Category Archives: references

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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Reblog: NAMM 2018 – meh

Another insight regarding NAMM 2018.

What I find particularly interesting is the self-acceptance near the start (“I’ve found my sound. I know that whatever gear I play, I will sound like me”) which I feel all good guitarists, and indeed musicians, reach at a certain point.

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about gear and guitars, but for me, these are tools. My guitars are facilitators, helping me achieve my own sound in the most effective and hassle-free manner possible. As always, I’d be interested to hear your own experiences in this regard, so do get in touch!

See the full reblog below:

NAMM 2018: Meh…

Until next time!

Tim X

R.I.P. Glen Campbell (1936-2017)

I’m writing too many of these. Am I nostalgic? Or was there a truly golden period, filled with stars who so much that their passing inspires grief in even the most removed and passive music fan?

This morning, I leaned of the Glen Campbell’s passing. He was 81 and has only recently retired from performing following a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2011.

Beyond the country-pop hits Campbell enjoyed in his long career (‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ to ‘Gentle On My Mind’, as well as the classic ‘Wichita Lineman’, in the video below), he was also an accomplished session guitarist.

Campbell’s early influences included gypsy jazz legend Django Reinhardt and one of my own guitar heroes, session guitarist Barney Kessel. Campbell’s career would see him in the same first-call bank of musicians as Kessel (now referred to as ‘The Wrecking Crew’ – I highly recommend you read up on these amazing musicians and the inumeroua hits they helped to create). In this role he performed on records by Phil Spector, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys and countless others. In fact, he was the live replacement in The Beach Boys for Brian Wilson, who was not up to touring by the mid-sixties.

Aside from and indeed above his beautiful singing voice, I will remember Campbell as a highly versatile and talented guitar player. I hope you enjoy the video below.

R.I.P. Glen Travis Campbell (1936-2017).

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

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!

Music & Wellbeing (Part 6): Music Therapy & Educational Wellbeing

Music and educational wellbeing

So far, we have investigated the value of music in physical and mental wellbeing. As previously discussed, a better education leads to greater feelings of wellbeing, particularly in later stages of life (Merriam & Kee, 2014). With that in mind, if we are to consider the value of music on our physical and mental wellbeing, we must also discern its role in our education.

There have been recent arguments for the evaluation of wellbeing in the school system, examining what good practice is already in place, and also discussing ways to implement further measures (Aggleton, Dennison & Warwick, 2010). A recent study by McFerran & Rickson (2014) also highlighted the positive effect of music and music therapy in educational wellbeing. Both of the above studies allude to the wider benefits in the community and later on in the child’s life, once they reach adulthood. In this chapter, I aim to examine current thinking on the effects of music on improvements in children’s learning.

The act of participating in musical activities, or playing musical instrument, is seen by many to be of great importance to children’s development (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013; Swanwick, 1988, 1994;). As well as teaching self-discipline and providing feelings of achievement, it acts as ‘a powerful therapy for all sorts of childhood conditions. It develops body, brain and soul in balance’ (Ben-Tovim, 1979, pp. 15-16). Music has been considered to share many similarities with language throughout our history (Thaut, 2005, p. 171). It has long been used as a method of communicating new ideas and concepts to children in a classroom environment (Welch, 2005, p. 254; Barrett, 2005). The use of music in teaching pre-school children acts as both an ‘aid in language development while promoting musical development at the same time’ (Wiggins, 2007, p. 55). Recent studies, such as those carried out by Rickard et al (2010) noticed significant improvements in the verbal memory of primary school children who had spent time studying and playing music.

Such improvements, however, stop a little short of the now famous ‘Mozart effect’. This term is derived from an experiment in which students who listened to at least ten minutes of Mozart’s music performed better in special awareness tests (Rauscher, Shaw & Ky, 1993, quoted in North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). The popularity of these studies allowing the idea that certain genres of music can increase intelligence has since filtered into popular assumption. However, the theory that listening to music increases intelligence quotient (IQ), excluding any other factors or stimuli, is in itself a ‘massive oversimplification and overgeneralisation of the original scientific findings’ (North & Hargreaves, 2008, p. 346). I agree that there are too many additional factors to be considered when taking into account music as stimulation for learning. I find it unreasonable to rely on an almost magical ‘Mozart Effect’ for better results in a classroom environment. I believe music needs to be employed intelligently as a communicative and participative tool in teaching practice. Student engagement will be increased through activities they regard as ‘fun’ and consequently topics can be digested more effectively. In my opinion, the musical method should stimulate creativity in the children, and better equip them for future learning in other subjects (Scripp, Ulibarri, & Flax, 2013).

While Wiggins (2007) conducted her research in the United States of America, there is an emerging global consensus to collaborate her view surrounding music as an effective tool in teaching. A similar study undertaken in Australia investigated the effects of shared music activities in pre-school children at ages 2-3 years old. The researchers then successfully linked these to a positive range of skills by the time the subjects reached ages 4-5 years old. The children demonstrated higher abilities in ‘vocabulary, numeracy, attentional and emotional regulation, and prosocial skills’. (Williams et al, 2015). The children in these tests proved to be more developed in terms of numeracy, literacy and prosocial skills, than children who had not partaken in shared music activities at a young age; more, even, than children who had participated in shared reading activities at the same age as part of the same research (Williams et al, 2015). This builds upon previous research in Germany, which suggests the level of skills such as numeracy in children may be largely down to the home environment of the child, not to mention other factors such as the educational level of the mother (Anders et al, 2012). Williams et al (2015) use the studies of Anders et al (2012) as one of the bases for their own research. While the German studies are not music-specific, they do not preclude the theories on which the Australian study was conducted. Similar investigations on older children by Hille & Schupp (2015) demonstrated not only an improvement in school performance, but greater conscientiousness and improved social awareness.

