Guitar dynamics is a very important yet often overlooked aspect of guitar playing.
The good news is that learning how to control the dynamics of the guitar exercises, scales, riffs, licks, and solos that you play is not hard, yet it makes a significant difference in the quality of the music that comes out of your guitar.
A dictionary definition of dynamics is “variation and contrast in force and intensity” and though the study of dynamics in music goes beyond just the loudness of the notes and chords that you play, in this lesson we’ll be dealing with this most important aspect of dynamics in music.
There are two main ways of varying the loudness when playing the guitar.
- Gradual: The term for music gradually getting louder is crescendo while that for music gradually getting softer is decrescendo.
These are indicated by the hairpin symbol as in the example below.
It’s good to practice the above as an exercise and play around with crescendo and decrescendo, but in this lesson we’ll be dealing mostly with the next type of guitar dynamics.
- Sudden: In this case, rather than the notes gradually getting louder or softer, one or more notes in the phrase are accented by getting struck harder with the pick.
The accented note is indicated by the symbol for the accent (>) below the notes.
In the example below the first note of each beat is accented.
Guitar accent exercises
An accent is an emphasis, stress or stronger attack on a particular note, set of notes, or chords.
In music there are 3 main ways you can accent a note:
- Dynamic accent: Produced by increasing the attack of the note, that is, picking it with more force.
- Tonic accent: Notes higher in pitch are perceived as louder than notes lower in pitch. A tonic accent is produced when a note stands out by virtue of its pitch being higher than that of the notes around it.
- Agogic accent: In this type of accent the note is emphasized by virtue of it being longer than the notes around it.
The following exercises deal with the first type of accent, the dynamic accent.
Exercise 1: Regular dynamic accent
The easiest way to use accents is to place them on notes that fall on the strong beats.
In the following exercises, strike harder the notes that have an accent (>) sign above them.
Since all these notes fall where they are expected, this should come as natural.
It’s still a good idea to practice them with a metronome though, since they lay the foundation for the next type of rhythm, which is usually more complex.
Note: Regular accents are not usually notated in music. Since they come naturally it is implied that the performer is going to accent those notes.
Exercise 2: Syncopated dynamic accent
As defined by Musical U, syncopation is:
“A deviation from a regular expected rhythm pattern often placing stress (through dynamic accents) on weaker beats or omitting stronger beats”
Which means that dynamic accents are one way we can create syncopation in music (other agents of syncopation are ties, dots and rests).
In the following exercises, the accent is always on the weak beat.
It may take you some time to get these syncopated rhythms right, but it’s time well spent since controlling dynamics on the guitar is one thing that distinguishes an amateur from a pro.
Exercise 3: Regular dynamic accent applied to scales
Now that you can play both regular and syncopated dynamic accents, it’s time to start applying them to more than one note.
You can apply this concept to an exercise, a chord progression, a riff, a lick, a solo, and other things you play on the guitar.
For the purposes of this lesson we’ll be applying these accents to scales and chords.
In the next exercise, regular dynamic accents are applied to the minor pentatonic scale.
Exercise 4: Syncopated dynamic accent applied to scales
Next, we’re going to apply syncopated dynamic accents to the minor pentatonic scale.
Experiment with these exercises by applying them to different scales as well as by changing the placement of the accents.
If you plan beforehand which notes are going to be accented (rather than throwing random accents) there is no right or wrong way of doing this. By accenting the intended notes, you will be gaining control of your guitar dynamics through your picking hand.
Exercise 5: Regular dynamic accent applied to chords
Scales go through the guitar horizontally and from them we derive the notes we use to create melody.
Chords imply the vertical aspect of the guitar and are used for the harmony that backs the melody.
Like the notes of a scale, chords can also be accented.
The next exercises involve regular dynamic accents applied to chords.
Exercise 6: Syncopated dynamic accent applied to chords
Finally, we’re going to accent chords in a syncopated rhythm.
Once again practice these exercises using different chords, different rhythms, and place the accents in different places
Conclusion: Where to go from here
If you have practiced all the exercises in this lesson, you have more control of guitar dynamics than most guitar students since many don’t touch this subject until they reach advanced levels. (Not because it’s hard, but because they don’t think it’s important).
The next step is to apply this knowledge to real musical situations, whether it’s music written by other musicians, or your own.
If it’s other people’s music, you should listen carefully to where the accents are and replicate them in your playing.
If you’re writing your own music experiment with different dynamic accents in your guitar licks, riffs, and solos.
While you should be aware of whether you’re using a regular or a syncopated accent, keep in mind that there are no rules here. If something sounds right, it is right.
After you implement this you will realize that your guitar riffs, licks and solos have an extra layer of quality.
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