Archive for the ‘playing live’ Category

playing inspiredIn last month’s issue of Guitar Player, Steve Cropper was spotlighted. Cropper was a great session guitarist for Stax records who wrote and played with the likes Otis Redding, and was arguably one of the great guitarists responsible for establishing the 60’s era soul sound. In the interview, he was asked what advice he’d give to aspiring rhythm guitarists. His reply was both amusing and incredibly insightful (I’m paraphrasing): “Pick the prettiest girl in the front row, look right at her, and play to her.”

On the surface, that may sound a little chauvinistic, but there’s an incredible amount of truth in that. As performers is to, well, perform. No matter how we perform, it’s always an outward facing activity. And from my standpoint, there’s nothing better at inspiring me to create on the than when I’m playing for someone, and shape my playing to describe what emotions are stirred by the thought of the person for whom I’m playing.

Mind you, it’s not a sexual thing. It’s about playing against the images that crop up when you look at someone. For instance, the restaurant that I play at every week is a nice, family-oriented restaurant. During my set, parents will bring their children to where I’m playing, to show their kids the “music man.” Seeing the smiles and faces full of wonderment is really inspiring to me, especially as I’m a father myself (of eight kids!), and I almost always change the way I’m playing when kids come to see me play. I’ll even do special kids songs just for them at times, and let them strum my guitar.

The point to all this is that when you’re playing inspired, you draw your audience in. As a performer, there’s nothing worse to me than being mechanical. The music comes out dry and worse yet, seemingly contrived. And people pick up on that. But play inspired, and you take your audience on your emotional journey.

So take Steve Cropper’s advice, and find someone in your audience who’ll inspire you. I guarantee you’ll like the results!

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On Monday night, I performed solo in front of 700+ people; just me and my guitar. It was probably the largest crowd that I’ve ever played for as a solo act, and it was a totally cool experience. I did a lot of covers in my set ranging from James Taylor to the Beatles – even some Lynrd Skynrd. But the highlight for me was playing my new instrumental song, “Que Cosa.” I created a backing track that I downloaded to my iPod, which I routed through my PA, then played the guitar lead over the backing track. I’ve actually been rehearsing doing this for months, but finally worked up the courage to try it out in a real gig. I was really overwhelmed by the response.

I think the issue for me doing a purely instrumental piece had to do with some self-doubt. I really didn’t know if I’d be “good enough” to pull it off. But I broke through that doubt because there was only one way to find out if I was good enough. Based upon the response from the crowd, I guess I did fine. Of course, I’m always pushing to be better, but at least now I have the confidence to continue doing things like this.

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Demeter Opto CompulatorI was at a casino last weekend, sitting in a bar with a couple of friends and listening to this great duo play classic rock hits. During one of their breaks between sets, I went to the stage to talk to the guitarist (he had a cool name: Buford) and checked out his gear. He had a fairly simple setup: Just two effect boxes going into a Vox amp modeler that then went straight into his mixing console. What caught my eye though were his two effect pedals, both by Demeter (pronounced Deh’ meh tur) Amplification. One was Demeter’s FUZ-1 Fuzzulator drive box, and the other was the Opto Compulator. I knew a bit about the Fuzzulator, but I wanted to know more about the Compulator, as I’ve been considering purchasing a compression pedal for some time. So I asked him a few questions about the box. Here’s how the conversation went:

What’s your main application for the compressor?
Even though this is a pretty small stage, we’re playing in a fairly open environment at low volume. When I need to play distorted, I’ve got to fatten up my signal a bit, so I can cut through the crowd noise. Distortion always thins out your tone a bit, so this helps me compensate for that.

Doesn’t a compressor affect your overall tone?
In general, yeah. But this has got to be the most transparent compressor I’ve ever used. With this box, I maintain my tone, but just give it a slightly fatter delivery. And like I said before, in this environment, I need a fatter signal to cut through the crowd noise. I’ve played with a bunch, and this one is the absolute best I’ve ever had.

So what’s so special about the Compulator?
Like I said, it’s really transparent, and the compression effect is so subtle, most people wouldn’t even notice – I hardly notice it myself, but I know when it’s not on. And maybe there’s a bit of me being used to the sound. Other than that, it’s real easy to use. You have two knobs: The left-hand knob controls the amount of compression you want to dial in, and the other knob controls the gain. You also have a little trim dial on the side that you can adjust with a small screwdriver to trim the volume up or down – but I’ve never had to use it.

Can I do an A/B comparison from a slight distance away?
Sure thing. Step back about 20 feet, and I’ll show ya.

So I stepped back, and he played some chords and riffs with it on, and with it off. I’ll be damned! He was right. His tone was the same, but had just a tad fatter quality! Now that’s transparency! And that demonstration convinced me on the spot that the Compulator is the box I’m going to buy.

About compression…

For a good article discussing the general concepts of audio compression, click here. It doesn’t go into into the heavy technical details of compression, but it definitely helps to demystify how it works. For a more comprehensive and technical discussion, click here.

