Tag Archives: Opinion

Why practice should NOT make perfect

Does practice make perfect?

It’s undoubtedly true that the more you focus on doing something, the better you become at its accomplishment. However, as this Guardian news story from 2019 highlights, the modern convention of ‘the 10,000 hour practice rule’ may not be quite the guarantee some people have sold it as. Personal improvement, in any sphere of one’s life is never so cut-and-dry, nor can the same methods work for every individual.

The key question is why do you practice, or rather, what are you practicing for?

For instance, is it to sound like a particular musician? And if so, why?

Take this example: I love BB King, and have listened to his music for over two decades to date; I’ve learned some of his key phrases, his recognisable musical characteristics such as his blues box, vibrato technique and the space he’s leave between notes, etc. And despite learning & digesting all of this information – heck, I used to teach these techniques at specialist masterclasses focusing on the blues master – I still sound nothing like him when I play guitar.

That’s not a bad thing, either. It doesn’t represent a failure on my part. If anything, bring able to incorporate so many elements of a player who got so much right, while still retaining my own musical voice, has to be an achievement worth celebrating in some small way. Of course, a large part of a guitar player’s sound comes from their fingers, so I’d never have been able to completely obscure who I was, even if I wanted to.

Perhaps you simply wish you could execute certain techniques as well as the great masters of your chosen instrument? Read that Guardian article again, then learn to measure success by your own improvement, in comparison to your past self only.

It almost sounds trite, but you can’t stop being you, so be the best you possible

So how should you practice? This interesting article from Bulletproof Musician offers some insights into what you should be looking for, and offering the term deliberate practice instead.

For further reading, feel free to peruse my older blogs & reblogs on the subject of practice, such as my warm-up and practice recommendations, and this reblogged article from Nicole Rogers on how to practice effectively.

…Just remember, perfection is an illusion, and no amount of practice will stop you from being you. Perhaps we should all embrace that.

Ukulele playing: pick or fingers?

One question I was asked fairly regularly by ukulele students in the past was:

Which is better for playing ukulele – fingers or pick*?

This blog post will hopefully go some way to explain why both are equally viable options. There – if you came to this article solely for reassurance on your preferred method of playing, I’ve saved you the hassle of reading any further!

[*NB – when I say ‘pick’, I of course mean a plectrum, like those used for guitar playing. If you’re here to learn about the kind if pick you dig holes with, you’re very much in the wrong place!]

If you’re looking for more information on picks, this rather informative article here from liveukulele.com may prove to be of use. But for now, let’s dive into our two options…

Pick (plectrum)

A pick is an easy option to start with, as even the nylon strings if a ukulele (as opposed to the steel strings used on a typical acoustic guitar) can have an effect on your fingers; this is particularly true of your nails and cuticles (the skin directly under your finger nails). You also get a louder, more direct sound when using a regular guitar plectrum, which are generally made of plastic or synthetic materials such as nylon & tortex (fake tortoise shell).

If you’re used to picking & strumming a guitar, you don’t have to make any changes to your right hand style at all. Although the same could be said if you’re primarily a fingerstyle player…

Fingerpicking

If you’re adept at fingerpicking guitar, you’ll be completely at home on the ukulele. In fact, it has two strings less, which should make it easier! I often find myself using my thumb for the G & C strings (the two closest to your face) and only making use of my index and middle finger for the E & A strings respectively.

I’ve also noticed that I perform finger rakes with any finger, and use my thumb in a greater variety of ways. Also, any guitar picking technique, from muting to string slapping & body tapping, all work equally well on a uke. If anything, my ukulele picking technique is more akin to how I play flamenco guitar!

Finally, you may notice that the tone of a fingerpicked uke is less harsh than when plucked with a pick. It’s certainly possible to obtain a greater range of sounds by adjusting which part of your fingers and nails pluck or strike the strings than could be managed with a plectrum.

Is there a middle way?

