If you’re looking to dive into the ethereal ambient world, you’ve landed in the right place. I’m sure that if you found this article, you love that genre and you want to know how to play ambient guitar.
Ambient guitar is more than just playing chords and melodies; it’s about creating an atmosphere, a vibe, a sonic landscape that can transport you and your listeners to another dimension.
In this guide, I’m going to share with you the essentials of getting started with ambient guitar. We’ll cover everything from choosing the right gear to mastering the unique techniques that make this style so captivating.
So how to play ambient guitar?
Picture this: you’re sitting in a dimly lit room, guitar in hand, and as you strum a chord, it blossoms into a lush, expansive sound that fills the space with a warm, dreamy atmosphere. That’s ambient guitar in a nutshell.
It’s not just about playing notes; it’s about creating a mood, an ambience. This style of guitar playing relies heavily on effects like reverb and delay, volume swells, and creative playing techniques to produce a sound that’s as vast as the ocean.
We’re going to delve deep into how you can start your own journey with ambient guitar. Whether you’re a seasoned player or just starting out, there’s something here for everyone. So, grab your guitar, and let’s set sail into the vast ocean of ambient soundscapes!
Ambient Guitar Chords
This type of music often relies on a palette of chords that are rich in texture and conducive to creating atmospheric soundscapes. These chords typically have a spacious, open quality, often achieved through the use of open strings, suspensions, and extended harmonies.
Here’s a look at some of the most important chord types for ambient guitar playing:
- Major 7th Chords: These chords add a dreamy, ethereal quality to your playing. A Cmaj7, for example, is played as X32000, incorporating open strings for a more resonant sound.
- Minor 7th Chords: These provide a sense of depth and melancholy, perfect for more introspective ambient passages. An example is Am7 (X02010).
- Suspended Chords: Suspended chords, like Asus2 (X02200) and Asus4 (X02230), are great for adding a sense of airiness and unresolved tension, which works wonderfully in ambient contexts.
- Add9 Chords: These chords offer a shimmering, expansive sound. An example is Eadd9 (024100), which utilizes open strings for a resonant effect.
- Open Voicings: Using chords with open voicings and intervals can create a wider, more atmospheric sound. An example is the open voicing of a D chord (XX0232).
- Extended Chords: Chords like Cadd11 (X32030) or Dsus2/A (X04230) introduce complex overtones, adding richness and texture to your ambient soundscape.
- Drone Chords: These involve sustaining one or more notes (usually open strings) throughout a chord progression, creating a hypnotic, drone-like effect. For instance, letting the high E and B strings ring out over various chord shapes.
- Cluster Chords: These are chords where notes are closely grouped together, often creating a dissonant, yet intriguing sound. They can be used sparingly to add an element of surprise or tension in your ambient playing.
- Slash Chords: Using bass notes different from the root, such as C/G (332010), can add depth and a sense of movement to your chord progressions.
- Diminished and Half-Diminished Chords: Though less common, these chords can add a mysterious or unsettling feel, useful in certain ambient contexts.
When playing ambient guitar, the way you play these chords is just as important as the chords themselves. Techniques like volume swells, light fingerpicking, and the use of effects like reverb and delay can transform even simple chords into lush, expansive soundscapes. Experimentation is key in finding unique chord voicings and progressions that resonate with the atmospheric quality of ambient music.
Choosing the Right Guitar
Types of Guitars for Ambient Music
Ambient guitar music isn’t just about the effects and techniques; your choice of guitar plays a crucial role too. From my experience, the type of guitar you choose can greatly influence the sound and feel of your ambient creations.
You don’t need a high-end boutique guitar to start; even a mid-range guitar can work wonders if you know what you’re looking for.
Some of the coolest guitars that I can recommend are:
- Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster
- Fender Vintera 60s Jazzmaster
- Squier Classic Vibe Jaguar
- Epiphone ES-335 (Semi-Hollow Body)
I tested all of these guitars and I can safely confirm that all of them offer a fantastic value for the money. If you want to check out video reviews of these guitars, you can check out my YouTube channel called Best Guitars Now.
Generally, guitars with a good sustain and a warm, clear tone are ideal for ambient music. Many ambient guitarists prefer hollow or semi-hollow body guitars for their natural resonance and warmth. However, solid-body guitars can also work well, especially if they have a good dynamic range and clarity.
What to Look for in a Guitar
When choosing a guitar for ambient playing, look for one with a comfortable neck and a versatile pickup configuration. Guitars with single-coil pickups can offer a crisp and clear sound, ideal for sparkling clean tones, while humbuckers can provide a richer, fuller sound that’s great for creating dense sonic textures.
It’s also worth considering the guitar’s electronics and hardware. A guitar with a good quality tremolo system can add another dimension to your ambient sound, allowing for subtle pitch variations and expressive playing.
The Foundation of Ambient Sound
Pedals are the bread and butter of ambient guitar tones. The right combination of pedals can transform a simple guitar note into a lush, expansive soundscape. There are three types of pedals that are essential for any ambient guitarist: reverb, delay, and volume pedals.
- Reverb Pedals: Reverb is the cornerstone of ambient guitar. It adds depth and space to your sound, creating the illusion of playing in a large hall or cathedral. Look for a reverb pedal with adjustable parameters like decay, size, and mix to tailor the reverb to your liking.
My personal favorite pedal for that type of music is Walrus Audio Slo (See on Thomann / See on Amazon).
- Delay Pedals: Delay adds echoes to your playing, which can be used to create rhythmic patterns or thick soundscapes. Tap tempo is a handy feature to have on a delay pedal, as it allows you to sync your delays with the tempo of your playing or backing track.
