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Reverb is one of the most fundamental and essential effects in music. So much so that’s it’s hard to even call it an “effect”. After all, reverb is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and identifying it is pretty much hardwired into the human brain.
Reverberation can also add depth, fullness, and extra richness to music regardless of the instrument type. Still, reverb is usually associated with vocals (like Elliot Smith’s haunting vocals) or electric guitar. But when it comes to acoustic guitar, adding a reverb effect usually isn’t the first thing to come to mind.
There’s a good reason for that and the acoustic guitar has a lot of natural reverb. However, there are many scenarios where the acoustic guitar would benefit from reverb.
So when should you use reverb with an acoustic guitar?
Acoustic guitarists should use reverb when playing in small spaces with an audience. Smaller venues, especially when people are present, will “soak up” reverb and create flat, dull tones. Additionally, consider adding reverb when adding background music or just when you want to add a deeper ethereal quality to your music.
That’s the quick answer and we’ll cover reverb and acoustic guitar in a lot more depth below. But first, let’s take a quick look at the history of reverb in the world of music.
Reverb, Music, and Acoustics
Reverb is everywhere, a feature of daily life. But it’s easy for most people to ignore. Really, it just refers to the subtle echoes that every single sound makes as it bounces around its environment. We constantly subconsciously process reverb without ever being aware of it and use it to understand what kind of space we are in, or where a sound is coming from.
It clearly evolved as a survival technique and the human brain is well equipped to process and understand reverb.
But modern musicians have the privilege of creating and controlling reverb in their music. By learning to use it in an artistic way, you can totally change the experience of your music. You can make your music feel intimate and close.
A great example of this is Elliot Smith and while he frequently added reverb to both is vocals and acoustic guitar on many songs, “2:45 AM” is one of my favorite examples of this. Notice how he combines a quiet singing style and reverb with a short decay, it feels like he is right there in the room with you:
Now on the other end of things (at least stylistically), we have Morrisey with The Smiths. With his deep resonant voice and long-decay reverb, it sounds like he is singing across space and time. My favorite example of this is in his song “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” which you can listen to here:
While these examples highlight reverb, the effect is honestly everywhere.
Reverb and Acoustic Guitar
As we’ve already seen, reverb isn’t just limited to vocals. Everything from keyboards to bass guitar can benefit from reverb pedals and acoustic guitar is certainly not an exception.
Acoustic guitarists can really enhance their playing and create a mood by using reverb to their advantage. Listen again to the Elliot Smith track above- the acoustic guitar’s reverb is not immediately obvious but it’s actually pretty heavily applied. But again, it’s got a short decay and therefore sounds really intimate and introspective.
Compare with the John Fahey track below, one of those musicians love and nobody else really knows of! The playing is dripping with reverb and resonance. The guitar playing would actually sound quiet and almost sleepy, but the reverb lifts it into the stratosphere.
John Fahey recorded that in 1966, so he was probably actually playing in a huge room. Or old-school reverb techniques like plate reverb may have been used.
These days, the digital revolution has given acoustic guitarists incredible power in the form of pedals. Read on for a list of pedal recommendations that acoustic guitarists can make use of, for recording, practicing at home, or especially for live performance. They’ll take your playing to places you never imagined!
How To Use Reverb With The Acoustic Guitar
There are a few things to keep in mind as you start to experiment with reverb and acoustic guitar.
Always put your artistic intention first. What kind of feeling are you trying to create? It’s easy to get lost in the details of all the options you face, and to play with things just because they are fun or because they are there! I recently saw a performance of two experimental ambient musicians at REDCAT in LA.
Their music was obviously an exploration of tone and gear, there was more equipment on stage than all the other acts that night put together! But to be perfectly honest, I think they were the only two people in the room who actually enjoyed their own set. The musicians were so absorbed in their gear and process, that they lost sight of the whole point of having musicians on stage!
This can happen easier than you think as the quest for a unique sound is almost never ending!
When You Should Use Reverb With Acoustic Guitar…And When You Shouldn’t
The acoustic guitar has quite a beautiful tone on its own, with no reverb necessary.
Furthermore, whatever space you play it in will naturally provide its own reverb. So it’s not always a great idea to drown your tone in more reverb, because you may be subtracting more than you are adding!
But if you’re playing in a fairly small venue with an audience, and you’re playing solo or with a small group, your acoustic’s tone will probably not have a chance to reverberate in a satisfying way. The audience and the small room combine to soak up the natural reverberation. A reverb pedal can really transport the audience to a different space!
Another great time to use reverb on acoustic is when you are providing background music in a live setting. But cranking the verb, you can sound a bit more distant, and you won’t make it difficult for people to converse and relax.
Amplifying acoustic guitar for a live performance often means sacrificing tone. Piezo pickups and non-ideal PA systems can wreak havoc on even the most beautiful immersive tone, leaving it a thin shell of its former glory. A beautiful reverb pedal can restore the luster and depth of your tone!
