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From the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Hiroya Tsukamoto
In teaching fingerstyle guitar workshops, I’ve noticed that many players own loopers, or looping pedals—electronic devices capable of recording and layering music to build instant soundscapes—but few have fully explored their exciting sonic possibilities.
When used properly, a looper can transform the sound of your acoustic guitar into something new and beautiful, while making your performances more dynamic. It is 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’ll share some pointers I’ve learned through using looping pedals as a guitarist-composer, both in terms of gear and concept, focusing on three key topics: timing, contrast, and arrangement.
How to Choose Your Looper and Setup
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, fancy ones that have many different functions, such as the HeadRush Looperboard and BOSS RC-300. If you would like to start exploring looping, I’d suggest trying something basic first, so that you can get the hang of working the pedal while playing guitar. Also, as an acoustic player, I recommend using a looper with quiet controls—you don’t want the audience to hear the clicking sound of a metal pushbutton switch, for example.
You can send your guitar sound through a pickup (piezo or magnetic soundhole) or microphone going into the input of the looper. In general, using a pickup will get you a clear sound that layers well. On the other hand, while a mic might provide a warmer acoustic sound, the extra information it captures can cause your layers to get muddy. When looping, I prefer a combination of a mic and magnetic pickup, which provides both warmth and clarity.
How to Work on Your Timing with a Looper
Timing is key when it comes to looping. You could have lots of cool licks and phrases 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, above which subsequent layers are carefully placed for a structure with integrity.
It’s best to think of a looping pedal as an instrument, one that takes some practice to control—you can’t simply switch it on and off like you would with a delay or chorus pedal. I’ve noticed that, when recording or layering a loop, many students tend to push the start button a bit too early, while some press it a little too late. A loop must start squarely on the beat, though, so I recommend you practice timing thoroughly. Record a simple loop and listen back carefully to make sure that it feels rhythmically correct.
Note that some looping pedals have quantization features, allowing you to adjust the timing of a layer in relation to the beat. While this is certainly a useful function, you ideally want to have a good solid rhythm inside of you, whether playing guitar or creating a loop.
How to Create Contrast with a Looper
By combining different sounds—such as long to short, low to high—your layers will be more discernable and interesting together. To illustrate this concept, Example 1 shows the intro to my original composition “Gemini Bridge,” comprising five layers, each with a different approach or texture.
When I composed this piece, I wrote this bass line first, because I wanted to start with a memorable part. Then I determined about how many layers I would add and what kind of content I would like to hear in each. Using techniques like palm muting in the outer parts and tremolo strumming in the third layer helped keep the layers distinct.
Another thing to consider: When using a looper, it is especially important not to overplay on the guitar. The more space you use in one layer, the less space you’ll have in other parts, and things can get murky quickly. In other words, using silence effectively is the key for good looping.
Looping is fun and it can be tempting just to keep layering sounds and jamming. That is totally fine, but if you want the best results, you need to think musically and compositionally, with an understanding of how your song wants to be heard.
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As with anything in music, it’s important not to overuse a looping pedal, as it can make your music too predictable. For this reason, I’d caution against using a looper in every section of a song—again, it’s all about contrast. If you’ve written a song that you would like to play using a looping pedal, I would recommend thinking of the bigger picture: Jot down the song’s structure and choose a section where the looper would be most appropriate.
For instance, in “Gemini Bridge,” I try to maintain a good balance between the sections with and without the looping pedal. While the intro and B sections are built from layered loops, the A section and interlude are played without the looper. You can attract listeners’ attention by switching between layers of sound and quiet solo acoustic parts.
I hope this lesson will inspire you to grab a looper and explore these concepts on your own.
Hiroya Tsukamoto is a fingerstyle guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kyoto, Japan.