It’s Not a Competition

Picture a game of pickup basketball.

Now picture the player who ruins it by being way too competitive.

They talk loads of trash, argue anything they can, and foul like some imaginary championship is on the line. 

More times than I’d ever like to admit, that player has been me.

Growing up, what I would have considered a “healthy will to win,” was probably more like a “toxic competitive streak.” I would “ruin games,” and it took until college to recognize how my competitive-ness was preventing myself and those around me from enjoying activities that could actually be fun, if I had only decided to chill for a second.

Unfortunately, by that time, my win-at-all-costs perspective had already bled into the way I conceptualized music. My development as a guitarist had mutated into a competition of its own, and I started measuring my value as a musician against other players my age who (without their knowledge or permission) I began to view as my competition.

Looking back, the ability to see music (and sports, for that matter) from a healthier perspective would have not only benefitted my emotional and mental well-being, but probably made me a better player as well. Winning isn’t everything in music. In fact, it’s nothing at all.

Here’s what can happen when we get confused:

  • We see other musicians as competition

Music isn’t a place for lone wolves, but if every other musician (especially those who play our instrument) is treated like a threat to our reputation, we can start to behave like one. We avoid playing in bands with better players because of the feelings of inadequacy they generate within us, and fail to make connections with other players for fear of vulnerability. Surrounding ourselves with talent is often the quickest path to improvement, but we’ll never experience that catalyst if we’re scared of not being the best in the room at all times.

  • We lose the ability to give compliments

If we’re constantly trying to remind people of our own incredible skill set, we’re not going to be likely to reference talent in someone else. Often, the most good we can do as a musician is actually encouraging other players, celebrating their accomplishments and adding more value to the broader community. If we save all the adulation for ourselves, we may never realize that the players who are quick to give a compliment often receive them just as quickly in return.

  • We develop an urge to impress

Once, when I had the opportunity to jam with some new coworkers, I decided that the number one priority was to make sure they knew that I could play like a beast. I unloaded every show-boaty technique I could think of, convinced that they’d be impressed. Later on, I was startled to discover that the rest of the players from that jam had decided to keep meeting on a weekly basis, but had purposely decided not to invite me back. The lesson here is that other players know when we’re trying to measure certain body parts instead of actually creating music, and they usually find it rather distasteful. Don’t be like me.

  • We constantly try to upgrade

In our relentless pursuit for musical supremacy, we may falsely attribute any lack of upward mobility to things that may not actually have a causal relationship with our skill level. We blame our lack of progress on tons of dumb things, but the most frequent culprit is always our gear. Maybe we’d be more of a shredder if our guitar had a thinner neck. Maybe we’d be able to reach our potential if our overdrive was more “organic.” Maybe our $1k amp is holding us back from the sound we could achieve with a $4k amp. Every second we spend lusting after better gear is a second that should be spend enjoying our music, or practicing, or eating Chic-Fil-A. You know, things that matter. 

  • We focus on the wrong things

In the everlasting game of comparison that accompanies an extreme sense of competition, we can become aware of the ways that certain techniques or ideas carry more of a dazzling quality than others. We can spend countless hours honing our sweep picking, alternate picking, tapping, legato, and “intricate chord voicings” without ever asking ourselves if we cared about any of those things in the first place. We should never become the musician some else wants us to be, but in our endless pursuit of supremacy, we’re liable to forget ourselves.

  • We become musical cowards

The simple lack of space on the guitar wall of fame means that there are countless players that want to be the best, and are painfully aware that they’re nowhere close. Now, a healthy player will view this disparity as both a sobering reality and a motivation to practice, but a player bent on competition will twist it into something debilitating. They become consumed with being outed as a musical fraud, to the point where it’s their loudest thought. Performing or recording with that kind of weight makes confidence impossible, because it replaces the goal of “being the best player we can be today” with “being the best player anywhere ever,” and we’ll never measure up.

Sure, there are players in certain contexts that are legitimately competing for gigs and session work, but even those players will affirm that while we should all strive for excellence, we should never let winning be everything. It keeps us from making our music say what we mean. 

 

What Teaching Guitar Taught Me About Practice

Most players don’t get far at all on their guitar journey before being confronted with the reality of practicing. We know it’s supposed to be important, even necessary, but we also know that it isn’t always the most inviting activity. Teaching guitar has changed the way I see a lot of things, but I might be most grateful for the perspective it’s given me on practice. Here are a few things I’ve been able to see more clearly through the eyes of my students:

  • Everyone gets frustrated
    • Whether we’re new to guitar or an experienced player, younger or older, all of us have experienced the disappointment of wanting to sound a certain way, but coming up short. It can often seem like we’re alone in our frustration, that the other players we know are traveling on smoother guitar roads, but in reality, even the best players feel frustrated just as often as we do (about more advanced concepts, admittedly). When they express frustration, I‘ve made it a practice to tell my students what I’m struggling with, and often, knowing that they’re not exceptional in their frustration allows them to see their progress through a more positive lens.
  • There is no secret ingredient
    • Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we’ve all given in to the notion that one simple tweak to our musical approach might unlock all of our wildest guitar dreams in one fell swoop. We buy pedals, watch YouTube videos, and subscribe to guitar snake oil of all kinds, but the harsh truth is that nothing can real take the place of invested time. I see a look in my students’ eyes regularly that seems to ask, “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” and while I can’t help but sympathize, I’ll be the first to suggest that a world where skill can’t be bought or cheated really is better. It’s our job as instructors to make the process of developing skill as efficient (and even fun!) as possible, pointing out all the best views on the scenic route to guitar proficiency, since there really isn’t a shortcut.
  • Discipline pays off
    • Especially if we’re not consistently monitoring our playing by filming ourselves, tracking BPM progress, or some other form of regular measurement, it can be difficult to notice our own improvement. However, one of my biggest surprises while teaching guitar has been how obvious it is when a student has practiced since their last lesson (especially when that doesn’t always happen). Comfort, accuracy, and consistency are all accessed most directly via discipline, and nothing beats getting to tell one of my students that their practice is paying off. Whether we feel it or not, regular, intentional practice will always make us a better guitarist than we were last week.
  • We all need encouragement
    • Even though practice is important, and even when results are evident, choosing to practice isn’t always easy. We could choose to do anything else in the time we would be practicing our instrument, which can make the investment of time seem tedious and limiting. My role as an instructor definitely involves relaying information, but so often, my students need a hype man or cheerleader way more than they need a lecturer. We often call the skill-developing process a “grind” for a reason, so as cliché as it may sound, a message of “You can do it!” or “That was awesome!” really does go a long way. Often, we get too lost in our own pride to provide encouragement to other players, but if we were honest, we’d admit a deep desire to receive encouragement ourselves, so the humility required to start a compliment-giving trend might just be worth it.
  • Music comes first
    • As guitarists, we sometimes fall into the trap of feeling incompetent as a whole because we’re not as proficient in a specific area. Common examples include sweep picking, “outside” phrasing, and odd rhythmic groupings, and too often, we spend hours practicing these concepts before ever asking, “Do I want to sound like this?” Listening to instruction is great for getting from where we are now to where we want to be, but it’s not always the best choice to let someone else pick our destination for us. We might want to learn how to sweep, for example, if we love the sound of wide, fluid arpeggios, but we shouldn’t invest time in our sweeping just because some other player might think we suck if we can’t do it.

Our practice time is valuable, and my time as an instructor has made that all the more evident. If you feel frustrated about your own practice regiment, feel free to fill out a lesson request or shoot me a DM on Instagram. I’d love to help you make your music (and your practice) say what you mean.

Ian 

 

How Musicians Shouldn’t Watch Live Music

It’s usually pretty easy to tell where the other musicians are in the audience at a given show, not because they’ve all checked in on Facebook or something, but because they tend to perform some uniquely debilitating behaviors. It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, musicians can be the worst at watching live music. Here’s five ways that can happen, along with some strategies for recovery:

  • Tunnel Vision

At shows, it can be easy to become overly fixated on the instrument that we play in our band. It’s normal to specifically appreciate an artist for their drums as a drummer, for example, but sometimes, we let our allegiance to our instrument keep us from appreciating the whole mix. Sure, zeroing in on the guitarist might help us catch the nuances of the modulation on their delay repeats, but it might make us miss moments from other instruments that would make us enjoy what we’re listening to as a whole even more! Asking ourselves “have I looked at more than one of the band members on stage during this song?” is usually a good litmus test for whether we’ve got concert tunnel vision.

