Ambient Guitar Techniques

Brian Eno may not be a name that younger players resonate with, but if you enjoy ambient licks, there’s little ground that he didn’t cover in his 44-year career. In fact, Eno’s name is so synonymous with ambient music that he literally invented the term. The genre takes its name from Eno’s series of works starting with Music for Airports and concluding with On Land; Eno christened this four-album set as the Ambient series, and a genre was born. While Eno has scads of studio equipment and warehouses full of gear at his disposal, there are some tricks and techniques available that may appeal to more miserly players.

Fix your signal chain

In order to achieve a playing style that is wholly “outside the box,” one must make all the parts of his or her playing “outside the box,” and this starts with a revamped signal chain. Conventionally, a signal chain has a more-or-less standardized pathway: dirt, modulation, delay, reverb. Within these subgroups, overdrives, fuzzes and distortion can be mixed in any order in the dirt section, and likewise, chorus, phaser, flanger, et al can be arranged in any order within the modulation subgroup. If you’ve been using this conventional setup, prepare for somewhat conventional guitar tones. The trick to reordering pedals for ambient music is to do the exact opposite of convention; one strategy is to put reverb first, then delay, then modulation, then dirt. Although there are several schools of thought to chain experimentation, a good rule of thumb is delay or reverb first. This allows trails from either effect to interact with modulation and dirt in a very pleasing, otherworldly way. One thing is clear, however: trying to play atypical music with a typical setup is fundamentally illogical.

Start with your hands

There’s a pesky element to playing ambient tunes, in that abrupt stops and starts tend to ruin the atmospheric wash of most ambient music, unless there is some dynamic layering involved. The best ambient techniques are acquired by using your hands and everything on a guitar within reach. Take for example, Adrian Belew; while bedridden with mononucleosis, he learned to replicate classic studio effects, thinking that they were actually being played in songs on the radio. He learned how to maximize what was available to him inside a hospital bed to recreate slapback delay and through-zero flanging. That said, your hands, your guitar, and a few small contraptions may be all you need for true ambient mastery. First and foremost, for soft, lush soundscapes, attack is your worst enemy; either get extremely familiar with the volume control, or ditch the picks and get somewhat cozy with the control. Making subtle swells with the guitar’s volume knob (especially in conjunction with a slide) eliminates attack from the equation entirely and allows for some very liquid tones to ooze from the amplifier instead of brash, percussive lines.

Effects loops

Much like an amplifier’s effects loop, which places pieces of gear between the amp’s preamp and power sections, many effects pedals are being made with effects loops. It is this unorthodox routing scheme that a player’s imagination can flourish. And while there aren’t many types of effects out there with effects loops, there are enough to stoke the flames of creativity. There are only two made with any kind of regularity:

  1. Delay: This is the most common type with an effects loop. Pedals placed within the loop apply only to the repeats of the delay, often re-processed with each repeat. For example: A fuzz placed in the effects loop of the delay will cause the first repeat to be processed through the fuzz (we’ll call this fuzzed repeat “A”). The first fuzzed repeat, A, is processed through the fuzz again, creating B. B is processed into C, and this repeats indefinitely. With a high enough feedback control, this never fades and devolves into a fuzzy mess. Running more than one pedal in the loop will create even more textures. What if another pedal with a loop is placed in the loop? The possibilities are endless.

  2. Filter: Some filter pedals are loop-equipped—the Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron+ and Talking Machine, among others, give the player the ability to patch an effect in between the preamp gain of the device and the actual filter section. This allows players to have the preamp push an effect before it gets filtered, resulting in a thicker sound. Typically, this isn’t too useful for ambient effects in general, but the beauty of the genre is that the door is wide open for any sound to be implemented at any time.

Ambient and non-ambient effects

However, one effect that contains an effects loop is practically made for ambient players: The Electro-Harmonix Superego. In essence, this pedal is the guts from the HOG—a popular do-it-all synth and octave box from EHX. The Superego can do swells, freezes and other neat sampling tricks, and the effects loop processes only the wet, synthesized signal. This opens up a dearth of possibilities, as the effect in the loop swells in with the Superego’s synth signal, allowing for ridiculous accentuation and articulation within the effects. And because the Superego has a tendency to drone with the controls maxed out, running it first in the chain can create walls of dense textures.

Similarly, a compressor doesn’t seem like an ambient tool, but it absolutely is, for a couple reasons. Firstly, perhaps no type of effect has such a dramatic effect on the player’s overall sound depending on where it’s placed. Running a fuzz at the beginning of the chain versus the end yields predictable results; same with chorus, reverb, or anything else. With a compressor, all bets are off; running it between drives drastically changes the character, as does compressing the entire signal by way of running it last. However, the most useful application may be running the compressor right before an octave or pitch shifting device, so that the signal is optimized for tracking purposes. This will keep the octaver from glitching out on any undesired peaks or valleys in the signal.

Some users might also consider intentionally running an unpowered pedal near the end of the chain. Stay with me here—when a pedal is unpowered, turning it on completely kills the signal immediately. This can be used as a mute switch for some seriously dynamic sound sculpting.

Parallel processing

This trick results in an extremely full sound that just isn’t available when processing effects in series. Consider two pedals; one chorus and one flanger. Running one into the other in either configuration might sound a bit goopy, and not in a good way. However, if a player’s signal is split into two identical signals, with one going to the chorus and the other to flanger, then mixed back together, the sound is incredibly dynamic compared to series processing. Why stop at two? The Pigtronix OFO Disnortion contains three separate sounds in parallel: Octave, Fuzz and Overdrive. Having the octave effect in parallel really beefs up a signal, which is why bass players dig the Disnortion. Why stop at three? DOD made four-channel “resistance mixers” for nearly three decades that can be had today for dirt cheap. Why stop at four? Have a friend build you a five channel resistance mixer. Why ever stop?

Stacking similar pedals

If you can afford it, stacking one or more of the same effect type can dramatically bolster the possibilities of your playing and rig. Some manufacturers have figured this out, such as Red Witch and Death by Audio with their Titan and Ghost Delay, respectively. These effects allow players access to three different delay lines in one box, with the option to run them in series. As is to be expected, this creates a rhythmic pulse of delay trails that interact beautifully. The only downside to this type of effect is that a player’s hands are tied in regards to the order of effects. With one pedal, these three delay lines can never be separated, and will not offer the flexibility of two modern units. Consider two Boss DD-3s: running them together will produce a lush stacked delay, but sandwiching another pedal in between them certainly makes for a much more texturally appealing combination. The same goes for two reverbs or other time-based effects.

Keep the warmth

It’s easy to load a signal with a hundred effects, but if the end result is cold and sterile, it’s going to be difficult to enjoy, and no preamp can help your signal if it’s on life support. If you find that your signal is starting to suffer, there are a couple options to consider. The more obvious solution is an EQ pedal at the end or nearly at the end of the chain. This can help juice a few bands that all the wacky stuff obliterates and get the signal back up to snuff before it enters the amplifier. Secondly, Electro-Harmonix actually makes a pedal to help alleviate this undesired byproduct—the Analogizer. It acts as an ultra-low gain overdrive and a slight slapback to thicken the signal up. EHX actually released a similar product back in the ‘70s called the Ambitron, but you may never find one. Either way, there is no signal more uninviting and unappealing as the digitally destroyed signal—no amount of “I meant to do that” excuses will ever fly.

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