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I won’t bore you with discussion… not yet… Just read this from the Washington Post:

Why My Guitar Gently Weeps

You can’t argue with the numbers, and you can’t argue with what’s happening in music these days. Hell! All you have to do is look at the proliferation of EDM and how DJ’s are the new rock stars. Music is such a different scene that when I and other oldsters were growing up.

Back then, as the article points out, it was all about the electric guitar. I remember the first time I heard Boston. I wanted to play like Tom Sholz. But at the same time, I wanted to play like Jimi, and Neal and Frampton. Then, of course, there was Eddie then Satch. Growing up, a different guitar god was just a turn of the tuner away!

Not so anymore. You can argue that there’s Joe Bonamassa and John Mayer. No doubt, they are some ass-kickin’ mo-fo’s on the guitar. But just how wide are their audiences? Certainly not on the scale nor breadth of the guitarists I mentioned. Sure, kids who’d attend their shows would probably instant converts to start learning guitar. I turned on one of the kids in my church band years ago to watch John Mayer. That kid came back a year later and made me look like a beginner. 🙂 I loved it!

So it’s not that these great guitars nowadays have no influence. They do. But they just don’t have the reach that others before them had, and as the article posits, that has a lot to do with the plummeting sales of our beloved instrument.

Make no bones about it: The guitar is not going anywhere. But our beloved brands that have carried the torch for guitardom are hurting. Badly.

Some of you may not care that Gibson or Fender drop by the wayside as there are tons of custom luthiers out there. But their fate should inform the rest of the industry that if they’re hurting, that pain gets distributed.

I love overdrive pedals. I have a bunch of them. But I realized that part of why I have so many has a lot to do with not really understanding how to set them up properly. I’d get an overdrive pedal because a demo I heard sounded great, or I loved how it was voiced. But when I’d get it home, it just wouldn’t sound quite right, so I’d put it in my “storage” area.

But as I got more experienced with setting up my amps, I similarly got to understand how to set up my overdrive pedals. And now that I have a bunch, I’ve got a variety of pedals to choose from to get the sound I want depending on my sets or my mood – okay, I admit it: It’s mostly due to my mood. 🙂

Admittedly, I did a lot of forum lurking as well to gain insights on setting up an overdrive, so a lot of what I’ll be sharing here comes from the things I’ve learned from others in addition to the stuff I’ve learned on my own.

What actually motivated me to write this was a conversation that I had with a friend. I asked him what he thought of a particular overdrive pedal, and he said he didn’t like the way it sounded. I looked at him a little puzzled and said, “Maybe you didn’t set it up right.” And that led me to say that not all overdrives are created equal, and you have to set them up according to how they work best. Truth be told, I haven’t spoken to him since that conversation, so I have no idea if he tried what I suggested. But in light of that, I decided to share my thoughts.


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Types of Overdrives – Not Necessarily What You Might Think

Before we get into the actual setup of an overdrive, I thought I’d go into a discussion about types of overdrives because how you set up an overdrive has a lot to do with the type of overdrive it is. No, this isn’t a discussion about circuit types or transparency. I suppose this could be related to the circuit type on which an overdrive is based, but I’m not that electrically savvy, so I’ll discuss this in more practical terms.

From my experience with having played several overdrives, I’ve found that they fall into roughly two different categories (mind you, these are my own terms): Interactive and Standalone. Interactive overdrives are meant to interact with the preamp of your amp, and together they produce the overdrive sound.

Standalone overdrives are typically purpose-built to mimic an amplifier, and though they can certainly be set up to be interactive, they can function just fine on their own in front of a clean amp.

Notice that I haven’t named any specific overdrive models. The reason why is that overdrives sound different with different amps. For instance, the EHX Soul Food sounds great as a standalone overdrive in front of my Fender amp. But it doesn’t sound nearly as good as a standalone overdrive in front of my Plexi-style amps, so I set it up as an interactive overdrive for those amps.

So the idea behind interactive vs. standalone has little to do with a specific type or model of overdrive; rather, it has to do with how the overdrive sounds with your amp.

