My kids bought me Rock Band for Christmas. Ostensibly, this would be construed as them recognizing my interest in the guitar and music. In reality, it is more along the lines of me buying my wife a Telescope for Mother’s Day. I haven’t been able to get near the game since hooking it up.
The version I bought, I mean they bought for me, included a drum kit and microphone in addition to the guitar controller. The first reviews I got based on solo play with the guitar controller, was that it was not as good as Guitar Hero III but had a couple of interesting features. Then, they got together with friends and played all three instruments (you can add another guitar controller to play bass but the package only includes one guitar controller out of the box). That is when the transformation occurred.
They are already avid Guitar Hero players. Don’t get me wrong, that is a great game. The primary difference is they play Guitar Hero as a video game. They stand there with the controller in a trance and hit the notes when they fly by on the fretboard. Although they play it a lot their interaction is no different than with "Call of Duty 4" or "Gears of War". With Rock Band, they are actually rocking out. They actually move to the music, which I've never seen happen with Guitar Hero.
The only explanation I have is there is some kind of social networking thing going on. Rock Band creates interaction with the music that comes from the players collaborating as an actual band. I would say the game designers met their goal in my household anyway.
At any rate, it will be awhile before I can get close to it to try the game out. That is ok given it takes a lot of my time just keeping up with playing the real guitar!
Sunday, December 30, 2007
My kids bought me Rock Band for Christmas. Ostensibly, this would be construed as them recognizing my interest in the guitar and music. In reality, it is more along the lines of me buying my wife a Telescope for Mother’s Day. I haven’t been able to get near the game since hooking it up.
Friday, December 28, 2007
In my previous post I described the approach I took to building a pedal board and the finished product is pictured at the right. Notice there are some open slots just waiting for the next hobby oriented purchases!
I went with the hard case from Coffin Case because of its relatively small size and I can close and latch the cover when not in use. This helps reduce clutter in the house and also protects the equipment from the family cats who like to eat wiring for some reason.
I had wood from a crate that held Port wine that I cut to size for each pedal base. I put holes in the cut pieces that matched the holes in the pedal base, countersunk the holes, unscrewed the base and reattached everything with the thin wood piece on the bottom. From there, I added the Velcro to the wood. This way, I can quickly return the pedals to their original condition without having to deal with peeling Velcro off the original base. I've inserted a picture to the right to show how this came out on a wah pedal.
Once you have your Velcro “hook” side of the backing on the pedal base you just line up where you want the pedal to be and place it on the two-level pedal surface. Be accurate because the Velcro sticks amazingly well. You will be able to drop your case from a truck and your pedals will not come loose!
Another approach I took for the pedals was to strap them to the wood using nylon zip ties, and then apply the Velcro strips. This was for pedals that had overly short screws in their bottom panels. I couldn’t find longer equivalents that would fit without risking messing up the threads. Again, I was just being accommodating in the event I ever sell any of the pedals.
From there, it is just a matter of connecting each pedal together with cables in your signal chain order. I chose to purchase prebuilt ¼” cables although there are kits where you can cut and terminate them to custom lengths. Last step was routing the power cables from the Voodoo Power supply to each pedal. The Coffin Case provides a slot to accommodate your power strip or power supply. I actually used this to hold my Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal and attached the Voodoo Labs – Pedal Power 2 Plus directly to the two-level pedal surface with Velcro. I inserted a detail of this on the right.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
As you continue with your guitar hobby and accumulate effects pedals you will need to organize them as a pedal board. When I got to that point I was amazed at how little information I could find on how to make a pedal board. Hopefully this post will provide you some shortcuts.
First of all, a pedal board can be literally that; pedals attached to a piece of plywood. Here is one of Eric Johnson's arrangements as an example. Maintaining an efficient practice rig and portability is a priority with me. The approach I ultimately took after searching the Internet, talking to friends, and getting advice at the guitar store was acquiring a hard case, a power supply, and using Velcro to secure the pedals in the case.
