Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac once said (paraphrasing), “Ask any songwriter how music comes to them, and they’ll probably say, ‘I don’t know.’” This tune came to me several years ago during one of the darkest and bleakest points in my life. The market collapsed and I was out of a job, and couldn’t find one; I had been bitten by a poisonous spider that left me bedridden for months; my relationship with my wife was tepid at best. Then on top of that, I had a bad case of sleep apnea that hadn’t been diagnosed at that point. The net effect was that I was suicidal; or short of that, wishing my life would end.
In a particularly bleak moment, where I was contemplating ending my life, this tune came into my head, accompanied by a mental slideshow of images from my entire life: Growing up, my own family. It was if someone out there was using the tune and the images to show me what really mattered in life. Since I first heard the song in my head, it has never left. It pops up now and then, though the pictures have changed as I have changed and my kids are getting older. It’s both a reminder of how bad it was for me, but also a reminder of how good my life has been and still is.
Putting this song down – and mind you, it’s pre-pre-production right now – was very difficult because of the emotions that came with it. But I thought I’d finally lay it down to share it. Someone suggested adding words, but I think the only thing I’ll add is a clean guitar solo on top. By the way, the background sounds you hear on this version are from my three-year-old playing floor hockey in my garage/studio. Without further ado, here’s the song:
Prestige Guitars Heritage Elite (sounds acoustic on this song!)
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe (left)
Aracom VRX22 (right)
Ever been in one of those situations where you have to face up to something you’d said or done, but avoid it all costs because it gives you this feeling of impending doom? I was recently in a situation like this, and it wasn’t at all comfortable going through the emotional and psychic turmoil leading up to the conversation the ultimately resulted in – nothing. No slap on the wrist, no punishment. Just a good conversation where everyone involved learned from the experience.
Anyway, last night I was noodling on my guitar; my eyes were closed, letting my emotions drive my playing. Then I remembered that situation, and came up with the rhythm track for the song. It’s all instrumental – it’s not something I would ever want to put to words, but I did want to convey the emotions. Give it a listen let me know what you think:
For the rhythm parts, the Strat/Hot Rod is panned to the left of the mix, and the Heritage/VRX22 (clean channel) is panned to the right. The lead part sits dead center.
I’m particularly pleased with the Hot Rod’s tone. The clean tone with that awesome spring reverb is to die for (though I had the reverb down pretty low on it to give the Strat more presence). I’m also diggin’ the Prestige Heritage Elite; especially after I set it up. In particular, I adjusted the pickup heights to smooth out the treble pickup, and to get less boom from the rhythm pickup. It’s now very balanced; and played through the VRX22, it sounds just awesome. I played the lead part through the drive channel of the amp, and set the volume so that it was just on the edge of breakup, so if I dug in a bit, I’d get just a touch of overdrive. I wanted to create an effect of subdued aggression, and the VRX22 is so dynamic, I can achieve that easily.
…to give up on a dream, or perhaps, maybe an illusion. I wrote a new song yesterday for Mass based on Psalm 32, called “I Turn to You.” Give it a listen:
Anyway, when I uploaded it to iCompositions, and wrote the song summary, I included that the song and lyrics were free for the taking. I was just going to put it out there, and let whatever church musicians who come across it use it to their hearts’ content. As I said, “This was a gift to me, and I want to pay it forward.”
Let me qualify about “giving it up.” It’s more like giving up an offering to the universe. I’m not going to stop putting my music out there to get it heard. It’s just that I’m not going to be attached to a particular style or genre of music as a vehicle. I’m going to write what I write, and if happens to be religous, fine. If it’s not, also fine. I’ll basically take whatever inspiration I can get, and let that inspiration dictate the direction I go in.
The new song is the result of just giving it up to the universe. I looked at the verses of the Psalm in the Bible, and suddenly the music came to me. Likewise, I was re-listening to an instrumental I came up with to demonstrate how “Goldie” the Saint Guitars Goldtop Benchmark sounds, and got the idea for an entire song built around that phrase. I’m writing this entry as a break from tracking right now.
I guess the point to all this is that I released my emotional attachments to the direction I’m taking my music, and letting it just be what it is: Music; irrespective of religion or philosophy. I’m just going to write about things I’m compelled to write about, and share the story.
…but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel… At least I hope so.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been in kind of a rut with writing music. I’ve got eight songs for my new record, which I recorded pretty regularly over the course of about three months. And it wasn’t just eight songs I wrote. I wrote and recorded about 20 other songs before deciding on the ones that made the final cut. The process was incredible! A song would come to me, I’d grab my guitar or sit at the piano, and in a relatively short amount of time, I’d have a song. Then I’d spark up my DAW, and record a raw piece to make sure I captured it. No sweat.