Setting Up an Overdrive

I have two processes that I go through to set up an overdrive. At this point, I know all my pedals and whether they’re standalone or interactive, but I still follow the same processes for my different pedals when I set them up on my board. Also, if I come across or get a new overdrive, I first assume that it can be a standalone overdrive, then if I find it doesn’t work well that way, I’ll then set it up to be interactive. Here are the step-by-step processes I follow:

Setting Up a Standalone Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp:
    1. Clean
    2. Set EQ to work with your guitar
  2. Set guitar volume to the middle
  3. Guitar EQ where you want it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs to the middle.
  5. Engage the overdrive and get it to unity gain (so that when you engage it, your volume doesn’t change), or to just get a small volume bump when the pedal’s engaged.
  6. Set the EQ on the overdrive
  7. Adjust the overdrive/gain knob to get your desired amount of distortion from the pedal.
    1. You will probably have to make adjustments to the level knob to maintain unity gain.
  8. Evaluate the sound and feel by playing around with chord progressions and licks.
    1. All the while, raise and lower your guitar volume to see how the pedal responds.
  9. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you dial in the right volume/sound/feel.
    1. If the volume, sound, and feel are fine for you, then you’re all set and ready to gig and the overdrive pedal will work fine as a standalone device.
    2. If the sound doesn’t feel “right,” chances are you’ll have to do some interaction with the preamp of your amp, so continue to the next section.

Setting Up an Interactive Overdrive

  1. Set up the amp
    1. Set Gain/Volume so the amp is at the edge of breakup.
      1. You’ll know it’s there when you turn up the guitar’s volume and the amp begins to distort, then cleans up when you turn it down. Also, if the guitar’s volume is set to the middle, if you strum hard it will break up.
    2. Set EQ on the amp
  2. Set your guitar volume to the middle
  3. Set guitar EQ when you like it
  4. Set overdrive with all knobs at their middle positions
  5. Engage the overdrive
    1. More likely than not, you’ll get a big volume boost when you engage at this level, so you’ll have to adjust both the overdrive’s level and amp’s volume/master knobs to get to the right volume.
      1. If you don’t have a master volume, turn down the overdrive’s volume/level knob to get to a management volume.
    2. Because you want to get both overdrive AND amp distortion, you’ll want to get a small volume bump when you engage the pedal as you want the amp to go over the edge of breakup.
  6. Now, play around.
    1. See how the combination responds to volume swells on your guitar.
    2. Make adjustments to the overdrive gain to get the right combination of pedal and amp distortion.

The Importance of EQ

Notice that I mention setting EQ on the amp, guitar, and overdrive pedal. Setting EQ is extremely important because it can be the difference-maker in your overall tone. There’s no “ideal” EQ setting. But for me as a rule of thumb, I want to get a rich, slightly bright tone that sits well in the mix and isn’t so warm that compared to the other instruments, won’t get washed out when we’re all playing together.

Also, for live gigs, I usually don’t touch my amp or pedal EQ once I get them set up. I use my guitar’s tone knob to adjust how warm or bright my sound to be.

Amp/Pedal Combinations

All that said, if you’ve followed the steps for setting up an interactive overdrive, and it still doesn’t sound right no matter what you do, then the pedal sucks. Just kidding. 🙂 Truth be told, I’ve found some overdrives work better with different amps. If you have another amp, then try the pedal out in front of it.

For instance, Paul Cochrane of “Tim” and “Timmy” pedal fame recommends not using the pedal in front of a Fender Blackface amp. I don’t have a blackface amp, so I had to take him at his word, but the Timmy works great in front of all my amps. For me, I will not use my venerable Ibanez TS-808 TubeScreamer in front of my vintage Marshall-style amps. It just doesn’t sound good to me, no matter how I set it up.

I think it’s because the TS produces a big midrange bump when engaged, and my amps are voiced bright, so it ends up sounding piercing like little ice picks on my eardrums. Even EQ adjustments don’t work for me. But in front of my Fender Hot Rod, the TS truly screams! My Hot Rod has the classic Fender “scooped” tone, so the predominant midrange of the TS fills in the mids.