Hard case from Coffin Case – Model SK-110: This was a rugged case that provides a platform on which to affix the pedals plus you can close it up and latch it when not in use.
Voodoo Labs – Pedal Power 2 Plus: This device will power all of your pedals on the board in minimum space as opposed to getting a bulky power strip and using the transformers you typically have to buy as an option for your pedals anyway. This way you do not have to deal with batteries or excess cord clutter.
Velcro – 3M Industrial Strength: This is just a roll of Velcro hook and loop fastening material, each with a self adhesive backing. I used the “hook” portion of the Velcro to affix the pedals to the Velcro “loop” like material that is used on the surface of the pedal board.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
It’s Christmas Day and I’m eagerly hoping I receive the Jimmy Page Limited Edition sculpture I put on my Christmas list! And I did, sort of….
Turns out only a limited number of the 3,000 figure run was available for shipment from Knucklebonz in time for Christmas. So, I have a rain check. At least I have a reservation for one.
I am lamely attempting to equate my situation to a Christmas story parallel; “The Gift of the Magi” maybe or “A Christmas Carol”. In reality I’m more along the lines of “A Christmas Story” and madly in pursuit of my own equivalent of “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and 'this thing' which tells time.” So, I have no way to claim any sort of redeeming value from my suffering.
Still, with that said, we’re talking about a piece of rock history here. Led Zeppelin just came off their triumphant return to the spotlight with the potential to actually tour again. It may even end up as one more thing my descendents have to deal with at my estate sale. Still, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a kid getting a BB gun for Christmas!
Sunday, December 23, 2007
I recently went to visit my good buddy at Guitar Center on a quest to add a Marshall amp to my gear collection. "Ahhh...you want a piece of the Marshall Mystique", he says, which conjured up images of Jimi Hendrix with a backplane of Marshall stacks behind him as he burned his guitar at the Monterey Festival. Just seeing the logo is enough to do that. I had to get a Marshall stack of my own to tap into the mystique.
My salesman outlined the history of tube amps, why they sound like they do, and demoed spring reverb by shaking the unit. Cool! Of course, I wanted to get the stack, even though my primary use would be in my home but he talked me out of it. Something about if you put the volume to a level where it would warm up enough to get good tone; you wouldn't have any paint left on your walls.
With that said, he pointed me to the Marshall DSL 401, a 1 X 12 all tube combo amp. At 40 watts it is the smallest of the JCM 2000 family. “Not much mystique in this” I recall thinking to myself even while acknowledging I had no place to store a stack much less be able to play it with family and neighbors around. He recommended I try it out and set me up in a back room and let me go at it.
Mystique! Somehow this amp channels the Marshall Mystique. Between use of gain on the clean and overdrive channels and use of your guitar volume you can get some great tones out of this amp. Best of all, you can get all this at near bedroom volumes if you need it.
I gave it a home of course. The mystique isn't the stack; it's the tone! Once you hear that tone you feel a direct connect to Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Ritchie Blackmore, and of course, Jimi. That’s some mystique!
Doesn't mean I still don't want a Marshall stack....
Friday, December 21, 2007
When you take up the guitar in middle age you want to move fast and make up for lost time. Doing this just means taking the same systematic approach you’ve taken in living your life to this point. One important aspect is availing yourself of the valuable resources at your fingertips thanks to the Internet.
I recently outlined a set of resources that have helped me pursue my midlife guitar goals and when roaming the blogosphere yesterday I encountered a couple more I wanted to share.
The Boomer Chronicles has a recent post regarding The Berklee College of Music out of Boston and that they provide instruction online. My first instructor went through the program there and spoke highly of it. Since I have to hold down a full time job with lots of travel, doing a program in Boston would not be possible. However, I earned an MBA online at the University of Phoenix for the same reasons and that worked well. If the Berklee program is set up the same this could work out great. Check out the post and the Boomer Chronicles.
