Category Archives: rock

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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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

Seven Nation Army (cover)

My previous blog mentioned a recent recording date with function band Switch. We recorded about three or four tracks for the band’s website, two of which we filmed videos for.

The first video, for ‘Mercy’, you can watch here.

Our cover of ‘Seven Nation Army’ was the second video we recorded that day. As you can tell from the video, we had a bit of fun with this one. It still has quite a few nice shots of my Gold Epiphone Les Paul though…

Guitar wise, this is the LP from the video, using the neck pickup, coil-tapped. The slide is solid brass & it’s going through one of the studio’s Marshall amps (not the Orange stack you see in the video, though that does sound pretty cool).

Thanks to Loft Music Studios for the recording & production of the track, Nemix Studios for the video location and Artifact Media for shooting it! 

Enjoy!

A song for Black Friday: Mercy (cover)

Is it Black Friday? Have mercy…

Tenuous enough of s link for you? Good.

Earlier this year I hit the studio with function band Switch, and this cover of ‘Mercy’ (made famous by Duffy) was one of the tracks we recorded.

The guitar I used was the same one you can see in the video: Fender Modern Player Stratocaster going through one of the in-house Marshall combos at the Loft Studios.

Thanks to Loft Studios, Newcastle upon Tyne, for the recording session & production. Also many thanks to Nemix studios (also Newcastle), which was our location for the video, and to Artifact Media for the film production!

Enjoy!

Gear Talk (2)

It’s been almost two years since the last post running through all of my gear (which you can read here), and a lot has changed since then! Time for an update…

What’s the same?

First off, my blue/purple Strat is still my main weapon of choice (pictured, below).

My main Strat, with modded pickups. Seen here with my fave stomp boxes.

Known as the Standard Stratocaster HSS, this Mexican made beauty has been with me for sixteen years now. A few years ago, I upgraded the pickups to:

  • Fender Vintage Noiseless (neck)
  • Seymour Duncan Cool Rails (middle)
  • Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker (bridge)

I love the combination of these pickups, not to mention their individual tones. I’m buying a new ‘fat Strat’ soon (expect a review to follow) and should I find the standard pickups somewhat lacking in quality, I’ll be replacing them with the same choices mentioned above.

What else has remained the same?

My acoustics – the Taylor 314ce, Admira classical and Tanglewood electro acoustic – are the same as before. My ukulele is a standard concert model by Kauai.

Most of my pedals have remained the same but here’s a quick rundown of my main stompboxes:

  • Joyo Vintage Overdrive (highly recommended!)
  • HotOne Boost
  • Boss OD3 (overdrive) & DS1 (distortion)
  • Marshall Bluesbreaker overdrive
  • Snarling Dogs Wah
  • Joyo Digital Delay

I have a pedal board to house all of these. However, I often simply take two or three pedals out to a gig without the board. This changes from gig to gig, but looking back through the pics on my Twitter account, I find the Joyo Vintage OD (a top quality tubescreamer clone for a fraction of the price) usually makes an appearance.

So what’s new?

ELECTRICS

My current second Strat is a Chinese made Modern Player Stratocaster. Interestingly, it is short scale (24 inches instead of the usual 25.5). Apart from being a feet shorter on the neck (only twenty) you barely notice when playing, though the body is a little smaller. In terms of sound, the pickups on this are classic Strat and I love the Guild humbucker in the bridge – the chrome looks really cool against the scratch plate (see pic below, sun best guitar on the left)!

Modern Player short scale Strat, sunburst (left); Mexican HSS Strat, midnight blue (right); Fender Stage 100 solid state amp (rear).

Finally, I also own an Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO. The main difference between this and the standard Epi LP is that both the top quality pickups are coil-tapped. They’re also uncovered, which looks very funky against the gold finish (see pic, below).

Epiphone Les Paul plus top PRO, gold with those beautiful uncovered ‘zebra’ humbuckers.

When I bought this guitar, I thought I’d be using it with bands in the heavier end of the rock spectrum. However, I’ve found myself using it more & more for blues & jazz gigs. It was my main guitar for my blues workshops at the Sage Gateshead this summer, and provided those early blues times perfectly.

AMPS

I’ve finally bowed to the inevitable and invested in a digital amp. I’m glad I waited, because evidently Fender did too. The first wave of modelling amps were full of lags & bugs. By waiting, Fender’s first foray into the genre ensured they got it right first time. Even then, they were minor bugs, quickly improved in the line of amps released when I started looking – and now I’m a very happy owner of a Mustang III version 2 (pictured below).

Fender Mustang III v.2 digital amp, pictured here with my gold Epi LP.

