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Posts Tagged ‘thoughts’

What Do You Need?

I asked myself that question yesterday after I set up my rig at church. I thought about it and to be honest I have all the gear I actually need. So now, I’m at the point where most gear I buy is a want as opposed to a need; though I can technically justify my new Gibson J-45 as a business need.

I never intended my treasured Simon & Patrick PRO to be gigged with this much after I received it as a gift from my dear friend Libby. And though its monetary value isn’t as much as the J-45 and it certainly doesn’t have the projection of the J-45, it holds a lot of sentimental value for me. Plus, I have to admit that it sounds damn good on a recording, so I’ll continue to use it in the studio.

But other than that, the only things I technically need are consumables like strings and picks. But those are very periodic. And with strings, I normally only replace one string at a time, so I don’t go through sets very often. Given that, it’s really hard for me to justify getting any gear that’s not a consumable.

That doesn’t mean I don’t eschew new gear altogether. It’s just that I’m not nearly as susceptible to GAS attacks like I used to be. Add to the fact that I found my own sound, and the motivation to try and buy new gear just isn’t as strong as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. That urge is there still but it is overpowered by my general feeling of completeness with my rig.

But here’s the cool thing about asking myself that question: I’m now at the point where I can answer, “I really don’t know what I need. I’ve got the sounds that I like that satisfy the music I play. Anything new will simply be icing on the cake.”

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Lessons I’ve Learned

I’ve been playing guitar for almost 50 years and have been performing publicly for over 40 years. In that time, I’ve learned some valuable lessons that I thought I’d share.

There’s always someone who’s better

This is the ego check I give myself to ensure that I never get complacent and always stay humble. It’s not that I spend time comparing my skills to other guitarists’ skills, but if I found that if I let my ego get in the way, I stop learning. Simple as that.

You will never sound like the original artist

And that’s a good thing. The sound of your voice and the sound of your instrument come from YOU. I get that in some cases you want to at least get an approximation of the original artist’s performance for context’s sake. But your sound is yours. And especially with guitar, your hands are different, your strings are different, your gear is different. So own it!

Learn to get the most out of what you have first

Having gone the route of buying tons and tons of gear and eventually selling off 90% of it (though I’ve kept most of my pedals because I still like them), only to realize that I had everything I needed in the first place, I’ve learned to take a much more measured approach to gear. I now spend countless hours trying to discover different ways to eke out all the different sounds I can get with what I have. If there’s a sound that I just can’t get, then and only then do I look to new gear. By doing this, I discovered sounds I never thought possible with my existing gear, and all it took was learning techniques to achieve those sounds.

I give this advice a lot, especially to young players. For instance, one of the kids in my church band has been buying up gear at an alarming rate. He has the means, and most of the time, I’d just say que sera, sera. But this kid has the potential to be a GREAT guitarist one day, so I was honest and told him to take the time to discover the sounds he can get from his current set of gear before he moves on.

Never play in an altered state of mind

I was in a cover band a couple of years ago and we did a gig where I got drunk off my ass on half a bottle of bourbon. I thought I was ripping it until I heard the recording at our next rehearsal. I was SO embarrassed. My bandmates laughed and were very gracious, but I sounded like a hack! I vowed then and there that I’d never perform in an altered state of mind again.

And even if I don’t play drunk, I spend about 15 minutes before a performance getting myself emotionally centered. Extreme emotions can affect your performance in a bad way, especially negative emotions like anger.

Your gear is what YOU make of it

This is related to the section above about getting familiar with your gear. But this takes a different tack: Don’t ever be embarrassed by what you have. You will encounter several gear snobs – especially on the gear forums – in your life who will tell you to get such and such guitar, or as soon as you get a new guitar, swap out the pickups, etcetera, etcetera. Just remember that “truth” is purely subjective. We all look through the lens of our own experience and while it’s not wrong to listen to what other people volunteer, it’s their truth, and in the end, you’re the one who has to play your gear and more importantly, you’re the one who made the investment in the first place. Free advice costs nothing for the giver so be careful on the value you place on it.

So just remember this: If what you have inspires you to make music, then that’s all that matters! Anyone who tells you different is just a frickin’ wanker!

If it sounds good, it is good!

Yeah, I’m copping Duke Ellington, and I’ve written entire articles around this phrase, but it’s important so I’ll keep on repeating it. This phrase especially applies to the tube vs. digital/solid-state amp debate but can be applied to just about anything such as boutique pedals vs. mainstream pedals. Doesn’t matter. If it sounds good to you, and like I mentioned above, if it inspires you to make music, then that’s all that matters.

Especially with the tube solid state vs. digital/solid-state amp debate, bear in mind that some guitar greats such as Joe Satriani and Buddy Guy have used solid state amps. You’re not going to tell them their tone sucks. So please, don’t get pulled into that kind of thinking. Keep an open heart and mind, and you’ll open yourself up to a big, wide world great gear!

