The Art & Craft of Guitar Looping

During my brief teenage career in busking, I remember contending for a street corner with one guy who had it all, literally: Dan the One Man Band. With his full body armor of a backpack kick drum and hi-hat, neck mounted harmonica, acoustic guitar, and shakers attached to his feet, Dan was a solo act who built complex and layered songs as passers-by willingly filled his case with coins and bills. Then I’d take over, ramble through a dozen bad renditions of Bob Marley songs, hopefully collecting enough change for bus fair home.

In a way, this live performance achieved by a host of MacGyver’d physical instruments is similar to live looping. The difference, of course, lies in technology. Looping uses a blend of gear and guitar to weave together consecutive sounds, lines, and melodies resulting in songs that are more than the sum of their parts.

The history of live looping gear is understandably bound to that of echo and delay effects. However, it was not until the late-1990s and early-2000s that manufacturers began marketing pedals that provided guitarists with this on-the-fly creative tool. These days, looper pedals range from simple to sophisticated with multiple options from the likes of Electro-Harmonix, TC Electronic, and Boss. The world of looping extends further still with software options through programs like Ableton Live.

Given the recent origins of this type of gear, its history is very much ongoing. If you’re looking to get into looping, here is a top-five artists and key tracks you don’t want to miss.

5. Now touring with her second solo album Turn out the Lights, Memphis singer, songwriter, and producer Julien Baker’s first break was her song “Sprained Ankle,” the title track of her debut album. Built on the back of a Boss RC-30 looper, the song layers harmonic riffs and clean melodies strummed on a Fender Telecaster with washes of reverb and delay. These days, Baker’s ambient sounds are crafted with the Strymon Blue Sky and Walrus Bellwether.

4. If looping multiple instruments is your sort of thing, Elise Trouw’s series of covers that mash-up classic and contemporary songs is definitely worth the bandwidth. Her take on “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters blended with “What You Won’t Do For Love” by Bobby Caldwell brings the best of both together and showcases her musical and instrumental brilliance. Trouw’s success in looping as a YouTube creator recently won an invitation to perform the song on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

3. When I think of drummer plus guitarist bands my mind instantly goes to White Stripes or The Black Keys. Yet when it comes to duos doing looping right, the Dutch tag team of Evert Zeevalkink and Willem van der Krabben are where to start. Each established in their own right, their collaborative act “The North” resulted in some incredible Ableton Live sessions using drums, synths, guitars, and an immaculate pedalboard. Have a listen to the track “Close” and watch the this tag-team make the most of tech.

2. Their ability to build complex soundscapes of washed out sounds, expansive echoes, and endless reverb tails has made loopers indispensable for ambient guitarists. With an extensive collection of releases under the project name Lower Case Noises, Andy Othling has become one of my favorite artists and is simply a master looper. With rigs including both Boomerang pedal loopers and Ableton Live, Othing’s tracks are deep and expressive, delicate and evocative, and have a way of filling even the smallest of earbud headphones with cavernous soundscapes. Don’t believe me, just ask the nearly 1.5 million viewers of his “Ambient Song #22.”

1.  Any rundown of top looping performances must highlight KT Tunstall’s 2004 smash-hit “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” Known for using both an AKAI Headrush E2 Looper and Boss RC-30 Loopstation, Tunstall built this unforgettable tune with loops of percussive thumps on her acoustic guitar, rhythmic strumming, a tambourine, and of course, her own backing vocals. Why does KT come in at the number one spot? Simply put, her looping creativity is reminder that when it comes to gear, brilliance can be basic.

Whether you’re laying down a set of your own loops this weekend or just taking in some inspiration from this top-five, have a great #RiffCitySunday.

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