What About Stacking Overdrives?

That gets a bit more complicated, but I’d follow the basic procedures above, treating the trailing pedal as the amp. In this case, I’d tend to set up the amp as clean and have the trailing pedal always on. There lots of ways to approach this as well. I know one guitarist that uses three at once to get his “sound.” More power to him! 🙂

But truth be told, I hate to dance on my board, so even though I will use a couple of overdrives, I only use one at a time depending on the kind of voicing I want. I also, don’t like complicate my sound finding the right balance of multiple overdrives. I just want to play. Granted, I could do a lot of pre-gig work to get that, but for me, employing the KISS theory works best.

Many people like to stack, and that’s great. Stevie Ray Vaughan used to use two TubeScreamers stacked together; one as an overdrive and one as a booster.

Wah-wah and Overdrive

If you don’t use a wah-wah pedal, then you can ignore this section. But I thought it would be important to add this to the mix, mainly because I’ve found that certain overdrives work better depending on where the wah-wah pedal is placed. Admittedly, my personal preference is to place the wah pedal after my overdrives. But there are a few boutique overdrive pedals that I have that work much better when the wah pedal is in front of them. Not sure why this is. Luckily, I only have a couple of pedals that act this way, so I know not to use a wah pedal with them if I have it set up after my overdrives.

Exploration

To close this out, I have to admit that I’m a bit of an overdrive junkie. I may not buy every single one that piques my interest, but I do check out new overdrives when I run across them. The great thing about overdrives is that they really are all different, even the knock-offs, so I’ll continue to explore overdrives. I never know what I might find. 🙂

Two Hands, Please!

I have a friend who played ice hockey as a kid in Canada, and years ago, as we were sharing stories about hockey (I used to coach), I mentioned that one of the toughest habits to ingrain into players was using two hands. My friend laughed at that and said, “You know how I learned? My coach taped my hands to my stick.” That convention has changed over the years, as the predominant philosophy now is that the stick should always be on the ice to provide a passing target.

But thinking about “two hands on the stick” got me thinking about playing guitar. Pick out a random guitar instruction video on YouTube. Chances are that the focus of that video will be how to place the fingers of your fretting hand on the fretboard. Some might mention the picking pattern you should use or the direction of your picking motion.

No doubt that stuff is useful. But what I’ve found sorely lacking in so much guitar instruction is right-hand technique. It’s almost as if the right is treated as an afterthought. But let’s not forget that while the left hand forms the notes and chords, it’s the right hand that gives those notes and chords a voice! It is also the right hand that provides the rhythm and just as importantly projects the style of music being played.

I’ve encountered so many players, young and old alike who can just burn up the fretboard. But ask them to switch styles from what they’re comfortable playing and it’s often a disaster. In the early days of my old worship band, I had a young guitar player who was into thrash and speed metal, and that kid had speed like you wouldn’t believe. But in the beginning, all he could play was metal. He was great at it. It took me months to teach him right-hand technique to be able to play different styles of music. For instance, we worked on a claw-hammer variant that I picked up from Michael Hedges for rhythmic fingerstyle playing and worked on various palm and finger muting things to add space.

But in the beginning, all he could play was metal. He was great at it. It took me months to teach him right-hand technique to be able to play different styles of music. For instance, we worked on a claw-hammer variant that I picked up from Michael Hedges for rhythmic fingerstyle playing and worked on various palm and finger muting things to add space. All the while, I would constantly have him feel the rhythm of the song and try to align his rhythm on the guitar with the pulse of the music.

Apart from that little aside, the challenge with and beauty of playing worship music (at least with my old band) is that we played all sorts of styles from hard rock to funk and even jazz-tinged music. I used to tell my guitar players, “A G is a G is a G, no matter what style of music you’re playing. But a G played as a power chord for a rock song is going to be significantly different than a G played in a blues song. Same chord, different style.” It’s what you do with the right hand that makes all the difference in the world.

I’ve probably shared all I need to share on this subject, so I’ll just part with these words: IT TAKES TWO HANDS TO PLAY GUITAR.

