A YouTube search of live looping yields seemingly endless examples of talented loopers all over the world performing in bedrooms, streets and stages. Thanks to digital technology, looping is becoming almost as ubiquitous as the acoustic guitar when it comes to solo performers. Some of the biggest artists in the world are loopers- but even in local pubs there are very few solo acts now that don’t use those magic little pedals which essentially allow you to make copies of yourself.
Looping is the use of digital recording to capture a performance and play it back instantaneously. Loops are then layered or overdubbed to create full sounding arrangements. A trumpet can become a horn section, a guitarist can solo over their own rhythm, and a solo performer can become a one man band.
Looping works because popular music is full of repetition and loops are found naturally in song arrangements. The skilled looper can distill the elements of a song into loops or a series of loops that are most often no longer than 8 bars and almost always in 4/4 or one of its derivatives.
One of the common mistakes that the uninitiated make when observing a looper is to think that what they’re hearing has been pre-recorded. What sets looping as an art form above playing over prefab music is that it’s still being performed live- the inherent risks, inevitable mistakes, and moments of accidental brilliance that come with live performances are compounded with each new pass. This potential for chaos is a large part of what gives the tension and energy required to keep an audience engaged, and the artists who go out on a limb with looping are incredible showmen in their own right.
Unfortunately the repetitious elements that make looping possible are also what usually keeps loopers from being able to create more sophisticated arrangements. Looped songs are usually no more than a few chords over a few measures. One must be careful to create an ebb and flow within their songs as well as over the entire set in order to keep things fresh. In this regard loopers can be very much like DJ’s.
Looping is not a substitute for musicianship. Only through hours of practice can one master the skills needed to be a successful looper. Not only do you need to be comfortable with your instruments, you need to know how to arrange them within your loops. No matter what your instrument is, the basic skill needed for looping is having a metronomic meter and groove. On top of that only creativity reigns in your ability to put on a good show.