Guitar playing is getting subdivided into many different categories these days. It isn’t just rock, blues, jazz, country, or metal anymore. There are so many labels that it is impossible to keep track of, which is probably exactly what our parents thought and their parents before them. One of the sub-genres of guitar playing which has gained more popularity over the last few years is called ambient guitar. While the idea of ambient music has been around for well over 60 years, it has become more common in guitar playing due to the explosion of affordable guitar effects, advances in signal processing, and the frustration of some musicians who refuse to follow popular conventions of what an electric guitar is supposed to sound like. This article will provide a brief history of ambient guitar music and a rundown of the most common tools to get your space on.
What Means Ambient, Friend?
As someone who writes and records ambient music, I tend to stick with the definition provided by ambient pioneer Brian Eno, who stated that it must be “as ignorable as it is interesting”. Essentially, it is a textural approach to music making. As it relates to guitar, you can think of it as fulfilling the role of keyboard pads: slow, shifting, pastoral textures that provide a bed for something else. Or not. Think about it as the opposite of the Big Screaming Guitar Solo. The ambient guitarist generally plays fewer notes, but with effects, they make a whole lot more noise. It is the sonic equivalent to a van Gogh painting. The ambient guitarist doesn’t demand attention, but like an Impressionist painter, there is a lot going on. While this style of music is perfect for moody shoegazers as well as for film scoring, I’ve heard rock and metal bands with ambient elements that sound wonderful too.
Where We Make Heavenly Music
Ambient guitar started with one album. In 1973, Brian Eno teamed up with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and recorded (No Pussyfooting). A Les Paul, volume pedal, wah, and primitive fuzz box was all that Robert used, but Eno took the guitar signal and patched it into 2 reel-to-reel recorders effectively making a looping device. The loops would distort and decay as the guitar fed the tape machines. The effect was a wall of sound generated with a few simple tools. Through the years, guitarists like David Torn, Michael Brook, and Steven Wilson have waved the ambient flag influencing a new generation.
You’ll Need a Guitar
Well, of course. When choosing a guitar, there are a few things to remember. While any guitar will work, using fuzz, echo and reverb, any noise like 60-cycle hum is amplified many times. To prevent this, I’d recommend something with humbuckers in the vintage output range. Higher output humbuckers might compress the sound a too much, and might not translate subtle finger movements as well. Pickups such as the Jazz, ’59 and Whole Lotta Humbuckers would be good choices. They are wax potted to prevent feedback at high volumes and silent when you aren’t playing. I use an Alnico II Pro for the neck pickup in my guitar. As far as a single coil sound goes, I would stick with something like the Stack or Rails series, as they provide the single coil sounds without the hum.
Cry Baby, Cry
I use a wah pedal first in the chain, but not to do my funky Shaft impressions. I turn it on and either keep it in one place, or slowly sweep it (over a minute or more) to provide a tonal change in the signal. Any wah will work, as long as the pedal will stay in one place where you put it. Mine is an early 1980’s Crybaby. Sometimes I use one in a multi-effects unit. If my wah isn’t behaving that day, I sometimes alter the tone over a long period of time with my tone knob.
Bring on the Fuzz!
One thing the ambient guitarist should have is a good fuzz box. I am not talking about the smooth creamy lead channel of your favorite amp. I am talking about a nasty, spitting, square-wave making, room-clearing box of doom that makes playing chords almost impossible. Don’t worry, because you won’t be playing any with it on. This is for single sustained notes, and nothing else. The more it squashes and compresses your signal, the better. I can get a sound like this from the Seymour Duncan Dirty Deed Distortion pedal by turning the gain all the way up, and the treble almost all the way down. I use the neck pickup and play single notes. Using a volume knob or a volume pedal, fade in the attack of the notes. While this sounds harsh right now, it won’t with the effects later in the chain.
