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Archive for the ‘Guitars’ Category

Try this: No effects. Not even reverb. Just you, your guitar, and your amp. No cheating. Plug your guitar directly into your amp, and if it has built-in reverb, turn it off. Another thing: No cranking up your gain to get into full overdrive. Set your amp such that you have to hit it hard to break it up.

Play.

So what’s the point? The point is that you will see just how much you depend on your effects. But even after this “test.” Try playing and doing leads without any effects. For some, this isn’t an issue, as they normally play plugged straight in. But for others like me, we use effects and doing leads without them might just surface issues with technique.

Mind you, I’m not advocating for doing away with effects altogether. That would just be silly; especially if what you hear as your “sound” is from effects. But if you can be expressive without effects, imagine how much more expressive you will be when you have effects.

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At my last band rehearsal, I totally flaked and forgot to bring my pedal board, and it was too far to go back home to fetch it. So I said oh well, wtf… I’ll just deal with it. What the hell was I going to do? Call off practice? No way. That rehearsal turned out to be one of – if not – the best rehearsals we’ve had as a band since I joined. Our frontman came to the restaurant where I solo last night and we talked about how great that rehearsal was. So organic, and every song – even ones we were learning – felt tight.

For me, playing without effects forced me to work my guitar and get all my sustain with my fingers; not pressing hard and digging in, but making sure I fully sound out notes.

Might seem obvious to some players, but what I realized right away was that I was depending a lot on my effects to give me sustain and frankly, I got lazy. The net effect was that I slowed down my solos, and made sure that I was really taking my time expressing whatever message I had in a song.

Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing. I could hear that I was cutting off my notes a bit so I simply slowed down just a tad and let my guitar sing in its natural voice.

At the end of practice, I was so satisfied. Combine that with just having a great time with my bandmates, and that was simply an inspirational rehearsal.

Update

Some guy on Facebook accused me of pulling the “guitar machismo” card with this post. I guess he responded to me using the word “cheating” above within the context of turning your reverb off. Oh well, I actually found that to be quite amusing. But he did have a point just the same.

I guess we’ve all come across players who look down on others for using effects. They plug straight into the amp and that’s it and they look upon others using effects as somehow less of a player. Let’s just call it what it is: Bullshit.

It’s the same thing as people calling a capo a “cheater.” My feeling is that however you need to get your sound, use it. There are no rules. Just as I responded to someone saying I was cheating by using a capo that he should tell that to James Taylor, anyone who looks down on people using effect pedals should tell that to Satch, or Eric Johnson, or The Edge.

In any case, my post was about how my effects were masking deficiencies in my technique. Not having my effects on hand made me go back to basics and use my fingers to get my tone and sustain. It was a great exercise that will just enhance my sound when I have effects.

For instance, at my solo acoustic gigs this weekend, I took what I learned to heart, and though I played using my effects, I felt my sound was so much better because I was eeking out as much tone and sustain with my fingers and NOT relying on my effects.

So I apologize to the person who read this who may have been offended. Hopefully, with this explanation, he can see what I was getting at… Or not. 🙂

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I was browsing YouTube this afternoon for Peter Frampton videos from his days with Humble Pie; specifically, the 70’s version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and comparing it to what he’s doing now. Amazing how he can still rock. While I watched one of the videos, I saw a related video of Mark Knopfler talking guitars.

Intrigued, I clicked on the link and was immediately drawn into his discussion. The video isn’t so much of him doing any teaching, but describing the various techniques that he employs. It is a bit instructional in that he says things like, “You can do this, or this…” But really, this video is a revelation, a view into the mind of a master, and how he approaches music and playing.

This is just too awesome to miss!

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Though I don’t post nearly as much as I used to, I still check my admin dashboard to see what articles have been the most active in the recent past. When I looked this morning, I saw that an article I wrote about Wyres strings and how they’re the best I’ve ever played. That was back in 2009 and I still use them for acoustic. They provide a certain brightness that livens up the natural warmth of my APX900. BUT, I no longer use them for electric because I love the sound of Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt strings. That’s not to say that Wyres electric strings aren’t great. They are, and the coated strings last a LONG time. But they’re just a bit too smooth-sounding for my tastes.

BUT, I no longer use them for electric because I love the sound of Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalt strings. That’s not to say that Wyres electric strings aren’t great. They are, and the coated strings last a LONG time. But they’re just a bit too smooth-sounding for my tastes.