Well, yes. There are a few alternatives. Firstly, there’s felt plectrums. These are fairly common in ukulele playing and provide three ease of using a pick without the harsher tone. However, they’re less useful for more intricate playing, such as plucking individual strings.

There’s also a type of pick which sits on your fingers, popular in bluegrass styles.

Thumb & finger picks, popular in bluegrass banjo & guitar playing

These thumb & finger picks originated banjo playing, and offer the attack of a plectrum while still using fingerstyle hand & finger movement. Having said that, they do take a bit of getting used to! Many players use only the thumb pick in combination with their fingers. I’d recommend experimenting to see what works best for you.

But which is better?

As always in articles of this nature, I can’t give you a definitive answer, other than telling you my personal preference. For me, I don’t use picks at all in ukulele playing. I prefer the tone & versatility of using my fingers. But that’s just me – I encourage you to try both and see which one feels right for you.

Finally, don’t worry about sounding amazing if you’re new to trying a new playing style. Consider what feels most comfortable, and what has the best potential for you to continue improving in your playing. Let me know how you get on!

Welcome to the Twenties

Happy New Year, everybody & welcome to the Twenties!

The St Louis Cotton Club Band, in a truly epic photoshoot, crica 1925

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog. Life conspired to get in the way!

So here’s the main updates from me…

I’m fast approaching my third year as a music therapist, and for the better part of a year, I’ve been working five days a week, across Northumberland & Cumbria. For those of you from outside the UK, these two counties are not only the northernmost in England (bordering Scotland above), but also the most rural. This means as well as a full working week, I’ve got a longer commute than average, which eats into my free time somewhat.

To counter this, and because it’s less of an economic necessity nowadays, I’m stepping back a little from corporate live work. For the last decade, 80% of my gigs were weddings & events. While it’s been amazing, the time has come to be a little more selective with the performing work I take on.

I’ll still be gigging, but it’ll be music I fully believe in…

…such as my own projects, which are finally scheduled to get off the ground this year! Thanks to what I’ve started calling the Commune Method (using the same players on everyone’s projects, producing one person’s creative work at a time), I have a small team of talented musicians and producers to help me get my newer compositions down on a format I can share with you soon – updates to follow!

Finally, I’ll be refreshing my gear list in a new post soon, the crowing glory of which will be the custom-made classical guitar that has been built for me! Very excited to share more details with you soon in a post all of it’s own.

Naturally, since we’re in the ’20s now, it’s easy to draw parallels between the times we live in and those from a century ago. Far-right thinking is entering the mainstream, and it feels to many as if many G20 countries are bogged down in nationalism, isolationism and teetering on yet more war. Yet such times produce good art. Except this time around, more than ever, the art is all of us, and I hold out the hope that it’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Finally, thinking about the ‘prohibition’ age in ’20s America, I’m struck by the creative lengths people went to in order to continue drinking. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating, true creativity comes from working in and around the rules, when necessary.

Until next time…

A ‘Harp Guitar’ – where can I get one?

Guitar News: Fender announce new Player Series to replace MIM models

Recent news from Fender. It looks like the ‘Made In Mexico’ tag is being either rechristened or replaced…


There’s more on the story via this link to Reverb.com:

https://reverb.com/uk/news/fender-discontinues-mim-standard-series-replaces-with-the-player-series

The general consensus amongst guitar gear fans is that the MIM range improved greatly from 2006. I briefly owned one from 2012 (a lovely HSH model I sold as I wasn’t using anywhere near enough) and can testify to the improvement. My first ‘proper’ electric guitar was a Fender MIM Strat from 2000, which I still own. Hopefully I’ll never part with it. The original pickups were a little flat but otherwise I can’t fault it – but that’s just my humble opinion.

(I upgraded the pickups on this old Strat around ten years ago – more in that in a new post coming soon).
Still, having given up the more recent MIM guitar, I might have to give these new ‘Player Series’ models a look-over in the very near future. Do let me know your thoughts…

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!

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

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