I ran across this post yesterday on "I Am an Offering", a site that has some easily digestible coverage of music theory. What theory I have learned to date has really benefitted my progress. However, I still have a lot of gaps in understanding. This site has helped and also provides information on another online resource; musictheory.net.
Hopefully these will be of interest. Let’s Rock!
Thursday, December 20, 2007
In my previous post I describe a recent revelation I had regarding parallels between the waterfall and iterative methodologies in the software world and methodologies for learning the guitar. I left off at the point where I had hit a brick wall in attempting to learn Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train". The best thing I ever did for my continued progress was drop it and move on to other areas.
I continued practicing the fundamentals; scale exercises, learning new licks, and working on speed. At the same time, I continued exploring new songs. GuitarWorld is a great resource as it includes transcriptions in each issue. A few months later I picked up “Crazy Train” again and iteration two was much improved.
Although I hadn't been practicing “Crazy Train” specifically, I had been building my chops by working on other songs and continuing to learn new licks and build speed on my scales. I was able to hit about 80% of the song at its actual tempo such that it was recognizable compared to only hitting the intro at a reduced speed on my first iteration.
The premise of all my posts is maximum results in minimum time for us midlife wannabe rockers who want to make up for lost time. When starting out, you will make the most progress by iterating through a variety of songs and technique exercises rather than slogging away on one song in a waterfall approach. I know it is gratifying to be able to play one of your favorites beginning to end. But, if the song requires technique you do not yet posses, move ahead to new territory. The key though is to incorporate those difficult technique areas into your daily practice routine.
For example, I incorporate the licks for “Crazy Train” that I still cannot handle into every practice session. Once you feel you have improved in those technique areas, do another iteration. The critical thing about iterations is that you measure the outcome of each as I have indicated in previous posts. I guarantee that after you compare a second iteration to a first iteration you will realize this is the quickest approach to developing your technique baseline.
If you keep this up you will reach the point in no time where you have mastered the fundamentals such that you could quickly learn a song whatever methodology you choose to follow. I'll be here trying to keep up with you :-).
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
In the software business there are as many methodologies around how to create good software as there are around becoming a good guitarist. As I worked on developing my guitar skills I stumbled on the fact that there is a relationship between the two. First, a brief outline on software development methodologies.
Software methodologies fall into two main types: waterfall and iterative. In waterfall, you plan everything up front and move through the project in a sequential fashion like water running over the falls. In iterative, you do everything you would do in waterfall but in much shorter cycles. You use multiple cycles to reach the end product rather than one cycle over a longer timeframe. While there are raging debates over which is better, I will outline how this is relevant to accelerating your progress on the guitar.
Let's say you set out to learn Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train". This song requires techniques such as hammer ons, pull offs, tapping, palm muting, harmonics, alternate picking, and most of all, the ability to do all these at a tempo around 140 beats per minute. If you are already an accomplished guitarist, you can learn the song quickly. If you are more of a novice with ambitions to get better, not so much.
I took an initial run at learning this song thinking that if I kept slogging away I would learn the song as well as all of the requisite techniques. After awhile I reached the point where I could play the intro cleanly at speed and little else. In hindsight, I realized I was following a waterfall approach to learning this song.
The waterfall approach calls for planning everything up front and my problem was that my “plan” lacked a key prerequisite, the base resources needed to complete the project, or, in my case a stronger foundation in technique.
In my next post I will outline how I stumbled on this revelation and how I improved progress by adopting an iterative approach.
Monday, December 17, 2007
I recently posted a comment on a blog that was asking one of the perennial learn to play guitar questions; acoustic vs. electric, which told me I should outline what my own experience has been. After going through the startup process my conclusion is that you should learn to play on both guitar types and starting on an electric gets you there the quickest.
