Category Archives: tips

What’s your biggest guitar issue?

ATTENTION GUITAR FRIENDS!

This is a call for submissions!

One aim of my blog is to offer guitar & music-related advice and for the next few posts, I’d like to pass the power in dictating the topic of discussion to YOU. So tell me: what is the is the biggest issue you face in learning the guitar?

I’m happy to examine any relevant queries which have been bugging you. They could be technical (finger tapping, getting the right tone out of an amp), or more vague (who do you feel the best guitarists to listen to when learning Afro-Cuban jazz, etc). You might want to ask about bass guitar, ukulele or band performance/management in general. Feel free!

You can message me here, leave a comment in this post, or drop me a DM/tweet via my Twitter account: @tim_guitarist.

I look forward to hearing from you & talking your queries over the next few weeks!

Tim x

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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

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… 

Mundane Science Fiction – taking fantasy out of the future

moon

Picture courtesy of Quora.com

Ok, so I’m a music writer first and foremost. The vast majority of my posts deal with (in no particular order):

  • The positive effects of music on overall wellbeing
  • Music therapy & community music articles of interest
  • Updates on my writing & recording work, focusing on new projects
  • Thoughts & discussions on the wider world of music, in all its beautiful and varied forms

However…

I do, on occasion, venture away from music and enter the wider world, focusing on my other favourite subjects: history, politics, travel and of course, books.

Like most people who write, I’ve tried my hand at fiction. I’ve started around five or six ideas for stories, only three of which were long enough to become novels. Two of these were science fiction. My love of sci-fi comes from a childhood spent reading the greats such as Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Banks and many, many more. Anyone who states that the genre isn’t proper literature has most likely not read the right books. The imagination required to conjure up these worlds and peoples goes fast beyond the standard writing advice of ‘writing what you know’.

Critics of sci-fi do have one valid gripe: in all of the grandiose settings and fantastical elements of the genre, characterisation can sometimes suffer. It is certainly true that only the very best sci-fi combines the huge space-opera backdrop with the human elements of character-driven plot lines. In that regard, can too much imagination be a bad thing?

Enter the relatively new sub-genre of mundane science fiction, a term first coined by Geoff Ryman and others in 2004. Those of you who follow my music blogs will no doubt be aware I have a dislike of genres and labelling. Good music is good music – shouldn’t the same be true for fiction? Well, perhaps with a focus on characters and more believable conflicts, it can.

The best way to achieve this? Remove the supernova-sized set pieces; the spaceships travelling at light speed; aliens from other worlds; time travel; in fact, anything considered to be outside of our current understanding of physics and the universe as we perceive it.

The Guardian newspaper wrote an excellent piece in 2008 introducing readers to the genre, which I happened upon recently which you can read here. This article and the original blog by SFGenics explain mundane sci-fi so much better than I can, but the basics involve a lack of the ‘fantastical’ elements mentioned previously, focusing instead on human stories and character-driven plot/conflict.

Interestingly, I have noticed that most of the books considered part of this movement (if you want to call it that) are set in the present day, near or approaching future. There is almost no likelihood of seeing a mundane sci-fi novel taking place in the year 30,212 A.D. because who knows what the world will look like then, and how could such ignorance be presented as mundane?

Another noteworthy feature is a focus the dwindling resources of this planet. In forcing themselves to look inwards, rather than to the stars, many mundane sci-fi writers imagine a future where food is scare, or climate change has irreparably damaged our ecosystem. Their stories focus on how these environmental perils being either fought against, or survived through by the protagonists.

In the full ‘mundane manifesto’ blog, which you can read here, a few classic works are included, including ‘Do Androids dream Of Electric Sheep?’ by Philip K. Dick, which became the classic movie Blade Runner, and ‘1984’ by George Orwell. These two contrasting examples of a near dystopian future should tell you that even without the wider galaxy to play with, there is plenty of interesting topics to be mined here on Earth.

To finish off, I’ll return to music an anecdote from Peter Gabriel. When working on one of his classic albums, he instructed the drummer not to play cymbals for the entire recording sessions. Effectively, he forbade cymbals from the entire album. While some might balk at such a draconian measure and say it’s a fast way to ruin his music, the end results were quite surprising. Forced out of his usual default playing patterns and styles, the drummer at these recording sessions had to entirely rethink his drum kit. Approaching it in this fresh manner brought out rhythms he would have never dreamt up otherwise.

As well as this, I have previously written on the amazing results pulled off by the late record producer George Martin in a previous blog post. Martin had severe limitations on the equipment he was using, but with The betakes, created the most technically astonishing music, certainly for their time. Some might use that example of ‘rooming the safety net’, but to me, it stands as proof that sometimes creativity works better within limitations. As I said earlier, what applies to music can also apply to fiction. Sometimes to ‘think outside of the box’, one has to be in a box to start with!

So what do you think? Get in touch and let me know!

Three things we can learn from George Martin

Sir George Martin, most famous for acting as the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ albums, passed away yesterday, aged 90.

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Already, reports and obituaries have been published, quoting Martin and highlighting his amazing achievements with and without The Beatles. Though Martin was a producer for over a decade before meeting them, it is undoubtedly his work with this music-changing band, the very Zeitgeist  of musical development in the nineteen-sixties and beyond, for which he will be best remembered and discussed for years to come.