But as soon as Christmas season hit, it seems that the stress of getting stuff done at work before taking a vacaction, then Christmas itself just sucked the creative juices out of me. Okay, I’ve written some jam tracks and recorded some short snippets of songs, but to date, I really haven’t gotten the inspiration to write a full song. But in spite of that, I’m feeling really positive as there is a bright side to this lack of creative energy.
As you know, I’ve lately been driven to be more academic about what I’m playing; partly because I want to be able to effectively teach what I’m learning, but also because I just want to be a better player. So in lieu of writing music, I’ve been working on my improv skills, and I’ve been really happy with the progress I’ve been making! All this practice is just making me a better player, and that is inspiring in and of itself!
For instance, as many may know, one of my regular gigs is to play at church. Before any naysayers start ripping me about playing at church, understand this: Do a worship service of ANY kind poses particular challenges. For instance, you can’t just rock out all your songs or pick music that is always up-tempo. Worship services need to take people through an emotion journey with respect to the music. Typically, the beginning and the ending songs are pretty upbeat, while the middle songs are much more subdued or, if you do have a more upbeat song, you don’t go all out and rock. The idea is that the music is not the focus, the worship experience is, and the music you play needs to enhance that. Furthermore, because it’s in a church, you can’t play at real loud volumes the entire time. As I mentioned above, you can get away with it at the beginning and the end, but even in those spots, you can’t really play at club or concert levels.
Sounds a bit constraining, doesn’t it? I’ve been gigging for years, and each type of venue poses its own particular limitations. The trick is to work around those limitations so that you can be as expressive as you can be.
All that said, considering the constraints, last night’s service was awesome! To add to our normal volume constraints though, I was missing both a drummer and a bassist, and all we had were two other guitarists besides me, one of which just started playing with us that day. So it was particularly challenging because being the most experienced guitarist put holding down the rhythm to the songs on me. But that was the cool thing. All the work I’ve been doing on my technique has allowed me to so much more than just strumming chords, adding little runs or double adorning some chords with arpeggios or arpeggiated double-stops. This is stuff that I couldn’t do six months ago! And despite not really being able to do any leads, it didn’t matter, I felt totally inspired!
So yes, there is a bright side to this rut. At least I can still play…
I normally don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Haven’t done it in years. I’ve always felt there was something innately dishonest about making resolutions like “I’m going to be a better person,” or “I’m going to do something nice for someone everyday.” Not that those aren’t noble pursuits, but in a lot of cases, they demand an enormous amount of self-discipline, self-sacrifice and changes in normal behavior that most of us can’t persevere. We’re good for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks, but something will happen and it all goes to pot.
In lieu of lofty resolutions, I’ve instead set concrete goals that in order to achieve, require changes in behavior and changes in thinking. I’ll share some of these goals here:
I will continue on my five-year plan of getting on the road and touring. I’m just starting my third year in the plan, and it’s going pretty well. I’ve release an album, and am working on my second one; a few of the songs of which I’ve entered into an international songwriters competition. I don’t expect to win, but the feedback that I get will be invaluable. Furthermore, going on the road will require that I get in shape, so I have been eating better and getting exercise in anticipation of going back on stage. I love to eat, so this has been a tough thing for me, but I’ve lost 25 lbs so far, so I’m well on my way.
I will study more music theory; especially scalar modes. I already started doing this a few months ago, but really want to master it in the coming year. First, because I want my improvisation to be better, and with an understanding of the intervalic nature of music, I’ll be able to move around the fretboard much easier. I don’t want to necessarily learn patterns that I chain together, I want to get to the point where I can jam in any key, and be confident that the next note I hit works well harmonically and musically with what I’m improvising. Also, mastering scales and modes will make me a better teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I have a very firm intellectual understanding of music theory, and can actually cold read charts, but in actual execution, I feel I’m lacking, so my aim is to meld the two.
I will have a custom amplifier built for me. I’m currently working with Jeff Aragaki of Aracom Amps to build me an amp around his RoxBox 18 Watt design. I’m “going off the reservation” with this one because I want a different speaker than what he offers, a bigger cabinet and a reverb tank, plus a built-in resistive attenuator for low volume applications. If you haven’t checked out the RoxBox, I suggest you do. It’s a great 18 Watt design that’s also a great value stock.
I will purchase a Reason amp. Not sure which will come first: Having Jeff finally construct my amp, or purchasing a Reason. I love the SM25 I have right now, but since I’m a StackMode freak, I’m also leaning towards the SM40 head. We’ll see.
I will have Adam Hernandez at Saint Gutiars build me a guitar. I’m so grateful to be able to test Adam’s guitars. We’ve already talked about what I might like in a guitar, but I really want one of my own.