In my first post I described how an umpteenth listen of Jimi Hendrix's version of "Hey Joe" got me to finally commit to pursuing my life long dream of learning the guitar. No surprise that I started off with an electric guitar. However, I believe my interest in the electric also helped me make quicker progress, and picking the guitar up in middle age should be all about maximum results in minimum time.
I started off with a borrowed guitar, Danelectro single cutaway U2 model. Although I tried using an acoustic several times early on, I found it difficult compared to the Danelectro in both playability and production of decent tone. After each attempt, I would return back to the electric and keep working on building my chops and ability to produce better tone. My hypothesis on the difference is that the Danelectro had a thin narrower neck with lighter gauge strings compared to the acoustic; meaning better playability for someone starting out. In addition, you can derive some tone out of an electric earlier than an acoustic given you have an entire signal chain between your playing and the tone that comes out. Granted, this is somewhat of a crutch given you can be more effective at improving if you hear everything in its lack of glory. On the other hand, when you first start out you want to have enjoyment from day one and part of that is that you can generate some tone you appreciate right away.
I continued primarily on the electric for the first eighteen months and then decided to allocate half my practice time to the acoustic. By this time, I had built up my chops, purchased an electric guitar with higher gauge strings and a wider neck, and developed better tone. In no time, I found that I could finally extract something out of the acoustic guitar. I think the progress I made on building my chops plus development of tone got me to the point where I could appreciate what an acoustic has to offer sooner.
In summary, my opinion is that if you want to learn to play the guitar, you should plan on learning to play both electric and acoustic. The objective when starting out, especially if that is later in life, is maximum progress in minimum time. View starting out on electric as a training aid that lets you build technique and tone so you can more quickly appreciate the acoustic guitar for what it has to offer.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
I received a comment on my recent post about aging rockers and Led Zeppelin that closed with "Other "old cats" worthy of consideration: Ed Van Halen, John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, Jack Pearson, Stan Lassiter. (go to youtube and search out nashville natives jack and stan)." I went to YouTube, did my search, and they are worth a look!
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
No doubt everyone has seen coverage of the long awaited Led Zeppelin concert in London. The Rolling Stone’s Rock Daily provides some great coverage as well as links to YouTube videos at the concert. What this coverage affirms for me is that the concept of learning the guitar or rocking out in general is a great hobby for midlife and beyond.
Reviews of the concert are generally positive. This one sums it up:
“Page may no longer swagger across the stage, his guitar worn low like a gunslinger as he churns out riffs. And Plant can’t scram and strut like he did in his rock god heyday. But the awesome power and majesty of the music was undiminished.” (The Daily News)
I picked the guitar back up at age 50 after a brief try at it in high school. As the intervening years went by I starting thinking it was too late. This is retroactively embarrassing as Led Zeppelin are in their 60s; with Jimmy Page at 63 and also overcoming a broken finger last month. My thinking is even more embarrassing given the legendary Les Paul is still playing at 92, arthritis and all!
If the years are going by and you have always wanted to learn the guitar or used to play and want to pick it up again, “too late” is not an excuse you can use. Another excuse you cannot use is “Well, of course Led Zeppelin can play in their 60s since they’ve been at it all their lives”. Keep in mind; they started rehearsing back in June. They didn’t just walk out on stage and magically became Led Zeppelin again.
If you want to get back into it, do it! With this site, a million other great sites, guitar stores, bookstores, and most importantly a good instructor to get you started, you have the resources necessary to maximize results in minimum time and start rocking another few decades.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
In a recent post I described how I create backing tracks using my favorite CDs and a TASCAM Guitar Trainer. Here are some more benefits/options I forgot to list.
Playing against backing tracks really helps develop your chops, especially if you play a “set” during your practice routine of several songs.
Another option is to record yourself while playing along with the backing track. You can then mix it with your recording software and critique how well you accompany your favorite band both technically as well as qualitatively.
Playing along with the backing tracks gives you good practice at handling the guitar adjustments such as volume or pickup selector that may be needed depending on the song.
