So you're watching your fingers fly all around the fretboard, hammering and pulling and trilling and bending like there's no tomorrow.. but something's missing. Something intangible, something hard to define. You know it's there but you can't quite put your finger on it...
Go back and read that first paragraph again. First, read it with a flat monotonous voice, like a text-to-speech machine. All the words are there but it's dreary as hell to listen to and a great deal of the meaning is lost, simply because it's much more difficult for the brain to process the information when every syllable of every word is given equal weight. It's harder to group sentences and phrases and therefore harder to establish meaning and empathy.
Now read it again, this time in the manner of Alan Rickman playing a villain:
“Something..... intangible... something – hard to define”
Which one has the most impact? Well, every listener is different, but for the vast majority.. well, put it this way, there's a reason Alan Rickman made it big.
Now, let's consider how we can apply this lesson to guitar playing. Any piece of music, a melody, a solo, a chord sequence – they all tell a story. That story should not be told in a monotone. Consider the story you're trying to tell – the ascending sequence pattern, should that build in volume, climaxing with a soaring bend picked hard and given all the vibrato you can give it? How about that delicate introductory phrase, shouldn't you try and pick lightly, give yourself somewhere to go?
A great example of this is the classic B.B. King track, “Need Your Love So Bad”. The famous versions of this are (ironically) covers by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, and a cover 30 years later by the late great Gary Moore. Listen to both – although the notes are the same, Peter Green's delicate articulation expresses a vulnerability.. as if his notes have turned up to the party and said quietly “Does anyone mind if I sit here? I won't be any trouble..” . By contrast, Gary Moore's much more confident articulation strides up next to the prettiest girl in the room and says “Get yer coat love, you've pulled”.
The notes themselves are the same. On a tablature page, they would be displayed identically. And yet, the difference when you hear it is huge.
Standard music notation provides some hints, with phrases graded in f (forte – loud), p (piano – queiet), multiples thereof, and mp (mezzo piano – medium quiet) and mf (mezzo forte – medium loud), as well as indications for crescendo (get louder) and diminuendo (get quieter). Studying classical guitar gave me an unparalleled insight into these aspects if reading music, but the component that is absolutely essential is the ear – listening critically to what you're doing and asking yourself, does it match my intent?
So for this month, consider the difference that dynamics can makes and practice your phrases as a whisper, a shout, and everything in between – you'll be amazed the difference this can make!