A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Ambient Guitar Galaxy

No longer a style from the fringes, ambient music has become mainstream in both musical creation and gear innovation. Reverbs, delays, and other washy effects are now available in endless variations and as many options as overdrive. Yet if you’re used to writing, playing, or performing more traditional sounds built around gain, getting into the ambient game can be tricky.

So, where do you start? With experimentation.

That’s just what Dan & Mick did this week on TPS. With a board built for outer space, they set off on a journey for getting lost in ambient music. In the process, they learned some lessons and both agreed they’d need to revisit the topic again soon for further study.

If you’re a newbie to ambient sounds or are simply looking for ways of designing different sounds with your gear, these three tips will help you add something entirely different to your traditional technique and tone.

Build Better Swells: Volume, Delay, and Octave Pedals

One of Dan’s top picks for the echo on the ambient board was the Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Man TT-1100. This pedal is not only an iconic analog delay, but has the added benefit of an effects loop that allows you to build modulation into only the repeats.

This back door to the delay is an ideal place to run an octave pedal. When set with a dash of both upper and lower octaves, the echoes spread out in multiple directions. With longer delays times, the shimmery repeats are nearly endless and it’s possible to get that oh so good oscillation with ease.

Toss a volume pedal up front for swells and your sound goes from spacey delay to an almost faux orchestral sound that might have your audience wondering where the cello player is tucked away on stage.

Create Loops for Compound Sounds

As Mick noted, one of the essential effect ingredients for many ambient players isn’t an effect at all. Rather, a looper pedal at the end of the chain to capture tsunami of sounds will take your playing to a new level.

This, however, also requires a paradigm shift. You’re not capturing a chord progression to jam along with yourself. You probably aren’t even concerned with a time signature or tempo. What you’re trying to do is grab either punchy, staggering, and glitchy effects or using the looper as a growing foundation for ambient reverbs, swells, and delay work. Either way, the goal is to layer sounds so by loops end you’ve established an edifice of sound.

This is a brilliant way to get lost in your playing: you end up with a masterpiece that’s more than the sum of its parts yet often have no idea how you got there!

Stack Reverbs and Delays for Foundational Washes

No matter where your ambient playing session takes you, typically you’ll start off by laying down a pad. That’s right, these aren’t only for interludes set up by the keyboard player. With the right pedal combo, they’re now in your repertoire.

The trick to establishing a reliable and inspiring pad is stacking effects, particularly your reverbs and delays. Ideally, your delay pedal allows for control over decay mix. Dime out the decay, set your mix to max, and suddenly you’ll hear nothing of the chord or note attack. What you are left with is a visceral verb.

If you’re reverb pedal doesn’t have to those capabilities, take the effect as far as you can and then crank the reverb on your amp. Since most amps already have this effect onboard, this hack is the easiest and most economical way to establish an ambient sound. And, of course, when in doubt include an echo in the mix as this will help extend the decay of your reverb in multiple directions.

Ambient guitar is all about imagination and collaboration with your gear. If you’re stuck in the same four-chord progressions or pentatonic shapes and are looking for ways of experiencing your pedals in brand new ways, these tips will launch you on your ambient intergalactic journey!

TPS Episode Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster, Fender American Original ’60s Jaguar.

Pedals: Boss DM-2w Waza Delay, Electro Harmonix Memory Man TT-1100, Boss RV-6 Reverb, Red Panda Tensor, Chase Bliss Audio, Empress Zoia, Keeley D&M Drive.

Amps: Marshall 1987x with 1960AX cab / Celestion G12M Greenback speakers, Matchless HC-30 with Hughes & Kettner Vintage 212 / Celestion G12M Greenback.

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