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 

 

What To Play When You Don't Know What To Play

Obviously, being prepared is exponentially more preferable than going in blind, but being unprepared is inevitable for many musicians, especially in the mostly volunteer world of church worship teams.

You could be unprepared because:

·      The set was changed at the last minute

·      You were scheduled or switched to a different instrument at the last minute

·      Your kids were sick this week and you were too busy cleaning up puke to prepare

·      You forgot

·      You prepared the wrong part, or one that doesn’t work in your context

·      You were kidnapped and had to be rescued by Liam Neeson and dropped off on Sunday morning

Regardless of why you aren’t prepared, it takes a significant amount of mental fortitude and dexterity to go from not having a clue what to play for a song to actually playing the song, sometimes within a couple hours or less. So, due to the intense, stressful nature of coming up with a usable part during that crunch time, i think it will be great to examine the thought processes of a musician who's been there before.

When I arrive at rehearsal and realize that I haven’t written a part for a particular song, there are a few rules that I follow right away:

1.     If you aren’t familiar with the song, do not attempt to play a pivotal role in the song. Be honest with yourself and your worship team and try to play supplemental parts that fill space rather than taking the lead.

2.     Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to improvise over the whole song like you’re in some kind of blues jam. Electric guitarists have a tendency to noodle around when they don’t know what they should really be playing, and you’ll need to intentionally keep that in check.

3.     Don’t play the same open chords that the worship leader is playing. Not knowing how to fit your own sonic space doesn’t give you permission to swallow someone else’s space alive.

These rules might sound like they aren’t giving the electric player any wiggle room to figure out what to play, but if you’re familiar with a few important concepts, these same limitations can make writing a part that fits the song easier than expected, especially in spontaneous moments where you have to play something usable without any time to plan. I use two broad concepts to come up with nearly all of the parts that I play, even when I have some more time to plan.

1.     Chord Voicing/CAGED System/Partial Chords

· This is a fairly vast topic, but essentially, the same notes that we use to make the big open chords that we play all the time reoccur on the neck in little clusters, and by utilizing those higher iterations of the chords, especially in two or three string versions, we can sit our electric guitar right “on top” of the space the acoustic is occupying, adding to the mix of sound in a way that is unobtrusive. Google or Youtube any of the terms I used for the heading of this section if you aren’t familiar.

2.     “Pocket” Licks

· There are some licks and melodic parts that seem to work well in nearly any song, over any chord progression. In fact, many of the poster-child licks within the contemporary worship guitar community are based around the same concepts, like utilizing the 1 and 5 of the key as common tones over several chords, for example. I call these kinds of parts “pocket” licks, because I keep them in my musical pant pocket so that they’re ready to be whipped out whenever I need them like a pencil or lip balm.

  • Famous “Pocket” Licks

    • The ending melody in Rob Thomas’ “Ever The Same”

    • The hook in Kristian Stanfill’s “Lord Almighty”

    • Anything Hillsong ever

    • Anything Chris Tomlin ever

    • Anything using only the 1’s, 3’s, and 5’s  (Work these like your life depends on it.)

Obviously, there are more ways to come up with great parts when time is of the essence, and an accomplished player will be able to draw upon the millions of parts he’s played in the past to assemble a hybrid part and crush nearly any song, but these simple ideas should be able to get anyone started, regardless of skill level.

Anything’s Possible!

Ian

To Play the Album Part or Not To Play The Album Part

That may not be “the question,” but it certainly is a question that many instrumentalists ask themselves on a regular basis. While some bands (whose names you probably hear fairly often) play nothing but original songs, most worship musicians spend the majority of their service playing other people’s music, often leading to this dilemma:

“Do I play the album part, or write something new?”

This may seem like a non-question, but for many musicians who want to add their own personality to the songs their band plays, it can be more of a concern. How can I change the album part, or play something completely new in a way that is ethical, and that the rest of the band and worship leader will like?