  • Comparison

Of all the faults on this list, I’ll admit to being the most frequently guilty of this one, so fret not if it applies to you as well. Too often, I find myself losing the ability to enjoy a show because I’m too caught up in trying to decide if I can play guitar better than everyone on stage. There’s no shame in wanting to be as accomplished at our instrument as we can be, but too much comparison can rob us of the joy that we take in our instrument, the ability to deliver compliments, and any perspective that sees other musicians as something more than just a threat to our reputation. In my own experience, sometimes the best strategy is to simply assume that every player on stage is better than we are from the start, and try not to give comparison a second thought for the duration of the show. This perspective helps us get past the unnecessary act of…um…”guitar-measuring,” and usually leaves us more free to do things like enjoy the music.  

  • Window Shopping

If you hear a sound coming from a particular person on stage that just blows your mind in a way it’s never been blown before, it can be acceptable to politely approach that individual after their set to ask how the sound was created. However, the caveman drool-fest over gear that happens far too often at shows has got to chill. We get it, we promise. Amps are cool, and guitars are cool, and pedals are cool, and drums are cool. Appreciating the tools that go into music making is a natural thing, but we’d never come up to Lebron James after a basketball game and use the limited time we had with him to talk shop about sneakers. The general practice of “making sure I’m not getting to wrapped up in the gear” is helpful in lots of contexts, but at shows as well, where too much attention to the pedalboards of our peers will cause us to miss the musical point.

  • Stone Face

Just like affirming the skills of another musician doesn’t inherently diminish our own, visibly enjoying another artist’s music doesn’t cause our own music to become less enjoyable. Too often, the default behavior of many musicians is to be as stolid as possible at a concert unless the music they’re hearing is literally the best music they’ve ever heard. The blatant double standard of wanting an engaged audience when we play, while remaining disengaged at the shows we attend, should be enough motivation to smile at shows every so often.  

  • Upstaging

While being too aloof at shows is far more common amongst musicians, every now and then you get the person who thinks that their job is to be more entertaining as an audience member than anything happening on stage. Dancing and being all silly are great ways to respond to live music, but most people can recognize when those behaviors start to become less reflexive than they should be, and start to be an event all to themselves. Just like we shouldn’t upstage each other when we’re on stage, we shouldn’t upstage the people on stage when we’re not on stage.

We wouldn’t wear a T-Shirt that reads “I TOO AM A MUSICIAN!” to every show we attend, but too often, we let our identity as a player override our identity as an audience member, and it really only hurts ourselves. If we can check our musician hat at the door, we often stand a better chance of leaving satisfied.

Ian 

What Mixing Taught Me About Tone

I’ve spent the last few months working on a recording with our church (which is part of the reason why Articulate’s been inactive). The production process has been a huge learning experience for me in a variety of ways, not least of which is the new perspective I’ve gained on my own tone! Guitar tone, like many other musical concepts, tends to look a bit different through a mix engineer's eyes, and knowing how to make our guitar tone work in a mix is a great way to help our music say what we mean!

Here’s how this idea manifests itself in some common areas:

EQ:

When we’re playing alone at home, or even in some live applications, we tend to create guitar EQ signatures with as much heft and smoothness as possible. This practice totally makes sense, since tones of that variety tend to sound great in isolation. However, the game changes when we’re recording, since we’re usually trying to fit our guitar into a mix that is purposefully dense, in order to remain interesting. In that scenario, the same bass frequencies that make our instrument sound “full” are in danger of swallowing up other guitars, keyboards, and vocals, and our scooped midrange and “smooth” top end usually end up sounding lifeless, if not unintelligible. When dialing in a tone for recording, I’ve found that if I use the as little bass as possible, and dial in enough treble and mids to make my isolated tone sound a bit on the edgy side, I’m way more likely to be able to use the tone right away in the mix, without having to do lots of EQ carving in the DAW.

Dirt:

Restraint is important when dialing in a tone for anything, but is especially vital when recording, since few things ruin the collective energy of a mix more than introducing unnatural or “forced” sounding timbres. All instruments have their own way of encountering this problem, but guitarists seem to be most in danger of using too little (but, usually, too much) distortion for a given scenario. Erring on the side of a cleaner tone is usually wise when recording, since the tonal attributes that we normally associate with distortion (thickness, energy) are usually attained elsewhere in the mix, but in any case, we want to make sure that our sound fits with where the mix is trying to go.

Reverb:

This one hurts, since I find myself in the group of guitarists that can never get enough reverb, but the harsh reality is that reverb makes instruments sound distant, which isn’t always what we want. Creating a sense of depth is awesome for some parts, but if we drench a lead line in reverb, it’s going to be tricky to make it sound “in your face” later. By dialing back the reverb, we can regain a sense of presence and immediacy that’s often what we’re actually looking for in the first place with many parts, letting the reverb do its job on parts that we’re looking to tuck into the back of the mix.

Delay:

With few exceptions, delay plug-ins sound just as nice as any rack or pedal-based delay. We spend countless hours dialing in echo sounds, so it can definitely be a shot to our pride to leave delay out of a particular recorded part, but what we lose in personal gratification is more than made up in versatility. We can always add more delay in the mix (tweaking it indefinitely until we get it right), but taking delay away is next to impossible. By letting the mix engineer do their job, we’re more likely to create a mix where the ambient effects work more intuitively. If you can create a perfect delay sound while tracking, go for it, but if you’re at all unsure, save it for later.

What lessons have mixing and recording taught you about your own tone? Let me know in a comment!

Thanks for reading!

Ian 

Why You Should Post Your Playing

Maybe you’re one of those guitarists who’s always posting their playing on social media, using all the right hashtags, and tagging all the best shout-out accounts. Then again, maybe you’re not that kind of guitarist at all, but you know what?

You should be.

Here’s why posting your playing regularly on social media might be more beneficial than you realize:

It creates an invaluable Routine of intentional playing

Whether you post once a week, every so often, or every day, playing for a post is playing with intention. For many players (myself included), practicing can easily turn into mindless, indirect noodling. When we know we’re creating something that others are going to hear, we’re more likely to care about things like composition, technique, and tone, and the more often we’re in that mindset, the more comfortable we’ll be when we’re in more formal recording situations.

It gives you a Reason to play and practice

If we’re going to go to the trouble of posting our playing in the first place, we’re going to care about whether or not people view, like, and comment on our posts, no matter how nonchalant we claim to be. Since our posts are going to be competing with thousands of others like them, it’s in our best interest to be in tip-top guitar playing shape, and there’s no other way to make that happen then through dedicated practice. In the end, the likes and comments are nice, but they’re way less valuable than the chops we’ll be building along the way.

It serves as a Record of your progress

One of the most useful things about social media archiving is that it creates a running, dated record of the player we were last week, last month, or last year. Every player feels discouraged by an apparent lack of progress from time to time, so it can be particularly uplifting to see the way our playing has evolved. A social media archive is the perfect platform for this kind of reflection, whether we’re trying to nail down techniques, grow compositionally, or sculpt our tone.

It elicits a Response from the guitar community

Perhaps the most unique, interesting, and unpredictable aspect of posting your playing to social media is the way other players and music fans react to your posts. Whether they’re encouragement, appreciation, or even unsolicited critique, the comments and other reactions to your posts are as validating as they are potentially useful. My own social media posts have opened doors I would have never expected from that kind of platform, and chances are, yours will too!

If you’re going to play guitar anyway, and you have an internet connection, you should be posting your playing. When you do post, be sure to use #IAmArticulate, and may your music (and your posts) always say what you mean! 

Five Parts We Shouldn't Write

Part of Articulate’s charge to “Make Your Music Say What You Mean” is an emphasis on thoughtful part-writing. A well-constructed guitar part is, very literally, music to our ears, and I firmly believe that every player is capable of creating parts of which they can be proud. My general facilitation strategy is to provide a wide range of concepts that can be applied in an equally wide range of contexts, adding to players’ toolkits like a friend asking, “Have you tried this before?”

