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Recently I went to a workshop on electric guitar. Between several subjects, the presenter talked about dynamics with distortion.

He said that you can use palm mute to create the effect of a "growing melody". For example, you start your song with a full palm mute, and you keep going slowly releasing your hand from the strings during the time until you achieve a "full open sound" (just before a chorus, for example).

I understand that maybe with heavy distortion it's not really dynamics in terms of "amplitude" that we're talking about, but I couldn't think of any other techniques that could have a similar effect of dynamics. The subjects in the workshop changed and I forgot to ask my question:

What other techniques you can use on electric guitar with distortion to bring something similar to "dynamics" to your sound?

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5 Answers 5

It's true that distortion, especially heavy distortion causes a lot of compression and evens out most of the dynamics. But a softly picked note is not only quieter, it's also duller, that is, it contains less high frequency, even after distortion. Since we are more sensitive to high frequencies, some dynamics can be achieved just by picking softer or harder. It's not drastic, but it's audible. It's mostly a change in timbre but there is some difference in perceived loudness too. So one way of achieving (at least some) dynamics is to just pick softly.

Palm muting decreases the high frequency content even further. So a palm muted note will be perceived as being softer than a non-palm muted note even though the peak to peak amplitudes don't change much.

You can extend this idea to the other end of the spectrum by applying a little bit of pick harmonics, i.e. "digging in" for accent because harmonics add more high frequency content.

The volume controls on the guitar and amp or a volume pedal before or after the preamp is yet another way to control the dynamics for a heavily distorted electric guitar.

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Thanks for the nice answer. So it's like stop thinking of amplitude and start thinking on spectrum and tone. The idea of using volume (or even expression pedals) is nice, but I was more focused on "bare hands" techniques, as the harmonics you mentioned. If you have any other examples of more "bare hands" techniques, please add them to your answer. Thanks again! –  Gustavo Meira Jul 22 at 12:49
I also considered mentioning picking position (brighter when closer to bridge, mellower when closer to neck). But picking closer to the bridge also decreases the volume, negating the perceived loudness increase. It is nevertheless an often neglected way of changing the timbre. Heavily distorted electric guitar is not the most expressive instrument in terms of dynamics. So I tend to try to get as much timbral variation as I can get as a substitute. Picking angle is another good variable most people tend to forget. –  cyco130 Jul 22 at 13:09
As another way of broadening the timbre range, consider putting away the pick sometimes! Fingerstyle is mostly associated with clean/acoustic guitar, but guitarists like Jeff Beck (who's also master of volume- & tone-pot dynamic play) demonstrate how much extra possibilities it offers in distorted sounds. –  leftaroundabout Jul 22 at 19:20

Controlled feedback is a useful technique although it's as old as Hendrix. I like to use high gain and distortion and a wah so that I can hit a single note and control its feedback crescendo and decrescendo with careful muting.

What are some techniques to control feedback in a musical setting?

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I didn't know what was the "controlled feedback", so I got this video youtube.com/watch?v=-YpUVsCbrEE which shows what it is :) The feedback is a good idea as well. And I'd say it's "bare hands" in someway. –  Gustavo Meira Jul 23 at 8:13
This question explains a little bit more about how to do it: music.stackexchange.com/questions/2518/… –  Gustavo Meira Jul 23 at 8:16
Thanks, @GustavoMeira! I've added a couple of links to how to do feedback. –  Kevin Johnsrude Jul 23 at 15:07
Extremely cool the video you added, by the way. –  Gustavo Meira Jul 23 at 17:29

Playing through a wah wah, and gradually increasing the resonant frequence (creating more "open" vowel sounds) can lend a dynamic effect.

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One important observation in the perception of loudness is that our ears perceive single-frequency sounds as louder than more spread-spectrum sounds. Loudness is also associated with the duration of a tone.

Therefore, when a guitar tone is heavily distorted, a single, clear, held-out note will sound much louder than the momentary crunch of a palm-muted power chord.

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When it comes to dynamics one of the best things you can do is to listen to a lot of musicians and analyse what they are doing. In a three-piece band each instrument has to carry a lot of musical weight, and for me the classic case study in basic guitar dynamics is probably Nirvana- listen to Nevermind and pay attention to the changes between light and heavy distortion ( the guitar is almost always at least a little distorted ) and the movement from picked notes and drones to full on heavy chords.

Also listen for the way that the whole band will cut out leaving just one instrument for a moment and then come crashing back in- often creating spaces and playing with listener expectation is as important as the actual notes you play.

When you are working with a lot of distortion, you might also want to be careful of how fast you play - once you hit a certain speed it's very hard for the listener to pick out the notes or rhythm you are playing with the distortion around them. It can be much more effective to hold off a little and give each note or chord enough space to have rhythmic or melodic impact.

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