COMP-1 Opto Compulator Features

  • Compress Knob – controls amount of gain reduction up to 30dB.
  • Volume Knob – increases/decreases the output volume (aka “makeup gain”).
  • Trim Pot – very nice feature to adjust the unit’s preamp gain. If you plug a hot instrument into the unit, you could get distortion. You can knock down the input gain to avoid that.
  • Powered by a 9 volt battery, but also has a standard 9V jack.
  • Street Price: Generally around $199.00 (do a Google search)

My prospective usage

I normally play in very small, low-ceiling venues, so compression has not been a big issue for me. However, when I play with my band at my church, I have to play at fairly low volumes, which makes playing in distortion a huge challenge, because in order to hear the effect, I have to turn up my volume. That usually makes me stomp on the mix. With a fatter signal, I should be able to punch through the mix much more effectively without having to pump up my volume too much (or as much as I have been 🙂 ).

After hearing this unit, I’m convinced this is the right pedal. And getting input directly from a guy who swears by it and was willing to demonstrate how it worked had me sold.

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My blog buddy, IG over at igblog always compels me to really think about playing. It’s uncanny. Thanks, IG. Anyway, in one of his latest installments entitled “You gotta fight your guitar a little…” he talked about how different guitarists actually “fight” with their guitar; overcoming bad setups or dead spots to really push them to be more expressive. That got me to thinking about my own experience in “fighting” with my guitars.
As far as dead spots and bad setups are concerned, I’m fortunate that my guitars are set up really well (a touch of luthier work here and there). But I do have a quirk that has actually served to push my expressiveness on the guitar. I don’t change my strings that often; in fact, I’ll have my strings on for months and months at a time, though it’s not out of laziness. I actually like the “duller” sound of worn strings. But there’s actually more to it than that.

Several years ago, I didn’t make much money – just about enough to support my family and have a bit left over to have some fun with. Unfortunately, that didn’t include guitar gear. And even though I played often, spending money on gear just wasn’t in the stars for me then. So I didn’t regularly change my strings. If one broke, I’d replace it, but generally, they’d stay on for a long time. I now have the means to buy strings and gear when I “need” to, but I still keep my strings on my guitars for a long time without replacing them. First, for the reason I mentioned above, but secondly because of a more important thing: Those dull strings push me to eek out as much sound from my guitars as possible.

When I didn’t have the means to buy gear very often, I actually had to learn how to do things with my guitar that I don’t think I otherwise would’ve done. You see, worn strings don’t have all that much sustain, so you have to do other things to sort of “fill in the spaces” like strum a chord then play an arpeggio, or sneak in a palm mute right before a chord to add some rhythm, not to mention strategically placed hammer-ons and pull-offs. I learned all these things not because they were cool to do (they were and still are), but more out of a drive to compensate for my dull-sounding strings.

To this day, I keep worn strings on my guitars. It creates a tension that pushes me to explore tonal areas that I probably wouldn’t go to otherwise.

Thanks to IG for jogging my memory!

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Dr. Z Air Brake

About six months ago, I wrote a little ditty about the Dr. Z Air Brake, but I thought I’d revisit this essential piece of equipment once again. The Air Brake is a power attenuator; in other words, it reduces the amount of signal from your amp that reaches the speaker, thus reducing your audible output. Before I go any further, the big question is: Why would you want to reduce the amount of signal going to your speaker from your amp. There’s actually a very good reason: Overdrive.

With tube amps, especially those with multiple-stage gain, you can’t achieve that warm clipping (read: creamy distortion) without upping the drive to your power tubes. Unfortunately, that also means you have to crank your amp, as achieving those nice distortion characteristics is a function of both drive and gain. The net result in turn can shatter your eardrums in an enclosed space, or worse yet, have your family or neighbors scream at you for playing too loud in your garage. A power attenuator allows you to drive your power tubes into clipping but do so at a significantly reduced volume. For home studio enthusiasts like myself that usually record late into the night, this means you can work on recording projects without the fear of waking up my family or pissing off the next door neighbors (which I have done many times).

There’s a good FAQ about power attenuators and how they work here. I won’t go into the technical details, but suffice it to say that with a power attenuator, you can play at acceptable volume levels while still being able to drive your amp. With that let’s get into the Dr. Z Air Brake features.

