Category Archives: music lessons

Guitar tone: have you been missing the obvious trick?

Still looking for a better guitar tone? You might have been missing something obvious for some time. You have the guitar, the amp, the overdrive pedals, EQ, but that sound isn’t quite there? It just doesn’t feel right. The obvious answer is to do less. More specifically…

Dial down the gain. Clean up your sound.

Sound ridiculous? Stay with me for now and I’ll try to explain why I believe a cleaner sound makes for not only a better guitar tone, but also helps your sound cut through the mix of a full band. A few things to consider…

Here comes the science (sort of)

Adding overdrive or distortion to your guitar smooths out the tone. Yes, it can sound lovely and ‘syrupy’, not unlike Clapton’s famous ‘woman tone’ or the thick lead sounds of Gary Moor or Slash, but have you ever noticed how your solo cans till get lost in the live mix? This is particularly true if your band includes keys, a second guitar player or a horn section, as all of these instruments predominantly occupy the midrange of the frequency spectrum. In effect, your smooth tone is competing with many different voices, and all that lovely smoothing-out (which sounds so cool for your legato runs, etc) makes your sound more likely to dissolve into the wider sound of your band.

The trick is volume over distortion

Try listening to pretty much any classic rock record from the late sixties and seventies (the age of the ‘guitar hero’). Notice how so many of those riffs are only slightly overdriven, at best? Some, such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, make use of guitar sounds which are virtually clean. That classic sound you hear is usually a small amp (say 30 watts) being turned up full, and breaking up into a light overdrive sound. This applies to most of the back catalogues for most of your favourite ‘heavy’ bands, from Led Zeppelin and The Who to early Aerosmith and even Black Sabbath.

My favourite example to highlight this is the classic song, Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple. The link takes you to the studio recording. Compare this with every covers band that had played this song. Ever. Heck, compare it with how Deep Purple play it now! Everyone has a different opinion, but wouldn’t most agree that the original sounds better?

These bands sounded heavy because they were playing the loudest amplifiers available, and as they got bigger, the sound got heavier, but we’re still a long way from the Mesa Boogie levels of heaviness the eighties would bring along…

Wouldn’t these bands have played heavier, if they had been able to?

Quite probably. They were considered pretty noisy for their time! If those full, thick distortion sounds had been more readily available in the mid-sixties, would the sound of rock guitar have been very different? The truth is, we’ll never know. Those artists used the equipment they had available, and we can only hypothesize as to alternative outcomes. Here it becomes a little too ‘chicken-and-egg’ for my liking, though there are numerous threads on guitar forums across the internet if this is the kind of debate you’re looking to investigate further.

Of course, one counter-argument would be the fuzz pedal. This was heavily used by some artists, notably Hendrix (if you’re not sure how that fuzz sounds, think of the opening riff to ‘Satisfaction’ by the Rolling Stones as your starting point). This effect created a thick and – it goes almost without saying – ‘fuzzy’ sound to the guitar’s tone, making solos sustain for longer and creating a warm, distorted sound. However, the fuzz pedal didn’t take over the sound of rock  guitar as we know it. Perhaps distortion wasn’t the end-goal for guitar players back in the sixties, after all?

So should I play clean but loud for the rest of my guitar-playing career?

Probably not a good idea. Your band mates will most likely not appreciate it!

However, I might suggest you start by dialing back the gain a little on your drive channels, pedals, etc, and make better use of volume and tone controls (on the guitar, amp and any stompboxes you are using) to allow the sound of your guitar to ring through.

But what about sustain?

It’s not always possible to turn up loud and play away. I currently gig with a digital amp which is DI’d into my band’s mixing desk, with no output from the amp itself. My main channels are a clean and a slightly overdriven channel, both of which are fairly ‘dry’ signals (not effects except for a very small amount of reverb). My lead sound (for solos) is another version of the overdriven sound, with a slight boost in volume and treble frequencies. Crucially, this sound also includes a fair bit more reverb dialed in, plus a short delay mixed low underneath the original signal. The reverb and delay both act to thicken up the sound, and assist my guitar sound not only through increased sustain, but in helping the sound to cut through the mix.

Another trick to use in the studio is to use two amps when recording; one with an overdriven sound, and another set to an almost clean tone. The cleaner of the two amps can be mixed quite low, but it’s presence will add some clarity of definition which the heavier sound loses. The whole thing makes for a guitar tone which is not only more thick, but more true to the sound of your guitar – try it!

Take away points:

  • Clean up your tone – wind back that gain!
  • Use effects to create the impression of more volume (such as reverb and delay) instead of piling on the distortion

Caveats:

I fully appreciate that everyone’s opinion is bound to differ on subjects as personal as guitar tone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. It is also worth remembering that certain styles of guitar-based music rely on a super-distorted sound as an integral element to their sound (think of bands like Nirvana and Skunk Anansie, for instance). However, don’t be afraid to try experimenting with a cleaner tone. Be warned though, with a clean sound, there is nowhere to hide any weaknesses in your playing technique!

 

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How to practice effectively [video]

This is a short video from TED Talk on how to practice more effectively. It includes some useful tips & really interesting information based on what we know about the brain & how we learn tasks.

