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I have recently had a "discussion" with some person about electric guitars. There is a point of view that electric guitars have objectively inferior music (if there is such a thing) compared to classical guitars.

I would like to point out that neither of us actually plays electric guitar; we only have any experience with the classical one. So it's possible that what I ask can be answered very easily.

To keep the flame out of the question, I would like to ask about one specific point of the issue.

Most of the time electric guitars play with dynamic range compression, so you cannot control the strength of individual notes well (bad dynamics) - thus, the electric guitar has no soul.

So, is this true? Specifically:

  1. Does electric guitar imply heavy usage of dynamic range compression?
  2. Does compression have a significant effect on musical dynamics?
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    I'd argue with the premise of your reduced question. Don't think of the guitar proper as the instrument: include everything thru the final preamp since they all affect the sound. BTW, who says there's dynamic compression? Is that referring to some nonlinear response in the pickups? Nov 7, 2013 at 20:53
  • I am not familiar with the mechanics there, but I imagine dynamic compression is some pedal or knob that you can tune, and they usually tune it to be strong, so the sound lasts longer than with acoustic guitars.
    – anatolyg
    Nov 7, 2013 at 21:25

4 Answers 4

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1) Does electric guitar imply heavy usage of dynamic range compression?

Not inherently, but electronic compression is applied to the signal of the electric guitar in much of popular music, particularly when the electric guitar is used in a large band with many different instruments competing to be heard in the mix.

Jazz musicians who play archtop electric guitar completely "clean" don't use compression, and they can achieve considerable dynamic contrast (although, in my opinion, not as much timbral contrast as what can be achieved on a nylon-stringed classical guitar). Furthermore, many electric guitarists use a volume pedal, without compression, specifically to expand the dynamic range they can achieve. Pick softly, pick hard, then increase or decrease the volume even further with the foot pedal to create the effect of an even wider dynamic range.

For examples of electric guitar players who manage to achieve a great deal of dynamic range, I would refer you to the work of jazz guitarist Tuck Andress (Tuck & Patti) and to the early work of rock guitarist Mark Knopfler with his band Dire Straits.

2) Does compression have a significant effect on musical dynamics?

Of course. Electronic compression is designed to counteract musical dynamics. If you use a great deal of compression, effectively you have no dynamic range at all.

As a final and more general note, there are many parts of the signal chain in an electric guitar that, traditionally, added dynamic range compression, or perhaps I should say they restricted the dynamic range that the performer could achieve. Some degree of compression of dynamic range could be due to the specific design of the guitar's pickups, the amplifier, and the use of analog recording tape in the recording studio, and the manipulation of the various gain stages throughout the signal chain. Generally speaking, from the early years of the electric guitar (the late 1930s through the 1960s), the amplification technology available had a limited dynamic range, which could be further limited by use of an electronic compressor. Similarly, the earliest digital recording systems in the 1980s and 1990s had a limited dynamic range. However, in the present era, it is possible to find a guitar, pickups, amplifier, and recording system that have a wider dynamic range than what could be achieved in the early days.

Slim added some good points:

It should also be noted that the processes which electric guitarists use to compress the sound, usually colour the sound too. An amp with the gain set just-so will respond so that:

  • a gently plucked note sounds quiet and clean
  • a medium plucked note is at peak volume but clean
  • a firmly plucked note is at peak volume and mildly distorted
  • a very firmly plucked note is at peak volume and strongly distorted

In this configuration, the guitarist is sacrificing control over loudness, but getting control over timbre (clean/distorted) in exchange. Some guitarists regain control over loudness by adding a volume pedal to their setup.

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    I couldn't fault the answer, but wanted to add how you trade loudness control for timbe control. Hope that's OK.
    – slim
    Nov 8, 2013 at 10:32
  • Slim, you've made very good points. Picking softly produces a certain timbre, picking hard produces a different one. When you use electronic compression, it "squashes" the overall volume and changes the attack and sustain characteristics and changes the timbre, but you still have some control over shaping the timbre. We have the thankless task here of explaining electric guitar compression to classical guitarists who have never really experimented with an electric guitar and a compression pedal. There is only so much we can explain in words.
    – user1044
    Nov 8, 2013 at 14:27
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    That's a really good answer. I'd like to add one more point, in response to the claim that reduced dynamics mean that the electric guitar has "no soul". Compression enables a lot of techniques that are not available on an acoustic guitar: on a classical guitar, you cannot slide into a note, let it sing for a second, bend to another note, release, and finish with a nice vibrato. Essentially, a strongly overdriven guitar offers less control over volume (at least without volume pedals and the like), but more over pitch and duration. Sep 18, 2018 at 8:28
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Depending on how your electric guitar gear is set up, I'm especially thinking about not having all the volume, gain, etc. cranked up high like a big rock concert, so that you don't have a lot of noise through the amp, humming, etc. even while not playing, the you can play very quietly, but still be able to play strongly and get a fairly loud sound out of the amp. That level of loudness will easily be louder than an acoustic guitar. If the gear is handled right, I think you can get a quiet to loud range with electric guitar greater than an acoustic guitar.

A compressor effect does compress the dynamic range, but I think it's regarded more of an effect to create sustain, especially used in conjunction with distortion.

I think it's important to mention the difference between dynamics in terms of volume, as in decibels, versus playing soft or hard and the effect on timbre. With many acoustic instruments playing harder doesn't necessarily create a lot of decibels, but it will create a difference in timbre. That timbral difference is very important for dynamics and expression. So an acoustic can't really get that loud in decibels, but they are very expressive. And likewise electric guitar is usually loud most of the time, but even while it's loud, you can get a lot of timbral variety by how you use the pick.

I'm leaving out of the discussion the use of effect pedals, and the volume knobs on the guitar. Good players will turn on/off effect pedals during performance, some pedals effect the volume or timbral envelope, and you can turn the volumn knobs in performance. If you include all that, the electric guitar has an amazing dynamic range.

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I have heard examples of electric guitar players showing great expression and playing dynamics even when they are using quite a lot of compression. It seems to me that the compression does not necessarily reduce the perceptibility of playing dynamics.

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I'd argue that an electric can be more dynamic than an acoustic since there's more places to go. Without even getting into pedals, you can change the volume and the pickup you're playing on. Acoustic guitars don't have this, and the ones that do have an electric pickup.

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