If you have effects pedals that you use to duplicate your favorite tones playing along gives you good practice at hitting the pedals smoothly. One track I like to play along with is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man”. In this song you go between clean electric with the guitar volume turned down for the intro and verse, overdrive for the chorus, and overdrive plus chorus for the solo to duplicate the doubling of the guitar in the original recording. When you are first starting out this is a lot to manage and playing against the backing tracks helps you get comfortable with it.
By definition, wannabe rockers starting the guitar in midlife want maximum results in minimum time. Playing along with backing tracks in dress rehearsal mode fits well into that paradigm because it means you need to exercise 5 or 6 fundamental skills in parallel rather than one or two in serial.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Since my blog theme is aging wannabe rockers making up for lost time, many of my posts focus on maximum results in minimum time. Variety is an effective tool in this theme.
I thanked Guitar World in a recent post for getting me ramped up on fingerstyle acoustic in their Holiday Special. This was a break from my single minded pursuit of heavy blues and rock. Since then I have continued practicing the version of “Silent Night” featured in the current issue and begun a journey into the acoustic guitar.
The journey now has me learning the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. A guitar player friend of mine just recommended I explore the catalog of Beatles acoustic work such as “Blackbird” and “Yesterday” so I plan to do that next. Instead of a detour from blues and rock though, this is turning out to be a way to get more out of my practice sessions.
This confirms how much technique and theory you pick up by learning songs, regardless of genre. By working on fingerstyle acoustic I’m learning a lot about chord formation and relationships to scales that gives me new ideas for improvisation in blues and rock.
Do not be concerned about exploring other genres of music in your guitar playing. It helps you achieve maximum results in minimum time by broadening your exposure to theory and technique.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Guitar Hero III players know how much fun it is to play along with your favorite songs given they are now using the original recordings. Playing Guitar Hero gave me the idea to create similar play along tracks for the real guitar.
Any reader of my blog knows by now that I am a fan of the TASCAM Guitar Trainer; a must have piece of gear if you want to improve rapidly. As an aging wannabe rocker I use any advantage I can get. One great feature of the trainer is its Guitar Cancel feature, which enables you to cancel out the guitar on a CD so you can play along. I use this feature to create backing tracks for myself like in Guitar Hero.
You need the guitar trainer; I have the CD-GT1MKII although there is now a newer model out. You also need recording software for your PC or MAC that will accept a line-in signal. This could be as simple as the line-in on your sound card or a USB sound card you add on. All you need to do is run a cable from the line-out on the trainer to the line-in on your sound card.
The TASCAM Trainer has settings for that portion of the stereo region you wish to cancel out as well as fine tuning for the frequency range to reduce. Next step is to review the track you wish to use as your backing track and experiment on it with the cancellation settings. When you have the result you are looking for, it is time to record.
Use your recording software’s features to activate record mode and hit play on the TASCAM. You may need to experiment a bit here with the output level of the TASCAM and the input levels of your recording software to get a strong level without overdriving the input.
In many cases, the stereo region you want to cancel out changes within a song, it is really dependent on what the artist and the recording engineers were going for. What I do in this case is either change the guitar cancel settings on the fly to get one track on my recording software or record each portion of the original track with the appropriate cancel settings so I can connect them back together in my recording software.
The final step I add is to record a count-in at the correct tempo so I can attach it to the beginning of the track and voila; a backing track! You do not get the clam sound though if you miss a note or lick like in Guitar Hero; working on that next.
Learn to Play the Guitar: More Shortcuts for Baby Boomers
Guitar Practice: Qualitative Methods to Measure Progress
Connections: How to Create a Simple Home Studio
Friday, December 7, 2007
The qualitative aspect to your playing is where the rubber meets the road and relies on the technical elements you measure with your practice log as well as your ear training and development of tone. The best way to measure progress on qualitative elements to your playing is to record yourself.
