How to Use a Looper to Create Acoustic Guitar Soundscapes
Extract from the November / December 2021 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Hiroya Tsukamoto
While teaching fingerstyle guitar workshops, I have noticed that many players own loopers or looping pedals, electronic devices capable of recording and layering music to create instant soundscapes, but few have fully explored their exciting sonic possibilities.
When used correctly, a looper can transform the sound of your acoustic guitar into something new and beautiful, while also making your performance more dynamic. It’s also a great tool for learning and understanding the structure of music and orchestration, as you can hear different layers at the same time.
In this lesson, I’m going to share some tips I’ve learned using loop pedals as a guitarist-songwriter, both in terms of gear and concept, focusing on three key topics: timing, contrast and arrangement.
How? ‘Or’ What Choose your Looper and your configuration
There is a wide variety of loopers on the market, from relatively simple pedals such as the BOSS RC-1 Loop Station and TC Electronic Ditto X4 Looper to larger and more sophisticated pedals which have many different functions, such as the HeadRush Looperboard and the BOSS RC-300. If you want to start exploring looping, I suggest you try something basic first, so that you can familiarize yourself with how the pedal works while playing the guitar. Also, as an acoustic player, I recommend using a looper with quiet controls – you don’t want the audience to hear the click of a metal push button switch, for example.
You can send the sound of your guitar through a microphone (piezo or magnetic soundhole) or a microphone entering the input of the looper. In general, using a mic will give you clear sound that layers well. On the flip side, while a mic can deliver warmer acoustic sound, the extra information it captures can make your layers muddy. When looping, I prefer a combination of a mic and a magnetic mic, which provides both warmth and clarity.
How? ‘Or’ What Work on your timing with a looper
Timing is the key when it comes to buckling. You might have a lot of cool phrases and sentences that will work well together, but if you place them incorrectly you’ll just have a big mess. Think of the first layer as the foundation of a building, on top of which subsequent layers are carefully placed for an integral structure.
It’s best to think of a loop pedal as an instrument, which takes a bit of practice to control – you can’t just turn it on and off like you would with a delay or chorus pedal. I have noticed that when recording or layering a loop, many students tend to press the start button a little too early, while some press it a little too late. A loop should start right off the beat, which is why I recommend that you practice timing well. Record a single loop and listen carefully to make sure it is rhythmically correct.
Note that some loop pedals have quantize functions, allowing you to adjust the timing of a layer relative to the beat. While this is certainly a useful function, ideally you want to have a good, solid rhythm inside of you, whether it’s playing the guitar or creating a loop.
How? ‘Or’ What Create a contrast with a looper
By combining different sounds, such as long to short, bass to treble, your layers will be more discernible and more interesting together. To illustrate this concept, Example 1 shows the introduction to my original composition “Gemini Bridge”, comprising five layers, each with a different approach or texture.
When I composed this piece, I first wrote this bass line, because I wanted to start with a memorable part. Next, I figured out how many layers I would add and what kind of content I would like to hear in each. Using techniques such as palm muting in the outer parts and strumming tremolo in the third layer kept the layers distinct.
Another thing to consider: when using a looper, it is especially important not to over-play the guitar. The more space you use in one layer, the less space you will have in other parts, and things can quickly get cloudy. In other words, making effective use of silence is the key to good looping.
Looping is fun and it can be tempting to continue to layer sounds and jam. This is great, but if you want the best results you have to think musically and compositionally, with an understanding of how your song wants to be heard.
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As with everything in music, it’s important not to overdo a loop pedal, as this can make your music too predictable. For this reason, I don’t recommend using a looper in every section of a song – again, it’s all about contrast. If you’ve written a song that you’d like to play using a loop pedal, I recommend that you think about the big picture: take note of the song structure and choose a section where the looper would be most appropriate. .
For example, in “Gemini Bridge” I try to maintain a good balance between the sections with and without the loop pedal. While the intro and B sections are built from layered loops, the A section and interlude are played without the looper. You can grab the attention of listeners by switching between sound layers and quiet solo acoustic parts.
I hope this lesson inspires you to pick up a looper and explore these concepts on your own.
Hiroya Tsukamoto is a fingerstyle guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kyoto, Japan.