A friend of mine asked me recently if I thought it was possible for humans to run out of music. With genuine curiosity, they expressed concern that “everything’s already been done, so how are musicians not just copying one another at this point?” While I don’t subscribe to this notion, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the aspects of sound that allow us to have a distinct musical voice that separates us from others.
Think of music as a spoken language. If we place it in the same category as, say, Spanish, English, Mandarin, or Finnish, it simply becomes a tool for us to express ourselves. Are we concerned that we will run out of ways to express ourselves when we speak, write, and tell stories? What makes us unique is often how we say something, not necessarily what we say.
With this lesson, I intend to temporarily shift your guitar-playing focus more to the hows than the whats. We spend a lot of time trying to find the right notes, or the best words for what we’re trying to say, but how we say something is what helps us leave our mark.
One way to think about this aspect of creating music concerns timbre, dynamics, and time-feel. They are three of the most significant components of the individual musical voice, right up there with the ever-elusive tone that we’re always chasing.
Timbre, or tone color, is a major factor in how we perceive differences between two sounds. Even if we’re hearing the same note at the same amplitude, the timbre of the sound is what helps us distinguish one from the other.
You can control and manipulate the timbral aspects of your fingerstyle guitar playing by attacking the strings with a thumbpick, fingerpick, flesh, fingernail, or a combination thereof. When playing a melody and accompanying ourselves with chords or a bass line, it’s important to keep the melody sounding front and center, which helps the listener follow along and clearly track the melody as it unfolds.
One way to keep the melody in the spotlight is to use dark, round timbres in the accompaniment while creating a bit of contrast with a normal attack on the melody notes. Similarly, you can try to produce a brighter timbre when playing the melody notes by using a fingernail or fingerpicks. I prefer the sound of fingernails and flesh for the melody and thumb flesh for the bass, but that comes down to personal preference.
When playing Example 1, try different articulations for the melody notes while keeping the bass accompaniment nice and round (using the flesh of the right-hand thumb). For the melody, you could try using a fingerpick, fingernail, or the flesh of your fingertips. In the example, it is most comfortable for me to use my middle finger to pick the melody.
Dynamics typically refers to how loud or soft a sound is. It’s helpful to think about dynamics as the intentional increasing and decreasing of volume over time within musical phrases or sections. The late Kelly Joe Phelps was a master of dynamics, which lent even more depth to his already masterful solo acoustic performances. [See a lesson on how to play like Phelps in the September 2017 issue. —ed.]
By being very intentional about how we use dynamics, we can spotlight certain musical moments, draw listeners in with a whisper, or become as raucous as our instruments can withstand. Whatever path you choose, the ways in which we use volume to express ourselves is just another way to breathe life into what we’re doing.
For this lesson, it’s most important to point out one obvious advantage of wrangling control of your dynamics: it also helps you keep your melody out front. In combination with your choice of timbre, dynamics can help you make that melody sing. By backing off the volume of your accompanying chords and lines and boosting the melody, there will be much less of a chance that you’ll lose your melody and listener as you go.
In Example 2, the fourth bar contains notes that are in the same range as the melody heard in the previous measures, but they’re not actually part of the melody. When it comes to differentiating this portion from the melody, you can lower the volume (dynamics) of the whole measure. Alternatively, you can keep the bass notes as strong as the previous measures but pull back on the accompanying notes of the fill to keep them tucked in. Give both approaches a try here. Bear in mind that you can use different timbres to lessen the volume or how much notes stand out, as discussed in the above section.
Time-Feel and Stretching Time
Time-feel can refer to the ebb and flow, non-metronomic, human aspects of performing rhythms over time. While something can be labeled as swing or straight, the ways in which players knowingly or unknowingly choose to perform rhythms and phrases within that framework refers to their unique time-feel.
Especially when it comes to playing as a solo acoustic musician, time-feel is quite handy. You can bend and stretch time, perform phrasing at tempo or in time, or choose moments of rubato without time.
With Example 3, experiment with the time-feel. Try playing it straight, then swung, anticipating some of the melody notes before the downbeats. When it comes to stretching time, try removing the tempo altogether. Consider playing fewer bass notes or slightly speeding up when the melody gets busier and slowing down when there’s more space. With some extra space, some players take the opportunity to roll through the chord as they articulate the melody, even if the transcription doesn’t call for it. There’s no wrong way to do this, but the goal is to keep the melody intact and in the spotlight.
The Neighbor’s Cat
These examples are from my tune “The Neighbor’s Cat.” For this, I use a combination of a rounded timbre for the accompaniment and a brighter attack on the melody notes. I also attempt to play aspects of the melody with drastic variations in dynamics to help give it a little more character. At the end of the accompanying video, I provide a quick example of how shifting the time-feel can drastically alter the spirit of the tune.
It’s best to experiment with all three components described above. As with the examples provided, it can be easier to work on these aspects of your playing when you choose one or a few chords and a simple melody to play over the top. In this way, your attention isn’t divided by a complex chord progression or intricate melody when you’re first trying to hone your skills in these areas.
Timon Kaple is a writer and ethnomusicologist based in Massachusetts.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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