However, as much as I prefer to frame things in the affirmative, there’s definitely some merit in discussing what NOT to do. Sometimes, it can be more straightforward to avoid mistakes that to shoot for successes, and with that in mind, here are 5 kinds of parts we probably shouldn’t write:

(Caveat: sometimes we do the “wrong” thing on purpose, and it totally works, so if you feel the need to purposefully go against one or more of these suggestions, don’t let me stop you. Also, like the majority of Articulate’s content, this post focuses on musical situations in which we’re adding guitar parts to pre-existent songs written by others. The “do what you want” factor is certainly more present when approaching our own music.)

1. The Concealer

Perhaps the most problematic parts we can write as a member of a musical team are those that interfere with the parts that are already being played. The fact is, when two instruments try to occupy the same space, one will bury the other almost every time. We often don’t consider how stealing sonic real-estate can affect our musical experience, but among the myriad of problems created by competing parts are impossible monitor mixes, frustrated bandmates, and audiences that “couldn’t really hear you that well.” The principle here is that a thoughtful player will insert their instrument into a mix of parts in a way that contributes to the musical whole without making things lopsided. This is especially important in relation to the vocal, but valid in relation to anything that makes sound.  

2. The Grandstand

In a culture that often sees raw note output as an undeniable indication of mastery, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to turn every song into a guitar exhibition. The desire for people to know that we’re pretty good at our instrument is totally normal, but turning every song into a technique or theory masterclass is the equivalent to bragging in every conversation, and will probably cost us as many friends. There are certainly some instances where you gotta wank that guitar around, but letting someone ask you for that kind of part before spewing it on everything is probably a good decision.

3. The Autopilot

I’ll be the first person to celebrate the unique ways in which each player approaches their instrument. The way we tend to play expresses who we are, but a part that’s comfortable isn’t always the right part. Learning how to mold our own styles to different musical situations is kind of like learning how to dress for different occasions. We can still be unquestionably ourselves, if only in different musical outfits, and learning how to stretch our style authentically can allow us to step into a wide variety of contexts without being cheapened.   

4. The Costume

While it’s definitely lame to play the same kinds of parts for every song, it becomes painfully obvious when we try to play like someone we’re not. Realizing that an unfamiliar technique or idea would "probably sound sick here" is an awesome reason to woodshed, but not such a great reason to hack the same concept into a song we’re working on now. Knowing our technical, but also aesthetic limits can help us avoid feeling and sounding like a bad impression of another player, and finding the balance between being ourselves and being musically versatile is a lifelong, but rewarding process.

5. The Rebel

A cool sounding part in isolation may not sound so cool in the context of a fully formed song, even if the part is well played and theoretically bulletproof. Especially when we write our parts in isolation, we can often find ourselves trying to force a particular part into a song like that airplane passenger who insists that they should be able to carry on that giant rolling hockey bag. Parts that stretch the aesthetic of a song are awesome, but parts that we laboriously force into a song are often just as tedious to digest as a listener. Going with the flow is hard for some of us, and sometimes letting a good idea go is even tougher, but when we allow ourselves to match the aesthetic and feel of a song with our own parts by default, we’ll be rewarded with more efficient, productive, and positive musical experiences.

While I still believe that it’s better to shoot for success than to avoid failure, there is, admittedly, some security in knowing what losing looks like. I hope this post adds at least a touch of that security to your next part-writing venture, and may your music always say what you mean!

 

When You Don’t Own Your Tone

As players, our signature sounds are more than just a combination of our gear and playing styles. They’re constructions forged by an endless process of self-analytical listening, tweaking, re-arranging, and planning. They are, in many ways, aural representation of ourselves.

However, the feeling of pride that we feel in our sound has the potential to confuse us into believing that it’s above reproach, and that any time it doesn’t fit naturally into a given musical situation, something or someone else must be to blame. Obviously, it’s hubris to think that our signature sound should work perfectly in every musical context, without any adaptation.

In no way do I intend to call for a complete tonal overhaul for every gig, but in order to add something constructive to each mix, and function as useful members of each musical team, our tone should be readily adaptable, ready to be molded to fit each situation. While it might seem more intuitive to expect the rest of our band to adjust to what we bring to the musical table, the selfless (and often most effective) strategy may be taking the lead in timbral specificity.

We want our tone to be awesome, but in a way that fits.

Here's a three-part strategy that I like to use:

Make Your EQ Fit

We want to be able to add something useful to each mix in which we find ourselves. We also don’t want to oversaturate the mix with redundant sonic information, which would make ourselves, and the instrument with whom we’re clashing, harder to distinguish. To find our niche in the frequency spectrum, we’ll just need a working understanding of the rest of our group’s sound. Often, bass guitar and drums will live in the low end, keys and rhythm guitars will live in the low mids, and cymbals and vocal consonant sounds will live in the highs. This typically leaves the high mids open for “lead” guitar work, making a sound present in that frequency range, but less present in the others the optimal choice for making a positive impact on a mix. Our signature sound might typically be scooped in the midrange, or heavy on bass or treble, so learning to tailor our EQ a bit for each mix is a great way to be a sonic team player. 

Make Your Dirt Fit

Ever notice how the amount of distortion on a guitar sound is a great way to tell the genre of a certain group or song? Ever notice how weird a cover song sounds when the guitarist uses an inappropriately clean or dirty sound? We wouldn’t use our Big Muff variant for our country gigs, or our “edge of breakup” tone for our deathcore band, but even subtle changes in saturation can help us fit naturally within the context of a given group. Personally, I like to listen to the basic tone that the principal songwriter uses for their instrument, and set my sound to be a just little bit edgier than theirs, but making sure that our tone stays at least in the same ballpark as the rest of our band’s aesthetic is what we’re going for here.

Make Your Effects Fit

As much as the sonic pioneers among us would like things to be different, there are just some effects that work better in some musical aesthetics than others. Our Whammy pedal might work wonders in our math rock group, but it might seem out of place when we back that folky songwriter. Our wall of delays and reverbs might fit perfectly for that indie group with whom we’ve been playing, but they might not work in that punk power trio. Choosing which effects to use in a given scenario wisely is a great way to show that we’re on board with the sound of our bands, and not caught up in the sound of ourselves.

Ultimately, its not so bad to let the various musical contexts in which we play have a say on how we sound. Its just means that we’re good listeners, which, as always, is the most important trait of a good musician, and an essential component of making our music say what we mean.

 

The Real Rewards Of Regular Recording

Whether it’s the swelling pride that comes from reading the newly constructed, delightfully alliterative title of one’s own blog post, a pay raise in the workplace, or victory in the competitive arena, we love seeing the fruits of hard work and invested time. As guitarists, we love that stuff too, but we’re also constantly looking for the most efficient way to get from point A (not sounding the way we want to sound) to point B (sounding the way we want to sound), and have been known to employ everything from supposedly magical gear to snake-oil practice schemes in our efforts to get ahead.

In our frenzy, we may overlook a deceptively simplistic road to improvement that may yield surprising results: regular recording. In addition to the simple joy of listening to one’s own playing, here are a few benefits that we’ll reap by recording ourselves on a regular basis:

Compositional Nuance

When we record ourselves, especially when we have control over the rest of the mix, we’re forced to break out of being simply a “guitar player,” starting to consider our parts for the way they interact with the musical context in which they exist. Regular recording allows us to fine-tune our ability to augment the mix with carefully composed parts, turning our playing into the special sauce in which every mix-nugget should want to be dipped.

Rhythmic Precision

After starting to record regularly, players like myself will find that they lack the robot-like rhythmic timing that they’ve been claiming to posses for so long. The harsh reality of hearing one’s own off-beat playing sometimes feels like enough reason to quit playing altogether, but if we allow our rhythmic inconsistencies to be an opportunity for growth, we’ll be that much closer to session player superstardom.