Recording oneself works great because the recording will not lie while your ear might. My love of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “Hey Joe” was a catalyst to me starting on the guitar. Every nine months or so, I record this song. This has become a hobby in itself as I record the lead, rhythm, and bass tracks and mix them. The advantage of recording multiple tracks and mixing them is that it becomes brutally apparent if you are not keeping good time with the beat as the mix will be muddy.
Each time I do one of these recordings, I have another reference point. I am on my forth “Hey Joe” now and I check my progress by playing them through oldest to newest. Each time I think the new one is great and the previous one sounds like a cat coughing up a hairball. In other words, you can really detect improvement by recording yourself!
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Learning the guitar has all the attraction of great hobbies: mental and physical challenges plus gadgets. The mental and physical challenges can sometimes create frustration so it is important that you adopt some approaches to measure progress and avoid frustration.
In reality, you make progress with each practice in spite of what you may think; you just need to measure it for self-reinforcement. Keeping a practice log is one way to do it.
A friend of mine shared with me that you do not define progress in how many years you have played guitar but how many hours. I include work on scales, licks, learning a new song, and playing for fun in each practice. A practice log for me is simply recording the results in hours. Some of the key metrics for me:
Time duration spent on scales, licks, songs, and fun
Metronome speed for scales and licks (always trying to increase)
Brief notes on the licks, song, and fun (what was I working on)
I just use a spreadsheet to record the data. Over time, you can graph the key metrics and gain insight into your progress and areas where you need to focus more attention. For example, if you see over time that your speed on scales has gone up 10 beats per minute, you can gauge how much practice time you had to invest to get there and decide how much to invest going forward. The key focus of us aging wannabe rockers is to maximize return on investment. Just seeing that your speed has gone up becomes a visible indicator of progress that you may not register on a day-to-day basis.
The qualitative aspect to your playing is where the rubber meets the road and relies on the technical elements you measure with your practice log as well as your ear training and development of tone. I will cover how to measure that in my next post.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
I incorporated fret board knowledge into my practice routine by choosing a particular key and playing the major pentatonic scales for the I, IV, and V chords of the key in each position on the fret board.
For example, key of G and the major pentatonic scales. Start at fret three of the low E string and ascend the G major pentatonic scale (G Major Form I from the Berklee Method). Next, descend the C major pentatonic scale using Form IV starting at fret 5 of the high e string. From there, ascend using the D major pentatonic scale using Form III. Move up to the next area of the fret board, descend using G major pentatonic Form II, and ascend in C Form V and so on. Choose a different key with each practice and over time you will gain the ability to quickly locate any scale in any key.
The advantage of this approach is you can instantly change keys while staying in the same area of your fret board. This keeps your improvisation a lot smoother. I play on top of “Let’s Jam!”, a CD by Peter Vogl to work on practical application of this improvisational approach. This CD contains a variety of instrumental backing tracks in rock, blues, and jazz styles. It lists the chord progression for each track as well as suggestions on what scales to play in your improvisation. I utilize my TASCAM Guitar trainer to slow down the tempo as needed when I first apply a new technique and gradually speed up until the track is at actual speed.
I have to admit that once you begin improvising using any approach it is thrilling to hear the relationships between the underlying chords and your playing. However, the great thing about this hobby is there is always more to learn. Identifying where you are starting from enables you to use your fret board map and move to the next level.
Monday, December 3, 2007
There is a saying that if you don’t know where you’re starting from, a map won’t help. This is a great analogy for the importance of learning the fret board on your guitar. The dots, birds, or rectangles on the fret board are not just decoration.
In your first lesson, your instructor will cover the fret board, its reference points, and their correlation to the root notes for chords and scales. You can also find millions of sources in stores and the Internet. My problem was I resisted incorporating that knowledge into my practice routine so it was ingrained.