But the point to this post is that in our search for that “Tone Unicorn,” what we might find as the do-all, be-all gear one day, may just go into our archives down the road. We will rave about gear that we come across or acquire, then a little bit down the road, we’ll rave about a similar product. As the title of the article suggests, it makes us look a bit fickle.

I laughed out loud when I read the headline to that Wyres article. My blog was only a couple of years old then, and to be completely honest, I have to admit that I was in the midst of GASsing out, wide-eyed with wonder over all the new gear I was evaluating. I was getting amps, guitars, effects, accessories. Each one was the latest and greatest at the time.

But now that I’ve calmed down – and now that I don’t have the “budget” for all that new stuff, I look back on all the gear that I got, and how 90% of is just sitting. For instance, I have a lot of overdrive pedals. A lot. Some are these awesome boutique pedals that I spent hundreds of dollars on. But I now just rotate between three that serve my purposes. And truth be told, I’ve mostly been using my $65 EHX Soul Food exclusively as of late.

Part of it is that I’ve found my sound and though different gear might color my tone in different ways, I still sound like me.

But I ask myself this: Were I again to have the means to acquire even more gear, would I go on another GAS binge? I’m not sure, but chances are I probably won’t. Part of not having the budget for new gear meant that I had to learn to play with the stuff I already had. Turns out that I already had some pretty awesome gear, and other than replacing worn out stuff, I don’t think I’d get worked up into a frenzy.

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Over the years, I’ve listened to countless people and have read article after article about good tone. I’ve joined in or lurked on message boards discussing tone and who knows or who has good tone. It’s all bullshit, and let me tell you why.

First, by even saying the word “good,” we automatically get into the subjective. What might sound good to one person might sound horrible to another. For instance, lots of people rave about Jeff Beck’s tone. Personally, I’m not a fan. Without a doubt, he’s a great player with incredible technique, but I could take it or leave it as far as how he sounds. On the other hand, I love Santana’s tone. But a friend of mine can’t stand it. See what I mean?

Secondly, if we want to take it closer to home and talk about our own tone, even there, we’re standing on thin ice. The reason is that over time our perceptions and tastes change as we evolve as players. I went from playing clean amps with an overdrive and/or distortion pedal in front which was perfectly fine to my ears, to discovering the complex distortion provided by overdriving my amp and using an overdrive or a booster which is now the overdrive sound I prefer.

To this day, I hate my recorded tone. Part of that has a lot to do with the microphones I use and part of it has a lot to do with my cheap DAW software. I’ve gotten better at processing my recorded tone, but I’m still in search of good tone on my recordings – at least for overdriven amps. I’m fine with my clean and acoustic tones.

I shared my own displeasure because I found that my displeasure has often times led to extreme cases of GAS where I’d buy gear that I think will improve things. At one point, I was running two interconnected pedal boards in my studio with 25+ pedals between the two. It started out with just a few, then grew as I added overdrives, and modulation pedals and a few different expression pedals. In the end, I have a single board with 6 pedals for my live sound, and just plug straight into my amp and record the natural signal. That was a lesson that literally cost me thousands of dollars.

So is there really anything such as “good” tone upon which everyone can agree? Technically no, because as I said above, what might sound good to one person might sound uninspiring or even horrible to another. However, that said, it’s probably a good bet that a player has good tone if there is a general consensus that their tone’s good. Take Robben Ford, for instance. It’s generally accepted that he has great tone. Same with Eric Johnson. Sure, there may be outliers who don’t like their tone, but if they’re few and far between, chances are if someone mentions that these guys have great tone, it’s safe to accept that.

That said, I would caution you against just taking anyone’s word on what’s good tone and be especially wary of those people who say another person “knows tone.” I’ve seen a lot of that on forums; someone saying to listen to someone else’s opinion about tone because they “know good tone.” Usually, that stems from a newbie asking about how some gear sounds and others might pipe in and say, “Take this dude’s word on it. He knows tone.”

I think that’s the biggest crock of shit perpetrated on people who just want to get people’s collective perspective on how some gear sounds. That person who “knows tone” is usually a “forum bully.” But as they say, opinions are like assholes: Everyone has one.

