As a guitarist, I love pedals. But there is one pedal which is missing, one pedal which has yet to be invented, the sustain pedal. I’m not talking the Boss Compression/Sustainer pedal, I want a proper sustain pedal. Just like a Piano’s sustain pedal. I’m sure somebody will correct me and say the piano’s pedal is not a sustain, but rather a ‘do not dampen the notes’ pedal. Either way, that’s what I want.
Every acoustic guitarist knows that empty sound which occurs between chords changes. It is especially prominent when changing between barre chords and open chords. It’s there because there are no notes pressed down. Pianos don’t have that problem, their notes keep sounding, and it’s all because of that magic sustain pedal. A pianist can press a single note and it continues even after they take their finger off. Not fair!!! Why do they get the best pedals?!
The sound of silence
Once you notice that brief moment of empty sound in your own playing, it’s all you can hear. Even though it’s silent, it’s like a loud bell ringing out to declare ‘this guy can’t change chords fast enough’. Practice changing chords faster, sure, but even the fastest players can’t get away from that silence.
Playing live, it’s even worse, I’m convinced the whole crowd is thinking ‘this guy can’t change chords fast enough’. That’s one loud ringing bell for each person in the crowd.
There are two options here
- Option A – decide that silence is not so bad after all. Living with the ‘this guy can’t change chords fast enough’ bell isn’t so bad, is it? It’s probably all in your head anyway.
- Option B – do something about it. Cover it up or fill the silence, and at the same time silencing the bell.
If you decide to go with option A. Great, stop reading right now, go back to whatever you were doing. But, in the back of your mind, you’ll know you chickened out.
But, if you’re with me, then option B is the only real option. So let’s explore some solutions.
How to cover up or fill the silence
How can we cover up the silence? Here are some ideas.
The open notes strum
The open notes strum is purposefully playing the open strings between chord changes. In the right context it can sound effective. But in the wrong context, it sounds sloppy and introduces notes which are out of key. You only want to hit the strings which are part of the key. For example, keys with a G chord, hitting strings 2, 3 and 4 is OK, or maybe an with an E chord, hitting strings 1 and 2, is OK.
Unfortunately, if this is the only trick up your sleeve it will become annoying for listeners. Soon they won’t be thinking ‘this guy can’t change chord fast enough’, they’ll be thinking ‘this guy can’t play guitar at all!’.
The muted string hit
Hitting then strings whilst dampened can provide a nice percussive effect. Many guitarists make use of this to great effect. Yet, just like open note strums, it has to be in the right context, and if overused will sound terrible.
When playing solo fingerstyle, the sound of slience rings even even louder. The guitar is the only sound. But one solution is to use a bit of reverb to give the notes a little tail. It is something just to fill the emptiness, not overpowering, but subtle. If it starts to sound like reverb, then it’s too much, it’s just there to create a bit of presence.
Actually, any pedal which fills the silence could work. A bit of delay will provide similar benefits, though a little harder to control than reverb.
Change your chord voicings
There are many ways to voice most chords, so pick the voicing which best meets your next change. Most chord progressions have consistent notes which run through them. Taking the 1 6 4 5 progression in A major, the chord tones would be as follows:
 A major = A, C#, E
 F# minor = F#, A, C#
 D major = D, F#, A
 E major = E, G#, B
The 1 and 6 contain two of the same notes (A and C#). 6 to 4 contain two of the same notes (F# and A). Try to find voicings where those notes can keep ringing as you change chords. This means don’t dampen open notes, but do hold fretted notes. Yep, chord fingering might become a bit tricky, but take each change on a case by case basis. If it’s too much of a stretch then don’t do it.
There are no common notes between the 4 and 5, or the 5 and 1, but a slide or pull-off into one of the chord tones serves a similar purpose.
Play a partial chord
Just because there are 6 strings, doesn’t mean you have to play all 6 strings at the same time. It is perfectly acceptable to only form part of a chord, provided it still keeps the same harmonic flow within the music. Focus on recreating the same feel but without all the notes.
Having created the partial chord for the 1st beat, it is then possible to form the full chord before the next strum. Is anybody really going to know?
Use a capo
Capos are the go-to solution for many scenarios. If a song is in a tricky key which requires Barre Chords, a capo is ideal tool to change the song to open chords. I remember playing a song in Db Major. It lacked all flow and feeling compared to the original. I put on a capo at the first fret and it suddenly came alive.
As you’ve seen, there are many ways to make this aspect of your guitar playing sound better. But, if after all this, if there is still too much silence, then maybe play the song differently to the original. Funky it up, slow it down, make it jazzy, play it in power chords. People will say ‘you made that song your own’, just don’t tell them the real reason, they don’t need to know about the bell.