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The Problem with Dogma

I’m a cradle Catholic, so Catholicism – and its associated dogma – are a large part of my life. But while I fully accept and believe in my religious dogma (for instance, Jesus is the Son of God and there is only one God), what I have always had a problem with is how that dogma has often gotten translated into rigidity in the practice of said dogma, or used as a way to demean, destroy and take advantage of others who either may not be aware or fully versed in the knowledge of the dogma.

So what does this have to do with guitar gear?

Lots, actually. I’ve been playing guitar for close to 50 years now and one thing that has always annoyed me is the dogmatic perspectives I’ve encountered during that time. You’ve all heard them:

A modeling or solid state amp could never be as good as a tube amp.

You pay more for a piece of gear because it’s better.

Gibsons and Fenders and other brands have a signature sound.

People say this stuff all the time. And they believe it so fully that they become demeaning and dismissive of anyone who may disagree with them. The way these people interact with others is with something akin to religious zealotry.

In the past, my more confrontational self would love to engage with these people. But I have to admit that my reaction was just as militant and dismissive. Now I just roll my eyes and say, “Whatever, dude…”

The problem with rigidity or fundamentalism in general is that it prevents people from seeing or even accepting; much less tolerate, alternative viewpoints. And from the perspective of gear, there’s so much fantastic gear out there that often gets overlooked because people can’t see past their personal dogma.

I’m writing this because I too can be accused of having been dogmatic. But especially since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had to be much more open to the different ways people approach gear.

For instance, I used to be of the belief that I had to have a big pedal board with lots of effects to create great sound. As a result, I have lots and lots of pedals, especially overdrive pedals. Now, I just use three, maybe four pedals to get my sound. Admittedly, part of that is that I’m older and don’t want to lug around a lot of gear, but a large part of it is that I’ve found my sound, and only need a few pedals to enhance my sound as opposed to define my sound.

But I also know that others will differ with my approach. I have a friend who plays with no pedals whatsoever. He plugs directly into a 50 Watt Marshal Plexi and lets his fingers do the talking. On the other hand, I have another friend who has 20 pedals on his board and stacks overdrives and distortion boxes and has three different delays.

Look, we all have our personal truths, and they’re all valid. For me, I have a very “you do you, I’ll do me” attitude about gear. Where I have a problem is when those truths are used to exalt over others. I’m a firm believer in ecumenicism – there are many paths to God. So too with gear. There are many ways to make music.

Rock on!

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When my boys were playing roller and ice hockey, I coached their teams, head coaching for roller hockey and doing dry land training for ice hockey. Over the years, I had several players who would have a habit of getting down on themselves when they made a mistake, and it would throw their entire game off. Opposing players would see this, and use that to force them to make even more mistakes to mess with their minds and make them play even worse.

When I first started coaching, I didn’t quite know how to deal with this, other than pulling the player out of the game. But a good friend and fellow hockey player told me an important thing when I discussed my predicament with him: “You can’t get down on these kids when they make a mistake. You have to teach them how to play through it.”

I, of course, asked him how he dealt with it, and he said, “I explain to them that a mistake is 10 seconds. You’ve got the whole rest of the game to make up for it. And if you know what the mistake is, do your best not to make the same mistake twice.” Wise words for sure.

And I used these words over and over again throughout my coaching career. I didn’t ever want to be a coach that berated his players for making mistakes. I called the mistake out, and more importantly, ask them what they could’ve done differently. More often than not, they’d have an answer, and if they didn’t, I’d show them or draw on my dry-erase board what they could do.

But this isn’t just a sports lesson. It can be applied to pretty much anything…

At a recent gig, I was doing a lead, and go so wrapped up in what I was playing that I completely missed a change. It only lasted a few notes, but remembering what I had coached years ago, I simply bent up to a note that worked with that key, and lo and behold, I was back in the pocket! ūüôā After the song, we all just laughed. The only thing I said to the band was, “Oops…”

There’s no such thing as absolute perfection. But that’s the beauty of performing. Those spontaneous mishaps or misadventures can be easily overcome. You just have to not let it get to you…

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The Law of Holes

I was reading a technical article on microservices architecture to corroborate points in a presentation I’ll be giving next week, and I ran across a reference to a saying I’d heard a long time ago: The First Law of Holes. It basically goes like this:

“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Attribution to the origin of this saying is a bit murky, though, according to a Wikipedia entry, it can be found in an article published back in 1911 in the Washington Post.

