Understanding Effects: Chorus

Chorus is aptly named so as it attempts to emulate the effect you would hear in a vocal choir, or any other setting where two instruments are playing a part in unison. The only caveat here is that the effect typically works in the pitch domain. Some definitions of chorus will include differences in the time domain (IE delay around 30ms) but chorus guitar pedals typically don’t work in that way.

To understand this effect, we need to understand beat frequencies. Beat frequencies occur as a third “note” when two pitches which are slightly out-of-tune are played against each other. For example, a note is played at 60hz and another note is played at 61hz. The resulting beat frequency will be at 1hz or one cycle per second. This is perceived as a wavy-ness in the sound. This creates the unique choral effect we associate with vocal choirs. For the purposes of guitar, we only experience one more “voice” as opposed to multiple doubling voices in a vocal choir (e.g. 4 tenor singers). The guitar’s signal is processed to modulate in pitch at a specified rate and amount and then mixed back in with the original signal.

Mix/Level

If you’ve read my other articles on effects, you might realize by now that a common theme is that less is more. It’s not a rule so much as a guideline to keep you out of trouble. You can get away with a little more when it comes to the chorus effect but it will start to give it a surreal and metallic quality if you mix in too much of the processed signal.

Depth

This parameter controls the amount that the original pitch is modulated in pitch. In other words, think about it like you’re controlling how out-of-tune two voices are to each other.

Rate/Speed

This controls the rate at which the pitch (set by the depth parameter) modulates at. In other words, you can think of it like being able to control the speed of a vibrato by a vocalist in a choir. Typically, depth and speed will have an inverse relationship: the more depth you use the less the speed will be needed to have an audible difference.

Get Creative

Some interesting things can happen when we use extreme settings with this effect. The most notable user of extreme chorus settings is John Scofield. He attempts to recreate the warbling sound of a rotary (Leslie) speaker that is typically used by electric organ players. This involves a high rate/speed setting and a mid to high level of depth. Another cool use is to set the mix so that it is 100% wet, so you only hear the affected signal and none of the original guitar sound. This reminds me of the sound of tape warping where the speed of the tape reel affects the pitch of the music. The possibilities are endless!

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How to Play Fast: Putting it All Together

I hope that my “How to Play Fast” series has been helpful to you.

Part 1 was about relaxation. Part 2 was efficiency. Part 3 was about playing accurately.

Now we will talk about the practical applications of the three principles.

The first application is to play as quietly as possible. Electric guitar players should turn up their amps to compensate. This accomplishes relaxation and efficiency because people will lighten up on their touch when trying to play quietly. Once you gain enough control over this new way of playing, you will find it easier to control the volume and tone you get from the strings. You will be able to make it “yell” or “whisper” for example.

The second application involves using a metronome. This will improve your accuracy. Start slowly, around 60bpm if you are playing eighth notes. After no less than three perfect repetitions of a piece of music, increase the tempo by 2bpm.  Within a half-hour, you will be reaching tempos you were unable to before. At a certain point you will no longer be able to keep up with the metronome. Take note of this tempo and aim to break the record next time, even by 1bpm. With daily practice, after a month you will be playing 30bpm faster! I also encourage the use of various metronome exercises that involve placing the clicks on different beats (2&4, only 4, etc.)

It can be hard to remind ourselves of all of the principles as a practice session progresses. A full length mirror is a useful tool to observe these principles being applied to ourselves. If you don’t look relaxed, you likely aren’t relaxed. Make sure no matter which angle you observe yourself, that you always look and feel no tension. Be patient with yourself as your body learns these new approaches and practice them until they become a habit.

That’s it! I hope you found this useful and good luck on your journey.

How to Play Fast, Part 3: Accuracy before Speed

Hi, and welcome to the third and final installment of a three-part series called “How to Play Guitar, Fast”.

In part one, we talked about relaxation.  In part two, we talked about efficient movement.

Part three is about playing accurately before trying to increase the speed of your playing.

Sometimes people tackle the speed issue by trying to muscle through it.  In other words, they keep slamming into the same mistakes over and over in the hopes that they’ll make a breakthrough one day. As a result of making the same mistake over and over, this eventually becomes “muscle-memory” and you’ll be stuck having to break these habits before you can progress. Why not avoid this situation and wasting time? Get it right, at the start.

Start slowly. Impatience is the biggest enemy here but it actually doesn’t add much to your practice time.  In some situations, you can see a dramatic increase in your ability to play fast even after 30 minutes of focused practice.  Make sure to articulate each note, avoiding fret-buzz and incomplete notes.  If you’re using alternate picking, then make sure your pick stroke directions are correct.

When people play fast but inaccurately, it is the musical equivalent of talking in a fast and slurred speech. It can be distracting and take someone out of the moment of an amazing musical experience. However, there are some musicians who are not technically accurate but still manage to convey strong emotion.  Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) comes to mind. While he may have figured out a way around his technical limitations, it’s important we don’t use it as an excuse to be lazy about our own playing. He is an exception to the rule.

Thanks for reading part 3! Next time, I will follow up with a few practical exercises that apply the three principles we’ve talked about.