Lost Pedalboard Lessons

Most musicians know to expect the unexpected when touring. Tires go flat, guitar strings break, and front-of-house engineers are grouchy. We’re mentally and emotionally prepared for minor inconveniences, but most of us still keep our fingers crossed and hope that nothing too sketchy happens.  Our band was about to take the stage in Raleigh, halfway through a week-long set of dates throughout the southeast U.S, when my own experience took a particularly sketchy turn:

I realized my pedalboard was missing.

I tried to keep my composure while combing the venue for possible hiding spots, and eventually came to the realization that my board had been left in Charlotte the previous night. While still processing what was happening, I attempted to make it through our set by plugging my Telecaster straight into my Deluxe Reverb, and while I love the base sound of my amp, our set felt a lot like that dream where you show up to middle school without pants.

Worried and embarrassed, I spent the rest of the night franticly trying to get in touch with the venue in Charlotte to see if my board could be recovered. Luckily, this story has a happy ending, as a few heroic individuals managed to locate and secure my board, allowing me to pick it up on the way to the next date.

While I made it out of the experience mostly in one piece, I definitely learned a couple things about my board and about myself: 

I learned just how many important things are on my board

When I realized my board was missing, my initial reaction was panic at the thought of being without my El Capistan delay, and it was only through actually setting up my rig that I realized how ill-equipped I’d actually become. Even basic items like my tuner, instrument cables, power sources, and slide were all contained either on my board or in its case, so its absence turned out to be way more detrimental than just leaving me without sound design options. 

I learned that my board is an extension of my creativity

It’s common knowledge that a player’s identity is forged primarily through the way their hands interact with their instrument, but let’s face it: our pedals are a valuable, personal part of our sound. Our tone is created through an entire ecosystem of parts, and while I wouldn’t compare the importance of technique equally to our interaction with pedals, being without my board felt as much like I wasn’t myself as if someone had tied a couple of my fretting fingers together. As a lead guitar player, I care as much about making my sounds work as I do about making my parts work, and being without my board felt like being an artist who can only paint with half a rainbow’s worth of colors. 

I learned to stop agonizing over settings

If given the option, I can become a relentless setting tweaker. I’ll spend a half hour to only turn a knob a few degrees, and most of the time, I chalk the practice up to “caring so much.” When I got my board back, I stopped caring almost altogether. I was so pumped to have any delay at all that it didn’t matter if I got exactly 8 repeats, and I was so pumped to have my drive section that it didn’t matter if the volumes weren’t perfectly balanced. When someone offers you a shower on tour, you don’t fret over whether it’s a little hot or cold, and the same was true for my board. I was just glad it was there. 

I learned that I don’t need pedals

I was embarrassed, stressed out, and frustrated by the time our sans-pedalboard set was over, but even though I’d never ask to feel that way again, I have to acknowledge that we made it. For the most part, I could play the songs the same way, and important facets of our performance like dynamics, feel, and intonation were are just as accessible and important as they were when I had my pedals. My playing style is certainly augmented by my board, but it wasn’t defined by it. 

I learned that I need pedals

Everything I said in the last point is true, but I’d still never want to play another set without my board. I LIKE having the ability to oscillate a delay for transitions, I LIKE the way modulation gives a part a unique identity, and I LIKE the way my looper lets me create more sonic depth than four instruments can on their own. Whether I like it or not, our set can only be properly executed if I have the right sounds at my disposal, and my job is way more about presenting the songs faithfully than it is about simply “playing guitar.” In the end, the way the music sounds is the only thing that really matters, and if we need pedals to make it sound the way it’s intended, it’s simply a case of having the necessary tools for the job. 

Ultimately, the lesson here is a common one: You need the right gear to execute your music. For some people, that means plugging straight in, and for others, it means lugging a mothership rig around. There’s no inherent shame in either practice, and in the end, we should choose (and try not to misplace) the gear we use solely because it helps us make our music say what we mean. 

Send It!

When you’re staring down a gristly gap about eighty feet from lip to lip, or a gnarly barrel the size of your G-ma’s house, you know you gotta send it, but would you believe that sending it is crucial for a great musical performance as well? 

Are you guys silly? Of course it is!

In all seriousness, most of us would acknowledge that confidence is important when performing. However, too many of us regularly approach the task in practice with shy timidity, neglecting to employ the useful benefits that a confident, courageous posture can foster in a live set.

