Tag Archives: sound

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

Video: Funk & Soul Medley (with Switch)

Been a while since my last post (several life-changing events recently – all positive!) but thought I’d post a new video from Switch.

For those new to my blog, Switch are my main function band at the moment. I’ve been their guitar player since the beginning of 2015, and we’ve performed at all manner of function & event in that time.

This medley was recorded last winter, but only recently uploaded by the band. It features three funk & soul songs, all of which are staples of the wedding/function band scene:

  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)
  • Never Too Much (Luther Vandross)
  • Ain’t Nobody (Chaka Khan)

This medley showcases Switch’s full six-piece lineup of female vocals, bass, drums, keys, guitars & male backing vox (me), plus alto sax & female backing vox.

For my part in this recording, the guitar used was my Fender Modern Player Stratocaster (short scale model), DI’d direct into the studio desk. Recording took place at Nemix Studios in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I must admit that I don’t know which ‘re-amp’ patches were used for my guitar tones, other than I requested a Fender Blackface/Deluxe style amp for the clean sound. Sorry there isn’t any more detail….

As always, let me know what you think. In case the video above does not play, you can access it on YouTube here.

Enjoy! xx

R.I.P. Chris Cornell (1964-2017)

The music world faced another sad loss with today’s news. Chris Cornell, lead singer and songwriter with three great rock bands, namely Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog & Audioslave, passed away on Wednesday.

In all of these groups his voice rings out & grabs your attention. The video in this post is one of Audioslave’s best songs, performed live.

Back in 2005, Audioslave were playing in Stockholm while I was visiting a friend there, and by chance I ended up catching their show. Cornell played Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ as a solo acoustic number, then followed on with ‘I Am The Highway’ in the same style as this video. It was a brilliant performance which I don’t expect to forget anytime soon.
Rest in peace, Chris Cornell (1964-2017).

#5×4 (demo) – New Music

New music! Listen to it by clicking here.

In recent posts, I’ve discussed one of my current works-in-progress, a four movement minimalist work. You can read about the opening movement, #6×5, here.

The new video is the next movement to be almost entirely completed, #5×4. Again arranged for solo or duo piano, this is the slow movement of the work. Though using the same principles as #6×5, this piece is the exact opposite in a number of ways.

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, is the ambience of the movement itself. It was created as a reflective piece while I thinking about the recent passing of a dear family member. The rhythm has an unchallenged 4/4 feel throughout. All of th parts work together well harmonically, so there is nowhere near the level of dissonance as we hear in #6×5.

Secondly, the ‘rules’ (for want of a better description) of the overall piece are more relaxed in this movement. Where #6×5 features six separate motifs, each of which are five notes in length, #5×4 is more general. True, there are only five motifs throughout. However, the number of notes in each ofthis piece’s musical phrases is an average. For example, the lead phrase uses five notes, so to balance this out one of the other motifs is comprised of a mere three notes. Also, the four notes (on average) in each motif refer to unique notes. For example, one of the repeating phrases runs: D A D A F# D B. While there is reputation of D’s and A’s, there are only four separate pitches in the entire motif.

 

Image from the video for #5×4 (Tim Higgins)

So, why have I used such a relaxed approach in this movement? And does it go against the principles of minimalist music?

Here are the main arguments justifying my compositional choices:

  1. First and foremost, good music is good music. I like how this piece sounds, very much the way it first came to me.
  2. Rules are made to be broken (a topic I have covered in several previous posts)!

This piece came very quickly for me. In refining it, I’ve tried to ensure a small element of development while retaining the simplicity of the soft, repeating lines. To me, I still think of the same person who inspired the creation of this music. The remaining two movements will be a combination of the frantic style of #6×5 and the hypnotic repetotion of #5×4. However, as always, I’d love to hear what your thoughts so do get in touch!

Give the new trailer a listen. Visually, I used pictures from a recent visit to Marciac and the surround region of Midi-Pyrenees, in the south of France. The gorgeous vineyards & crop fields on those beautiful sunny days seems to lend itself well to the calm and reflective elements of the music. I also noticed that juxtaposing this piece over pictures of Marciac and Bassouse added a certain air of melancholy to the images, as if the towns had been abandoned (they most certainly haven’t been). Feel free to leave a comment below – updates on the remaining two movements to follow very soon!

 

Image from the video for #5×4 (Tim Higgins)

 

My demo video for #5×4, as well as all of my current demos & videos, are available on my Vimeo page.