If I had to choose the best delay pedal for ambient, I would choose the Walrus ARP-87 Multi Function Delay. (See on Thomann / See on Amazon)
- Volume Pedals: Volume pedals are crucial for creating volume swells, a staple technique in ambient guitar playing. A good volume pedal should have a smooth taper and be responsive to your touch.
My personal favorite volume pedal is Lehle Mono Volume Pedal (See on Thomann / See on Amazon).
Experimenting with Additional Effects
While reverb, delay, and volume pedals form the foundation of ambient guitar, don’t be afraid to experiment with other effects. Modulation pedals like chorus, phaser, and flanger can add movement and texture to your sound. Loopers are also great for creating layers and building complex soundscapes.
I highly recommend checking out the Walrus Audio Julia V2. This chorus pedal is ideal for creating lush and atmospheric sounds from the other dimension.
Amps and Effects
Choosing the Right Amp
When it comes to amps for ambient guitar, clarity and headroom are key. You want an amp that can handle the complex textures and layers of sound without breaking up or distorting too early. Solid-state amps are often a good choice for ambient music due to their clean tone and reliability. However, tube amps with a good clean channel can also work well.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of VOX AC30 and Fender Blues Junior IV. These two are my absolute favorites of all time. They will work perfeectly for ambient tones.
Enhancing Your Sound with Additional Effects
In addition to your amp’s built-in reverb or delay, consider using external effects to further shape your sound. Many ambient guitarists use rack effects or pedalboard-based effects processors to access a wider range of sounds and to have more control over their ambient textures.
The Heart of Ambient Guitar: Techniques
Understanding Reverb and Delay
The Role of Reverb in Ambient Guitar
Reverb is what gives ambient guitar its signature spacious sound. It’s not just about turning the reverb knob up and calling it a day; it’s about understanding how different reverb types can shape your sound. Hall, plate, and spring reverbs each offer a unique texture. Hall reverb, for instance, gives you that vast, open space feel, perfect for creating cinematic soundscapes.
Delay is equally vital in crafting an ambient sound. It’s all about setting the right time and feedback levels to create a sense of space and depth. For a truly ethereal sound, try using a tape delay or an analog delay with a warm, decaying echo. Playing around with the delay time can also lead to interesting rhythmic patterns that add complexity to your sound.
The Art of Volume Swells
Creating Smooth Swells
Volume swells are a key technique in ambient guitar playing, allowing notes to enter smoothly, almost like a violin’s bowing. To master this, you’ll need a good volume pedal. The trick is to pluck the string while the volume is down and then slowly bring it up. This technique creates a swell of sound without the initial attack of the note, perfect for creating a dreamy, ethereal quality.
Personal Tips for Volume Swells
From my experience, pairing volume swells with a healthy dose of reverb and delay can create an almost synth-like sound. It’s a powerful technique that can evoke deep emotions and add a dramatic flair to your playing.
Creating Textures and Layers
Layering Sounds for Depth
Ambient guitar is all about textures. By layering different sounds and effects, you can create a rich tapestry of sound. A looper pedal can be invaluable here, allowing you to build up layers of sound and create a one-person orchestra.
Techniques for Texture
Experiment with different playing techniques like fingerpicking, harmonics, and alternate tunings to add variety to your layers. Each technique brings its own unique texture to the mix, and when combined, they can create a truly immersive sound.
Playing Styles and Approaches
Fingerpicking vs. Using A Pick
Exploring Fingerpicking in Ambient Guitar
Fingerpicking offers a level of control and subtlety that’s perfect for ambient music. It allows you to bring out individual notes and create intricate patterns that can add a delicate texture to your sound. When you’re playing ambient, the nuances in your fingerpicking can make a world of difference in expressing emotion and creating atmosphere.
Using a Pick for Different Textures
Using a plectrum (or pick) can provide a sharper, more defined attack, which is great for creating a sense of rhythm or emphasis within your ambient soundscape. I’ve found that combining both fingerpicking and plectrum techniques can offer a wide range of textures to play with, making your ambient playing more dynamic and expressive.
Here’s a list of pros and cons of both of these styles.
- Offers a high degree of control over individual strings.
- Enables more intricate and subtle note patterns.
- Ideal for creating gentle, flowing textures.
- Allows simultaneous playing of melody and bass lines.
- Encourages a more personal connection to the instrument.
- May require more practice to develop dexterity.
- Can be challenging for fast-paced or rhythmic sections.
- Might not provide as sharp an attack as a plectrum.
Using a Plectrum:
- Provides a sharper, clearer attack on notes.
- Easier for playing fast and rhythmic parts.
- Useful for creating a more pronounced sound.
- Offers consistency in note volume and tone.
- Typically easier for beginners to grasp.
- Less control over individual strings compared to fingerpicking.
- Can be limiting for complex textural playing.
- Might not offer the same level of expressive subtlety.
Each style offers unique benefits and challenges, making them suitable for different aspects of ambient guitar playing.
I gathered a few ambient guitar lessons for you to check out. Feel free to grab your guitar and let’s get to practice!
As we wrap up this guide, remember that the journey into ambient guitar is a personal and ever-evolving one. With the right gear, techniques, and a spirit of exploration, you’re well on your way to creating beautiful, ethereal soundscapes. Whether you’re sharing your music with the world or playing for your own enjoyment, the world of ambient guitar is a limitless canvas for your creativity.
I hope this guide has been helpful in starting your ambient guitar journey. Remember, there’s no final destination in music – only the endless joy of discovery and expression. With the right mindset you’ll figure out how to play ambient guitar. Keep playing, keep exploring, and most importantly, enjoy every note.