Many of us will attribute our lack of outward confidence on stage to an intention to “really nail each part,” but if we’re honest, we’ll admit that our parts should be unquestionably solid long before we hit the stage. Individual practice or group rehearsal are perfect times to nitpick the details of execution, but when we perform, we need to be as mentally free as possible to just play. 

Here are five reasons why you just gotta send it:

  • You’re more fun to watch
    • When we play with confidence and courage, we’re far more engaging the audience than when we play like the stage is covered in eggshells. A band that sounds great may lose the audience’s attention if their visual presence is static, while a mediocre sound can be easily overshadowed by solid crowd engagement. Clearly, sound is most important, but ignoring the way we present our music visually is ignoring the potential for multi-sensory engagement. 
  • You’re more resistant to mistakes
    • If you’re a musician who’s experienced the internet, you’ve probably watched your fair share of “fail” videos, where some unlucky teen butchers a song at their talent show. Often the most uncomfortable part is the telegraphed discomfort of the performer themselves, who seems to know how badly things are going, wishing along with the audience that the song would end. In truth, one bad note coupled with nervousness can feel like drowning, but a confident player can shake off even the most potentially embarrassing mishap with a smile, knowing that their confidence shines through any mistake, and that their mistakes don’t define them in the first place. 
  • You’re more likely to play with feeling
    • Timidity isn’t useful in too many situations, but it’s particularly detrimental when feel and nuance are important. It’s difficult to have a varied touch when we play like we’re scared of our instrument, but when we own our performance with courage, our dynamic nuance can truly be unlocked.  
  • You’re more likely to have great tone
    • When we dial in the sound of our instrument, the timbres that we build are dependent upon the typical force with which we play. Some of us are more heavy-handed than others, but there’s no faster route to a wimpy sound than playing more timidly in public than in private. Truly, playing with the appropriate amount of authority allows us to sound like ourselves, which is what most of us want in the first place. 
  • You’re more likely to have fun
    • Perhaps the most striking effect of timid playing is the way that it sucks the enjoyment out of performing. Most of us got into playing live because of the way it made us feel, and to rob ourselves of that feeling out of fear is simply tragic. In truth, playing confidently allows us to be present enough to experience the moments that make live music great, letting us leave the stage feeling satisfied in what we’ve created. 

Ultimately, fear is normal and understandable, especially in the vulnerable space of musical performance. Thankfully, as we grow as musicians, we can learn to see fear for the obstacle that it is, and ultimately work past it to make our music say what we mean. 

Dynamics: Raising Ceilings and Lowering Floors

Most players share a similar approach when it comes to controlling dynamics. We use our main sound eighty percent of the time, turn off a pedal or turn down our volume knob “for the really quiet parts,” and have some form of boost for leads and solos. Many of us claim to be “obsessed with dynamics,” but that rarely seems to manifest itself in something other than a fear of compression in overdrives pedals and weird, cultish followings of certain players for their “touch.” 

Obviously, control over dynamics is incredibly important for the communicative, narrative aspects of musical performance, but too often, it gets limited in practice to arbitrary jumps, or simply “being louder sometimes.” 

In reality, dynamics is less about sheer volume, and more about the disparity between our most and least intense sounds. That means we need to be as comfortable with the quiet, subdued side of our playing as we are with intensity and loudness, to make sure each contrast can be as stark as possible. 

In practice, like so many other aspects of our playing, dynamics come down to planning. Personally, I’ve been known to chart out the dynamics of songs in weird pseudo-Excel graphs, but following this simple checklist should do the same trick for less: 

  1. Try your best to select one section of every song to be completely silent. This is actually the ultimate dynamic move, since no sound is ever louder than silence (very deep). 
  2. Plan ahead to unleash your most intense sound only at the most intense moments, and be as protective of that sound as possible. Your most intense sound is like The Boy Who Cried “Wolf.” Use it too often, and the audience stops caring. 
  3. Work those crescendos and decrescendos like it’s your job. Know where they are, and make them count. 
  4. Know how each section relates to the others dynamically. Is the chorus more intense than the pre-chorus? Is the bridge the most intense part of all? Make sure your own dynamics reflect the flow of the song. 

Dynamics is about getting louder when we need to, sure, but it’s also about getting quieter, and collecting shades of mezzo like some sort of musical Pokemon Master. We need to lower the floor as much as we need to raise the ceiling, all in the name of making our music say what we mean. 