Tonal Objectivity

Sometimes we think we sound better than we sound. Due to monitoring with our amp at our ankles, playing in bedrooms more than on stages, or a myriad of other factors, we’re regularly in danger of seeing our own tone through aural beer goggles. Recording not only allows us to listen to our tone without being distracted by actually playing, but affords the opportunity for tonal interventions, where our real friends will tell us to “back down the gain, White. You sound like bees.”

Trackable Progress

Perhaps the greatest reward of regular recording is being able to compare the players we are now to the players we were then. It’s easy to feel like we aren’t progressing technically or tonally as much as we predicted we would, so being able to listen to recent recordings side-by side with tracks from when we “couldn’t even sweep yet, bruh,” can be just the encouragement we need.

Positive Humility

The main take-away from any recording session should be humility. We aren’t really as awesome as we can tend to think we are, and knowing that is good. It’s good because knowing we aren’t the ultimate answer to the question that is guitar should (in an ideal scenario) mean that we treat our bandmates, other players, and our audience with respect, grace, and gratitude. Humility is like Chic-Fil-A sauce, in that it never hurts to have extra.

If you haven’t tried recoding yourself before, now’s the time. It’s never been cheaper or easier to do so, and the rewards are well worth it. After all, recording allows us to listen back, making sure our music always says what we mean. 

Why You Should Always Learn The Vocal Line

Though it may be a shot to the pride of some players, in most situations, our parts aren’t going to be the focus of the songs on which we play.
The harsh reality is that in most music, the vocal is king, but rather than use that reality as a source of musical angst, the best of us will use the presence of the vocal as an opportunity to be constructive.
In fact, a great part-writing strategy is learning the vocal melody as a guitar line before writing any actual guitar parts. Knowing where the vocal lives and how it moves can help us write our parts with more certainty, care, and precision, and will ultimately help us become the guitarist that every singer-songwriter dreams about.

Learning the vocal melody helps, because it allows us to…

1. Use it as a compositional resource.
Few things register as more professional in the ears of listeners and fellow players as a lead hook or solo phrase that alludes to the main vocal melody. By taking the main melodic theme from the chorus or pre-chorus, and either reproducing it note-for-note or slightly altered in your lead playing, you’re establishing both a mastery of the musical material you’re working with, and a willingness to work together with the rest of your band instead of living like the lone wolf, mercenary, road warrior guitar player we all know you could be.

2. Stay away from it.
There are times where your guitar part can and should provide an interesting counterpoint that lives in the same sonic real estate as the lead vocal, but those times are few and far between. For the most part, you should acknowledge where the vocal is going to live, and treat that register as a sonic no-man’s land any time the vocal is actually happening. Sadly, this will mean that you’ll have to stay away from certain melodic ideas that would sound great in a vocal-less mix, but the clarity that your full band sound will gain should be more than worth it for you, and your audience. As a plus, when you play in a different register than the vocal, you run much less risk of having your vocalist complain that you’re too loud, which is always a plus.

3. Double it.
Something really special happens when two melodic instruments intentionally work together to give a phrase extra presence, punch, or thickness. By learning the vocal melody, you can pick out important moments, and lend a hand with your instrument to really make the part shine. Often, this involves playing either an identical unison part to the vocal melody, or choosing a harmony in thirds or fifths to add an extra harmonic component. In these situations, its important to complement, and not overtake or upstage the vocal, so consideration for how your part blends with their line is crucial.

Hopefully, these three benefits provide enough motivation to start learning the vocal line, but they’re really just scratching the surface of what can be achieved when you gain a working understanding of the melodies happening around your instrument. Ultimately, an exercise like learning the vocal line is teaching us be good listeners, which will always be the foremost attribute of good musicians, and of players who make their music say what they mean. 

The Necessity of Mechanics

I play a lot of one-on-one basketball with my younger brother, who happens to be a good head or so taller than I am. Since the obvious disadvantage that this height disparity creates has done nothing to diminish my will to win, I’ve taken to adjusting my game to compensate for the challenge of being the short guy. Instead of attempting to power my way into baskets, I rely on footwork and speed, opting to establish a midrange jump shot outright, and work from there.

Unfortunately, I’m historically reluctant to fine-tune the mechanical aspects of almost anything, opting instead to rely on my bottomless natural talent.  I don't suffer the consequences of this mindset often, but it definitely makes it difficult to shoot basketballs consistently. The accomplished players of any sport will attest to the advantages of repetitive mechanics, whether it pertains to a basketball shot, a pitching motion, or even a running stride. The work needed to attain consistent mechanical control is often tedious, but without a fixed system, we’re liable to introduce a slew of unneeded variables into any physical equation. This makes it difficult to perform any task with the consistency required to, say, beat one’s younger brother at one-on-one basketball.

While being faced with the overwhelming need for a fixed shooting mechanic, and especially after viewing Troy Grady’s Cracking The Code Series, I was struck by the presence of a similar need for mechanical control in playing guitar. Too often, I find myself in the group of players who believe that their guitar playing should exist solely in the realm of pure artistry. Why practice mechanical things when the notes are supposed to flow naturally from our musical subconscious? After all, the only people who practice their picking and fretting mechanics are those “mindless shredders,” right? If I’m not looking to set a world record for notes-per-second, what good could a focus on mechanics possibly do?

While it may seem that mechanical practice should only be useful for those players interested in being heartlessly technical, the harsh truth is that a focus on mechanics can benefit each and every player, regardless of style or genre. Acknowledging, and ultimately gaining control over one’s mechanics should be a necessity for every serious player. Here are a few reasons why:

Mechanics are Consistency

Like my need for mechanical consistency to make jump shots, a fixed mechanical system in both our fretting and picking hands will get us far closer to truly clean playing than “focusing really hard,” ever will, and will probably keep us further from an aneurism, which is also nice. Understanding the way our picking and fretting movements feel and operate allows them to be refined for predictability and dependability, which in turn allow for cleaner playing in a broader sense, but also give us a more explicit understanding of our technical boundaries. Knowing our limits is always nice, especially if it can take a couple of those “big swing, big miss” moments out of our set.

Mechanics are Freedom

A control over our mechanics also means that we can cross a few types of licks off our list of things we “just don’t do.” Whether a player has a natural propensity towards a certain technique becomes a moot point when nuanced mechanical control comes into play, allowing techniques like fast alternate picking, economy picking, tapping, and hybrid picking to become accessible for any player. Being able to play however we need to means that we can compose without consideration for our supposed mechanical limits, allowing for unhindered expressive freedom.

Mechanics are Dedication

In short, if we have enough dedication to our instrument to have a “custom” anything, surf Reverb for pedals more than once a week, or have some reference to guitar in our social media profiles, we should have enough dedication to care about mechanics, and really understand the way our hands interact with the instrument we apparently care so much about.

Mechanics are Progression

One of the great things about an understanding of mechanics is its role in removing variables. Before I discovered that I had a natural inclination towards a particular system of picking, I was often confused as to why I’d be able to play certain licks or exercises easily in some sessions, but with great difficulty in others. By removing extraneous motion and gaining efficiency, we can monitor our progress more effectively, making practice far more rewarding than going in mechanically blind.

Mechanics are Mastery

Ultimately, I think all of us as players dream about the day when we can honestly consider ourselves a master of the guitar. If we’re truly serious about playing, we don’t want to be at the “intermediate” level forever, and the reality is that mechanical control is simply a necessity if mastery of anything is one’s goal. Whether sports, dance, guitar, or magic tricks, nuanced mechanical control is of paramount importance to high-level success.

Mechanical practice certainly lacks romance, and can feel overly scientific for those of us who narcissistically consider ourselves “artists.” However, I hope that this post has encouraged you to think about mechanical control the same way some folks think about multi-vitamins, daily exercise, or a visit to the doctor. It may not be exciting or enjoyable, but it’s a necessity, and good for your health.

Break Out Of The Tone Box

"How should I set my amp to get a good tone for blues?"
"Which pedals should I use to get good post-rock sounds?"
"Which guitar is best for late 2000’s easycore breakdowns?"

