That Tone Thing

The other day, as the train was lumbering towards my terminal station, a great Mr. Big song came on. From their Raw like Sushi Vol. 2 album, the song was Road to Ruin with the Paul Gilbert guitar solo appended at the end. I turned up the volume, and basked in the glory that is Paul Gilbert and reminisced about that elusive thing that all guitarists chase: “Tone”.

It wasn’t a particularly great solo, yes, as expected technical proficiency, some ginormous moves, and a couple of gaffes (you can tell that Paul wings it to some degree, unlike Yngwie Malmsteen). But that fat, ballsy, ripping tone.

I could plop down the bucks and buy a Paul Gilbert custom Ibanez Fireman guitar (his signature axe), and a stack of Laney amps. I could probably put together his signal path, and match it perfectly, but you know what? I would still not sound like Paul.

Early in my 3+ decades of playing, I spent a lot of money chasing the tone. The latest fuzz box, better amps, all tube, bigger speakers. And I was lost. I would religiously read GFPM (Guitar for the Practicing Musician) and try to duplicate the signal chains. I had digital delays, chorus pedals, DOD distortion boxes. I even chased the elusive Ibanez stomp boxes that are so revered today that original ones often sell for $500 or more on ebay.

The more I chased it, the less satisfied I was. Ultimately, I got away from all the gear. I kept my two main amps (Gallien Krueger 250ML, and a phat Fender Super 60), but along the way I shed all the extraneous gear.

I began working on my technique. I realized that the killer sounds weren’t magic from some analog of digital processing, but they come from your fingers and your guitar. What pickup, how you attack the strings, where you pick them (or mute them), that these were what made the great players sound great.

Alas, I finally “discovered” the secrets that I chased. Of course, there are some things that you can’t do, a good stereo chorus, or a phaser effect. But get a decent eq setting, and a solid overdrive, and rely on your skills, and you are golden.

I just wish I had the discipline to practice as much now as I could in my early 20’s (and also that the arthritis didn’t halt a lot of my practice sessions short). But that’s life.

Requiem for a Friend

Last week, I had to say say “goodbye” to a friend. In early 2012, I was on a business trip, which connected through Phoenix. When I got to Phoenix, I was horrified to discover that I had forgotten my headphones. The thought of a week of business travel without tunes was too much go bear.

Of course, one of those airport vendors had my back, for a price. I bought a Klipsch headset for my iPhone, for way too much money, and went on in audible bliss.

Turns out they were pretty damn good earbuds. Great sound quality, and a decent microphone for phone use.

I have had these for over 4 years now. That includes two phone upgrades, and the purchase of replacement ear socks (or whatever you call those silicone rubber things that fit inside your ear). It has been on a few thousand miles of walking/running/gym time, and a couple thousand hours of phone calls and conference calls.

But last week, on one of my hikes, the sound began cutting out. It appears that the wire near the input jack was having intermittent contact.

Damn, now it is back to the (mediocre) headset that came with my iPhone. I already miss the ol’ Klipsh’s. (They were S4’s, and actually sounded pretty darned good.)

I guess $25 a year for great sound isn’t too much to spend

The downside of not playing out

As I continue on my journey to record and capture some of the music in my head, I have come to a realization. Alas, my preponderance of playing solo, and without others, I lack something of the ability to “fit“. This will take some ‘splaining…

When listening to an orchestra, you hear the whole piece together, where all parts fit. From the woodwinds, to the strings, to the percussion, all the musicians have their own part to play. Isolate one instrument, and you might not recognize the piece. But as you add the individual parts back in, you begin to see the thread.

I have long known that writing for an orchestra is an art, and requires more than just musicality, but the ability to spatially separate the instruments, and to visualize (audibleize?) how they will sound together. It is why the greats (Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and on and on) wrote music hundreds of years ago that still captivate and enthrall us today.

But this is much the same with modern music as well. Think of the simple power trio. Cream was Eric Clapton on guitars, Ginger Baker on drums, and Jack Bruce on bass/vocals. The three of them played together perfectly, complementing, and intertwining their masterful musicianship. Each was borderline virtuosic, but balanced each other out, and the net result was kick ass music.

My problem is that I have almost never played with a complete group like that. Sure, I have jammed with a bunch of fellow axe slingers, belting out some simple Dylan or Zeppelin riffs, trading licks and lead lines. Heck, even some original stuff was shared.

But, playing with a solid timekeeper? Not much, except very early on in my journey with an old Heathkit metronome.

Back to recording

It is clear to me that this lack of practicing with a beatmaster is a problem. Laying down a track, and listening to it is getting better (getting around the “blinking red light syndrome”) as I am sounding more how I know I can. But due to my lousy practice regimen, I slow down and speed up during riffs, and as I map it against the measure markers on Garageband, I can see my imperfections.

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. Or so they say.

Two things are amply clear.

  1. I need to practice more. A lot more. With more structure. I need to work on matching notes to a beat timing, and to become more aware of that.
  2. I need a simple drum machine, or other aid. Yes, I can do the click of a metronome, but something with the ability to accent the start of a measure, or to alert me to the sections of something I am playing is an aid I need.

Fortunately, these are both simple things to address. Well, except for the blood sweat and tears of practicing.

While I have been playing for over 30 years, and at one time was practicing 4-5 hours a day, my diligence has waned, and when I pick up the guitar, my instinct is to play things I know well, and have riffed to for a long time.

I definitely need to expand in to uncomfortable territory to break out of ruts. I need to work on building a composition one track at a time, and to learn to better use the tools at hand.

One last thing: I am clearly not ready to share my work, but I will admit that I am progressing. One day, I will post a song.

The dreaded red light

I have played guitar a long time. Like 33 + years (I hate to think how long it has been, really). While I don’t play out much (or at all) anymore, I did get to a certain level of proficiency. Sitting on the couch, noodling, or jamming in my man-cave, it sounds pretty good, if I do say so myself.

Alas, I never had any recording gear, having not prioritized that, but I recently rectified that situation. Bought a good A/D box for my mac to be the input, and finally got my old Line 6 Pod XT out of mothballs to tweak up the tone.

All good, got a good groove on the monitors, and then I do it.

I hit the “record” button. Suddenly, I am self conscious, I flub even the most practiced riffs, I blow the easiest chord transitions. Shit, even some of the finger picking stuff I have played backwards and forwards so often that it takes truly no thinking at all are muffed.

What. The. Fuck.

Yep, the dreaded performance anxiety, that red light, watching the recording in Garageband. I sound like a newb.

Turn a way, turn it on, and just jam, and shit, it sounds good.

Turn back to it, listen to the count in, and I sound worse than cats on a hot tin roof.

Sigh, I am going to have to get over this.

Also, I need a drum machine, or something to lay down a decent backbeat.

A rekindled affair – Guitar

Enough with the complaining about hosting, while I am sure I will again blog about the sad state of affairs in that realm, today I want to talk about something fun.

I have been a guitar player since 1983 or so. I got a late start, in my last year of high school, so I wasn’t a child prodigy or anything, but I had long wanted to play, and guitar was the cool thing.

Many stepping stones, lessons learnt, and gear came and went, but one thing I always wanted, but never really pulled the trigger on was recording gear. I remember the wonder of working with my guitar instructor who had borrowed one to record a demo for his band, and just how cool it was. A standard cassette tape, two sided, each side had a stereo recording, so by the magic of electronics, if you had the right gear, you could record 4 distinct tracks separately on a single, commodity cassette tape.

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