Yeah, I know… it’s rare that I rant. I’m a generally “glass half full” kind of guy. But I got to thinking about this subject over the weekend, and some memories of previous conversations on this subject kind of pissed me off, so I decided to write about it. So… Flame off!

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I’ve had a couple of custom guitars made for me. One was under my direction (Goldie, by Saint Guitars, to the left), and the other was like it was made for me, even though I didn’t specify anything in the build (“Katie May,” by Perry Riggs of Slash L Guitars). And even though I didn’t specify materials in Katie May, in order to write my review of her, I had to have a deep discussion on the materials and build process in order to understand the guitar better. At the end of the conversation, I told Perry that Katie May was built exactly how I would’ve specified. Anyway, I digress…

So you want to have a custom-built guitar made for you. There are lots of considerations. But to help you along, I’ll give you some pointers on what you’ll have to consider. Mind you, while I will cover materials and such, there are so many other things you need to think about, and I’ll do my best to share my experience.

Visualize

There are lots of reasons people choose to get a custom guitar. For me, it was to fill tonal or versatility gaps with the guitars I had and to create something that was truly unique to me. For others, the reasoning may be different. But whatever your reasoning, you should visualize what you’re after.

  1. First off, it’s helpful to visualize the tone you’re after. With both my own custom guitars, I was after a hybrid Strat/Les Paul sound. With that in mind, I was looking for either a P90 setup or coil-tapped humbuckers. It also meant I’d like to have jangle of a Strat but the sustain of a Les Paul. For me, versatility is a key issue.
  2. Next, think about what your application will be. I tend to be a lot more pragmatic about my guitars. I have to be able to gig with them. So my reference point for their use is in a live setting. Weight is then a concern.
  3. Do you like burst finishes? Opaque? Natural? What does that guitar look like to you?
  4. As far as body shape is concerned, do you want something with a more traditional body shape or something more avant-garde?

The point to this is that you should spend some time getting a mental picture in your head about the guitar before you go out and find a luthier.

Speaking of Luthiers…

There are probably thousands of luthiers around the world. The one thing I found with pretty much all of them is that they’re pretty creative people who, in general, do a good job of building guitars. Of course, some are just better than others. Here are a few things to consider when choosing a luthier:

  1. If you find an interesting luthier, call them. Better yet, if they’re close enough, pay them a visit if you can. Don’t email. Strike up a conversation. Establish a personal rapport. Pick their brains on how they approach building guitars. You want to gauge how well you can work with the builder.
  2. When researching builders, you might peruse forums like “The Gear Page” to see if you can get feedback on others’ experience. People might be satisfied with the end product, but in some cases have complaints about the process or the length of time it took, etc. Despite the negative feedback, you may still go with a particular luthier. But never go into a build blind.
  3. You might also want to consider how long a builder has been at it. My friend Perry Riggs hadn’t been building guitars for very long when I first reviewed one of his guitars. But he had some real talent from the get-go, but some builders need to more time.
  4. One thing you might consider as well if the builder is doing stuff that’s a bit off the beaten path and if that appeals to you. Again, with my friend Perry Riggs, I was intrigued by his “neck-through” designs. What this allowed him to do was create a thinner, tapering body, as most of the tone would be generated from the neck. The result is a much lighter guitar that still has TONS of sustain.
  5. Finally, an important thing to consider is how good of a business person a luthier is. I’ve met some luthiers such as Preston Thompson of Preston Thompson Guitars who is a great businessman. He spells out everything in detail. Many of those details can be handled online, but if you visit his shop in Sisters, OR, you can speak to him directly. On the other hand, you might want to stay away from builders who are a little “open-ended” with their business practices. You might luck out, but it is a risk.

What About Tonewood?

Here’s an excellent article on tonewood published back in 2008 by Guitar Player. It’s still relevant, so I needn’t rehash. This will give you an idea of what to expect out of the woods you can choose from. The thing about wood is that it’s a real personal thing. But whatever wood you decide on and subsequently discuss with a luthier, make absolutely sure that they’ve built guitars with that wood. For instance, some woods, such as cocobolo are now being used in place of Brazilian rosewood. It’s not easy to get, but the one thing about that wood is that it has a high oil content, which makes gluing an issue unless you know how to pre-treat the wood so it can be glued. If a luthier hasn’t worked with it and you’re set on wanting that wood, you should probably move onto the next builder.

