help me become a better shoegaze guitar player.
July 28, 2009 10:07 AM   Subscribe

i'd like to learn more about chords/tunings/techniques conducive to a really ethereal shoegaze/dreampop guitar sound.

i tend to use the reason software and a couple of synths that i have as my primary songwriting tools, but as i've been half-assing my guitar playing for a number of years, i've recently decided that it is the most enjoyable means of writing songs for me. the problem is, i'm terrible at the actual songwriting part of playing guitar. ideally i'd like to be able to come up with chord progressions with my guitar, and accentuate those progressions with synths and drum machines and whatnot.

i know all about the benefit of pedals for this sort of sound and that reverb and delay are staples, but i'd like to know more about particular chords/theory/techniques that will make me a better guitar player with this sort of music. the main thing is that i love melody and i very seldom use dissonance in my music. i don't know many chords as it is, and while i'm usually able to come up with some okay chords on my own and even decent progressions on occasion, i still feel very limited. for some reason i find that i almost never play chords past the 7th fret or so for example, and it seems like the chord shapes i do play or come up with are always rooted on the E, A, and D strings. i feel like i just recycle the same 10 chords again and again in different orders and as such everything i try to write on guitar sounds somewhat similar.

so i guess i'm just looking for advice from musicians of this style and bits of information of any variety that will help me expand my playing abilities specifically within the niche of really beautiful shoegaze sounds. do you have any favorite chords in particular? are there certain chord shapes that tend to result in a more melodic sounding chord? particular tunings?

posted by austere to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Learn your suspended 4ths!

You know that bar chord that's like an Am, slid up to fret whatever? Play that, but keep your middle finger (the one that makes it "minor") off of it. That's a suspended 4th.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:38 AM on July 28, 2009

First, I can't say I'm that familiar with shoegaze, but I've played guitar nearly every day for over 15 years, and taught myself. So, hopefully this helps:

Pick a song you like, look up the tab, figure out how the band plays it, and play it yourself. At the very least, that will expose you to new chords / progressions / scales / tunings in the style you want to learn.

From what little shoegaze I've heard, it sounds like simple guitar parts that are highly affected. In other words, to me one would just need general guitar knowledge and a bunch of effects. You could just pick up a book of chords, scales and arpeggios and go from there.

For something similar to what I'm blabbering about, take a look at the trailer for It Might Get Loud for a snippit where the Edge is talking about the effects he uses (around 1:15).
posted by mdebruic at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2009

I sometimes refer to this book when I'm in a rut. Not specific to any kind of music, but it's a pretty no-nonsense approach to putting together interesting chords and voicings.
posted by substars at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never listened to enough shoegaze/dreampop stuff to tell you tunings off the top of my head. If you tell us a few of your favorite records, though, I can listen and tell you what they're doing (or my best approximation of it).

A couple tunings that have been really productive for me are DADECD and DADGAE.

I wouldn't be surprised if lots of it consists of unusual voicings in standard or dropped D (DADGBE) tuning, however. Chord voicings that take advantage of the open strings--like Es and As where your left hand is fretting notes between the 5th and 7th frets.
posted by umbĂș at 11:04 AM on July 28, 2009

I'm not a shoegaze expert, but to add to the suggestion of suspended 4th chords: try "2" chords -- e.g. C2 or D2. Instead of a standard C major (which I'm sure you already know), fret the 3rd fret on the B string (from low to high: X 3 2 0 3 0). Instead of a standard D major, leave the high E string open (from low to high: X X 0 2 3 0). These chords are nice because (like sus 4ths) they're neither major nor minor. You can get a dreamy quality by dwelling on these chords and adding guitar pedal.