If you’re a guitarist that’s been on the internet recently, chances are you’ve seen at least a few variants of the aforementioned questions in the comments of YouTube videos, on forums, or in Facebook groups. It seems that as a community, guitarists are pretty willing to believe that the sounds that they hear on their favorite songs can be achieved most successfully if certain pieces of gear are present, down to brand, model, and settings. This phenomena is obviously a bit problematic in itself, but I’d like to claim that it’s really a side-effect of a bigger problem:

Too often, we let ourselves get trapped in a tone box.

How often have you heard a pedal demo or gear review specialist utter the following phrase?

“This (piece of gear) wouldn’t really be appropriate for (insert genre of music) here, but it really excels at (insert dissimilar genre of music).”

I struggle to find a reason why we should let ourselves be limited to a certain set of sounds, which are achieved by an even smaller set of prescribed gear, based entirely upon some unwritten code of what is “typical” for the style of music we’ve decided to play. Obviously, the players and songs that we consider influential to this day wouldn’t be such if they hadn’t been willing to push the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, both for their genre and guitar as a whole. Consider these important developments in guitar sounds:

  • Keith Richards' somewhat-unintentional use of fuzz on The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”
  • Jimi Hendrix’s penchant for otherworldly, non-melodic “guitar noises”
  • The galloping echoes of David Gilmour, and later, The Edge
  • James Duke’s role in the recent surge of slide guitar in worship music
  • The reverse reverb, tremolo, and vibrato bar sounds of Kevin Shields
  • Tom Morello’s mechanical wizardry for creating non-guitar sounds

Non of these players would be considered the innovators that they are if they’d allowed the collective guitar community to convince them that the sounds they were creating were “a little to inappropriate for (insert style here).” They just went for it, and I think we need to so more often. In this era of worldwide guitar communities, it’s actually really, really simple to find exactly the right path to the “correct” sounds for any style from jazz to djent, for both equipment and playing strategies. However, if we allow ourselves to mold our rigs into carbon copies of everyone else on Instagram, and mold our playing around the same licks that everyone in Guitar Center plays, can we really expect ourselves to have anything special to offer?

Granted, consideration for both creative partners and your audience will always play a role in deciding whether to get atypical for a particular section of music. Even when going for a unique or surprising sound, the fundamental questions must still be answered:

  • Is this going to help the song?
  • Is this authentic to the sound of our band?
  • Are my band-mates on board with this decision?

and, most important of all:

  • Do I actually like the sounds I’m making?

That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? If you like being a bluesman who plays pentatonic licks through his TS808/Fender combo, or a worship guitarist who plays triad inversions with modulated dotted eighth delays, more power to you. Maybe some of us who are more tonally restless could learn a thing or two from you.

But if being another iteration of the same status-quo sound does not satisfy you, know that you’re not alone. Together, we can challenge each other to make our music say what we mean, instead of repeating someone else’s rhetoric. We can encourage each other to push the envelope, both sonically and compositionally.

We can break out of the tone box. 

Your Room vs. The Stage

February 4th, 2016 in Athens, GA:

A guitarist spends a whole afternoon locked in their room, tweaking settings on all of their gear in preparation for an upcoming gig.

February 7th, 2016 in Athens, GA:

The same guitarist sets up their gear at the venue, only to find that the same sounds that worked so well in their bedroom sound far less effective on stage.

Coincidence? Or is it an Enigma of the Mystical?

Whether or not you’re a fan of How I Met Your Mother, most of us can relate to the frustration of finding amp and effect settings that are equally effective in both a low-volume, isolated bedroom setting, and a higher-volume stage setting within a full band mix. The truth is, those magical settings don’t exist, and learning how to adapt your sound to different rooms and volume levels is an essential skill, especially for players that perform in a variety of musical contexts.

Here’s how changes in volume and context can affect your tone in several basic categories:

Gain:

When we’re alone in our bedrooms, our tendency is to crank the gain until we feel sufficiently heavy, even if were not trying to be Djentlemen. However, the same amount of gain rarely works on stage, where increased clipping often results in an indistinct mix where your instrument swallows itself and the others in your band like a sonic black hole.

By turning down the gain, you’ll regain (got ‘em!) some of the attack transient that allows you to be present, and you’ll allow heaviness or thickness to come from the way the band works together and the way your parts are played, which is where it should come from in the first place.

EQ:

Unwilling to practice our diminished sweeps with some weedy, icepick tone, we’re often guilty of setting the EQ controls on our amps and pedals like the biggest bro-rock tools in the biz. That means we crank the bass, scoop the mids, and back the treble off until we think we sound “smooth,” or “fat.”

The problem with this is similar to surplus gain, in that a bass-heavy tone with no treble and even less mids will be about as present in a full band mix as Shaq would be on the free-throw percentage leaderboard. Dialing back the bass (especially at higher volumes) and increasing the mids lets your instrument sit where it should in the frequency spectrum, and will actually make you sound punchy and present instead of tinny and small.

Delay:

In contrast to the “less is more” attitude that often leads to better guitar sounds, it’s likely that you aren’t running your delays hot enough to be heard on stage. Here’s the truth: unless you’re playing in a power trio with an inactive bass player, you actually don’t need that low-mix delay you keep on all the time to “fill space.” If you’re going to use echo, you should actually be able to hear the echoes, and that often means mixing them a little louder than our bedroom comfort level. If you can barely hear yourself on stage (which is the case for most of us) you probably wont hear that delay that’s at 50% of the dry signal level at all. Bring that mix up. 

Reverb:

We bathe our bedroom tones in reverb because we feel extra naked in the spaces between notes. That’s understandable, but the same amount of reverb on stage only serves to wash us (and the rest of the band) out like that folding chair we left out at low tide. Dialing back the reverb allows for a more distinct full band mix, and allows a sense of space to come from the arrangement and interaction between instruments.

Other Effects:

The story here is similar to delay, in that a subtle use of modulation or pitch effects in an isolated bedroom setting will translate into an unnoticeable use of the same effect on stage. If you’re too afraid to set the mix of a certain effect high enough to be noticed by your audience, you might want to think twice about using it at all.

Now, let me be clear. The take-away here is not that you should set your rig one way for your bedroom and one way for the stage, though you could if you’re that obsessive. It’s probably far more practical to just acknowledge how your tone will sound at higher volumes and within a full band mix, remembering that your bedroom tone only seems thin, dry, and too delay heavy, when its really just where it needs to be for the stage, where things actually count. 

Food, Fashion, and Fretboard Knowledge

Have you ever known someone who seems naturally predisposed to gather as much information as they can on a certain topic? Maybe it’s your friend who can recite the starting five of his favorite basketball team since 1946, or your coworker who functions as a walking storehouse for peripheral superhero trivia. The pursuit of information about a person’s passions never seems quite as laborious as a purely academic quest for knowledge, and it genuinely seems like lots of people get real pleasure out of a deep understanding of a particular subject or field. We often think of the fanatics, nerds, and geeks that we know when we talk about this brand of dedication, but we all participate in this kind of knowledge seeking in one way or another. Maybe you can relate to one of these scenarios:

  • You like to eat. More specifically, you like to eat food that tastes good. So rather than throw yourself headlong into the culinary world, you research. You mentally compartmentalize restaurants based on taste, service, and practices as you scour their menus to find their most consistently satisfying dishes. You explore the worlds of complementary beverages and sauces to ensure that you get every nuance of flavor out of your food. You may even venture into cooking for yourself, spending a great deal of effort, time, and even money to become a personal appropriation of every Food Network competition ever. All the while, you’re not thinking about how arduous a task it is to learn about food. You’re just trying to eat well.
  • Though you’re confident in yourself for all the right reasons, you like to look good. So rather than throw yourself headlong into the world of fashion, you research. You mentally compartmentalize different varieties of clothing based on their utility, aesthetic styling, and cultural relevance as you scour both local and online retailers to find pieces that are both flattering and expressive. You explore the worlds of color coordination and accessorizing to ensure that each ensemble is constructed with nuance and function. You may even venture into creating looks for yourself, spending a great deal of effort, time, and even money to become a personal appropriation of every fashion design competition ever. All the while, you’re not thinking about how arduous a task it is to learn about clothing. You’re just trying to look your best.

