I was a classical and fingerstyle purist when I first encountered looping at a live performance of Pierre Bensusan’s in the early 90s. The audience watched as he composed an intricate four-part piece through an electronic device and then left the stage for a beer while the mechanism played on. What was 'live' about that?! The guy was at the bar, not on stage! Here it was again: electronic gadgets intruding upon the integrity of musicianship.
The problem is that looping looks deceptively easy. What’s so talented about pushing a button with your foot? Anyone can do that, right? But are you skilled enough to play the parts of bassist, drummer, rhythm guitar and lead on your own? Do you have the knowledge and imagination to do so? More importantly, do you have the timing?
Pushing looping device buttons precisely at the right time takes some practice. You’ve got to know when you want your phrase to begin, and when it should end. Then you’ve got to keep that phrase in your head while you’re setting up a second, third and fourth. And if you’re performing live, you’re stuck with whatever phrases you put down. It’s too bad…that’s life! What impresses me about the art form of looping is that it’s a test of your musical skill and your talent as a live performer to deal with whatever you put out there. To me that is musicianship!
My own approach to music has changed since I began using a looping device. One thing is that I have become a much better lead guitarist because I don't need to depend on somebody else being around to play rhythm. I’ve also learned a lot more about composition by trying out my ideas on the fly and being able to easily keep the ones I like.
Another thing I can do is play very danceable music as a soloist. Sometimes I take an electric guitar and a bass to a gig and make my own little band: I lay down the rhythm guitar part while I'm singing the first verse, then I put down a bass part. As the song progresses I add a few fills and finish up with a long lead.
If you’re not yet ready to loop on stage, the device also serves well as a practice tool. I make loops for some of my students with a drum machine and bass and rhythm guitar parts. Because these loops go on and on I can make a ten minute CD of music minus the lead guitar. The students can practice with this until they become comfortable jamming. After a few weeks they're ready to play with other people. We’ve loaded a few of my jam tracks here on the site. They’re free for you to try out on your own.