So what about children with special educational needs? ‘Special educational needs’ (SEN) is a term which encompasses a wide variety of physical and mental circumstances which might impede learning, experienced both within and outside of the educational system. In the classroom environment, examples of SEN include children with speech, sight or hearing impairments, dyslexia, dyspraxia, delayed cognition, Down’s syndrome and those on the Autistic spectrum (ASD). Studies carried out by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) have shown that the use of music during lessons improves concentration in children on the autistic spectrum. The data returned by their research showed significantly less propensity on the child’s part to diverge into off-task behaviours. They showed higher levels of concentration when music was used as part of the learning process. They reasoned that ‘music can act as an extra auditory stimulus providing additional environmental structure, thus prompting children with ASD to stay on task.’ (Dieringer & Porretta, 2013, p. 8). Dieringer & Porretta (2013) also conclude that looking into this area of study further could lead to improvements in other aspects of life for children with ASD, not least enhanced inclusiveness with other children.

While Dieringer and Porretta (2013) demonstrate in their study that off-task behaviours are reduced when music is used, they argue that further research needs to be conducted into whether or not ‘improved performance or learning actually took place’ (2013, p. 9). However, similar research by Gerrity (2013) focused specifically on improved learning in children with autism during music lessons. The findings of this research conclude that improvements in musical ability and understanding did in fact occur.

What is interesting about the studies carried out by Gerrity (2013), and those undertaken by Dieringer & Porretta (2013) is that they both focus on children with varying levels of autism inside the regular public school system. However, research by (Sandiford, Mainess, & Daher, 2013) has shown how music is of enormous help to teachers in specialist schools for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), including the most severe cases of autism. My caveat to this would be that such improvements depend on a number of interlinking circumstances. This is similar to the findings of Anders et al (2012). These include, amongst other factors; teaching style; available resources (learning support and funding, for example); environment (at home and school); and parental support.

REFERENCES

Anders, Y., Rossbach, H., Weinert, S., Ebert, S., Kuger, S., Lehrl, S., Von Maurice, J. (2012) ‘Home and preschool learning environments and their relations to the development of early numeracy skills’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 27, pp. 231–244. Available From http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2011.08.003.

Barrett, M. (2005) ‘Musical communication and children’s communities of musical practice’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 261-280.

Ben-Tovim, A. (1979) Children and music. Great Britain: A. & C. Black Ltd.

Dieringer, S. & Porretta, D. (2013) ‘Using music to decrease off-task behaviours in young children with autism spectrum disorders’, Palaestra, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 7-9.

Dennison, C., Warwick, I. & Aggleton, P. (2010) ‘Evaluating health and well-being in schools’, in Aggleton, P., Dennison, C. & Warwick, I. (eds.) Promoting health and well-being through schools. United States & Canada: Routledge.

Gerrity, K. (2013) ‘Conditions that facilitate music learning among students with special needs: a mixed-methods inquiry’, Journal of research in music education, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 144-159. Available from: 10.1177/0022429413485428.

Hille, A., & Schupp, J. (2015) ‘How learning a musical instrument affects the development of skills’, Economics of Education Review, Vol. 44, pp. 56-82. Available from: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2014.10.007.

McFerran, K. & Rickson, D. (2014) ‘Community music therapy in schools: Realigning with the needs of contemporary students, staff and systems.’ International Journal of Community Music, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 75. Available from: 10.1386/ijcm.7.1.75_1.

Merriam, S., & Kee, Y. (2014) ‘Promoting Community Wellbeing: The Case for Lifelong Learning for Older Adults’, Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 128-144. Available from: 10.1177/0741713613513633.

Rickard, N., Vasquez, J., Murphy, F., Gill, A., & Toukhsati, S. (2010) ‘Benefits of a Classroom Based Instrumental Music Program on Verbal Memory of Primary School Children: A Longitudinal Study’, Australian Journal of Music Education, No. 1, pp. 36-47.

North, A. & Hargreaves, D. (2008) The social and applied psychology of music. United States: Oxford University Press.

Sandiford, G., Mainess, K., & Daher, N. (2013) ‘A Pilot Study on the Efficacy of Melodic Based Communication Therapy for Eliciting Speech in Nonverbal Children with Autism’, Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 1298-1307. Available from: 10.1007/s10803-012-1672-z.

Scripp, L., Ulibarri, D., & Flax, R. (2013) ‘Thinking Beyond the Myths and Misconceptions of Talent: Creating Music Education Policy that Advances Music’s Essential Contribution to Twenty-First-Century Teaching and Learning’, Arts Education Policy Review, Vol. 114, No. 2, pp. 54-102. Available from: 10.1080/10632913.2013.769825.

Swanwick, K. (1988). Music, mind, and education. USA & Canada: Routledge.

Thaut, M. (2005) ‘Rhythm, human temporality, and brain function’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D. (Eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 171-191.

Welch, G. (2005) ‘Singing as communication’, in Miell, D., MacDonald, R. & Hargreaves, D.J. (eds.) Musical communication. United States: Oxford University Press, pp. 239-259.

Wiggins, D. (2007) ‘Pre-K Music and the Emergent Reader: Promoting Literacy in a Music-Enhanced Environment’, Early Childhood Education Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 55-64. Available from: 10.1007/s10643-007-0167-6.

Williams, K., Barrett, M., Welch, G., Abad, V., & Broughton, M. (2015) ‘Associations between early shared music activities in the home and later child outcomes: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children’, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol. 31, pp. 113-124. Available from: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2015.01.004.