OkkoDiabloGHSignature[23709]I’ll admit it: I’ve become somewhat cynical about unsolicited product announcements; especially those from manufacturers of whom I’ve never heard. Part of it is due to the fact that I get a lot of them and I just don’t have the time to put out announcements. Another reason for my cynicism is that a lot of “new” pedals tend to be a riff or duplication of an existing, common device. Can you say TubeScreamer clone?

But to be fair, I read pretty much all the announcements that drop in my inbox because – and to be completely honest – I’m a gear slut. I don’t get GAS attacks all that often anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about new gear. Besides, I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the past because I always hold onto the hope that something different will pop into my inbox.

The Okko Effects Diablo GH appears to be something different.

Yes, it’s an overdrive. But it’s tweakable. Here’s an excerpt from the manufacturer’s product announcement:


The GH model is based on the classic Diablo but comes with a few tweaks and a set of controls that allow you to fine-tune the “feel” of the pedal, the way how it reacts to your pick attack and playing dynamics.

  • DYN(AMIC) controls an internal voltage doubler from 6 to 18 volts for control of “sag”, compression and punch
  • FEED controls lower frequencies in the input signal for tight and clear sounds even with the fattest neck pickups
  • BODY adds low mids in the first gain stage for thick, singing sounds
  • INPUT and MIDS mini switches for further tonal options
  • Independent foot-switchable CLEAN BOOST with tone control, located AFTER the overdrive in the signal chain

I’m not going to lie. This pedal really speaks to me. The DYN, FEED, and BODY controls make this pedal incredibly useful. But having the extra INPUT and MIDS switches really take this pedal over the top for me. The booster is a very nice, added feature, especially if you use it to push the front-end of your amp into full saturation.

When I see gear that immediately makes me think of how it would fit in my rig, it’s usually something I will eventually get. I have my Soul Food, which I just absolutely dig, but when I want a different kind of overdrive sound, this Diablo GH seems to fit the bill nicely with its adjustability. For me, the Soul Food does one thing really really well and gives me a creamy smooth, subtle, soft-clipping distortion. And it adds some color. But from what I can gather from the Diablo GH, it is more of a transparent device. It could be argued that my Timmy pedal can do that job. However, with the tweakability of the Diablo GH, I can set up the pedal for each one of my guitars; something I can’t do to this fine a degree with any other overdrive pedal I have.

Oh yeah… make no mistake, I’m seriously GAS-ing right now… Here are a couple of demo videos by Gregor Hilden for whom the “GH” stands for:

In my younger days, I studied martial arts; specifically, formal Japanese styles such as Shotokan, Gojo Ryu, and Aikido. I went the furthest with Shotokan. But it was my experience with Aikido that probably had the most profound effect on my approach to combat. That was primarily because of my mentor, life coach, and Aikido instructor Dan Retuta of the Crestone Healing Arts Center in Crestone, Colorado.

Admittedly, I never went very far in Aikido; in fact, I more or less just dabbled. But Dan has been a lifelong friend whom I have known for almost five decades, and he has been the wise older brother that I didn’t have. But more than just Aikido, the most important thing I learned from Dan was what I’ll simply call the “warrior way.” It is a way of thinking and acting – living, to put it simply – according to how a warrior would live. And no, it’s not at all about fighting. It’s about honor, courage, discipline, integrity and decisiveness, and belying its name, it’s also about inner peace and stillness.

In one of our numerous conversations, Dan said something to me that has stuck with me since, and something that I have passed on to others whom I mentor and that is: “One of the reasons we repeat a movement or technique over and over again is to have it etched into our entire being, to make it become part of our essential being. That way, when we’re finally faced with a real-life situation, we won’t think about applying a particular technique; we’ll just do what is appropriate for the situation without any thought. In a way, our martial art is revealed in the moment. That is satori, where thought and action are one.”

Sound familiar? In music, we practice techniques over and over again so that when it finally comes time to perform we just execute the technique. Without thinking. A simple way of looking at satori is what many would call being in the zone.