Go Forth and Modulate
Modulation pedals take the signal and twist it in some way. Tremolos, phasers, choruses, flangers and pitch shifters all fall into this category. This part of the pedalboard can get very big due to all of the options out there. I tend to keep this section pretty small. I use a phaser and a tremolo here. The Seymour Duncan Shapeshifter Tremolo can twist your sound providing rhythmic interest in an otherwise non-rhythmic bed of sound. This is a great effect if you play in stereo, which sounds amazing when recorded as the signal jumps from speaker to speaker.
Pick a Delay…Make that Two
One of the most important sounds for the ambient guitarist is delay. Analog delays behave differently than digital delays, and this is why you might need two of them. Analog delays are known for their warm sound and their ability to self-oscillate, or spiral out of control. With the Repeats knob set high, the echoes fall all over each other, distort, and become a gooey mess, which is exactly what we want. The Seymour Duncan Vapor Trail Analog Delay spreads this sonic sauce perfectly, and doesn’t sound too dark even with the feedback all the way up. The only problem with analog delays is that you are limited to a shorter delay time. Digital delays can provide delay times that are several seconds long, and will continue forever without distorting. I use a long digital delay set to about 5 seconds with an expression pedal to control the number of repeats. I can use the pedal to have the repeats fade out over several minutes if I like. I also like having the Vapor Trail slowly echo into a smeary, distorted mess while a longer delay captures it and repeats it over and over. Fun!
How Big is the Space?
One of the most important effects for the ambient guitarist is a good reverb. I am not talking about the reverb on the amplifier, either. A dedicated pedal with several parameters to tweak is what is needed here. The idea is that you want to blend the direct signal into a large space that seems to go on forever. Sometimes I will have a very long-tail reverb that lasts about 10 seconds. I may have the direct signal quite a bit louder, or have no direct signal at all. The fun begins when you start altering how the reverb sounds. I will pitch-transpose the reverb up or down an octave, or just add reverb on the delay repeats via the Vapor Trail’s insert jack. The result of all of this is that you get a sound that sustains forever with just a few notes played. The idea here is that you are not trying to simulate any particular space, but creating new sounds.
Loop It Good
Looping has really taken off the last few years, but it has been around in one form or another for decades. I always have some sort of looping device in my signal. A looper allows you to freely record, overdub, manipulate, and interact with the recorded content. I use a discontinued Echoplex Digital Pro for my hardware needs, and the excellent Mobius for software. For my purposes, I need a looper with many ways to manipulate the loop in real time. Most of my loops are non-rhythmic, and I don’t need lots of looping time or the ability to save loops since I create them in real time. The ambient guitarist should choose a looper that at least has the ability to control loop feedback in real time. This way, old parts of the loop can fade over time as new content is added. It is a better way of composing rather than using a static, sample-based loop that is fixed as soon as it is recorded.
And It Doesn’t End Here
I use multi-effects for many sounds as well. From analog synth sounds to reverse delay and reverbs, these are sounds that are impossible or expensive to get from individual pedals. I tend to use expression pedals to vary the effects in real-time too, as static sounds (at least in ambient playing) are not as interesting to my ears.
Don’t discount devices like the Ebow, which is an electronic bowing device for guitar. It provides endless sustain for one string at a time. It is great with a long delay, and when looped, provides a great bed to improvise over. Guitar synth is also a consideration too. Why should keyboardists have all the fun? Add some textures that are impossible to create any other way than with a guitar synth. Sending the guitar synth signal into your ambient fuzz boxes, delays, reverbs, and loopers will have your listeners spacing out for years. The main thing when playing ambient guitar is to think like a scientist: don’t be afraid to experiment. Know your gear, and sometimes the best sounds happen when you break the rules. Play sparsely. Let the echoes, tremolos, reverbs, and loops do all the work. Many ambient guitarists are fierce shredders in their own right, but they don’t have to run at top speed all the time. The effects are never an excuse to not learn how to play, but they are a way to compose using textures usually reserved for other instruments. Or as Robert Fripp says, “This remains the best way of making a lot of noise with one guitar.”
How do you use your delay pedal? What guitarist uses effects the way you like?