There’s been plenty of debate on whether or not The Beatles succeeded artistically because of suggestions made by Martin, or if he was simply very effective in channelling their natural talent. In reality, it was probably a mix of the two. That in itself is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Though Martin now sadly has passed away, we can still learn something valuable from the work he left behind. Here are my three things which we can learn from the life and career of George Martin:

Have an open mind

I’ve mentioned this in several previous posts, but an open mind and a willing pair of ears is without a shadow of a doubt the most important tool for any artist. This is especially true for musicians and producers, and a sentiment to which Martin himself prescribed more than once, including in his own books.

It is well established in rock history canon that The Beatles were been turned down by several record companies prior to being signed by Martin to EMI. Think about this for a moment: every almost ‘industry expert’ had refused to take on another guitar band, believing them to be going out of fashion. Fair enough, it is called the music business for a reason. Money has to be made and trends will always be followed. This is as true today as it was in the nineteen fifties and sixties. However, ‘following the money’ is a great way to be a follower, but you are default already a follower from the start, and not a leader.

The best leaders, artists, teachers, and indeed the best in any profession listen first. In seeing the potential that The Beatles had, Martin was able to continue listening to them throughout their eight years working together making hit after hit, and classic album after classic album. This is especially noticeable when at the point mid-sixties where the band stopped performing live altogether, becoming a studio band only. The resulting works, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, The Beatles and Abbey Road, are unique in sounding very much of their time, but still fresh and exciting in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Martin doing all of the listening. The Beatles themselves were avid consumers of art and music. In being open to anything interesting, they brought elements of avant-garde, atonalism, looping, sampling and a whole world of musical styles to their music. By opening your ears, and combining the sounds you love, it is entirely possible to produce a new work, which speaks to the future while recognising that which has gone before.

Know your limits, and push them

Looping, you say? Sampling? In the nineteen-sixties?! It is worth noting that the vast majority of The Beatles’ recorded output was recorded on a four-track (or, at very best towards the seventies, eight-track) tape machine. This was state of the art back then, but lacking in the limitless options of the digital recording software in use everywhere. Leaving aside all the other technological innovations and improvisations Martin would conjure up to accommodate the visions of The Beatles in their songwriting, there is the question of the sheer number of instruments and sounds on some songs. The solution to squeezing so many different elements onto a four-track recorder? Multi-tracking.

Multi-tracking was first developed by guitarist Les Paul some decades before Martin made such effective use of the technique. Put simply, the process involves recording onto three of the available tracks, then ‘bouncing’ that mix onto the fourth track. The process can be repeated using tracks one and two, then bouncing to the third. Then it can (if needed) be taken even further by mixing tracks three & four onto one of the other tracks, meaning there are now three left to add on more parts (and here is where I start to go cross-eyed myself!).

The biggest issue with this method of recording is the physical degradation of the tape onto which the sound was being copied. By layering track upon track, the overall mix becomes more dense, and done incorrectly, can leave with a muddy sounding, uninspiring record. George Martin, however, seems to have been perfectly capable of getting clean, crisp recordings of individual mixes, which hold their brightness as they get ‘bounced’ and mixed into a deeper and more complicated arrangement. Even with Martin’s confident ‘know how’, there was still a limit to how many additions could me made. In these days of endless tracks and almost any possible sound available to laptops worldwide, I personally don’t see the same level of mechanical creativity. Sometimes working with what you have, pushing the limits, is better than having no limits at all…

Have a sense of humour

There’s a famous anecdote – which Martin was often fond of telling – detailing the first time The Beatles first met their producer (retold once more in the Washington Post’s obituary of George Martin today). After Martin had spoke at length about the recording process, he asked the Fab Four is there was anything they didn’t like. The response, from George Harrison, was “Well, I don’t like your tie for a start…”. From there, Martin knew that they would get along famously.

A sense of humour can not only ease any tensions rising in the studio, which can be high-pressure for some acts expected to produce hit after hit. It can also serve to bridge the gap between generations. In that respect, Martin must have impressed the Beatles from the start, having quite an extensive background in comedy and novelty recordings – some of which became unexpected hits – including John Lennon’s comedy heroes, The Goons. In quite a lot of interview footage from the early sixties, The Beatles were set apart from their questioners, an exclusive club with a shared sense of humour and in-jokes which created a barrier to those outside of the group. Martin, I believe, was very much inside their ‘circle of trust’, otherwise they would not have allowed him such authority in the studio. A shared sense of humour must have been a major in-road to gaining the trust of these young Liverpudlians.

lightbox

Final Thoughts

As a musician, producer and in some ways, mentor, Martin helped the Fab Four to realise the sounds they heard in their heads. His creative, yet critical thinking fuelled The Beatles’ insatiable appetite for art, and helped their music transcend to heights which otherwise may have remained untouched. Though I have spoken mostly about Martin’s work with the Fab Four, we should be no means overlook all of the other artists he worked with & film scores he wrote/arranged. Without Martin, popular music, and therefore the world we live in today, would be very different indeed…

R.I.P. Sir George Henry Martin (1926-2016).

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!

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!