Tag Archives: record

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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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).

R.I.P. Chuck Berry (1926-2017)

R.I.P. Charles Edward Anderson, AKA ‘Chuck’ Berry (1926-2017).

To say that Chuck’s guitar playing was an influence on mine would be to do him quite a large injustice – he influenced everyone!

Building on the foundations of the early blues and jazz single-line players (such as T-Bone Walker, for one), and making great use of double-stops (two notes played at once throughout a phrase) to emulate the horn sections of larger bands, Chuck Berry created rock’n’roll as well know it today.

I could have picked any number of Berry’s songs to share here, but opted for ‘You Never Can Tell’. Best known from it’s inclusion in Pulp Fiction, I sang this tune with Switch as a first dance request for one of our wedding gigs last year. Great fun & a guaranteed floor-filler whenever we’ve played it since…

https://youtu.be/qK5N2LavUZQ

The live version by Berry & band in the video above below features some pretty cool soloing by the big man (not featured on the original 45rpm recording). Enjoy! x

New community music centre now open in Cumbria

Some of you may know I am involved with a few community music therapy projects in the north-west of England. Now think it’s time you met ‘me gaffer’, and had a wee peek at the new £2million centre which has recently opened its doors in Penrith, Cumbria.

Annie, Michael & the whole team at Sunbeams Music Trust have been working tirelessly for several years, and not just in fundraising for their brand new centre. Sunbeams Music Trust now provides community music across the region. Their ‘Music for Life’ & ‘Music for Dignity’ projects reach children and adults in schools, day centres, care homes & much more, bringing music (and improved wellbeing) to so many people who need & enjoy it. But there is always more work to be done and more communities & people to reach out to. This new centre will go some way to meeting that obvious need.

Featuring a large performance room, state-of-the-art digital recording studio and small music & therapy rooms, the new centre comes well equipped to meet the needs of the charity. A well-equipped kitchen & boardroom means they can also raise much needed revenue through conferencing & hosting events. The recording studio is also directly linked up to the performance hall, meaning the centre can also serve as a commercial studio capable of recording anything up & including a small orchestra!

Guitars laid out in ‘Lily’s Room’, at the Sunbeams Centre, Cumbria.

My only contribution to the new centre so far has been laying out the guitars on the floor (as above, however the remnants of which can also be briefly glimpsed in the video, via the link below). However, I hope to start leading a few of the projects there from 2017 and truth be told, I can’t wait! The new centre is, in a word, AWESOME!

Sunbeams runs entirely on donations & charity funding. If you haven’t yet chosen a charity to donate to for Christmas, or raise money for throughout 2017, please give Sunbeams some serious consideration.

Fundraiding information can be found on Sunbeam’s donation page.

Thanks, guys! xx

…And here’s the recent feature on the new Sunbeams Centre, courtesy of ITV News.

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!

#6×5 – Part one of a four-movement minimalist work

Following on from the re-publication of last week’s trailer for #6×5 (which you can read about by clicking here), I thought it was time I told you a little more about the wider work (as yet untitled).

#6×5 was an idea I had for a movement of a minimalist work. It’s title comes from the six separate motifs, each five notes in length. The interplay, juxtaposition, and indeed, dissonance derived from how these motifs are arranged becomes the complex – yet ultimately simple – basis for this frantic piece.

Since it was the first idea of the four smaller pieces which came to me, I still consider this to be the first movement. Originally arranged for tuned percussion, the trailer demonstrates ensemble or solo or duo piano. The opening statement (which starts the trailer) forms a strong setup for the piece. Clearly showcasing each of the six motifs, we then descend into a something much more complicated. From here, the listener should know roughly what to expect from the remaining four movements.

The next movement to be almost entirely completed is #5×4. Again arranged for solo or duo piano, this is the slow movement of the work. Using the same principle as #6×5, this slower, more reflective movement features five individual lines which use four unique notes each*.

[*On average, for which a lengthy explanation may be required. To read this, please see my post of #5×4, coming soon]


The remaining two movements currently remain very much in the drafting process. I have yet to settle on the final motifs which will form the basis of these pieces, though the most recent versions have shown a lot of promise…

What I can tell you is that one of the movements will feature a triple time beat. These will utilise triplet-quaver phrases for their motifs, though how many variation will end up in the final draft is yet to be seen. It could be called ‘3×3′ or ’14×3’ depending on how strict I am with myself in the distilling and editing process!

You have spotted a pattern by now, which means you’ll be able to guess the number of notes in the final movement…

That’s right: two.

Again, as with the triplet-time movement, I have yet to ‘kill my darlings’ and finalise which motifs will form the base components for the the piece. My greatest challenge in both of these movements is the overwhelming similarity to the work of Philip Glass. I have long been a fan of Glass, and his reputation as one of the foremost minimalist composers leaves me with the unenviable task of following in his footsteps, hopefully without appearing as a poor imitation.

My next post will be a publication of a full-length demo for #5×4. In the meantime, you can watch & listen to the trailer for #6×5 by clicking here. Enjoy!