The first time I heard the saying was from an old priest, Father Bob. I forgot exactly what the conversation was at the time (this was back in the mid-1980’s), though I believe it was probably me venting my frustration with my career plans (I really didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do back then and it REALLY bothered me). To that he said, “You know, as they say, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”¬†Such sage advice, and frankly, it caused me to just relax and let the universe work things out.¬†But I’ve digressed…

That saying can be applied to just about anything; especially gear. When I was overcome with GAS a few years ago, what helped me snap out of it – besides running out of money – was remembering that saying, or a corollary. I had spent so much time, effort and money trying to chase that unicorn of tone, that I was never happy with the gear I had and would sell or trade off gear on a whim, or purchase more stuff to layer onto my rigs.

It really was the case of digging a deeper hole for myself. In the end, I climbed out of the hole, just stuck with the gear I had, and made it work. No, I wasn’t just settling. What I did was take the time to do a deep-dive into my equipment. I also spent a lot more time practicing to increase my skill and expressiveness.

A few months later, I found my sound. It was literally a breakthrough moment. I was recording a new piece and laying down a solo. The way I usually record solos on my recordings is to do several takes, then pick the one I like best. What I realized is that even though my phrasing might be different from take to take, I sounded like me every single time.

That really sealed the deal for me with respect to breaking me of my GAS because it changed my perspective on my gear. Instead of my gear defining my sound, my gear merely added texture and color to what I had all along and didn’t realize I had it. From that point on, I didn’t see a need to keep on adding new stuff, and when I did, it was to add a feature to my sound, not be my sound.

Now I also realized that when I had the funds to spend on gear, it was REALLY fun. I was on the boards all the time. I went to local guitar shops and played everything that I found interesting (which was a lot of stuff).

What about now? I just gig. I have my solo acoustic gig, play lead guitar for an old farts band, and have recently been asked to sit in with a buddy’s blues band to sing and play rhythm guitar and keys. I have six pedals on my board. I used to have twice as many. But most of the time, I only use my Soul Food and my Big Bad Wah. I also use my booster for solos, but I don’t use my mod pedals all that much, though I keep them there just in case…

So if you find yourself in a hole similarly, stop digging.

And here’s my Second Law: Climb out.

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Before I share my own thoughts, I’d like to share an email I got this morning from MusicTrades.com. It’s a trade rag magazine that puts out email digests. I normally ignore them, but the title of the article caught my eye, and I thought I’d pass it along after I read it. Here it is in its entirety:


Rosewood, And Why Trust In Government Is Low

ACCORDING TO A RECENT PEW SURVEY, only 19% of U.S. citizens trust the Federal government to do the right thing most of the time, the lowest level in 50 years of polling. The explanations for this are varied and complex, but a gathering of industry execs and members of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Fish & Wildlife Service at NAMM offered insights into the source of the low esteem. Early morning events at NAMM are usually sparsely attended unless there’s a free breakfast involved. This one, however, was standing room only, and with good reason. At issue were three-week-old regulations governing the import and export of rosewood, a staple raw material for instrument makers. Distributors and manufacturers crowded into a small meeting room, looking to government agencies in charge for guidance on how to comply and avoid the law’s onerous penalties. To their disappointment, the official response could be summed up as, “we’re working on it, and we’ll get back to you at some unspecified date.”

Drafted by the United Nations Conference on International Trade In Endangered Species (CITES), the new rosewood regulations stem from a laudable effort to prevent excessive cutting of rosewood. Over the last decade, demand for rosewood furniture in China has led to deforestation in places like Madagascar, Indonesia, and parts of Central America. In response, at the CITES Conference in South Africa last October, all species of rosewood (there are more than 250 varieties, but no one seems to agree on exactly how many) were placed on the CITES Appendix II, requiring more rigorous import and export documentation. Under the new rules, an instrument manufacturer has to document a legal chain of custody for any rosewood, from the time the tree was cut, until the raw wood was delivered to its loading dock. Every finished product containing rosewood needs a similar chain of custody documentation in order to be shipped across borders legally.
Less than three months elapsed between the time CITES adopted the new rosewood regulations and the day they were put into effect, leaving few if any of the 100-plus countries that are signatories to the treaty remotely prepared to implement them. CITES-compliant forms have yet to be drafted, port procedures are a work in process, and details like the “personal effects exemption” remain to be worked out. What documents are needed to legally cross borders with a 50-year-old guitar that has a rosewood fingerboard? No one is entirely sure.

For the industry, the resulting uncertainty has caused paralysis. Unable to secure proper documentation from countries including India or China, containers of finished instruments and raw materials are stacking up on the docks. No distributor we know of wants to risk having a container confiscated, incurring fines, or getting skewered as “against the environment.” U.S. guitar makers face the double challenge of being unable to legally secure rosewood or properly document their products for export. Thus, factories have slowed, and inventory is building up.

