The term “Music Technology” is deceptive.
In this early quarter of the 21st century we naturally assume the ‘technology’ element to involve computers or other digital equipment and accessories. But the strings on your guitar are an example of music technology – their whole existence was the result of extensive development and experimentation with materials and production techniques - a whole load of trial-and-error that spanned centuries. It’s the same story with the gears in your tuning pegs, the spacing of the frets, even the type of wood your instrument is made of. Music technology is very simply the study or use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make, perform, compose, notate, analyse, edit, record or play back music.
Now in recent years, perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest technological developments have been through the use of analogue or digital electronics. No guitarist could deny the usefulness of affordable clip-on tuners or effects pedals, and the featherweight portability of class-D amplifiers is a massive step forward compared with the kind of monster systems we had to haul around only a few short years ago.
But what about instruments? Well the electric piano, Hammond organ and synthesiser are all fairly recent inventions that gave musicians a wealth of new sounds. But then again, these new sounds all had to be controlled through the traditional means of a piano-style keyboard, making the step forward different only in the end rather than the means. Have there actually been any new performance disciplines created through music technology over the past 100 years?
Here’s four to think about;
- The Theramin. An audio synthesiser, first patented in 1928, which the performer controls (sort of) by moving their arms around near 2 aerials. Marvellously mad, and sounded superb on the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’.
- The Bass Guitar. Yes, really. Required a totally different technique to the double bass it was designed to replace in popular music, and that gave rise to all kinds of new possibilities and techniques, resulting in new sounds and styles of music. Here’s a crazy thought; the Fender bass only arrived in 1951 - that means there are people playing the bass guitar TODAY who are actually older than the bass guitar!
- Digital sampling. Devices allowing musicians to activate pre-recorded sections of sound on demand via trigger mechanisms during shows (giving the performer almost unlimited sonic possibilities at their fingertips) and which can therefore reasonably be described as an ‘instrument’. This technology developed throughout the 1980s, alongside the hip-hop and electronic music genres that it so powerfully enabled.
And it’s digital sampling that leads us to one of the latest and most truly remarkable innovations in music and performance technology. It’s the one that allows a musician to sample themselves live – instantly, fluidly and conveniently – and use that sample in a repeating cycle that can easily be manipulated and built upon in real time…
4. The Loop Pedal. It’s kind of an effects pedal, and instrument, and a whole new performance discipline, all in one…
Is Looping really THAT new?
That depends on your point of view.
Using loops, or continuously repeating sections of material, certainly isn’t a recent musical device. The German composer Johann Pachelbel wrote his infamous Canon somewhere around the turn of the 18th century, a timeless composition that classical musicians have been looping their way through ever since. Most modern pop music is structured around fairly short thematic loops, and the majority of hip-hop uses even shorter musical phrases over and over again. And perhaps guitarists deserve some of the blame for this – we do love our “12-bar blues” tunes after-all, and the 12-bar is simply a standardised musical pattern played over and over again.
However, when you look at looping from a music technology perspective, having a simple and reliable tool to capture a performed musical phrase on demand and immediately play it back on repeat is definitely a modern development. A few devices carried this basic functionality during the ‘90s, usually as a background gimmick, but it was the BOSS RC-20 Loop Station of 2001 that acted as the real game changer. This pedal allowed sampling of five minutes, overdubs, tempo changes, and the ability to plug in guitars, microphones and AUX devices simultaneously – perfect for the singer-songwriters or beatboxers who wanted to layer on sound after sound to the mix.
So is the loop pedal an effect or an instrument?
It’s both, and a whole lot more besides.
Having a looping device packaged up in a guitar floor pedal suggests that it’s being marketed as an effect. And delay pedals have featured various forms of basic looping for years (the early tape-based delay systems recorded audio directly to magnetic media that was literally looped continuously!)
But think about having the ability to play a chord, then layer another chord over it, and then layer yet further individual notes over all that. Haven’t piano and keyboard players been able to do this for centuries with the sustain pedal? From this perspective the looper could be seen as, if not an instrument in itself, then a natural extension of an existing instrument at the very least.
The most realistic way to view the loop pedal is as an entirely new performance discipline – taking what you can already do with an existing instrument and expanding the live musical potential. This invariably leads to whole new musical ideas and directions, which essentially turns it into a completely new music composition discipline at the same time.
So it’s great for guitar?
Fast forward eighteen years from the earliest dedicated devices, and we find digital loop devices designed for just about every kind of situation. Table-top systems are there for the singers and beat-boxers, software versions can be linked into control surfaces for computer music producers, and there’s even apps for your Android or iOS device that can do the job for musicians on the move.
But loop pedals are particularly suited to guitar, for a number of good reasons…
- Consider the range of your instrument, both physically (low to high notes) and in terms of sheer versatility. The guitar is great at creating harmony (i.e. chords) AND melody (i.e. solos) AND rhythm (i.e. strumming). Having the ability to easily layer all those components together one at a time opens so many new possibilities, and tends to lead to all sorts of brilliant musical experimentation.
- You play your guitar with only your hands (unless you’re imitating Jimi Hendrix and using your teeth). This means your feet are completely free to operate a pedal-based looping system. Try doing that from behind a piano, drum kit or harp…
- Guitarists naturally learn to play rhythmically through the art of “strumming” – acting as your own timekeeper is probably one of the first things you mastered, and that’s a major component part of successful looping.
- A huge number of guitarists like to sing as they strum. And remember that you can plug a mic into a loop pedal along with your 6-string. KT Tunstall and Ed Sheeran are just two high-profile artists who have thrown their vocal stylings into looped compositions along with the guitar parts.
Wrapping it up
And there you have it – music technology, philosophy and history all wrapped up in one article!
This is kinda fitting for a piece discussing the loop pedal, a device that crosses so many boundaries and has so many facets. If you get the chance to have a play on one then we highly recommend it. And ‘play’ is definitely a fitting term, since we one thing we guarantee about looping guitar is that it’s seriously good fun!
Keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of guitar wisdom – until then…