Use Dynamics to Supercharge Your Playing

The Dynamic Duo: Your Guitar and Your Strumming Hand
by David Isaacs

Importance of Dynamics

Have you ever heard someone described as having a dynamic personality? These people are energetic, positive, and always in motion. They are fun to be around and inspiring to work with, because they make things happen. Dynamic musicians can be much the same!

Dynamics in music has to do primarily with volume: how loud or soft something is played. In written music, there are specific symbols called dynamic markings that indicate this: p for “piano” or soft, f for “forte” or loud, and a whole series of degrees in between and beyond: medium soft, medium loud, REALLY loud, or whisper-quiet.

Dynamics are really important in music: you could even say that dynamics are the thing that brings music to life. Have you ever had a teacher or a boss that spoke in a flat, monotone voice? The opposite of dynamic is dull! And you definitely don’t want your music to be dull.

There are lots of aspects to dynamics that have to do with things like arrangements and guitar tones. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” uses tonal contrast to great effect…the guitar goes from a clean sound in the verses to massive distortion in the chorus. The drums also get busier, not just louder but bigger. The overall effect is a huge lift and sense of momentum driving the song into the chorus. But we’re going to talk specifically today about creating dynamics on a single guitar without the use of effects, and that’s going to come from your picking hand.

These ideas can be applied equally well to acoustic or electric guitar. Depending on the song and the nature of the part, the specific picking and strumming techniques will change, but the concept is very much the same. We’re really talking about energy and intensity, not just volume, and it all starts with the attack of the pick or finger on the strings.

Importance of Dynamics

It’s easiest to start off simply by thinking about loud or soft sections of a song. The Nirvana song is a perfect example: quiet verse, loud chorus. That’s a common formula in popular music, and we can start exploring this by simply strumming with different degrees of intensity. Have you ever tried to see how quietly you can play? It’s amazing how much you can learn about your strumming hand by playing really softly. Try lightly brushing the strings with the flesh of your thumb, or very softly with a pick. Especially when using a pick, you might find that you really need to concentrate on keeping the wrist loose. Grip the pick lightly between your thumb and index finger, but don’t squeeze - just hold! Think of the pick as being an extension of your thumb. The effort shouldn’t come from the thumb or hand itself but from the larger movement of the arm. Since you’re using larger muscle groups instead of smaller ones, it actually takes less effort and muscular power but produces more sound. Depending on the specific rhythm or strum, you might use the forearm and wrist sometimes in varying degrees; for this exercise let’s focus on swinging the arm to play simple quarter notes with light downward strums. Concentrate on staying open and relaxed… it helps to visualize your strumming arm as a hollow tube, with nothing between your fingertips and elbow but air. This helps keep the forearm muscles from kicking in and making you work harder than you have to. The sound should be barely audible, more pick on strings than actual notes.

Now gradually start building in intensity with repeated downstrokes. As you build, allow the arm to swing in an increasingly wider arc. A larger motion creates a bigger sound. This is simple physics at work. It may take some concentration and effort to develop not only the fine control of the hand but also a calibrated sense of the relationship between range of motion and volume. Try playing a crescendo – getting louder - over a specific number of beats: 4, 8, or 12. Try the opposite as well. Can you slowly bring a strum down in volume until it fades to a whisper?

Now that you’ve established a basic range of loud and soft, try strumming the same chord and alternating between two different dynamic levels: 4 beats soft, 4 beats loud. Take a look at this lesson on guitar dynamics for an exercise in simple dynamic contrasts: jump to section 3 at 3:06.

Let’s take this idea a step further. There’s more to the musical application of dynamics than just loud or soft…you’ve already explored the crescendo, hitting all the degrees in between. Real musical playing uses those in-betweens to create drama and movement, and the best way to explore this is to start thinking like a drummer.

A drummer on a drum kit has a variety of things to hit, and good ones don’t hit every part of the kit with the same degree of force. The best drummers are able to maintain multiple levels of intensity at once: for example, snapping the backbeat hard on the snare drum while keeping time more lightly with the hi-hat. This layered dynamic approach really makes the music breathe, and you can accomplish the same effect by adding more variation to a simple strum pattern.

Remember the light brush strum you practiced earlier? Try it again, using alternate eighth-note strokes this time: down-up-down-up-down-up-down-up. Count as you play: “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” to match the down and up strokes. The somewhat metallic sound of pick on strings is simulating the cut of a closed hi-hat! Now add a stronger accent on counts two and four, swinging the arm further to create the emphasis without having to use more muscle power. This is our snare drum, the backbeat.

Now you’re playing with two dynamic levels at once, and you’ll probably notice right away how much more alive the music sounds. But we’re not finished yet. Remember that our “brush” is meant to be as soft as possible, so it’s quieter than your normal playing volume. Bring up the energy on counts one and three, but still maintaining a stronger accent on that 2 and 4 backbeat. For even more effect, try concentrating on the bass strings on the first and third count. There’s your bass drum, and now you’re playing with three degrees of layered dynamics.

Try applying this concept to different rhythms you already know, and notice how much dimension and drive it adds. To explore the drummer analogy even further, think about where you might add fills; moments of greater intensity that propel the song from one section to another. These will often happen at the end of a cycle or section, and can be a great way to build from a quieter verse dynamic to a louder, more powerful chorus. Listen to the drummer the next time you hear a song and notice the placement and intensity of the drum fills.

This is a basic introduction to the concept, but it’s a technique that any player with a basic command of strumming can start to apply right away. For an in-depth exploration of this topic, check out my lesson “The Drummer In Your Right Hand.

Taught by David Isaacs

Dave Isaacs teaches right hand rhythms with this lesson for solo acoustic guitar. He explains that when playing by yourself you need to make up for the lack of other instruments by spicing up your right hand strumming.
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Thanks for reading.

I hope I've been able to make an impact on your playing.

Thanks again for joining me and our guest author, David Isaacs, on this musical journey!

Chris Liepe
JamPlay Content Director

Chris Dawson.  JamPlay Co-Founder

Chris Liepe is the content director at JamPlay. He was one of the first JamPlay instructors. His talents were quickly noticed, both on and off camera. Chris and the folks at JamPlay soon realized that he would be a perfect fit for the team. He hopped on board as a full time staff member in 2009 and has since been leading the charge towards realizing JamPlay's mission: providing affordable music education worldwide.

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