There are many, many more situations where reverb can help you out. Just keep your ending goal in mind, and make sure the reverb is taking you closer to it, not further away!
There are a few common types of reverb “sound.” Electric guitarists often favor the classic Fender spring reverb, which comes front and center into the surf rock sound for example. A great example of this is “Walk, Don’t Run” by The Ventures which you can check out here:
As gorgeous as spring reverb sounds, it may sound unnatural when paired with acoustic playing. Acoustic players tend to prefer a digital reverb sound, which accurately and immersively imitates the sound of playing in different size halls and rooms.
What Type Of Reverb Is Best For Acoustic Guitar?
So far we’ve treated reverb for the acoustic guitar as if it was all roughly the same. But as you probably already know, that couldn’t be further from the truth and there’s a huge range of reverb types out there.
So what type of reverb is best for the acoustic guitar?
For most acoustic guitarists, Hall is a good starting point and is easy to get right. Room can be a good option too, especially if you need to replace reverb that’s missing in a smaller venue. Spring reverb is usually not as useful and can create a sound that’s a bit too springy and twangy.
But let’s take a closer look at the reverb types and how they tie into an acoustic guitar.
Hall reverb, as you might expect from the name, are designed to mimic the reverb effect that you’d get from playing in a large music or concert hall. Some reverb pedals will take this description to the next level and give different hall settings various names like “Baroque Hall” and similar.
Hall offers a deeper but still balanced sound with the acoustic guitar is a great starting point for most musicians. It’s not going to take you to outer space (like some reverb effects can) and even though the decay is usually seconds long it still works very well- especially with a solo acoustic guitarist.
Chamber reverb gives acoustic guitar and other instruments (including your voice) a “long” sound. The Beatles used Chamber reverb on many of their tracks and Chamber reverbs are another great option for the acoustic guitarist.
You can hear a great example of the Chamber reverb in the song “A Day In The Life” by The Beatles here:
Room reverb is the most natural sounding reverb and when it comes to the acoustic guitar and it’s best used to replace natural reverb sounds that may be missing as a result of a smaller venue. For example, if you’re playing in a smaller venue with an audience, the room and the people in it can “soak up” the naturally occurring reverb and create a flat sound.
Room reverb can fix this and take your acoustic guitar back to a more natural sound.
Like the rest of the reverb types, plate reverb is appropriately named since it uses a system of plates to create the reverb.
However, unlike the other reverb types we’ve looked at, plate reverb isn’t based on mimicking a specific room type or size instead it creates its own unique type of sound. It will take some experimenting, but plate reverb can sound great on acoustic guitar at the right settings.
Spring reverb is another type that isn’t connected to a specific room size or type. Springs are used to create the reverb and while this can work well with a wide of range of instruments it’s a little harder to successfully pair this with the acoustic guitar. It’s easy to end up with an acoustic guitar reverb that sounds…well, a little too springy. This reverb is still worth exploring for acoustic guitarists but should usually be towards the bottom of the list.
Why Does Reverb Make Acoustic Guitar Sound Better?
Reverb is one of the easiest effects to master and adding a little reverb almost always makes any music sound better.
But why is this and why does reverb make music, and especially the acoustic guitar, sound better?
Reverb is a naturally occurring sound that our brain expects to occur. As a result, when reverb is not present or significantly altered it can make music sound flat and strange. Additionally, reverb can help smooth over audio imperfections and make music sound cleaner overall.
While they’re two different effects, a little reverb can have the same impact on music that autotune can. Even a bad singer sounds good with some autotune and even not-so-great music sounds a little better with some reverb.
But the natural element of reverb can’t be understated and it’s a huge part of what makes this sound so appealing to our brain. The human brain is constantly collecting and interpreting reverberation signals at an unconscious level. But if that reverberation is missing, we suddenly become very conscious of it.
The video does a great job showing the appealing effects of reverb but also how our brain anticipates it. The video shows a singer performing the same song in 15 different locations. Try to pay attention to how your brain naturally anticipates that type of reverberation that will occur in each location:
As a musician, you have a power that it’s easy to take for granted. When it comes down to it, music does something to people that nothing else can. No matter what other hobbies a person has, or what else they are into, almost everyone loves music, and everyone has their own favorite music that “touches” them as nothing else can.
Music that transports people somewhere far away. That creates an irreplaceable feeling. Something that can’t even be put into words.
That’s why people do so many irrational things in the name of music. Musicians give up hours and hours of their lives, ignore typical comforts, sacrifice a normal lifestyle. People in the music industry often work for low wages or towards uncertain goals. All in the name of serving the higher calling of music. Because when you feel fulfilled in your purpose, what else matters?
So of course we musicians are always breaking our backs trying to make our music better. More powerful, more immersive. And one of the greatest tools we have at our disposal, no matter what kind of musician we aim to be, is reverb.
Acoustic guitarists may wonder how they ever got by without a reverb pedal. Even if you are a single person performing with an inexpensive guitar, a great reverb pedal can elevate a simple performance to new emotional heights. So keep working, and always feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.