For example, when I was taking piano lessons long ago, my teacher taught me how to play scales. There’s a specific technique for playing scales up and down the keyboard. I practiced that technique for hours at a time to learn all my scales in every key. I did it because my teacher told me to do it, but I didn’t really understand why until she had me learn a more complicated piece that required that I apply the technique. In one section, there was a phrase that had an ascending scale of sixteen eight notes. As I read it, I just climbed the scale, applying the technique I had practiced – without thinking about the technique. After I did that phrase I stopped and said to her, “NOW I get why I practiced all those scales!” She just smiled.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I recently joined another band. As the new member, I was reluctant to let it all hang out because I didn’t want to offend anyone. But as I’ve become more comfortable with the other band members, I’ve started to be myself; not that I was trying to be someone else in the past, but I was treading a lot more carefully. That changed with my last gig.

When it came time for me to do my first solo, in that instant, I forgot about holding back, and just went for it. I don’t remember what I actually did, but I remember thinking to myself after I finished, Did I actually just play that? 🙂 One of the things I did was a quick sweep pick over a couple of triads; something that I’ve practiced in the past, but never applied. I did it without thinking about it and I realized I did it because it just fit with what I was playing and with the song. I smiled knowing that what I just had was a moment of satori. Such a cool thing!

It is difficult to show exactly how to achieve that state. It’s not as if you can do it willfully; not at all like Okay, now I’m going to get in the zone. But you can prepare yourself first by simply practicing and mastering techniques. Moreover, what I encourage a lot of people to do is simply play against a backing track. But instead of practicing patterns, and thinking about what you’re playing. Just go for it. Don’t care about technique. Play what you’re feeling. It might sound like shit. But don’t care. Feel yourself conjoining and commingling with the music. The more you can separate your conscious, analytical mind, the easier it will be to drop into the zone.

As a Star Wars aficionado, I love the life lessons contained in the movies, especially those that revolve around the Force. As Obi-Wan said in Star Wars: A New Hope: Let go your conscious self and act on instinct. Here’s a clip to close this out:

When it comes to playing music, no wiser words have been said…

ROCK ON!

After a gig with my band a few weeks ago, and with other impending gigs coming up where I’d have to use my electric rig, I decided to create two different pedal boards. Using a single one wasn’t an issue the past couple of years because, with my new band, we weren’t gigging that much and I didn’t really feel the need to have a lot of different sounds, so I’d just use my little Pedaltrain Nano, pop on the pedals I needed for a particular gig, and I was good to go. But now that I’m gigging more regularly with my band, and have agreed to join a new church band, I realized that swapping pedals was going to be inefficient. Plus, with my solo gig, I only needed a couple of modulation pedals and a looper, so putting all that on my big board and hauling that around was not a very attractive solution.

Luckily, I have at least two of every pedal I need. 🙂 Not the same brand, mind you, but two or three of the same kind. The fact that I have so many is just previous GAS. I used to be so impulsive about buying gear that even though I’d already have a pedal or some other gear that perfectly suited my needs, I’d hear something in some new gear that “spoke” to me and I’d have to get it. And with pedals, I’ve ended up with two, three, even four of the same type of pedal. This gives me a lot of flexibility, but more importantly, it allows me to run two distinct boards for my electric and solo acoustic rigs.

Which brings me to the Carbon Copy… When I got it, I really didn’t need it. In fact, I already had my Mad Professor Deep Blue Delay “DBD” (hand-wired). But I reasoned that I needed a delay for my acoustic rig, and wasn’t willing to shell out another $325 as only the hand-wired DBD was available at the time. So I got the Carbon Copy delay.

As luck would have it, it wasn’t long before the Carbon Copy was back in the box. I had developed severe arthritis in my left hip and started to gig a lot less, and got very sensitive to the amount of gear I would lug when I did gig. So I downsized. I started using my Nano board exclusively and just lived with a couple of pedals.