Ultimately, the decision of whether to play a part you created or the album part should be made on a part-to-part basis. Sometimes the decision is pretty cut-and-dry, and other times it’s more complicated. For the sake of this post, I’ll focus on the “no-brainers,” and touch on the harder choices towards the end. In later posts I’ll examine how we can create new parts for the song, should we choose not to use the album part, so stay tuned!

Reasons to definitely play the album part (or something very, very similar):

1.     The part is crucial to the song, to the point that people might be distracted if they don’t hear it and stop singing.

  •  A great example is the hook in “Always” by Kristian Stanfill. I’m not the biggest fan of this part, but if you play something different, you stand the risk of coming off as unprepared or self-absorbed. You don’t want to be seen as either, not for the sake of your image, but because both are potentially distracting to the congregation in a way that might cause them not to sing. We've expressed this before, but we win if people sing, and lose if they don't. Its that simple. 

2.     The worship leader wants the album part.

  • It’s the worship leaders job to make sure the entire arrangement sounds good, so be nice and listen to them. This implies a certain level of humility, especially if you've already written a part that you like, so kudos to you if you're submissive enough to plod through that chordal melody when you could be sweeping out thirty-second notes till our ears bleed. We see you, shred master. We see you. 

3.     The album part is better than everything you’ve come up with so far.

  • Often, the album part is simply the best part for the song, and it makes sense that it would be. Sometimes it’s best just to concede to the notion that the best part may already have been written, even if it wasn’t created by you. Again, humility is key here, and when you're humble enough to admit that someone got it right before you, it's refreshing, whether or not someone tells you it is. 

Reasons to definitely not play the album part (or something very, very similar):

1.     The album part will not work in your musical context.

  • If your band is comprised of an acoustic guitar, a piano, and a cajon, and the album part consists of an octave line that utilizes a synthy, gated fuzz tone, the discomfort that you feel every time the part comes around should be enough to make you want to change it into something more appropriate.

2.     You simply can’t play the album part.

  • If the part on the album calls for equipment that you don’t have (ex: Whammy pedal) or a technique that you haven’t mastered (ex: tapping), then it’s in your best interest to come up with something new. An example I can think of is the solo from the Sojourn track “Warrior.” I’m a competent player, but neither I, nor most people I know, can play a convincing rendition of that beautiful solo, so I change it to make it work for me.

3.     Your part has been established as better than the album part.

  • If you write a new part for a song, and your band members, and especially the worship leader indicate that your part is better than the album part, play it without reservations. You just won. Get yourself a dilly bar because you earned it. 

Its important to note that these ideas apply mostly to the “hooks” of songs or counterpoint parts that stick out in the mix. For most rhythm parts or for parts that are meant to blend into the mix, as long as it sounds good, serves the feeling of the song, and doesn’t step on the vocalists’ or other instrumentalists’ sonic real estate, you should be good to go.

Most creative players will be more interested in playing parts they have written themselves than just recreating an album part, but sometimes its hard to know exactly when putting in your own parts is a good idea. As far as situations where the decision is less obvious are concerned, you should probably play the part you’ve written over the album part if:

  •  It fits within the sonic space better than the album part
  •  It fits the sound of your band better than the album part
  •  It sounds like “your version” of the album part
  • Your band is trying to put a new spin on a song

Ultimately, if you read this post and are still unsure about a particular part, keep this axiom in mind:

Playing the album part is associated with minimal risk and modest, but predicable reward. Playing your part has greater risk, but potentially exponential upside.

If you’re feeling unsure, no one will blame you for adhering to the album, but I’d suggest going for it from time to time. I mean come on, what’s the worst that can happen? You might end up like that video of the drummer going bananas during "Oceans," but even he should be admired for taking the song and making it his own. After all, if we were really going to be insistent about execution, all of us would be found to be lacking from time to time, and should be thankful that our sub-par performances haven't been immortalized on YouTube...yet. 