Complicating the issue, India, a major source of rosewood, wants no part of the new rules. The country’s established rosewood industry has a reputation for careful forest management: Trees are systematically planted to provide shade for tea plants in commercial plantations; rosewood is plentiful; all cutting is managed under a strict government permitting process. For the 100,000-plus Indians employed in dealing with rosewood, there’s a sense that they are being unfairly punished for the transgressions of other nations.

The incomplete regulations carry real human consequences. Those working in an export department are likely to see reduced commissions; factory workers will have their hours reduced; increased compliance costs will erode profits. The larger manufacturers can work through these issues by assigning staff to cope with the expanded paperwork, but the hundreds of smaller builders represented at NAMM are faced with the prospect of foregoing the use of rosewood, abandoning export markets, or both. When confronted with these issues, government officials reacted with the same sense of urgency you’d expect from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In their defense, they are not entirely to blame. The new CITES regs were drafted behind closed doors by anonymous U.N. officials, with little or no time for public review or comment. As a result, APHIS and Fish & Wildlife officials seem almost as confused by the new rules as the community of instrument makers. They also feel besieged, given that, collectively, they have a staff of just seven to sort through the mess. What distressed industry members at the NAMM meeting, though, was the absence of any official sympathy for their plight. The unspoken message was, “The unintended consequences of the rules we draft are not our concern; our intentions are good.” In the private sector, though, people faced with mortgages, tuition bills, and payrolls to meet, don’t have that luxury. They can’t just wave away these commitments, saying, “A technocrat far away whipped up these new rules that have impacted my income, but give me a break because the intent is good.”

The fact that these new rules have been so poorly crafted may help speed resolution. Car makers, the furniture industry, and a multitude of houseware suppliers have also been adversely impacted, making for a coalition potentially large enough to command some attention. In a perfect world, though, we’d suggest another solution: dock the rule drafters’ salaries until a more workable draft is completed.


Almost all my guitars have rosewood fretboards, and my dream acoustic guitar¬†will be built entirely of “shipwreck” Brazilian rosewood from a shipwreck off the coast of Brazil in 1936 (or other salvaged Brazilian). I love the feel of a rosewood fretboard, and I love the tones rosewood produces; in particular, with acoustic guitars.

But I’m also environmentally sensitive. So while it appears the CITES regulations have a clear intent, and also realizing like any legislation produced in a vacuum is bound to be flawed, I’m willing to forego my desire for something made with materials from an endangered species. Of course, the exception is the Indian rosewood which is sustainably produced.

What’s happened with the deforestation in Honduras and Madagascar needs to be severely scaled back, if not completely eradicated. I know, we’re talking people’s livelihoods, but though I’m not a “tree-hugger,” I’d still like to leave a legacy of love for the Earth with my descendants.

Circling back to the title of this article: Is there a viable alternative to rosewood? I’ll answer it however tritely with: It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you pick up an instrument and it speaks to you. For instance, I absolutely LOVE my Squier Classic Vibe Tele. It has a pine body, for chrissake!

I was having a discussion about gear with a friend. For years, he has played through a cheap solid-state amp, and lately, he has been looking to get a tube amp. So he asked me for some advice. I gave my standard answer of “you have to play a lot of amps.” But I directed him towards some entry-level models that would serve him well. He’s in a reggae band, and since reggae is mostly clean, I told him to start with looking a Fender and Fender-ish amps.

But I also cautioned him that he should make his decision purely on how we felt about the sound the amp produces and not get into whether or not the amp is wired point-to-point or if its circuits are printed on a board. The ONLY thing that matters is the sound. As Duke Ellington was once quoted saying, “If it sounds good, it is good.”

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A couple of days ago, I wrote an article about how James Taylor tunes his guitars, utilizing the “cents” on the tuner to compensate for the shape of an acoustic guitar, and how the bass notes ring sharper than their tuning, and also to compensate for a capo pulling the strings sharp. Here’s the video for a refresher:

At the end of the article, I said I’d try it out and I’ll be damned if it didn’t sound good both with and without a capo!

My test of a tuning is always to play a root E chord after I tune my guitar. Usually, I get to the exact tuning, then end up tuning strings a little down because the E chord just doesn’t sound right. So I suppose I’ve been doing this by feel all these years. But now I have a fool-proof, sure-fire, and most importantly, a measurable¬†way of tuning that I can repeat.

If you don’t want to watch the whole video, here’s the tuning (high to low):

E -3
B -6
G -4
D -8
A -10
E -12

Values are in negative cents. For my guitar, a full -12 cents on the low E sounds slightly off, so I end up using -10 to -11 (I know, it’s a tiny amount, but I can hear it). But I set the rest of the strings as directed.

As they say, it’s the little things in life… I’m nothing short of amazed at how this small adjustment makes a world of difference.

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