As far as GuitarGear.org is concerned, I will rebuild the site to make it a lot easier to find things. I’ve already started doing this, but I really need to rethink the design of the site. I will probably go to a three-column layout so I can get more things “above the line” that is, the part of a page that you first see when a web page loads. Right now, the site is a bit narrow, so lots of things fall below the line that I’d like people to see; especially the companies I personally endorse.
There are different schools of thought around this subject, but I thought I’d throw in some of my own thoughts, since I’ve been at it awhile. Note that I won’t be talking about techniques necessarily, though I will include some tips and tricks… So without further ado…
First, let’s establish something here: You don’t need to buy super-expensive gear to sound good, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. I’ve found that in a lot of cases, while more expensive gear will afford you convenience features, and a better sound quality, for the home studio enthusiast, a lot of times this gear is overkill. I’ll go into some details below, but in my opinion, recording technique is far more important. So with that said, let’s start talking about what I think are essential pieces of equipment:
You probably already have a computer, but it should be configured to handle digital recording. While drive speed is important, it isn’t necessarily critical. My MacBook Pro’s hard drive spins at 5400 rpm, and I have no problems recording stuff. But what you do need is space. I’d recommend getting two hard drives: one for programs, and the other dedicated to saving data. It’s just a cleanliness thing. Also, get as much RAM as your machine can handle. I’ve got 4GB on my machine. That’s even more important than a hard drive. You don’t need a super-poweful machine either, but dual-core machines really work well.
Okay, Mac or PC? Go with what you’re comfortable with. There are lots of programs out there; among them is a neat little program that works great on both PC and Mac called Audacity – it’s free! Todd Rundgren recorded a lot of his latest album using Audacity, so it’s definitely doable.
What about ProTools?
I’ve got it. It’s great. But the learning curve is super steep. In fact, when I first started recording, I spent more time learning how to use the damn software than getting my ideas down and that just frustrated me to no end; so much so, that I lost my taste for recording for several months – I just didn’t want to mess around with the software! I just wanted to get my freakin’ ideas down! I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s complicated, and you’ll have to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of the program. With the home studio, what you’re after is getting your ideas down with reasonable quality – and fast. That, at least, is my opinion. In light of that, I use GarageBand to get all my ideas down. It has built-in rhythm loops so I don’t have to use a click track, and there are lots of add-ons, both free and affordable, that you can use in GB. The sound quality is excellent, and it even has some mastering presets that work amazingly well!
There are lots out there. I happen to use the DigiDesign MBox 2, which has two analog inputs, MIDI, and a couple of others I don’t use. Very handy little box. But there are lots of solutions out there in the $300-$400 range. Most use USB, though FireWire is probably the optimum – it also costs more.
Now this is just my opinion, but you’ll need at least two mics: One ribbon mic, and one dynamic mic. I have a Nady RSM-200 ribbon that cost me less than $200, and it works superbly! I also swear by my trusty Sennheiser 835 stage mic, which is a workhorse similar to the Shure SM-58, but I think it’s warmer and has a much flatter EQ response than the SM-58 which can get kind of boomy.
Being also a piano player – not nearly as good on this as I am on guitar – having a keyboard to trigger MIDI and add MIDI-based instruments is another essential. You can go the small route (2 octave) or go the full-size keyboard route. I use an M-Audio full-size stage keyboard myself only because it doubles as my MIDI controller as well as my gigging keyboard. It was also cheap at $300 new. Nice.
From my standpoint, this is all you need as far as essential equipment for recording. Now let’s get into some techniques and some nice-to-haves:
Always record acoustic guitar using mics – and use two of ‘em. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I’ve tried going direct into my computer, and the sound is horrible. But using two mics works great. I usually place my ribbon mic about six inches from the sound hole, then place my dynamic mic pointed at a 45 degree angle at about the 3rd fret to capture sounds coming off the neck. Also, to take advantage of the ribbon mic’s rear pickup, I have a board, or hard, reflective surface placed about two to three feet in front of me to reflect sound back. It gives just a sligh reverb effect that really fills out the recorded tone.
If you can swing it, get a couple of low-wattage amps. In particular, I use a Fender Champ 600, which is a 5 Watt amp with an 8″ speaker. Another one I’ve used, but don’t own is the Epiphone Valve Jr.. What a nice little amp! Since you’re recording at bedroom levels, a small amp that puts out less volume works wonders. Now here’s the trick I’ve found to recording with these small amps. You can make that sucker sound HUGE by close-mic’ing the amp. I use a dynamic mic pointed at an angle along the cone of the speaker, and place it no more than 2″ away from the grille cloth. Then I use a variety of overdrive and distortion pedals to get grind or searing distortion, then in my software boost the low frequencies. The end result is that it sounds like I’ve just recorded a full-size stack! You have to play with your settings, but it’s definitely achievable. The other nice thing about using a small amp for recording is that the naturally bright voicing really works well in a digital recording environment.
