Continuing on with our series about strumming, let’s talk about another common problem people have…a lack of dynamics. In music, “dynamics” simply refers to the volume or sound of a note or chord when it is played. When you listen to a good guitar player strumming, for example, you’ll notice that they can control how hard or soft a strum is, along with other aspects like palm muting or how long or short the strum is. These aspects contribute to the emotion of the performance, adding dynamics to the overall sound.
What we’re going to talk about will apply more obviously to those of you who use a guitar pick, but the same rules apply when you are finger picking or strumming with just your fingers.
Here is one example, a song by Dave Matthews called “Crash Into Me”. I picked this version of the song because he’s playing it as a duo with Tim Reynolds and they are both playing acoustic guitar. It starts out relatively even, with a strum emphasized by varying bass notes in the intro and the first verse. What I want you to pay attention to is between the 1:03 and 1:10 minute mark, at the chorus or refrain. You’ll notice that he suddenly brings the volume way down as he changes the chord progression and it softens up considerably through those few seconds. Then he goes back to his verse strumming pattern:
So how do you control the volume, as in the example above, of your strum? When you are strumming with your fingers and thumb, you simply hit them a little harder or softer, but using a guitar pick can present a problem. When you first strum with a pick, you’ll notice that it can sound very loud and obnoxious! This has everything to do with how you hold the pick. Below is a picture of the proper way to hold the flat pick. Notice how less than half of the pick is showing!
This is key to controlling the volume of your strumming or picking. When you hold on to more of the pick, you can hold it more loosely, and the looser you can hold it, the softer you can play! Try it out. Hold the pick very firmly and strum…you’ll notice that the more rigid it is, the louder it plays. Now try to loosen your hold and make sure you’re holding a large part of it as in the above picture. Strum again and see how lightly you can hit the strings with your pick.
One other point to make is that there are different types of flat picks…the heaviest is the least flexible and is often preferred by people playing lead or solo. The lightest is very flexible, and sometimes this is a good pick to start strumming with; the more flexible the pick, the more forgiving it will be. The SOUND of the pick is also different. A lighter pick will give off the sound of its plastic when you strum with it. Some people don’t like that plastic sound, others don’t mind, but it is certainly a good pick to start with if you’re not used to using them.
So as an experiment, try varying the volume of your strum. Play a strum pattern more loudly and then soften up a bit and then back to more loudly. This is what a songwriter might do, for example, when he/she is singing a verse and then playing in between. During the singing, you soften up on the playing so that the lyrics can be heard. Think of your instrument as weaving in and out, volume-wise.
In the next post, we’ll get into other tips and tricks for creating more dynamics in your strumming.