell" - AC/DC
"Children of the Damned" - Iron Maiden

3 level dynamic songs have more build-up and the listener's anticipation rises to the high energy chorus.
"No One Like You", "Rock You like a Hurricane" - Scorpions
"Here I go Again" - Whitesnake
"Metal Health" - Quiet Riot
"You Really Got Me" - VH style

4 or more level dynamics
Multi-level dynamic songs create many moods, rich atmosphere, and pull the listeners along for a creative story-telling experience. For some richer musically dynamic adventures in rock music history, I would suggest checking out some of the following CDs:

Led Zeppelin - "The Song Remains the Same" (Live) The extended, often improvised versions of songs "Whole Lotta' Love" and "Dazed and Confused" are where Jimmy Page's talents really shine. Strong movements in dynamic levels cut and twist the songs like a jigsaw puzzle.

Rainbow - "On Stage" (Live) Blackmore, Dio, and co. weave a tapestry of musical textures from the full-on, "Kill the King", to the lone soft guitar in "Greensleeves", and the subtle breakdown in "Still I'm Sad". Exemplifies the true lost art of the live rock show. Today, concerts are just a string of songs performed the exact same way they were recorded.

Black Sabbath - "Paranoid" - Listen to the energy level textures in "War Pigs", "Electric Funeral" and "Fairies Wear Boots" and you'll hear a band performing as a unit to bring the listener along on an adventure.

Pink Floyd - "Dark Side of the Moon" - Wish You Were Here - Animals - The masters of mood and atmosphere rely on a stringent understanding and implementation of dynamics in a song. Perfect examples of opening up space in a song yet not having it sound empty or lacking.

Rush - "Hemispheres" - "Moving Pictures" - The multitude of dynamic levels in "La Villa Strangiato", "The Trees" and "The Camera's Eye" prove there are no boundaries to this songwriting/performing skill. Lifeson also provides prime examples of dynamics within a solo, one of his strongest points as a player.

Metallica - "Master of Puppets" - "And Justice For All" - While Metallica are mostly noted for their crunchy, grinding, metal riffs, it is the juxtaposition of ear-splitting rhythms with subtle, beautiful melodies that make them stand out among the crop of metal bands. The mid-section, break-down in "Master of Puppets", with its flat-picked acoustic guitar and haunting guitar-harmony melody, is one of the finest moments in metal history. Also check out "Sanitarium" and "One" for strong dynamic interplay.

Michael Knight is a composer and guitar player from Floral Park, NY, who has released several independent CDs on his own label, Knight Music Productions.

His latest CD is entitled "Electric Horrorland", another musical descent into the darkest depths of the abyss.

Michael Knight