How to Play Ambient Guitar

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By Shawn Leonhardt for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

The genre and sound of ambient guitar music are built with more than just a guitar; to create the right mood, you need pedals, effects, and an ear for the right tone. The notes and intervals are picked to build specific moods in vast spaces of reverb and delay. There is a recipe for ambient guitar-type music, and we will share it with you today!

What Is Ambient Guitar?

Regardless of the instrument, ambient music is all about the tone, texture, or atmosphere. It doesn’t require fast blues licks or speed shredding, but it is necessary to have effects and pedals to create the sound you need. Generally, ambient styles are meant to be calm or contemplative, but that is not always true. It is a very broad style and requires some listening, as some you may love while other pieces are boring!

Similar ambient-like genres are known as chill or downtempo, and a decent list to start listening to would need Brian Eno’s music, as he coined the phrase. Ambient music has often been associated with synthesizers and natural sounds, but with the rise of effects pedals, they gave the guitar a greater palette to develop a musical texture. Progressive rock guitarists like Robert Fripp of King Crimson inspired many new players with his ambient works.

Dream-pop bands like Cocteau Twins also contributed to the modern sound of ambient music. Electro-pop, techno, and lo-fi styles all have had a heavy influence, and rarely is the guitar the central instrument in electronic music. Some artists like Tycho and Boards of Canada add downtempo guitar loops into their soundscape, but the synth and effects textures are always essential to create the atmosphere needed.

What Gear and Pedals Are Essential to Ambient Guitar?

Synthesizers

It is possible to create lush and incredible soundscapes with just your guitar, but a synthesizer or even a software synth will help craft a truly ambient sound. A nice synth pad or recorded nature loop can really add to the piece. Any kind of simple pad or backing music is helpful to build your guitar tone over. Especially when you are first starting out, it is fine to use preset synth pads for your soundscape practice. Most of the guitar pedals below are trying to emulate the synth sound.

Loopers

Loops are one of the most important aspects when creating an ambient guitar sound, as synth music is also very dependent on loops. A looper pedal will help you create minimalist riffs that can repeat while you add the next piece into the composition. The more complicated the looper, the more you can mix in this music atmosphere.

Some modern looper pedals have some great synth capabilities built in, like the ability to sample, create, and manipulate sounds. So you can record the riff and shape the signal in a myriad of ways, like adding drones or other harmonics.

Modulation

Vibrato is especially great for adding a shimmer to the notes and is an essential pedal. Other modulation pedals like chorus, flangers, and phasers may also have a place in our soundscape, but start simple and build. In some cases, we will be turning the knobs all the way up to create expansive and thick sounds.

Just be careful; if you have too many signals being changed and looped, it can go from a soothing ambient piece to noise music (if that is your plan, ok, go crazy with the pedals!).

Delays and Reverb

Time-based effects are very important in ambient guitar. A small change in time can create space and sustain with reverb pedals, and a longer period will create distance with delay and echo pedals. In most cases, we are going for a much longer trail and repeat than the average pop genre song. Large spaces and delays of five seconds or longer are common to get the right tone.

Distortion

The amount of overdrive or distortion you need could vary on your final sound. Soothing ambient needs little distortion, but lo-fi styles and some soundscapes can be further shaped by adding some clipping. Some of the ‘80s style Satriani dreamy guitar sounds use a fair amount of distortion.

Dynamics

Ambient music is all about sculpting sound, so anything that helps shape it, like compressors or equalizers, can be helpful. There are no specifications, only experimentation as you shape the tone. Now that pedals have so many functions, you can likely find these features in pedals built for ambient guitar playing.

Ambient guitar can be very expansive or downtempo and light, but either way, our goal is to build a musical texture that conveys the feeling of the music we are creating. That part all comes down to the notes you play into the pedals and gear.

The Musical Tone and Techniques Behind Ambient Guitar

We use the word tone instead of theory, as that is more important in ambient music. The intervals and notes we lightly use will matter, but the overall texture is more important than a chord progression or guitar scales. It is important to study your ascending and descending intervals as they each convey a feeling. When you first start playing ambient, stick to the perfect intervals and major or minor arpeggios.

If you are adding in synth pads for atmosphere, make sure they are played on the same note or in the same key. If we mix the wrong notes, the soothing or hypnotic vibe disappears, so keep it as minimal as possible with each new building block. Pluck different notes on your guitar and see if any fit the vibe. Once they do, record and loop, and repeat and keep building.

You will still also be using the same techniques like hammer-ons and pull-offs, but never done in a deliberate way. Any technique is possible to use in this genre, but it is never about speed or even perfection; the ambient guitarist can be a terrible player yet create incredible soundscapes with simple music theory and technique. The genre has such a variety that all levels of musicians, even beginner guitar players, are welcome to create atmosphere and ambiance!

The best way to get started is to plug your guitar into every pedal you have and start creating a texture instead of a song. If you have a recording device, you may even wish to add in daily sounds of life. Keep the guitar as minimalist as possible while you sculpt sounds of nature, hypnotic trances, and other worlds, all with the knobs on your pedals. Ambient guitar is one genre where you may spend more time with the synths and the effects units compared to the guitar!