Great Guitar Playing is Dynamic

What makes the difference between a competent player and a great one?

Imagine two skilled guitar players trading solos onstage playing identical Les Pauls through identical Marshalls. One is clearly skilled and hits all the right notes at the right time. The other displays the same technical ability, but somehow their playing has more presence and power. What makes the difference?

“Great” playing is well-executed and sonically compelling.

Keith Richards is no virtuoso, but his playing is unquestionably both those things. You know Keef when you hear him, in the same way you might recognize blues legend B.B. King. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour is revered for his melodic phrasing and tone.

David Gilmour Rock Guitar Player
Joep Vullings via Wikimedia Commons

Jeff Beck is often described as the best electric guitar player of all time. Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen are also strong candidates for the GOAT. But chops alone did not define their playing, their musical personality did. All three are instantly recognizable when you hear them. And all three have something important in common: their playing was highly dynamic.


Eddie Van Halen Rock Guitar Player
Carl Lender, CC BY 2.0

“Dynamics” in music has to do with volume and intensity.

When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” burst onto the radio airwaves, one of the things that made Nirvana sound so fresh was the abrupt dynamic contrasts between the different sections of the song. The “very loud to very soft” shifts were a big part of their style.

Nirvana Song Lesson Playlist
Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons

These kinds of contrasts draw the listener’s ear. Imagine your most boring college professor droning in a monotone, and compare that with your memory of a stirring speaker. Dynamics are essential, because uniform sounds don’t really exist in the natural world. Have you ever sat outside on a summer night listening to the sound of cicadas in the trees? It can blend together into a single whir, but it’s also a conversation.

Even the sound of a mechanical device can be dynamic: listen to the hum of an air conditioner or a car motor. The dynamic effect comes from many subtle variations in the sound. Even “static” is not actually static: the sound is very much in motion.


Great playing applies dynamics on every level, not just between sections of a song.

A strong melody is made even stronger when it’s played dynamically. That means the notes aren’t uniform in volume, but vary according to the player’s articulation and the “shape” of the melody.

Try this simple exercise. Here are two ways to play a C major scale:

C scale

Start very softly and play a gradual crescendo as you go up (getting louder with each note). Do the opposite coming down. Then do the same with the alternate fingering. Be sure to start softly so you have room to make the contrast dramatic and obvious. Notice how differently the strings respond in the different positions.

Now play the following figure:

There are lots of ways you could “shape” the dynamic of this line:

  • Steady crescendo
  • Steady diminuendo
  • Dynamic “swells” on each bar
  • Dynamic swells on each 4-note group
  • Accent the first note of each group of four
  • Accent the third note of each group

Things get really interesting when these accents start to reveal internal rhythm groups. For example, accenting the first and fourth notes of each group creates the illusion of a separate bass line:

Articulation is also part of dynamics.

Slides, slurs, bends, and vibrato add variation and different accents as well. This is possibly the most definitive part of a player’s sound: not just the notes they choose, but the way they “shape” them. Instead of just letting the notes ring, you can give each one its own shape or dynamic quality.

Watch Jeff Beck’s performance of the operatic aria “Nessun Dorma” for a masterclass on dynamic touch.


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Dave Isaacs Avatar

Dave Isaacs has established himself as a guitar teacher extraordinaire, having built a strong set of educational curriculums for beginner, intermediate, and advanced guitar players alike. Dave shares his expertise largely through video platforms, but also through his thoughtful writing. You can take guitar lessons from Dave Isaacs via his comprehensive video guitar courses on

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