In an attempt at relevancy, let me ask these questions: why are we willing to expend so much energy, time, and other resources in the pursuit of knowledge pertaining to food, fashion, sports, art, film, etc., yet often so reluctant to put forth the same commitment to truly understand the instruments that we claim are so vital to our everyday identities? Why is it easy for me to tell you the first and last names of every character to take on the mantle of Robin, but so difficult for me to sit down and learn a scale or arpeggio shape across the fretboard? Why do I know which kind of beer goes best with every entrée imaginable, but am unsure about what notes will sound best over a certain chord? Why do I know which pair of socks will complement each combination of pants and shirts in my closet, but claim that learning complex chords is too inconvenient to really pursue?

We respect a masterful understanding of a certain subject or field because we admire not just the quantity of information amassed, but also the dedication it takes to achieve such an understanding. We respect and admire Hendrix because he never put down his guitar even after he had reached his peak, just as we respect and admire Steph Curry for practicing three pointers for what must have seemed like an eternity before and even after he could make them at will. If we are really passionate about our instrument, we’ll make understanding how it works a priority, not as some academic chore we complete out of obligation, but as a natural extension of our passion.

You eat well. You look your best. It’s time to make your music say what you mean. 

Who Makes The Cut?

Picture the greatest team you can think of.

Whether it’s the 1992 Olympic basketball team, the mission crew of Apollo 11, or the Avengers, great teams seem to have a few things in common. One such characteristic is the interplay between each team member’s differing, yet essential roles, which allow the team to specialize, divide the work, and conquer their goals.

Your pedalboard’s like that too.

Just like a basketball team with only seven-foot shot blockers wouldn’t be successful in the long run, a pedalboard with only flange pedals would probably hinder more than it would help in the pursuit of an effective guitar sound. We pick the contents of our boards pragmatically, assembling the right pieces with care to construct the right sound in the most efficient way.

However, in a world where pedalboards can only be so big, and we only have so much money with which to fill them, choosing between potential members of our “tone team” can be more complicated than we bargained for, leaving some players to let go of the reins entirely, posting vague questions on gear forums like “what pedals do I need to play music?” With this uncertainty in mind, I’d like to detail the process that I follow when I think I need a new pedal. This is how a player might decide who makes the cut:

Flowchart.jpg

Is it an essential to your sound?

  • Think about the tone that you’d use for a supplementary part during a verse or chorus. Are some of your pedals on for that tone? If so, keep those above all others. Your tuner fits in this category, even if it’s not in pedal form, and if you’re Kirk Hammett, a wah goes here.
    • Common Examples: base-tone overdrive, compressor, volume pedal
    • Personal Example: The Midnight 30 Music O.D. 30 Special is a pedal I keep on all the time, using my volume knob to control my saturation level as the cornerstone of my sound.

How many times will you use it in each set?

  • There are some pedals that make unarguably cool sounds, but don’t get used enough in the set to warrant their presence on your board. The threshold will vary from player to player, but if a certain pedal only gets used once per set, do you really need it?
    • Common Examples: pitch shifting, bit crushers, oscillators
    • Personal Example: I had the Pitch Bay for a while, and it was awesome, but I’d only use it every so often. Ultimately, I sold it to make room for something more readily usable.

Is it a unique piece of your board?

  • Though style and preference are certainly a factor here, having more than one of the same type of pedal on a board can be redundant, especially in certain cases, and barring certain exceptions. Do you really need two tape delay emulators? Do you really need six stages of “transparent overdrive?” Does every Muff variant need to be represented on your board? Ask yourself these questions.
    • Common Examples: low-gain overdrive, reverb, delay
    • Personal Example: I had this tremolo pedal that I thought would "compliment" the sound of my amp's vibrato circuit. It ended up just crippling me with choice, and in the end, I sold it, because it was redundant.

Is the price reasonable?

  • This isn't on the flowchart, but I figured it was worth mentioning, because while some pedals are definitely worth the asking price, there are certain situations where a minute change in tone doesn’t warrant a massive change in price. The audience probably can’t tell between two kinds of NOS transistors in the same kind of fuzz, so ultimately, is it worth the extra hundred dollars?
    • Common Examples: that one overdrive pedal, vintage fuzzes, that other overdrive pedal
    • Personal Example: I swoon over a certain Fuzz Face variant from time to time, but ultimately, the $400 price tag is something I just cant justify for something I’d only use sparingly.

Does it look cool?

  • Not a consideration for all players, the aesthetics of a pedal can be neglected one way or the other based on how it sounds. However, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather be looking down at something cool? There are a myriad of brands who take their products to the next level by making them look as cool as they sound, which may not sway all players, but makes me incredibly happy.
    • Common Examples: anything made by ZVEX, Walrus, OBNE, Earthquaker, etc.
    • Personal Example: I love the look of the Neunaber Audio stuff. They look like spacecraft. They are spacecraft. 

Obviously, this set of considerations isn’t even close to exhaustive, and other players may have a totally different process for deciding what gets space on their board. The main principle, however, stands: 

Your board is an elite team of tone. You should care about who makes the cut. 

The Fretboard and Cheap Gas

If you’ve done any amount of traveling in your life, chances are you’ve felt the difference between spending time in a completely unfamiliar city vs. a city where you know one of the locals. Obviously, having a relationship with a resident of a particular place makes navigating said place way easier than if you were going at it alone. Residents of a city know where the local attractions are, how to get from A to B quickly, and where to find things like cheap gas in different parts of their town, and they leverage their knowledge to make your trip easier.

Often times, guitarists tend to look at the fretboard like the map of an unfamiliar town. They might have some idea of how things are oriented, but without the comfort that comes from years of experience, certain areas of the fretboard can seem less like a familiar neighborhood, and more like a foreign municipality where you don’t speak the native language. Thus, I hope that the following tips will help alleviate some of the uncertainty of navigating the fretboard, allowing you to find notes and shapes all over the neck with the same ease as a local finding the cheapest gas around.

Beware The B String

In standard tuning, a 6 string guitar is mostly tuned in what we call “fourths,” meaning that the distance in frequency from the E string to the A string is the same as starting a major scale on E and going up four steps (“Do, Re, Mi, Fa”). However, when we get to the B string, the pattern changes, and the distance between G and B is actually a “major third” (“Do, Re, Mi”), and goes back to a fourth for the high E string. This will mean that any scheme of locating notes will get thrown off a little at the B string, but with practice, you should get the hang of it. Remembering that an A5 or A Power Chord looks one way on the D and G strings (orange dots) and another way on the G and B strings (green dots), for example, will help you get over the change in interval spacing.

North One, West Five

You know how there seems to be the same coffee shop chain at every intersection in some cities? Walk a couple blocks in any direction, and you’ll find it. The same is true for notes on the fretboard. If you’ve got an E note at the 12th fret of the low E string (blue dots), you can go up to the A string and back 5 frets to the 7th fret to find the exact same E not, and repeating the process lets you locate the same note again on the second fret of the D string! We can apply this process to any note across all applicable strings (keeping the change at the B string in mind, of course), which is important for two reasons:

  1. It means that we can find the same chords, lines, and shapes at several locations on the fretboard, which is the main advantage that stringed instruments have over keyboard and wind instruments whose notes are only in one location. This lets us decide how to fret things things from an ergonomic perspective. Don’t want to slide up a bunch of frets to grab that 14th fret F#? Grab it on the 9th fret of the A string instead.

  2. It means that we can voice the same note with different timbres. Ever notice how the change in mass between the strings makes the notes sound a little different? Lower, thicker strings have a rounder, meatier tone, while the higher strings sound a little thinner, but have more presence. The repetition of the same note across the fretboard allows you the agency of deciding between various timbres at the exact same frequency, giving you far more textural control, and thus, more expressive capabilities.

North Two, East Two

When we attempt to decide which range of notes our part should occupy, it can be helpful to know how to place it in different octave ranges, allowing us to pinpoint the right sonic real estate to fill. In the case of any note (like E on the 7th fret of the A string) its important to know that the major scale will land on that note again in a higher register two strings up, and two frets towards the body of the instrument (like the E on the 9th fret of the G string). Knowing where the octaves are across the fretboard (keeping the change at the B string in mind, of course) allows us to place the same chords, lines, and shapes in different octave ranges with ease.