5 Traits of Great Bandmates

When we’re collaborating with other musicians, we can default to thinking that our musical abilities are the only qualities that matter. If we can play well, we think, we should be seen as the MVB (most valuable bandmate) that we are.

Obviously, there’s more to being a valuable member of a musical team than simply playing your own instrument excellently, and I’ve noticed that certain musicians seem to not only execute their own parts well, but add to the sense of musical enjoyment for everyone involved, simply through the way we interact!

Players like this become coveted additions to any project, valued as highly for their catalytic nature as their actual music-making. Luckily, they seem to share a few common behaviors, so we should be able to glean from their experience:

Communicate

Perhaps the most obvious mark of a great bandmate is their constant engagement. Whether actively listening to other’s ideas or providing feedback or direction where appropriate, these players foster the team dynamic through their communication. When we intentionally verbalize ideas together, we can process together, and eventually take more collective ownership of any musical product.

Compliment

No one has ever felt too much encouragement, and the most valuable bandmates around distribute compliments freely. This behavior actually exists in two steps, since a meaningful compliment can only be delivered if we’ve been paying attention to noteworthy actions of others in the first place! Letting the drummer know that their fill made the transition pop makes them feel noticed and appreciated, which is what any band member wants to begin with. An encouraged musician often becomes a confident musician, and a band full of confident musicians simply sounds better. 

Celebrate

Too often, we let big moments like a well-executed set pass us by. Whether it’s because it was “supposed to go well anyway,” or because cool kids don’t show happiness, we leave valuable motivation on the table. When we help each other feel victories, we keep ourselves in the right headspace not only to appreciate the present, but to make wins the repeatable occurrences we intend them to be.

Compromise

It’s understood that we all carry a significant amount of personal baggage into any music-making venture, which is why it’s so powerful when someone puts their own gratification on hold for the sake of another. It’s easy for us to turn every song or show into any opportunity to serve ourselves, and we shouldn’t be surprised when it leaves us feeling a little empty. Selflessness breeds selflessness, and often creates more complete musical products than when we all tug our music in opposite directions to try and fit our own ideal.

Care

We’ve all felt the exhilarating absurdity of unwarranted care. A person who shouldn’t have any concern for us asks a meaningful question, or goes out of their way to help, all to show that we mean something in their world. It always takes more work and breeds more hurt to treat our bandmates like family, but the more familial we are, the more significant the music feels, and the tighter we play.

The harsh reality for me in writing a post like this is that I don’t exhibit these qualities the way I want to. Hopefully, the ways being a great bandmate can shape our musical environment for the better are enough incentive to grow, both for me and others like me. Ultimately, our growth can bring us that much closer to making our music say what we mean. 

The Argument Over Pedals is Pointless

The recurring debates that rage within guitar-based internet communities are like eating fast food. Most of us would admit that the debates aren’t good for us, but many of us regularly participate anyway. Of these recurring arguments, one of my personal favorites is the one that rages over pedals. Raise your hand if you’ve seen any of these phrases pop up on your favorite guitar page:

“I’m so tired of seeing people with big pedalboards that can’t actually play.”

“I have the Timeline and the Bigsky but I only use two patches.”

“My favorite player uses a compressor. Does that mean I need one?”

“A guitar should sound like a guitar, and not like a synth.”

Familiar? We end up turning off the notifications on these posts, because they inevitably spiral into nonsense, and seem to imply an irreconcilable divide between “the pedal junkies,” and “the straight-in purists.” Maybe, if we were a little more mature, we could simply agree to disagree, but I think there’s something deeper going on here. Like everyone on the #JusticeForBarb train, we sometimes lose the plot.

When we construct a guitar sound, we make countless decisions along the way, some (or most) of which may be completely unconscious: 

  • We elect to play our parts in particular parts of the fretboard, striking the strings (with pick or fingers) closer to the bridge or neck, with particular accenting and dynamics.
  • We use our guitar’s controls in particular ways, with particular pickups, sending our signal through a particular path, through a particular signal chain.
  • We amplify that signal through a particular amp with controls that are set a particular way, out of a particular speaker.

Regardless of how much attention we’ve given to each part of the chain, they all contribute to the way we sound, leaving only one fundamental question to be answered:

Did I mean to sound like that?

It really is that simple. We can spend as much time as we want jawing about strategies, the value of gear, or the merits of practice, but at the end of the musical day, it’s impossible to argue with a player who’s intentionally constructed a sound that they love. A great sound can take infinite forms, but in almost every case, it requires a deep investment of time and effort to achieve, albeit in unique directions.

