Learn how to play Ambient Guitar | Drone | Soundscapes

Volume Swells

Volume Swell - this is one of the most powerful and key techniques when we talk about ambient guitar, soundscapes and drones. It can be described in two words – soft attack.


There are several ways how to get soft attack playing a guitar: volume knob, volume pedal and special effects you can find in your guitar pedals/processors. While it’s clear with volume knobs and pedals it might be more sophisticated with your gear. For example, soft attack can be achieved with Slow Gear settings in Roland VG systems or Swell mode in Strymon TimeLine delay. The principle these devices use is one and the same: they track for a signal of a certain level to fade it in. Thus we don’t hear the attack, but only slowly rising tone.


Let’s see what we can get using only Volume knob, Volume pedal, Swell effect and Slow Gear effect. Note some loss of control with automated effects (Swell and Slow Gear).




Now let’s go a bit further. What if we would like to have a longer sound? A sound that lasts several seconds and fades away slowly in time. 


All guitars have some sustain. It might be longer or shorter. It is a good idea to try compressor at the very beginning of your pedal chain. One of the signal compression effects presumes a longer sustain. But that is definitely not enough for what we want to achieve. 

The answer is, as you may have already guessed, Delay, Reverberation and Looping. These are 3 main effects/devices alongside with a volume pedal that make the core of any ambient guitarist pedalboard.


Here I play Volume Swells with different Delay settings. We will not point our attention here on the variety of Delays and their settings. We will focus on it later. Let’s look what impact they have on the sound with soft attack for now.




Now when we made sure that delay effect impressively increased the duration of the sound and made it slowly fade out in time we can try to substitute Delay with Reverb guitar effect. Both Delay and Reverb deal with sound repetitions, but do it in different ways.

You can think of a Delay as an echo in mountains while Reverb tries to recreate acoustics of a certain space: room, hall, cathedral, etc.




Needless to say that the way Reverb affects the signal differs from the way Delay does. But they both coped with the task – we’ve got long lasting textures.

Finally it's time to put them together. One thing we should remember is that effects overdose (it particularly concerns Reverb) might ruin and wash the original sound away making it indistinguishable and “unreadable”. But if this is what you want – do it)




Another widespread technique for Guitar Volume Swells is bound up with specific Reverb settings.

One should set long decay time (10 second or even longer), pre-delay to 0 seconds and mix to 100% wet (no original guitar signal should be heard). Try to play simple 2-3 note chords. Mind your right hand articulation – start playing from quiet to loud.

We’ve learned the most common ways to make Ambient Guitar Volume Swells. Saying “the most common” I admit that there are other ways to get similar results – soft attack and slow fade-in.

For example, simply increase the dynamics of your right hand playing from very quiet to loud or take a chord and start bumping a guitar (yes, from quiet to loud). In both cases you will need a good amount of complex delays and reverb to get satisfactory results. In this video I will show you 4 alternative ways to play Guitar Volume Swells. Make sure not to skip the last one)




Look how alternative Ambient volume swells work in this video: Soundscape #11


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