Category Archives: North West

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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Gear Talk (3)

Summer has ended, and with it wedding season. The number of gigs I’ve been playing each week is now returning to a level more compatible with two other jobs and a master’s degree. Now I have time to take stock and update you on my two new working guitars…

Vintage Modified Strat in vintage blonde (left) & Classic Vibe Strat in fiesta red (right).

My previous Strat, one of the new Fender Made in Mexico Standards, featured coil-tapping on both the neck & bridge pickups. In my current function band, I found myself playing it almost exclusively in the single-coil setting. After years of having a humbucker in the bridge position, I finally fell in love with the classic single-coil Strat sound. As it turned out, the Mexican Strat’s neck didn’t feel quite right for me – a trifle too thick, certainly compared to the thinner, vintage feel of my favourite blue Strat (see ‘Gear Talk’ 1 & 2). At the same time, I’d read several reviews singing the praises of the top-end Squier models. It seemed that Squier were no longer solely the savvy choice for the beginner.

I’d been looking for two guitars which sound and feel similar enough to each other to make mid-gig changes much smoother. The weight and shape/feel of the neck needed to feel close to identical, while the sound had to match up as best as it could. I had also been hoping to use more budget-concious instruments – if the build quality was up to it – in order to retire my favourite blue Strat from regular function gigs. On paper, the squires seemed ideal, so I took the plunge and bought two varying models on a retro theme…

Squier Vintage Modified Stratocaster

The rave reviews on the deluxe, Classic Vibe and new Vintage Modified lines claimed that many guitarists might well be fooled in a blindfold test with some of Fender’s classic guitars. Likewise, build quality and parts were considered by some to surpass the recent Mexican standards. With this in mind, I purchased a brand new Squier Vintage Modified Strat, finished in a quote lovely custard yellow colour they call Vintage Blonde.

The Vintage Modified range aims to replicate a vintage guitar that’s been retro-fitted with player upgrades. Here, that means Duncan-designed pickups, a better bridge than the entry-level Squiers, a thin, tinted neck and vintage style tuners for better stability. The pickups appear to be a slightly aged off-White, adding to the retro vibe. Best of all (in my opinion), it has the large headstock that Fender started using in the last sixties/early seventies, which is the most obvious nod to the past.

I really like the sound of this guitar. And that’s not compared to Squier’s Affinity range, but the Mexican standards. The basswood body is lighter, but it doesn’t have an obvious effect on either the sound or sustain if this guitar, even compared to my Blue Mexican. Likewise the feel, not to mention the incredible playability, of this guitar far exceed its humble price tag. This has become my main axe for function work. All I needed now was a similar beast to partner it with…

Classic Vibe Simon Neil Stratocaster

I’m going to come clean here and admit I’d never heard of Simon Neil. While I had heard of his band, Biffy Clyro, I couldn’t name or even recognise a single song of theirs, nor could I adequately describe their style. However, friends more clued up on this sort of thing than I am informed me they have a mix of street cred with a younger audience and play interesting, heavy rock music. The specs on this guitar imply that Mr Neil has good, and indeed similar, taste in guitars to me. While I wouldn’t normally buy a signature model (other than a Les Paul, naturally), seeing this guitar going for £200 second hand was too good an opportunity to pass up. Heck, if I didn’t like it, I could always sell it on.

This (now discontinued) guitar is essentially a budget-friendly version of the Fender Simon Neil signature model. Based on a ’62 Strat in gorgeous Fiesta Red, it certainly looks the part. The Mark Knophler/early Hank Marvin vibe in the aesthetic was enough to override any boggling doubts about the subtle Biffy Clyro logo on the headstock. The rosewood fingerboard is slightly lighter than expected, but sounds as warm and dark as you’d expect. As with the Vintage Modufied guitar, the bridge and tuners are an upgrade from those axes at the lower end of the Squier range, and the overall build quality feels like another great job from their Chinese factory. The pickups are a custom mix of Alcino 3 and 5 magnets, which offer up a delightful blend of early and late 60’s Strat tones in one guitar. Very nice!

Having played this guitar for a couple of weeks now, I feel it’s here to stay. I’m currently setting it up so it’s gig-ready, as the action on the two guitars wasn’t quite matching up. There is a slight difference in the sound, particularly when overdriven, but it’s close enough to be complimentary. Other than that, and the obvious differences in finish, these guitars feel the same in my hands and under my fingers, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Finally, even though I never thought I’d say this, I encourage you to give Squier (and indeed other budget models) a go before spending all your money on the top-end guitar brands. Now, more than ever, you may well find the difference is that you’re paying extra for the name. All in, these two new guitars cost less than one New Mexican standard, and for what I need as a working musician, they do the job exceedingly well. Join us, and you too can live the two Squier dream onstage!

Video: Funk & Soul Medley (with Switch)

Been a while since my last post (several life-changing events recently – all positive!) but thought I’d post a new video from Switch.

For those new to my blog, Switch are my main function band at the moment. I’ve been their guitar player since the beginning of 2015, and we’ve performed at all manner of function & event in that time.

This medley was recorded last winter, but only recently uploaded by the band. It features three funk & soul songs, all of which are staples of the wedding/function band scene:

  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)
  • Never Too Much (Luther Vandross)
  • Ain’t Nobody (Chaka Khan)

This medley showcases Switch’s full six-piece lineup of female vocals, bass, drums, keys, guitars & male backing vox (me), plus alto sax & female backing vox.

For my part in this recording, the guitar used was my Fender Modern Player Stratocaster (short scale model), DI’d direct into the studio desk. Recording took place at Nemix Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I must admit that I don’t know which ‘re-amp’ patches were used for my guitar tones, other than I requested a Fender Blackface/Deluxe style amp for the clean sound. Sorry there isn’t any more detail….

As always, let me know what you think. In case the video above does not play, you can access it on YouTube here.

Enjoy! xx

British Summer Time (BST). The clocks go forward

I’ve not long been back in from tonight’s gig, a wedding down in York’s historic & beautiful city centre, and just noticed that the time on my phone has automatically changed. I’m now an hour further into the future.

2017 is FLYING BY. Already it’s British Summer Time (BST) and the clocks go forward one hour – meaning you lose an hour’s sleep if you’re unfortunate enough to have something scheduled for your Sunday morning.

There’s a debate going on in this country (and indeed many others) about whether or not changing to BST is still as useful as it has been in the past. The main arguments are that it helps the farming community, and makes evenings a little lighter up in northern Scotland (and therefore safer for school children heading home). All I know is I’ll lose an extra hour (spent mainly swearing) attempting to alter the oven clock in the kitchen…

Anyway, time for bed for me, complete with a lie-in! Remember we get our ‘stolen’ hour back in the autumn when we return to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), but until then, make the most of the hours you have available! x

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.