Also, the question suggests you're trying to find the key to an entire genre. It usually works better to zero in on specific bands or songs and draw inspiration from them. What do you like -- My Bloody Valentine? Then start figuring out their songs or find the tab. Rip off a few ideas here or there, but not blatantly enough to be plagiarism. Keep doing this until you no longer feel like you're mirroring someone else. Be proactive, idiosyncratic, and decisive in finding specific starting points; no one can hand you the magic recipe that'll make things easily fall into place.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:18 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just listened to Allison and Catch the Breeze by slowdive, and sys rq and Jaltcoh are totally right about both the suspended 4ths and the suspended 2 chords.

It seems like their formula, at least on these two songs, is to add tension, but not too much dissonance, to major chords by lingering on a bass note (or lowest note on the guitar) that is in the scale, but outside the three main notes that make up the triad.

In Catch the Breeze, the chords I heard at the beginning were A/C# followed by A/B and then A (with a D# note appearing in the vocal melody). Then, in the second section, they alternate between D and D/C. So, at any given moment, there isn't much dissonance, but between the first and section parts, both C# and D#, and C and D are played. It seems like that combination of consonance and modulation contributes to the dreamy/woozy/floating feel. Well, that, and all of the delay and reverb and other guitar effects.
posted by umbĂș at 11:27 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, definitely lots of suspended 2nds. Also suspended 4ths, 6ths, major 7ths, major 9ths. I find voicings that include major 2nd intervals to be very shoegazey--for example, xx0202 is a nice shape for a 6th chord. Or for a dominant 7th chord, something like xx1202.

I also like chords on the lower strings with smaller intervals than you'd usually find down there, and especially with inversions. For example: 100xxx or 220xxx for a minor triad, 200xxx or 110xxx for a major triad, etc. Suspended chords sound good down there, too.

Try to have some drone-type stuff going on: keep notes alive as long as possible by adding extra color to your chords. So where you might have had C, Am, F as x32010, x02210, 133211, instead you could do Cadd9, Am7sus4, Fmaj13 as x32030, x02030, 133030--note that the top three strings don't change at all, and even the D string barely moves.

The drone trick is also useful for keeping things anchored when you bring in chords from outside your main key signature--for example, in REM's "It's The End Of The World..." (not that that has anything to do with shoegaze, it's just the first one I thought of): the verse just alternates between G and Cmaj7 most of the time, but then they bring in Bb6 and A7. All of those chords have the note G in them.
posted by equalpants at 11:29 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

um, I mean A7sus4, of course, not Am7sus4, which is not usually said to exist
posted by equalpants at 11:39 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You should get above the 7th fret. Open chord shapes played from the 9th fret up give lots of nice, droning sounds. Try G and C open shapes up there, sliding them around while the open strings buzz. (ie 0-11-10-0-9-0) Also, play single, sliding leads on the G string up above the 12 fret, hitting the D string open.

Also, try putting delay earlier in the chain of effects than distortion. That gets a blurry, indefinite sound that makes those you want to stare at those leather uppers.
posted by bendybendy at 12:00 PM on July 28, 2009

Learn your suspended 4ths!

You know that bar chord that's like an Am, slid up to fret whatever? Play that, but keep your middle finger (the one that makes it "minor") off of it. That's a suspended 4th.

If you take your 2nd finger off of an Am-shape barre chord you're playing a suspended 2. If you play the fret 2 frets higher than where your 2nd finger would've been in the Am barre chord you'll have a suspended 4.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:44 PM on July 28, 2009

My Bloody Valentine? Then start figuring out their songs or find the tab.

MBV also has a pretty idiosyncratic technique with the tremolo bar, which can be easily observed in the video for "Soon". Used to be on YouTube, but it looks like it got taken down.
posted by LionIndex at 8:13 PM on July 28, 2009

This question just popped up in my RSS feeder today for some reason -- I had to add something:

The most MBV sound I can muster is fuzz box --> super chorus --> strummed open tuning (open D works well), and pulling the tremelo bar hard the whole time as you strum which gives you that twisty out of tune sound they get, as LionIndex points out. For extra fun, play around with a loop station. I could play like this for hours at a time.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:58 PM on July 31, 2009

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