But now that I’m all healed and have lost a bunch of weight, and I’ve gotten a lot more busy with gigs, I don’t mind lugging a bunch of gear, so I’ve set up two boards: One for electric and one for acoustic. The Carbon Copy has gone onto my acoustic board, and you know what? I absolutely love it!

Unlike my Deep Blue Delay, the Carbon Copy is very subtle when its level knob is set anywhere less than 12 o’clock. I usually set the level at 11 am, then set a long delay time and short repeats. It’s not exactly slapback, but it adds a depth and ambiance to my guitar sound to give it almost a large chamber sound. It’s great for finger-picked songs as the lower level gives me plenty of note clarity with a nice tail at the end. And for solos, well, its subtlety definitely works in its favor. I LOVE doing solos with this pedal turned on.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love my Deep Blue Delay. That will always be my favorite, but I’m absolutely digging the MXR Carbon Copy on my acoustic rig. It would be right at home on my electric board, but well the DBD has that place, and I’ve got that board set up to where I like it.

Now that I’ve been using the Carbon Copy for a few weeks, I like it so much that if it were the only analog delay that I have, I’d be perfectly alright using it all the time. This pedal is a little gem, folks. If you’re looking for a great analog delay, this is one that I’d recommend trying out. It’s definitely much more subtle than others – you really have to crank up the level and repeats to get a definite delay pulse – but as I mentioned above, that subtlety works in its favor, especially for solos.

On Rhythm

One of my mentors in guitar and music was an elderly African American man named Patrick who used to come and listen to me play at my restaurant gig. I would go talk to him during breaks or right before I’d go on; or sometimes, on days off, I’d see him at the bar and we’d have long chats about music and gear.

Patrick was a guy in his 70’s who’d seen it all musically. He was jazz player ‘who did a lot of session and tour work with the likes of Miles Davis, the Marsalis brothers, and many other big names. If you saw the movie, “That Thing You Do,” Patrick reminded me of the character Del Paxton. He was a font of musical knowledge and though he never taught me any technique, our conversations had a profound effect on how I approached the guitar and frankly, how I approached playing music in general.

One of our conversations centered around rhythm and expressiveness when doing a lead. “Rhythm is everything; especially with playing guitar, which is a rhythm instrument. But even doing leads, you got to be in the pocket with the rhythm.”

After he said that I looked at him a little quizzically. I inherently knew what he was talking about, but I was curious to find out what he really meant, so he continued, “You gotta be able to feel and anticipate pulse of the song. Most musicians don’t get that. I’ve played with some of the best musicians in the world, but the best of the best have rhythm when they play. They can feel the rhythm of the song and create a rhythm in their solos that fit the song. Some dudes, they know all the scales and modes, but they sound like shit because they just throw a bunch of notes together to say, ‘See how fast I can play?'”

Playing the devil’s advocate, I challenged him and said, “But some might say that in the rock and roll world, part of playing a solo is to show your chops. What you say might be applicable to jazz, but I’m not so sure about rock.” I did say that with a little smirk, so he knew that I didn’t believe that.

Patrick just chuckled, knowing I was bullshitting him and said, “Listen, man, Miles Davis could do more with one note than a lotta guys would do with a hundred. And it don’t matter the style of music. If you’re playing the wrong rhythm no one’s gonna like what you’re playing.”

“But is just a single note rhythmic?” I asked.

“Damn right, if it fits in with the song. It could be four whole notes tied together for four bars! I know you get that. You’re just trying to piss me off,” he retorted.

I laughed and said that I did get it. We conversed about a lot of other stuff after that, but he managed to circle back to the original topic saying, “That whole rhythm thing when you’re soloing… The best players are economical. They play just enough notes to get their point across. It could be a bunch of 64th notes at times. But what they play fits in with the rhythm of the song.”

That conversation is one of those vivid memories that has been forever etched into my memory because it actually made me feel good about my solos. I only know a few tricks and I’m definitely not a speed demon on the fretboard. But that conversation made me aware that what was truly important was being vigilant about playing within the context of the rhythm of a song.

Melody, of course, is extremely important. But melody without a sense of rhythm or played against the rhythm – at least to me – doesn’t sound all that good.