Hardware?

Again, this boils down to personal preference. But have a conversation with the build on what they prefer. With both my custom builds, the builders used my favorite hardware: Gotoh 510 bridge and tuners. I love the tuners as they not only keep their tune but they also have a very low gear ratio so you can tune in minute adjustments. As for the bridge, I dig the wraparound bridge. The string literally wraps around the bridge which seems to me to impart more of the string vibration into the bridge. It’s pretty cool.

Put Your Ego Aside

This is perhaps the most important point I’ll be making, so I saved it for last. Let’s say you spent a lot of time visualizing your custom guitar. You’ve researched wood and hardware and picked a color. You then find a luthier with whom you want to work. When you describe what you’re after, he tells you that your wood combination won’t work. At that point, just shut up and listen to their reasoning. Chances are that they’re giving that feedback based on personal experience. Instead, ask what a viable alternative might be. If you don’t like it, then move on. But the worst thing that you can do is get pissed and argue. I’ve heard of stories like this which is why I’m sharing it. It could very well be that your wood combination is something that doesn’t work with that particular builder’s designs. But hear them out, then see if there’s another luthier who has had success with it. But in any case, just play nice.

You may have probably expected something else with respect to this particular subject, but I wanted to offer a different perspective. Having a custom guitar built is a very personal decision and frankly, a little soul-searching is thrown into the mix. It’s easy to get hypnotized by your prospective new toy. So what I’ve provided are some pragmatic insights based on my own experience.

To me, a custom guitar is the ultimate expression and extension of who you are as a player. You want to get it right.

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Maxon CP-9 Pro+ CompressorEven after all these years, I still ask that question. I used to use a compressor for my solo acoustic gigs to tighten up my dynamic range, especially if I played in large, open spaces or a venue with high ceilings.

But it also frustrated me a bit because even with light compression, that narrower dynamic range made me feel as if the subtle highs and especially lows just weren’t coming through. So in the end, I decided to not use a compressor, and simply adjust how I attack my strings with my right hand.

That has proven useful and actually has helped make me better at controlling my expression. But there are times when I’m in a crowded, loud venue where I really need my guitar to cut through the ambient noise and a compressor would really help do that.

So… to answer the question I posed as the title of the article, it really depends…

Great! That’s a really f’d up answer… 🙂 In all seriousness though, here’s where I’d use a compressor:

  • If you’re playing in a place with high ceilings and your amp/PA is on the ground, using some light compression will help get your sound out. You lose some low- and high-frequency definition, but it’s a good tradeoff. There’s nothing worse than having your vocals completely drown out your guitar. On the other hand, if your PA is elevated as it is in the restaurant I play in, compression might help, but you could probably do without it.
  • For large, open spaces, compression is a must. Again, it should be subtle. You don’t want to squash your signal because it’ll come out muffled and lifeless.
  • If you use a speaker array like the Fishman SA220 or Bose L series, or HK Audio system, a just little compression will help to define your signal as those kinds of PA systems are multi-directional. That said, if you’re playing in a smaller room, or one that has good acoustics, I wouldn’t bother with compression at all.

The danger of using compression is that you might over-compress your signal, and that’s a bad thing. Compressors by their very nature reduce the dynamic range of a signal. So over-compressing will make you sound like you threw a blanket over your amp.

As for the type of compression method, that really boils down to personal preference. However, I would advise using a “soft knee” compressor as opposed to a “hard knee” compressor. With a hard knee compressor, once you hit the dB threshold for the compressor kicks in, you get compression at whatever ratio you set. That might be useful if you’re playing quiet, then suddenly slam your guitar. But dialing in the makeup gain when the compressor is engaged is a pain in the ass.

I prefer to use soft knee compressors that kick in gradually and only get to their maximum ratio once you hit a certain gain level. This means that you’ll always get a bit of compression, no matter what volume you play, but you don’t get the full squish until past a certain point. And as long as you don’t get too over-zealous with the ratio, you’ll notice a definite “kick” to your sound.

With respect to the actual compressor type to use, again, that’s personal preference. There are pedals and rack mounts available that offer different types of compression. Personally, I’ve always gravitated towards optical compressors for acoustic. I used the venerated Maxon CP 101+ for a number of years before I sold it. This is a great optical compressor that is also very subtle. Maxon makes a CP 101 reissue that’s based on the original design.