This has every amp option you can think of, as well as every effect you’ll ever need. I prefer to keep my overdrive stompboxes, which frees up the amp to add modulation effects (such as phaser or their wonderful chorus choices). There’s room for a hundred saved channels, which is more than I need but useful to have. Also, their pitch-shift effect allows me to down tune the entire guitar without the need to, well, actually down tune the guitar! Very cool!

What else?

Well… I’ve just today ordered a Fender HSH Strat, so expect a review when that arrives. I’m also quite keen to look at a few more pedals from Joyo. Watch this space.

Until next time… 

Things (demo)

New music! You can hear it here.

I’ve had the idea of ‘looped acoustic guitars’ going around my head for a few weeks now. Finally, I have had time today to grab my scribbled notes & make a basic demo. This way, I not only get to start fleshing out my draft, but it makes me less likely to forget about it altogether!

Still footage from the demo video of ‘Things’

When finished, this piece will be part of a new original music project I am working on. As it happens, I am still recruiting musicians for this project. If you’re interested, based in the North East of England and NOT a guitar player, drop me a message via this site or answer my Gumtree advert or my advert on Join My Band.

The main idea centres around two acoustic guitars using natural harmonics (where you touch a string over a deer without pressing down to create a bell-like chime). This guitars, panned hard left & right respectively, are then overlaid not only with additional instrumentation, but unexpected harmonic colours.

The basic harmony of the guitar ‘loops’ on their own is very predominantly E minor. I intend to add a few variants of this to the finished piece, but the draft I uploaded today features an upbeat, uplifting section base around the chords of G major & C major. Laid over the looping guitars, this gives a feel of extended chords such as G6, Gmaj9, Cmaj11 and others. For this reason, the bass, drums & keys you hear on this demo are kept relatively simple as a result. Following in my previous minimalist drafts, I’ve true not to throw too much in – why over complicate something which doesn’t need it?

Still footage from the demo video of ‘Things’

You can hear my first draft for ‘Things’ (with my pretty basic video of things around my house) online now via my Vimeo page. As always, comments are more than welcome – I’d really love to hear what you think. I’d also like to get the word out so please feel free to share, like, tweet & reblog to your heart’s content!  

Thanks guys! More coming very soon xx

Advice for young musicians

We all know how it is. You want to prove yourself and show the world (and your peers) that you ‘have what it takes’ to work in music; Self assured and not in need of any advice of pointers from anyone else. How would they know your ‘story’ anyway? How could someone advise you when your style, your sound, your ‘voice’, is unique to you.

True, confidence can be a great asset to our chosen profession. Even in an industry where we work together because it’s the fundamental nature of how music operates, it can get lonely out there sometimes. But a false confidence, or bluff, will leave you alienated and likely to make the same sorts of mistakes thousands of musicians have made before you.

So swallow your pride, take a seat, and listen to a few words of wisdom from those who have made music work – and pay – for themselves.


Keybaord player and composer Ben Folds wrote some advice a few years ago on his Facebook page. Boiled down to the essentials, I found three things especially true:

    Work on finding your own voice
    However much you try, you will always be you. Stop trying to be anyone else and accept this fact. Once you have come to terms with this, work on being the best ‘you’ that you can be.

    Learn your technique, then forget it
    learn as much as you can, as widely as you can. Read about it & practise it. Then follow the advice of the previous point and learn to present these techniques in your own, unique way.

    Before you can express yourself in words, you first have to learn the language; it’s vocabulary & grammar. But think of how many books & poems were all the more interesting for their yearning up of the rules? The same applies to music first. However, to reach this point, you need to know which rules you are breaking…

    Don’t they to force people into liking you or your music
    There will always be people out there who find what you do interesting, provided you are doing it well, and playing from the heart. don’t bend over backwards trying to commercialise your sound, compromising your music in the process. The audience will come to you, so just persist at it.

    This is even more true in our digital age – search for good advice on putting you material online. You should never have to pay to do this, due to the high number of platforms out there. It might be slow at first, but you will eventually reap the fruits of your hard work.


NobleViola.com also features a really interesting article entitled ’10 things I wish I knew when I was a young musician’ which, while echoing the sentiments of Folds, adds the following gems:

  • Practicing isn’t a matter of how many hours you put in, but how many good hours you put in. It’s quality, not quantity.
  • Your body is also your instrument – learn how it works and take care of it.
  • Being professional is a 24 hour job.
  • Keep busy, and do a variety of things. Diversify as much as you can.
  • Love what you do – and remember to nurture that love.
  • As Pat Metheny says on his website, “for me, after everything, the only thing that finally remains really true is the feeling that at the end of the day, I know that I played really good, or I didn’t ; or that I made some progress and understand something that I didn’t understand at the beginning of the day; or I didn’t. This, to me, is the real currency of what it is to have a life as a musician”.

    Well said, Pat.

    As always, comments and responses are more than welcome. Feel free to check out my previous articles too! Enjoy the rest of your week & happy playing!