This ties-in with my previous blogs on rehearsal & my own (admittedly rather limited) research on music and the human brain [see previous posts]. Let me know what you think!

If the above video doesn’t work, here’s a link so you can access the short TED Talk video on YouTube.

Enjoy! xx

New Year’s resolutions for guitar players

As a general rule, I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. My philosophy is that changes can be made at any time, so why wait until January?

However, there is something about the end of a year which causes us all to reflect on the previous twelve months and start focusing on our plans for the next twelve. For us working musicians, many of us have recently reached the end of one of our peak times, the ‘Christmas Party Season’.

Like many bands who find most of their work comes from weddings & function work, 2016 ended for me with a NYE gig. In January, things start to feel a little quieter by comparison, which gives us time to ponder on the gigs we’ve enjoyed, what we didn’t enjoy, and what we hope to change for the new year.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of my suggestions for guitar-related resolutions for musicians looking to grow as better musicians in 2017:

  • Learn a new style.

Always wanted to start learning those jazz chord voicings? Perhaps you keep meaning to work on your reggae & ska rhythm playing? Or your country picking? Blues slide? The list goes on…

Take the time to work on these new genres & styles of playing. We are very fortunate to live in a time where we can access a world of free tutorials on the Internet, or videos in YouTube. However, don’t rule out the possibility of taking lessons to focus on specific areas – working one to one with an experienced guitar tutor does wonders for improving your playing! 

  • Mix things up.

Learning a style doesn’t mean you have to abandon all you know & travel the world playing strictly Django/gypsy jazz for the rest of your life (though I imagine there are plenty of worse ways to live)!

Have you found that the majority if your playing has been on acoustic guitar? Trying swapping to electric more often (or vice versa). Do you always practise at the same time of day? If possible, can you change to a different time? Your brain operates differently throughout the day – you may well find yourself going down very different musical avenues simply by switching from a morning to an afternoon practice session.

Sometimes learning to play a song you are very familiar with in a new style works brilliantly in helping your playing. Not only do you freshen up material which might be getting a bit stale, but you’ll have a safer means of exploring new options in your guitar playing.

One area of guitar playing I can’t recommend highly enough is solo performance. By this, I don’t mean the lead guitar solo in a song, but playing the melody, harmony, rhythms, etc on one unaccompanied guitar. It’s something a piano player wouldn’t think twice about, but I’m frequently amazed at how many guitarists simply haven’t tried it properly! If you’re unsure about how to start doing this, there are several books, online tutorials (like this blog!), and of course YouTube videos to help inspire you. Which brings us nicely in to…

  • Widen your horizons.

Music is a language. Even when playing on your own, you are creating sounds for yourself to hear, effectively taking to yourself. But there’s only so long you can do that before you end up going round in circles, or going crazy!

Set yourself the following challenge for the year: discover a new artist each month of 2017. Learn from what you hear. Take examples of their playing & try to incorporate it into your own. It can only make you a better guitarist! The beauty of this is that you don’t have to focus on other guitar players. In fact, it might be better not to! Many of the jazz & Blues guitarists I admire take inspiration for their improvisational playing from horn players, translating their melodies & ideas into their own instrument. Try it!

It also helps to get out amongst other musicians, jam, join or start a new band, particularly in a new style. It also goes further than this – always wanted to sing while playing? Start! Learning a new instrument? Do it! The best way out of a rut is to climb upwards!

  • Get your music ‘out there’.

…And if you’re meeting new musicians & launching new projects, you’re already doing this. Go to more live gigs, gig more yourself, especially new and original music. I know all too well how easy it is to get stuck in one ‘world’ (in my case playing in a covers band), and finding it hard to do other things, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Remember to have fun while you’re out there expanding your guitar playing horizons!

Best of luck and wishing you all a very happy new year! Let’s make 2017 – like every year – a great year for music, for the guitar, and for you!

Tim xx

Please do get in touch to tell me what your own guitar/music new year resolutions are, and stay in touch to let me know how you’re getting on with them! Don’t forget I’m here to help if you need it! xx

New community music centre now open in Cumbria

Some of you may know I am involved with a few community music therapy projects in the north-west of England. Now think it’s time you met ‘me gaffer’, and had a wee peek at the new £2million centre which has recently opened its doors in Penrith, Cumbria.

Annie, Michael & the whole team at Sunbeams Music Trust have been working tirelessly for several years, and not just in fundraising for their brand new centre. Sunbeams Music Trust now provides community music across the region. Their ‘Music for Life’ & ‘Music for Dignity’ projects reach children and adults in schools, day centres, care homes & much more, bringing music (and improved wellbeing) to so many people who need & enjoy it. But there is always more work to be done and more communities & people to reach out to. This new centre will go some way to meeting that obvious need.

Featuring a large performance room, state-of-the-art digital recording studio and small music & therapy rooms, the new centre comes well equipped to meet the needs of the charity. A well-equipped kitchen & boardroom means they can also raise much needed revenue through conferencing & hosting events. The recording studio is also directly linked up to the performance hall, meaning the centre can also serve as a commercial studio capable of recording anything up & including a small orchestra!