As for other types, I’ve only used them for recording. Here’s a great article on the different types of compressors. For recording, I’ll typically use VCA compressor plug-in since that is very flexible. But for mastering, I may use a FET compressor plugin for the overall mix as that seems – at least to my ears – to liven things up a bit.

As always, try before you buy. A compressor is not really something you specifically NEED, but it does come in handy for some real-life applications, and can make the difference between stumbling with your sound and putting your best foot forward.

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316415932-rogerfedererreachesintofinals_6Early this morning, I woke up to catch the Wimbledon Men’s final. Though I no longer play tennis, having played a little competitive tennis in my younger years, I have kept up with professional tennis.

Growing up watching the likes of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, then Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, it was hard to imagine there’d be yet another phenom. Then Roger Federer hit the scene in 2001.

Yeah, I know he’d been around prior to this and had a couple of wins under his belt. But at the time, at least to me, he was to tennis as Ricky Fowler is to golf. Good player, nice guy off the court, but no majors.

But my opinion changed when he beat Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001 to advance to the quarterfinals. No, he didn’t win that tournament, but he got my attention. I remember thinking to myself that this guy was a special talent. Where Sampras was a powerhouse serve and volley guy, Federer was… well… kind of everything. He could rally from the baseline, he could attack the net, and his defensive game was otherworldly to me.

I remember turning to my buddy as we watched that match, “If Federer continues like this, he’s going to be the Bruce Lee of tennis.” My buddy asked me to explain and I replied, “What made Bruce Lee a master wasn’t because he was an expert at Kung Fu. What made him a master was that he didn’t obey the forms. He called his particular brand of martial arts the art of expressing the human the body. This is what Federer seems to be doing. He’s good at all aspects of the game. He hasn’t mastered it all – yet. But I’d like to see what happens when he does.” This segues into what we could all learn from “Fed” with respect to our beloved instrument, the guitar.

Humility. I believe that a driving force behind Roger’s success has been his incredible humility in approaching the game. Listen to an interview, read an exposé on his life, and you’ll never hear him brag. Take, for instance, his post-win interview yesterday. He spent more time talking about Cilic than himself and showing incredible empathy for Cilic’s physical condition.

For gear sluts like us, it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting big-headed about the gear we have; especially if we’ve paid a pretty penny for it. But in general, the gear doesn’t make the player. As for me, I keep pretty humble about the gear I have. I have some really great stuff, but I never speak about my gear as if it somehow makes me better than someone who has different or less-expensive stuff.

Open-mindedness. The fact that Roger Federer can win on any surface and more importantly, to mix up different styles of play informs me that he didn’t want to be known as a certain type of player. The fact that he can serve and volley, rally from the baseline, attack the net mid-game and have such incredible touch to be able to hit drop shots that are DOA is simply stupendous. As Jimmy Connors said of Roger Federer, “You’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist. Or you’re Roger Federer.” Damn!

In the guitar world, there are a couple of guys that never cease to amaze me. The first is John 5 from Marilyn Manson. That dude can play all sorts of styles. Of course, there’s also Paul Gilbert who’s simply incredible. Finally, one of my all-time favorites is Phil X. Not only can he play a bunch of different styles, he’s got shitloads of personality to boot! All these players haven’t gotten fixed into playing specific styles.

If that’s not your thing, I get it, and that’s perfectly okay. But opening yourself to being proficient in a multitude of musical styles can make you so much more expressive in your playing. For me, I’ve been focusing on reggae as of late. But what I’ve actually been experimenting with is applying modes and major scales to my solos to see where they lead me. It’s been really interesting and fun to see what works and what doesn’t work.

Focus. To be able to do what he has done for so long… To me, that just takes immense focus. Of course, as a professional tennis player, he has the luxury of applying all his focus. But to maintain that for close to two decades. Wow! Same could be said for Serena Williams. And she’s like Roger: So gracious and kind.

Focus is something that helped me get over my GAS. At one point, after I had acquired tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear, I just said STOP! I realize that I just wasn’t spending enough time on the gear I had. And what I realized is that the unicorn I was chasing was right there in front of me all along. I just had to quiet my mind, focus on playing, and let the beast out. 🙂

I could go on and on about what I could learn from Roger Federer, but three points is enough. ROCK ON!

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