I love making ambient noises and swells in a worship set where it’s needed. Where it’s needed is probably the key phrase in that last sentence. I think it’s important to know when to stop playing. Dynamics are big and you don’t always have to play! Sometimes it should just be acoustic or keys. Or acoustic and keys. Or just drums. Or drums and bass and so on. However, sometimes it adds a little something to play some ambient stuff. Or maybe you don’t have a keys player and need to pad a little.
I made this video a few years ago about a neat and easy way for a guitar player to run some good sounding pads while playing, but I’m going to talk about swells and ambient stuff on the guitar more now. You could go buy all the same gear I have or run the pedals the same way, but that’s not being true to yourself and it’s not the only way (and definitely not the best way) to do it. So this post is not going to be about settings and certain pedals, but how to get swells and ambient stuff in general.
When doing swells, the biggest parts are being able to swell the volume smoothly and having the note or notes carry over while you swell in the next note. Volume pedals are obviously the easiest way to swell, but you can definitely use a volume knob with a lot of practice. Be sensitive to the volume so that you don’t overpower who is speaking or praying over it. I typically turn off drives, but will sometimes have a little boost on if needed.
From an effects standpoint, it’s important that you get a long tail on that note or notes that you play. Most of the time, you may want a few delays on for this. I find that an analog delay with a long repeat and some modulation gets a great swell sound. I use my Memory Man for this, but I really like the Echo Park sounds as well. I also have a great analog setting on the DD-20 that has a long repeat I’ll use with the Memory Man. If you put the feedback or repeat up right before it gets crazy and doesn’t stop repeating, that typically sounds pretty good. There’s also this cool reverse setting on the DD-5 you can use where you put the effect in just a little, repeats pretty long and the time can fluctuate.
I typically will also have some reverb on there. I stick to the modulation setting on the RV-5. You don’t want it repeating forever so that all your notes get muddy, but you want it to transition smoothly between the notes, without any dead space. I also occasionally like to add some octaves (not too crazy but helps with a fuller and sometimes organ sound), or a slow tremolo with not too much depth. If you use a wah pedal, you can also sweep the frequency and it sounds pretty cool, but that’s obviously very hard to do while use the volume pedal too. Which brings me to my next point…
I really hope someday, some company makes a swell pedal. All it needs to do is swell…and be small…and cheap. The Line 6 DL4 has an awesome auto-volume delay patch that makes an amazing pad sound when you dial it in right and combine it with some other effects. What this does is eliminate the need for swelling the volume pedal or knob and it swells automatically. The thing you have to watch out for with this is how it can be sort of choppy and the transitions between chords and notes aren’t smooth. When I had my POG2, I had a preset that did a swell setting really well too, but it didn’t have any tail at all. I honestly liked the POG2 more for ambient stuff and swells than for octaves. There was another setting on that pedal that would keep my dry signal coming through but add a shimmery octave and verbed out sound behind it. All this to say, if you have something swelling for you, it makes it easier to use the wah pedal like I mentioned earlier…and it’s not as much for you to have to do. I’m sure there are lots of great patches in many other units as well. Feel free to share those in a comment on this post.
But you don’t have to have these pedals to play ambient stuff. One trick for doing some ambient stuff is to turn on a few delays and/or a reverb and turn the tone knob back all the way until it’s really dark sounding. You can pick through some partial chords and let the feedback carry it to make some ambient stuff. The DD-5 reverse setting does well with this for me. Try switching the pickups some too…that always seems to give a different, but nice sound.
I’m not pro at this and my ways and tips aren’t the best or the only way to do it, but I hope this helps spring you to discover some new things and share them back here.