Guitars laid out in ‘Lily’s Room’, at the Sunbeams Centre, Cumbria.

My only contribution to the new centre so far has been laying out the guitars on the floor (as above, however the remnants of which can also be briefly glimpsed in the video, via the link below). However, I hope to start leading a few of the projects there from 2017 and truth be told, I can’t wait! The new centre is, in a word, AWESOME!

Sunbeams runs entirely on donations & charity funding. If you haven’t yet chosen a charity to donate to for Christmas, or raise money for throughout 2017, please give Sunbeams some serious consideration.

Fundraiding information can be found on Sunbeam’s donation page.

Thanks, guys! xx

…And here’s the recent feature on the new Sunbeams Centre, courtesy of ITV News.

Albêniz’s ‘Leyenda’- open to interpretation

Interpretation is key to making music more than the robotic sounding of written notes on a page. It plays a large part in ensuring music remain an art, rather than a means of sequencing sound (this too can be a form of art, when done well, but that’s another article altogether).

I was recently asked to perform Spanish guitar music at a friend’s wedding service. Amongst other choices was Leyenda (meaning ‘legend’), one of the ‘big’ pieces classical guitar repertoire. Originally written by Spanish composer Isaac Albêniz (1860-1909) for piano, but transcribed for guitar within Albêniz’s lifetime.

The most famous transcription of this piece is by Andrés Segovia. Hear the great player performing it himself on this YouTube video. You may notice that Segovia’s interpretation is slower than more recent recordings. I’ve had some pretty interesting discussions with guitarists in the last few weeks and months regarding artistic interpretation. In almost all of these chats, the focus has been on the interpretation of the performer

However, what we hadn’t considered is the interpretation of the composer, or the arranger. When I say arranger, I mean one who transcribes music for other musicians to perform, rather than a player making interpretive changes solely for their own performance.

I came across a great article by composer & arranger Stanley Yates about this piece, which I wholeheartedly recommend you read here. In this article, Yates not only provides a large (and most welcome) amount if background information on the piece, but explains why his new arrangement differs more from Segovia’s than you might expect. The chief differences for me are the absence of sixteenth triplets in the opening section, which was Segovia’s invention (be honest, how many of you knew that?!) and a few differences to the interval of certain ‘grace notes’.

You can download Yates’s arrangement of Leyenda for free via this link to his website. I strongly recommend that you do this, in order to see these differences for yourself, and experience a very different side to a piece you thought you knew intimately.

The source for Yates’s arrangement is the original published piano work. He argues that he has attempted to stay true to the original piece without being pressured by the subsequent traditions of this piece which have grown over the last century. To say any more would be to rob Yates’s article completely – take some time to read it for yourself, and as always, please let me know your thoughts. Artistic interpretation has been a keen area of interest to me for a long time, and I am happy to open up a long-running conversation on the topic with readers & fellow music lovers. Get in touch!

Tim x

Ukulele Problems: Tuning

Ukulele beach(pic courtesy of ukulelemusichawaii.com)

So you’ve bought your first ukulele & learned a few chords. But now you’ve noticed that it’s gone out of tune. No matter, you have a tuner, you tune up. Done. But after a pretty short time, it’s out of tune again. Why?

I get this query a lot from my new ukulele students. Just as they are getting started with their first steps into music-making on this instrument, they become frustrated with it’s apparent lack of tuning stability.

New ukuleles come with new strings, which haven’t been ‘played in’. Just like a new set of strings of a guitar, they need to be ‘stretched’. As ukulele strings are made from nylon, which is a very flexible material, this is even more apparent.

The quickest way to to this is following these basic steps:

  1. Tune your ukulele
  2. Take a hold of the strings & gently pull them up, away from the fingerboard, repeating across a few different parts of the string (see an example video here)
  3. Re-tune the ukulele
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3 until re-tuning is no longer required

Hey presto! problem solved! Your ukulele should now not only remain stable after playing, but also hold it’d tuning better when travelling (though extreme changes in temperature will still cause the strings to expand and contract).

The video included via hyper link in point 2, above (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px0ds0T3ric) is one of many available online to help you better visualise what I mean by stretching the strings. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

Other things to remain mindful of:

While stretching the strings is by far the most common solution to fixing a consistently out of tune uke, you may still notice occasional tuning issues. Perhaps simple, mostly open chords sound correct, but those with three or four fretted notes, or barre chords, have one or two out of tune strings when played. More perplexing, this can happen when the open strings are still correctly tuned up.

The problem? In this case, it’s intonation.

Provided you have a decent instrument, where the frets are set up and spaced correctly (watch out for the false economy of the bottom range ‘budget models’), then this can easily be fixed by paying close attention to how you fret the notes. You may find, on new or more interestingly shaped chords, that you are pressing down too hard on certain strings, pushing that note slightly out of tune with the rest of the chord. Some positions might require you to stretch or bend a finger in a way which means it is not sitting behind the fret as per the standard method. This too, can be fixed with a little bit of practise, and a small amount of mindfulness. Happy Uke-ing!