I hope that these tips have been helpful for those players looking to feel more at home on the fretboard. Let me know if you have any tips to add in the comments, and keep making your music say what you mean!

Ian


Tone Is In The Ears

If you’re a guitarist who also happens to have access to social media, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the “Tone Is In The Hands vs. Tone Is In The Gear,” debate at least once within the last week or so. Always raging, and carrying a surprising amount of personal investment, this discussion always seems to devolve into inter-discipline bashing and name calling, and without the emergence of a clear path to a usable guitar sound. With that in mind, I’d like to (humbly) divert things in what I believe is a more useful direction.

I’d like to claim that tone is ultimately in the ears.

Our fingers and our gear certainly have a direct effect on the timbre of our instrument, but it is the evaluative power that stems from our ability to listen that really determines which tones are usable and contextually valuable (read: “good”). By using our ears to instruct our physical interaction with the strings, as well as our system of how we set and when we choose to use certain pieces of gear, we stand a far better chance of making a positive sonic impact across musical contexts than if we lean on the quality of our expensive amp or the dexterity and nuance in our experienced fingers as crutches.

I think a great (though admittedly hyperbolic) example of how this might come into play is the tones achieved by David Gilmour in his performance on “Comfortably Numb,” when a combination of Gilmour’s legendary feeling and phrasing, his mythical set up of Hiwatts and Ram’s Head Big Muffs, and a touch of studio wizardry make both solos, but especially the later, jump out of the mix and command the listener’s attention with a seductive combination of intrigue and aggression.

 

Awesome tone, right? But lets pretend that after Mr. Gilmour (and probably one or more engineering buddies) dialed in the sound for the second solo, Gilmour thought it was the best tone he’d ever gotten in his life. So good, in fact, that he’d like to use it all over the song. Actually, scratch that. He’s going to use it for the entire record. Forget the galloping delays in “Run Like Hell,” or the funky spank of “Another Brick In The Wall Pt.2.” It’s going to be fuzz and solo delays from back to front because good tone is good tone, right?

Obviously, this is an outlandish example. The rest of Pink Floyd would have never let Gilmour use a single tone on their art rock masterpiece. The engineers and producers would have been less than pleased as well, and the record company probably would have had a few reservations. Most importantly, however, David Gilmour’s own ears would never have allowed his solo tone to be used on parts that didn’t need it, because it’s his ears that educate his choices regarding the timbre of his instrument. Sure, his tone sounds great on the solos, but he’s not going to let the scooped mids and wide footprint of that Big Muff trample on the atmosphere in the verses or the orchestration in the choruses. Gilmour rarely even plays on the rest of the song, and when he does, he's usually just doubling the bass line with an almost inaudible sound that sinks into the mix, because that’s all his ears tell him the song needs. Rather than worry about whether fingers or gear are up to snuff, I think we need to be more like David Gilmour, and use our ears.

Our ears tell us when we need a pristine clean sound, a dynamic overdriven tone, or a wall of crushing fuzz. They instruct us on how to intonate bends correctly and alert us when we’re out of tune. Our ears recommend that we hit the strings with more or less ferocity to convey a shift in dynamics, and they teach us how to set our delay pedal for the sound that we want. Our ears let us know when certain tones are appropriate, and when we’re bringing too much or not enough sonic information to the table. Our ears tell us to play a busier part, or to let the part breathe a little, or even to not play at all. They are the source of evaluation, the quality control in our section of the band’s sound, and the ultimate authority on whether or not a tone is actually good. On top of that, they’re always listening. They don’t care if your tone sounded great for the verse if you don’t sound good in the chorus. Your ears can take context into consideration in a way that a new amp or ten hours of practicing Stevie Ray Vaughan licks just cant, allowing you to add to the mix in any section of a song, with any band, in any context, just by listening.

The next time you ask yourself if you’ve got good tone, or if your tone is challenged, what do your ears tell you? If they give you the thumbs up, you’re good to go. No amount of gear snobbery or “tone is in the hands” elitism can argue with a guitar sound that meets the standard set in place by your ears. If they’re happy, you should be too. If they’re not, let them instruct you on how to make things better. Your ears are more reliable than a guitar-playing message board. Listen to them. 

Actually Finding Your Space

“Ricky is a really nice guy, but I wish that he would play something different than just open chords. Can you teach him some of those whale-sounding thingies?”

Possibly the most consistent inquiry that I hear from players and band leaders on a regular basis, the desire for the electric guitarist to play appropriate parts and fill the correct space is a reasonable expectation to hold. A guitar part played thoughtfully and in the correct register can take a song to new levels of dynamism and space, while a part played without consideration for sonic real-estate can make a song sound muddy and sterile.

However, while there is prolific literature on the need for a guitarist to find their space, there doesn’t seem to be much in the vein of actual strategies for accomplishing the task. Players are told to “stay out of the other instruments and vocals way,” without giving them strategies for finding a positive space to fill. This leaves a lack of confidence in the player, and makes anything they do play to be self-viewed as obtrusive and superfluous. 

So, in the name of clarity and pragmatism, lets examine a process that will allow any intermediate-leveled player to find a useful space for any song or context.

First, we’ll want to recognize the range of our instrument relative to others. With the exception of the keys, the electric guitar has the largest range of any instrument on stage, allowing it to pinpoint target frequencies in a way that other instruments cant. In addition, electric guitar has grown to be understood as a dynamic instrument that utilizes this range expressively, unlike keys, which will typically stay within the same octave range, especially when chording. Both of these traits cause the expectation that electric guitarists should be able to find an unobtrusive, complementary space in which to play, so its not your fault (or the worship leader’s) personally.

Next, lets work from the ground up, to see with which instruments our sound might compete for space:

  • We probably wont compete with bass guitar or kick drums, unless the bass is playing in their highest register, or we’re using some type of sub octave or bass heavy (read: Big Muff) fuzz sound.
  • We have a tendency to compete most with keys and acoustic/rhythm guitar, as these instruments reside in the same midrange frequency that we do. The logistics of “who plays what” here will make or break a mix.
  • We have a chance to compete with vocals, since we may climb into their range for hooks, counterpoint, and other high-register parts. While the chances of clashing are slimmer than with acoustic or keys, the consequences are much greater. To put things bluntly, if you bury the vocals with your part, you’re a jerk.
  • Unless we’re playing really high and washy stuff, we probably wont compete with cymbals. Cymbals are manufactured to sit atop everything and be super cutting, so they’ll usually beat out all challengers for their space.

Now that we know how much of a minefield we’re dealing with, lets go through the way that I typically find my space for a given song:      

  1. First, I figure out (or ask about) the three highest notes that the acoustic guitar will play on the G, B, and high E strings. I use these notes as my low-end boundary, meaning that I will seldom play a note that is lower than the highest note that the acoustic guitar plays on the G string.
  2. Next, I’ll learn to play the vocal part. This may seem laborious, but it might be one of the most useful things you can do while part writing. I’ll probably write a future post on the merits of learning the vocal line, but for now, the main advantage is that if you can play the vocal line, you know where it is on your fretboard, and you can stay the heck away from that space whenever the vocals are in. On the flip side, whenever the vocals aren’t in, definitely use that space. The audience has been trained to expect important things from those frequencies. Give them something to chew on.

These two steps will give you the option to:

  • Play above the acoustic guitar and below the vocal
  • Play above the acoustic guitar AND the vocal
  • Switch depending on the part

Obviously, this can be complicated further by adding additional electric guitars, or other high-register instruments like horns, synths, strings, and triangles. In those scenarios, communication is key. Talk each section out and designate spaces with humility, patience, and positivity, and you’ll not only make an impact with your parts, but by being a leader as well. It doesn’t get better than serving your band and the song at the same time.

In closing, its important to note that the underlying assumption here is that the player will be able to move around the fretboard to find their sonic space with some competency. If you’re unfamiliar with how to voice parts in different registers, try googling the CAGED system, and stay tuned for Articulate lessons on the same topic.

Be sure to leave a comment if you have any questions, and from now on, be sure to actually find your space.

