Lessons From Looping

(Or establishing a reasonable measure for progress in auto-didactic settings)

Hi everyone,

I have some long posts in the pipeline but I though I’d try to get a quick one out that may be useful to some of you.  I’m going to start talking about observations for beginners, but intermediate and advanced students might gain something from this as well.

One challenge beginner students in any area face is that they don’t know what they don’t know.  By that I mean there are often many hidden elements to a good performance that are so far beyond the skill set of the amateur practitioner that it’s impossible for them to gauge whether what they’re playing is right or not.

Case in point – When I first started playing I think it took about 2-3 years to get my bends in tune.  It wasn’t a purely mechanical issue with my hands, the problem was that I hadn’t developed my ears enough to hear issues with intonation to be able to execute it properly.  Since I thought I had the concept down, I didn’t work on it I just bent notes to some variation of the actual pitch.  Instead of a quick realization of, “Oh I need to work on this (and here’s what I can do to fix it).”, it just became a gradual process of my ear getting better and starting to hear that the bends didn’t sound like other people’s bends.

(** Important qualifier – many professional guitarists still work on their bends even after they “have it down” as it’s such a critical element of the expressive nature of guitar.)

“Hey Teacher Teacher”*

This is one of the reasons that it’s highly advisable that beginning students find a good teacher as a good teacher can not only help a student recognize what skills they need to develop, but how to do them in a efficient way.

Good teachers save you a lot of time.

Bad teachers will cost you untold hours, months, days, years of setbacks.

What if you don’t have a good teacher?

It is easy to come to the conclusion that just as “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client” – the person who teaches him or herself is getting a poor education but it doesn’t have to be that way.

One thing you CAN do is record yourself as much as possible and try to get (and give effective feedback) on what you’re playing.  People often think this means getting elaborate equipment and trying to make professional quality full tunes.  You don’t have to do that (although if you try to do that consistently for several years – you’ll probably find the quality of your playing and recording / mixing skills getting MUCH better).  You can do this by simply getting in the habit of looping sections of what you do and playing over the top of it.  It does several things:

  • It works on your timing.  Oh boy does it ever!  You’ll start to hear when things are out of time with each other.  Working consistently with a looper will eventually do wonders for getting you to set loop points accurately and be able to play a loop in time.  (As you get better with looping, you’ll probably want to make the loops longer to be able to do more over them and this will increase your ability to play in time over longer 8, 16, 32 or 64 bar forms).
  • It develops your ear.  Vinny Golia once said to me that the difference between improvisation and composition is time.  In improvisation you only have 5 minutes to make 5 minutes of music where in composition you have much longer – but they’re often both rooted in the same process.  A process of exploration.  Of setting limitations and working within and around those limitation to create something.  Looping something and creating parts to go over the top of it develops multiple aspects of your musical personality.  It develops how you hear musical components interacting.  It helps you build words, phrases and sentences to add to your musical vocabulary.  It is play and work at the same time if you’re doing it right and can lead you to new and exciting things.

Other lessons from looping

I typically like stand alone loopers for live use (although if I’m doing soundscapes I typically use SooperLooper as the multi track loop changing capacity makes it easier or me to create something unique) and recently I picked up a Electro-Harmonix 720 for live use with my solo acoustic shows.  There were two main decisions for this.

  •  I wanted something that was small and battery operated so I could fit everything I needed in a gig bag.
  •  I wanted something where I could utilize reverse and 1/2 speed functions.

Every looper has it’s own quirks, and this one is no different.  I found that the first note in the loop would sometimes glitch a bit with the acoustic electric.  I noticed it a lot with the ZT and tried putting it in the effects loop – which was better but didn’t play nice with my LR Baggs.  Moving to the Yamaha THR5a largely fixed it (as I suspect putting at after something like an AG-Stomp would as well.)

While working out some sketches for ideas for some solo shows I have coming up, I decided to put the looper through the paces and loop some backing KoriSoron parts through it to work on some soloing approaches for some of the KoriSoron tunes we’d be playing in the weeks ahead (and for the 2nd EP we’re recording this Spring).  While doing this I realized that some of the solo lines I had weren’t getting articulated the way I wanted them to.  So I isolated the problem areas and went back.

This is a big time saver for me, as I can practice ad infinitum in a room and develop ideas but not all of them are going to work in a live context.

For several years now, I’ve gotten away from the idea of turning up when playing.  The reason for this is that it starts a volume war where everyone is a looser.  So, for example in KoriSoron if Farzad is playing much louder than me – I have two options:

Option #1:  Turn up my volume. This will cause Farzad to turn up his volume and then I will need to turn up again.  Eventually this gets to the point where it’s too loud and then it starts all over again.

Option #2:  Turn my volume down. I’ll play softer so that he has to play softer to hear me.  This means that the set volume ebbs and flows but stays consistent.

Playing my soloing ideas against a loop gives me a benchmark to help me determine what will work in a live context.

If you don’t have a teacher handy, you’re going to have to come up with your own curriculum to move forward.  Don’t make it boring!

I’d recommend creating your own loops, but also experiment with looping unfamiliar things and trying to work your way over them.  In home use, I’ll loop things like West African drum circles and see what I can make that works with (and against it), the same thing with vocal lines, chord changes etc.

There are plenty of free loopers for your laptop / iphone / android online – and you can probably pick up a used looper in your local area for very little money.

More than anything!  Get cracking!  There are always lessons to learn if you’re engaged in doing something.  (And it’s hard to do that on guitar if you’re reading this!)

As always, I hope this helps and thanks for reading.


*(give yourself bonus points if you recognize the Class of 1984 reference)

Extra credit – check out some of the work of artists like Andre LaFosse or David Torn who do REALLY creative things with loopers far beyond the sound on sound basic techniques I’ve outlined above.

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