Do you have any ideas on when the album part should or should not be played? Any experiences that you'd like to share that are more or less relevant to this post? Leave us a comment and lets start a dialogue and build community and all that!

With the love that Kanye has for Kanye, 

Ian White 

 

Electric Guitar In Worship Music

Recently, i wrote a blog post for Mission Athens Music concerning the way i conceptualize playing electric guitar in the context of a worship team. Some of the ideas that I address are unique to the environment within a house of worship, but most can be applied to almost any musical context, so you should be able to get something out of this post no matter what type of bands you tend to perform within.

Hope you enjoy reading! Be sure to let me know what you think in the comments, and if youd like to check out the other posts on Mission Athens Music's blog (reccomended), here's a link: 

http://missionathensmusic.com/blog/

Hey y'all! Here's some things to consider as a worship electric guitar player: 

-You Are the Sauce/Sprinkles/Complimentary Beer: Though the attitude is shifting gradually from place to place, in most church bands the electric guitar will rarely be considered an essential, bedrock instrument. In fact, as much as the money I’ve spent on gear would like to disagree, most, if not all of the songs on any given Sunday can and will be executed perfectly without the presence of an electric guitar in the mix. This concept isn’t meant to inspire apathy on the part of the electric guitarist, but to give them a perspective from which to really achieve usefulness within the band. Just as one could consume Cane’s chicken fingers without Cane’s sauce, ice cream without sprinkles, or tailgate hot dogs without the customary brewed beverage, so the songs on Sunday don’t need your electric. However, just like the sauce, the sprinkles, or the beer, you have the privilege of adding the sonic finishing touch that will take a perfectly good sounding song and turn it into an aural behemoth of terminal sonic bliss…or something.

Obviously, it’s up to the guitarist to decide what flavor they’d like to add, and a guitarist who can match a distinct flavor to the right song will be an invaluable addition to their team. Just like you could theoretically always dip in ketchup or drink PBR with everything, western music is set up so that certain parts (the 1 and 5 voiced above the 12th fret + dotted 8th delay + volume to reflect the current dynamic level) will pretty much always work. But why settle for something that simply works when you could pick just the right complement to the song, like Cane’s did in the food world when they made rebranded Thousand Island dressing into the best sauce ever for crisply breaded chicken fingers?

As annoying as I’m sure this analogy is becoming, it does have practical applications.

First, in order to compose “the right part” for any given song, one has to be familiar with their instrument. Knowing that a part that outlines the thirds of each chord will work for a particular section is impossible if one doesn’t know what a “third” is or how to find them/play them on the guitar in the first place. This implies practice and dedication, which is regrettable, since we all wish we could find some cheat code that makes all our parts win all the time. Such is life.

Second: Utilize common tones, or don’t. A lot of the feel of a song is wrapped up in whether or not the chord changes are emphasized, and when. The electric guitar is powerful in that it can either emphasize the changes in a register that’s really hard to ignore, or completely bury the changes by playing as many common tones as possible. The general concept is that more common tones = more “spacious” feel, and that emphasized changes will make the song feel more lively and punchy. I’ll probably talk more about these in a later post.

Third: Make the tones fit. I played with this guy for a while who had tiny acrobats for fingers, and knew the album part for every song before you had the set on Planning Center, but he insisted on using the same trebly, fuzzed-out, icepick tone for every lead line he ever played, so no one ever noticed how truly talented he was on his instrument.

The lesson here is twofold:

1.     It doesn’t matter what notes you play if every note sounds like liquid death (in the bad way), so don’t let your tone suck.

2.      Vary your tone from part to part. Your silicon fuzz might sound heavy and awesome, but it doesn’t work on that down-chorus of the female-lead communion song. I mean, its hilarious, but it doesn’t work.

It’s my hope to expound upon these ideas in the near future, but for now, I’ve already rambled enough and everyone is undoubtedly sick of me.

Cool beans, 

Ian