 

Ian

Tone Is In The Adjectives

In the world of thinly veiled consumerism and elitism that is tone chasing, a great guitar sound is presumed to arise from a combination of high quality, great sounding gear and a set of dexterous, experienced hands. The expectation is that with enough practice, and gear that is expensive enough, a player should always have great tone in each and every musical context.

However, in the fray of practicing (a little) and shopping for gear (a lot), we may not take the time to recognize the way in which our conception of what great tone should be is being shaped by the very lexicon we use to describe tones in the first place. This may seem like making tone mountains out of tone molehills, but I think we’ve all experienced some tone dysphoria that can be traced directly to our own lack of understanding or competency in relation to the adjectives we use on a regular basis. We may be describing tones we like as well as tones we find displeasing with adjectives that mean the same thing.

Perhaps the most relatable example is the distinction between “warm” and “muddy” tones. Even the most inexperienced player will tell you that having a warm, easy-on-the-ears tone is next to godliness, and having a muddy tone is reason for ejection from your band, but in reality, is there really that much of a difference? Are we not accentuating lower frequencies and subduing higher frequencies to make a tone warmer, and then wishing we hadn’t overdone the process when the tone gets muddy? What happens when my warm tone is indistinguishable in a full mix, or if someone else’s muddy tone fits into the perfect sonic space for their context? Whose tone is “better” now?

There is an inherent fatalism in describing a player’s tone, or even a piece of gear in broad, monolithic characterizations, whether positively or negatively. Why assume that tones or tonal characteristics are either good or bad, when it is far healthier to view a certain sound as more or less useful in a given musical space? There may be a musical setting that calls for a tone with an obscured attack that may sound muddy when isolated, just as there may be situations that call for tones that might be considered “brittle” or “thin” to some ears. Tone construction actually works in a very similar way to the crappy editing that we all do to the pictures we take on our phone. We might have liked the way a certain shot looked with increased exposure or saturation, but we wouldn’t assume that all photos would look their best with those settings. Rather, we’d edit each photo as if it was a new event, deciding which alterations would serve it most effectively.

If we can be conscious of the way we conceptualize the quality of a given sound, we can equip ourselves to be far more useful when constructing our own tones, and when critiquing the tones of others. Wouldn’t it be far more effective to comment that a certain tone “could benefit from less gain in the bridge of that song” rather than just claiming that “your tone is too crunchy?” By looking a tones as more or less useful or effective in a given space rather than either good or bad, we leave room for creativity, and equip ourselves and others to make our music say what we mean.

How do you like to make your tone work in a particular context? Let me know in a comment!

Ian

Tone Talk: Stacking Overdrives vs. The Volume Knob

One of the most frequently addressed elements of tone construction is the interplay between overdriven and clean tones. This is no surprise, as many musical contexts call for both clean and dirty tones, often within the same song, making the ability to transition between great sounding tones of varying saturation into a performing necessity.  

Many players have adopted the practice of using a separate overdrive pedal for each flavor of dirt that a particular gig calls for, and this practice has become so common that the use of multiple dirt pedals is starting to be viewed as more of a necessity than a preference. Tutorial videos instruct the viewer to “turn on your second stage overdrive” for a particular section of a song, and pedal manufacturers rave about how well their new overdrive “stacks” with others.

There’s no denying that the practice of stacking overdrives is a valid preference for a player to hold, but in the current gear-focused environment, it may be helpful to remind players that it isn’t law, and to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of stacking overdrives versus the predominant alternative: modulating between clean and overdriven tones by using your guitar’s volume knob.

Before going any further, I want to expose my own biases on this subject, as I prefer the volume knob method to stacking overdrives. However, while I do intend to advocate for knob-based gain modulation, I hope that I can present both strategies justly, and leave each player with room to make their own choices.

Let’s examine each practice in more detail:

Stacking Overdrives

This practice usually involves a clean-set amp and the implementation of two or more overdrive pedals. These pedals are run in series to achieve varying dynamic “stages”, and their controls are typically set to blend into one another. When a part of a song calls for more or less gain, the player turns one of their dirt pedals on or off to change the level of saturation in their tone accordingly.

A typical arrangement of pedals for this practice will be a low gain overdrive that is set to create an “edge of breakup” tone and often left on, another overdrive to create a “crunch” tone, and a third drive to obtain a “lead” sound.

Using The Volume Knob

This practice involves either an amp or always-on pedal that is set to achieve the maximum amount of saturation or gain that a player would need for a particular gig. To achieve varying levels of overdrive, the player turns their guitar volume knob down, thereby decreasing the input to the pedal or amp, and causing less clipping or overdrive. Using my own rig as an example, I typically set my overdrive pedal for maximum gain when my guitar's volume is full, which gives me clean tones when my guitars volume is around 60-75%. 

(It may be important to note that this practice will work less effectively with volume knobs that cut treble as the volume is decreased, an unfortunate characteristic of the electronics in many guitars.) 

Again, both of these practices are valid, but they have important differences that might shape which one a player chooses to employ. Here are some advantages an disadvantages of each practice: 

Stacking Overdrives

Advantages

  1. Having your hands free to play instead of working the volume knob
  2. The ability to switch between very dissimilar levels of saturation quickly

Disadvantages

  1. Less precise control over saturation level 
  2. Having to worry about how a bunch of different pedals interact 

Using Your Volume Knob 

Advantages

  1. Very precise control over saturation level
  2. No need to shoegaze every time you need a different sound

Disadvantages

  1. Having to work the manipulation of your volume knob into your playing
  2. Less potential range of sounds, especially for quick changes

Again, I can't stress enough that both of these practices are equally valid, and that its up to the player to decide which one is most comfortable and useful for them. You don't have to stack overdrives because everyone else in your band or worship team does, and you don't have to use your volume knob because the old-school purists say so. Simply do what's most intuitive, and let your playing speak for itself. 

How do you prefer to manipulate overdrive in your own rig? Let me know in a comment! 

In the name of Tacos, Trampolines, and Telecasters,

Ian 

The Mix And You: Cutting Or Blending With Electric Guitar

Ever feel like the parts you write for certain songs sound great by themselves, but don't sound as great when you play them in a band context? Sometimes your parts may feel like they're getting buried by the rest of the band and not sticking out enough, or conversely, they may stick out a little too much in certain contexts. 

The ability to control your own presence in the mix is coveted by players, and appreciated by sound guys everywhere. Some players use boost or EQ effects to move within the depth of the mix, but these same results can be achieved by simply changing the way you arrange your parts, and even by playing the same parts in different ways.

Here's a Buzzfeed-esque list of some strategies to try: 

If You Want To Cut Through

1. Voice your parts using higher notes

2. Use the bridge pickup

3. Play the part using thinner strings

4. Pick the strings closer to the bridge

5. Rotate your pick and strike the strings with it's edge

For the point on voicing your parts, inversions are your friend. In lieu of a more detailed explanation, a quick way to do this is by examine the open-position version of whatever chord the acoustic is playing, taking the highest three strings, and playing those notes in a different order higher up on the neck. (Email us if you'd like a more detailed description)

For the rest of the list, all of the techniques focus on emphasizing higher frequencies and subduing low frequencies. There is science behind this, but rather than delve into a long physics talk, just assume that higher frequencies sound more "present" in our ears, and that low frequencies can detract from this presence. Any way we can emphasize highs and subdue lows will make us stick out and cut through the mix. 

Conversely, if you'd like to blend, you can take the same points and turn each concept on its head. However, for the sake of convenience and continuity: 

If You Want To Blend In

1. Voice your parts using lower notes

2. Use darker pickup selections (neck/middle)

3. Play the part using thicker strings

4. Pick the strings closer to the neck

5. Use the flat part of the pick or your fingers to strike the strings

By using these techniques, you can start to become the master of your own position in the mix, which leaves the sound guy to focus on other things besides adjusting your sliders, like trying to figure out how to make people hear that background vocalist who insists on holding their microphone at full arms length. 

What are some other strategies you use to cut through the mix? Let me know what I missed!

Thanks for reading! Hope your day is filled with trampolines and tacos!

Ian