A player with great “touch” is really a player who understands minute mechanical details about their instrument, and has developed control over those intricacies through time and care, while simultaneously developing their ear to inform the way they manipulate their sound.

Conversely, a player with an immense array of effected sounds at their disposal is really a player who understands the minute sonic details of their own gear, and has developed control over those intricacies through time and care, while simultaneously developing their ear to inform the way they manipulate their sound.

The sobering reality is that we can’t hack and slash our way to great feel and technique OR great effected sounds. Both pursuits require time, care, and patience, and most of us will find ourselves somewhere in the middle of both paths. Having a huge board doesn’t magically grant amazing sounds, just like removing pedals doesn’t magically grant superhuman touch.

Let’s honestly ask ourselves these questions:

Do I sound the way I want to sound?

Is my touch where it needs to be to sound the way I want?

Do my effects help me sound the way I want?

For most of us, the answers will be somewhere between a hard “no” and “almost,” and therein lies the beauty of the process. A posture of equal parts humility and determination in the pursuit of our sound means that we encounter obstacles and deficiencies with patience and clarity. We don’t buy pedals because someone else said they were a tonal silver bullet, and we don’t practice a technique we’d never use just because some YouTube shredder said it was necessary. We press diligently towards our sound with sureness, not because we’re beyond reproach, but because we’re enjoying the journey.

It’s time to stop arguing about pedals, and start making our music say what we mean.

 

 

5 Ways I’ve Played Myself

DJ Khaled isn’t active on guitar-focused Facebook groups and Reddit threads.

I kind of wish he was.

He might remind us to stop playing ourselves.

The guitar community contains some undeniably intelligent, reasonable individuals, but it has its share of lunacy as well. We can get pretty irrational about some pretty surprising things, from gear preference, to performance rituals.

I’m no exception; in fact, I feel like I’ve gotten weirder than most.

I’d love to hear about the ways you’ve played yourself in a comment, but first, here’s five of mine: 

  1. As a young player endeavoring to teach myself everything, I regularly formed spectacularly inaccurate ideas about music theory. The funniest might be the notion that the major or minor quality of scales or chords might be determined, not by interval relationships, but by their location on the fretboard. Specifically, I used to think that any fret with a dot (think Les Paul copy) was “major,” and any fret without was “minor.” It might have had something to do with all the Drop D I was playing at the time...
  2. There are several good reasons to decide to include a certain pedal on a pedalboard. One of them is not that it’s the same color as your other pedals. For a few years (in a way you may have noticed), I did my best to follow a white/black/grey color scheme on my pedalboard, electing to explore the inclusion of certain pedals because of their chromatic uniformity even before considering their sound. Buying a surf green overdrive helped me kick the habit, and hopefully, I’ll let sound dictate my choices in the future.
  3. A jam is a great way to build relationships with other players, learn licks, and develop feel. What I didn’t know as a newer player is that you can ruin that opportunity by trying too hard to convince the other players that you’re “good.” I’d regularly show up to jams and immediately unleash every piece of my meager collection of showy licks and riffs, only to be dumbfounded by my lack of subsequent invitations.
  4. Tap-tempo is a great feature to have on a delay, especially one without presets. It lets us hang with tempos that fluctuate (which is great), but it also gives us the opportunity to obsess about the sync of our delay to the point of destruction (which is not so great). I’d find myself tap-tempo’ing at the expense of far more important things, like engaging with the audience, tuning, or performing my parts correctly. Sometimes we disguise a frivolous obsession as the desire to "sound our best," and my tap-tempo habit certainly fits the bill. 
  5. In pursuit of “the sound in our heads,” we might find ourselves spending time tweaking our gear to get the most useful sounds possible. Tweaking is usually a good use of time, but we can also fall into danger of thinking that the difference between sounding "good" or "bad" might rest within a miniscule nudge of one control, which isn’t healthy. I’ve spent way too much time tweaking when I should have been practicing, which is especially wasteful considering that practicing actually helps.

Looking back, it’s easy to see all of these behaviors as the silly wastes of time that they were. In the moment, however, it can be a lot more difficult. Periodically asking “Am I playing myself?” might be a good habit to adopt, if only to ensure that we’re giving ourselves the best chance possible to make our music say what we mean. 

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.