For vocals, always use a pop filter. I’m an experienced singer, and even though I have great mic technique, nothing is worse on a recording than picking up those oral transients that your mouth makes when making consonant sounds. Pop filters cost less than $20 and believe me they’re a life saver.
While we’re on the subject of vocals… Avoid using a compressor on vocals as much as possible. When you’re singing a louder phrase, move away from the mic. It’s that simple. Compression is good to a point, but there’s a lot to be said about having volume dynamics in your vocals. You get a lot more emotion coming through when you have it. If volume is pretty much the same throughout a song, it’s well… boring in my opinion, no matter how good a singer you are.
Avoid EQ as much as you can. Dial in the EQ on your instruments before you record, then only do wholesale volume adjustments later to make mix corrections. What you’re trying to do is capture the natural sound the instrument makes as closely as possible. The only exception I make to this is when I’m recording a low-wattage amp and want to boost the lows. Otherwise, I just do volume adjustments for the mix.
These are just a few things I’ve learned over the last few years of doing this. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, so if anyone else wants to add to this, please feel free!
As part of my five-year-plan to be on the road touring, I entered three of my songs into the Song Door International Songwriters Competition. This is a big step for me as I’m crossing into completely new territory. It’s one thing to get acclaim from your friends, it’s an entirely different matter to have your music put under the microscope. I’m both excited and nervous at the same time! Anyway, here are the numbers I chose:
Just wrote this one today. While a love song, I wanted to be careful about the lyrics because it’s easy to get cheesy. But at the same time, I didn’t want to get really cerebral like Sting because I can’t do it as well – sounds way too formal and contrived, whereas Sting can almost always pull that stuff off.
For equipment I used:
Fender Stratocaster for main rhythm riff (set to middle/bridge position)
PRS SE Soapbar II for the solo (used the bridge pickup and ran it through my vibe pedal).
Mic’d my Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I just love that amp!
I just read a great article on Guitar Jam Daily by Carl Verheyen (this dude has a really smooth style!) about the art of layering guitar parts in a song. Essentially, the article covers using a variety of guitars, and approaches when recording a song. For instance, using clean to slightly distorted guitars for rhythm and then distorted guitars for leads. As Carl says,
…I believe the state of the art in guitar playing has more to do with layering and orchestrating and less to do with shredding and the blatant displaying one’s chops.
You may not have a huge collection of guitars at your fingertips, but you can orchestrate the tones and colors of the ones you do have. Getting these elements “on tape” and into a musical tapestry can be a very creative process…
That passage really spoke to me because as a working stiff with limited time and resources, I have to rely on the gear I have, and use them in combination to create the songs I record. From my own perspective and technical abilities on the guitar, I don’t really consider myself a good improv guy, so I try to make up for that by layering different guitars or rhythmic approaches to the guitars I use in my songs. If you listen to the individual guitars, the parts aren’t all that complex or sophisticated, but the result of “stitching” those parts together creates a really interesting tapestry of sound – at least to me.
From the songwriting standpoint, it’s the components of the song that make the song, not the individual pieces. I highly suggest reading that article. The cool thing is that if you’re in a band, you can also take that approach. Not everyone has to be playing distorted. Myself, I like to be presented with musical complexity and sophistication. To me, the sound is so much richer
It’s funny how the inspiration for a song comes. I started out writing out the idea of a song that evolved into a jam track that evolved into a completed song structure that finally evolved into a finished piece, replete with vocals and a guitar solo. For this piece, “You’re Stuck With Me” I was really struggling to find words for the song, when I remembered a conversation – more like a heated argument – I had with my wife a few weeks ago. She was PMS’ing, and she can be downright evil when she’s in this state.
For years, I’d just taken the abuse or yelled right back at her, but this time, I decided that I was going to stand up to her rants and foul tongue, and use a different tact. While she was getting all huffy for something I said, I stopped what I was doing, walked right up to her, put my arms around her, told her to look at me, and said, “Whether you like it or not, you’re stuck with me… I’m not going to let you push me away.”
This song is about standing up to your life partner, but doing it in such a way that assures them that despite all that they may do to put you down and push you away during their time of discomfort, you’ll always be there.
This is kind of new territory for me musically. I’d done some blues in the past, but I wanted to do something different than a regular I-IV-V progression. In other words, I wanted to be a bit unpredictable, but by the same token, retain some familiarity with the sound. This song has elements of blues and country and rock, that I wanted sort of meld together. I think it works…