The Dr. Z Air Brake is incredibly easy to use, though in addition to the unit, you’ll need a couple of good-quality audio cables with 1/4″ plugs. If your amp’s output goes straight to your speaker and is then soldered to the speaker leads, you’ll have to do some splicing and soldering, though most tube amps today use a 1/4″ output jack. Once you’ve got the unit hooked up, you have five levels of attenuation: 0 through 4 and Bedroom. The “0” setting is total bypass, while the 1-4 settings impose approximately -2.5dB attenuation with each position by default. If you open the unit up, you can actually increase or decrease the amount of attenuation at each position by moving the leads along the resistors (this is explained in the accompanying manual – it’s a single sheet of paper). The “Bedroom” setting is what sold me on the unit. When you have the Attenuator knob set to “Bedroom,” the “Bedroom Level” knob comes into play. This provides variable signal attenuation down to 1 Watt (for sub-100 Watt amps) at the maximum level, though at this amount of attenuation, your tone really changes because the speaker cone doesn’t move enough air, thus producing a VERY thin (read: ugly) tone. I usually set my Bedroom Level knob to about 10-11 o’clock, the play with my drive and volume knobs on my amp until I’ve dialed in a good tone. Frankly, it doesn’t get much easier than this.

In addition to the variable bedroom level control, I chose the Dr. Z Air Brake after evaluating and reading various reviews, and speaking with other folks who have one. The most popular attenuator at the time I was reviewing attenuators was the THD Hot Plate. I tried one out at a shop, but didn’t like the sound that came out of it all. It literally changed my tone. The Dr. Z Air Brake, on the other hand is much more transparent, even at bedroom levels. As far as gigging is concerned, since I play a lot of small venues, it’s a real helpful piece of equipment because it allows me to drive my amp when I play with my band without stepping on the band’s overall output.


Many people buy attenuators thinking that once they’ve attenuated their signal, they can drive their power tubes to their highest levels. It’s true, you can do this. But you’ll also burn through your tubes pretty quickly, or worse yet, you’ll damage your amp’s electronics. I’ve heard about this happening especially with resistive attenuators. People crank their drive, and after a few minutes start smelling something burning as their amp’s internal electronics fry. Also, driving your power tubes into super saturation doesn’t do anything but cause a lot of ugly distortion. When you drive your power tubes, the tone you should expect is a smooth distortion, as the intermixing sound waves weave together beautifully. Adding even more power creates a much larger contrast between the peaks and valleys of the distorted wave, and what you end up getting is a very “dirty” sounding distortion that is not in any way pleasing to the ears. So beware if you’re in the market for an attenuator!

In closing, if you’re like me, and play in a variety of small- to medium-sized venues, a power attenuator can be your friend. For me, mine is always hooked up. It has saved me from a lot of headaches and eliminated complaints!


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Song Title: We Sing with Joy!

This is a pure praise song, very simple to play and sing, and VERY easy to play. The main riff has only three chords and the bridge only adds another two chords. The trick to this was not to make it monotonous.

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I read this great article by Tom Hess at Modern Guitars (thanks go to IG at igblog for turning me on to this online mag!) about the “little voices in your head” that talk to you when you’re playing, and it prompted me to write on something that I’ve never covered in any of my blogs; at least in a dedicated entry…

Tom pointed out some really good things to keep in mind, but I wanted to extend it even further; especially for those who play in much smaller venues than Tom, like myself who plays in restaurants and at corporate events and parties. So here are a few more points to add to Tom’s list:

  1. When you’re playing in smaller venues such as providing music for an event or party where you’re not the focus, don’t take it personally if you perceive that people aren’t paying attention to you. Remind yourself that you’re not the focus of the event, and are playing a more supporting role; however, that doesn’t mean that you play any less toned-down. What I’ve found is that if you continue to play at the standards you know you can play at, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the results. I’ve gotten a bunch of extra gigs merely by playing background music, and singing and playing my heart out. People may not seem to give you the time of day during the event, but believe me, they notice when you’re putting your heart into it.A good example is when I play at my weekly gig at a local restaurant. Diners want to eat their meals and converse with each other, and pretty much consider me to be an added treat (though over the last few years, I’ve gained a loyal following). They don’t look at me, or will only occasionally make glances, but all in all, I’m not their primary focus. But time and time again, at the end of the evening, my tip jar is filled with bills, and I’ve given out several business cards. So the point of this is that people may not give you their direct attention, but your music remains in the periphery of their consciousness, and that’s very powerful.
  2. Always pay attention to the energy of your audience, and perform your music that will work with that energy. I no longer use a set list when I’m gigging at parties and restaurants, and let the energy of my audience dictate what songs I play. The same goes when I’m gigging with my band. We may have a plan in place, but we can also turn on a dime if any of us detect that what we’re playing isn’t working.
  3. Many years ago, my dad once told me, “People don’t really respond if you’ve shined your shoes, but they certainly notice if you walk around in shabby-lookin’ ones.” I didn’t really think too much of it at the time (though I do keep my shoes polished now 🙂 ), but my dad was trying to teach me about “excellence” and doing your best; not thinking about doing your best, but doing your best. I’ve taken that little saying with me, and applied it to everything that I do. Don’t settle for less than excellent, and at least for me, never give your audience less than your very best. They’ll appreciate it. Does that mean play flawlessly? Not at all. We all make mistakes, but it’s the total package that counts, not little mistakes that occur. Tom covers this well in his article.

So there are three extra points to add. Keep on playin’, and rock till you drop!

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