I was getting by in my improvisation efforts; E minor blues for example. I learned each pentatonic form and their reference points on the fret board. However, I wanted to keep improving my technique and make the improvisation more interesting. Whether it is changing the key along with the chord changes, or incorporating other modes such as Mixolydian, it was apparent I needed to buckle down and learn the fret board. It does not work if the chord change is already past before you have found your reference points!
Friday, November 30, 2007
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The guitar is a great hobby to pick up in middle age or any age. In writing these posts, I try to focus on things I wish I had known about earlier or am glad I learned about when I did. One of those “glad I learned about when I did” techniques is Alternate Picking.
My instructor pushed me on alternate picking right off after I outlined that my interest areas were blues, rock, and improvisation. Alternate picking is just a two for the price of one thing. You pick the string on the down stroke as well as the upstroke, twice as fast in theory, right? If you have any plans to learn lead guitar you need to work on this technique and no better time to learn it than to start on it day one.
The day one routine my instructor gave me was 16th note pentatonic scale runs with a metronome. It seems very awkward at first but after a week or so, you will never want to go back. Once you become comfortable at a given tempo, ramp up another 10 beats per minute and go for it. If you incorporate this type of exercise into your practice routine, you will get your speed up and whip out those facemelter licks in no time. Really!
Monday, November 26, 2007
How you tweak the components in your signal chain has a major impact on your tone. I have written a couple of posts regarding guitar tone; suggestions on how to duplicate your favorites plus an example of how I duplicated the tone on AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long” using equipment I already had. Here are some more suggestions I left out of the previous posts.
GuitarWorld magazine features transcriptions in each issue. For each transcription, they also show suggested Boss effects pedals, their settings, and what order to chain them in for reproducing the guitar tone. If you have effects other than Boss, the information is still valuable so you can extrapolate it to the gear you have. GuitarWorld includes video lessons where the instructor addresses how they duplicate the tones.
Concert or instructional DVDs with your favorite artists are a great source of insight into guitar tone. As I outlined in a previous post about guitar lore, the more you dig into the guitar, the more information there is that you never would have noticed previously. At minimum, you will gain insight into where the pickup selector on the guitar is set to as well as views of effects pedals and amps they are using.
I have a PODxt amp and effects modeler from Line 6 that comes with preset tones for a wide variety of songs. When I am interested in a particular tone, I just open up the preset and look at the amps and effects used along with their settings to get some ideas.
The recording studio is also an “effect” that influences the sound you hear on a commercial recording. For example, a guitarist may double or triple track their parts in the studio. Knowing that, you may reproduce a similar tone by adding a chorus and a delay pedal to your signal chain.
When I first started playing, I grabbed the nearest guitar picks on the counter and went with those. Since then I have learned the type of pick has a big influence on your tone. Just pick up a large variety and experiment with the different materials and thicknesses until you find a type that creates a sound you like and fits your technique.
Always remember that the volume, tone, and pickup selection on your guitar make a big difference on how the elements further down the signal chain sound.
One final note and the point of all this is to keep experimenting. By learning how to reproduce the guitar tones you like, you gain the insight on how to design your own unique tones, which is the ultimate payoff.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
I bought the stereotypical sports car for my midlife crisis before learning to play the guitar. The guitar is much more satisfying and the gear doesn’t depreciate like an automobile either. To get this gear you have to go to a guitar store of course. I researched prior to heading out to my local guitar store the first time but research didn’t prepare me for the angst I felt when seeing that the oldest worker in the store was half my age! In spite of my angst, I received great advice on finding what I needed to get started and keep the hobby rolling.
I definitely had the sense that the people working these stores love music and are enthusiastic about anyone learning an instrument. Beyond that though is that aging wannabe rockers like us are helping guitar sales skyrocket. The instrument makers and retailers love us! As I continue to age, I plan to keep rocking out instead of going quietly into the night.
When you go into one of these stores, just keep in mind you are part of a valuable demographic of like minded rockers and the retailer is more than happy to help you meet your musical goals.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Once you hook everything up, the first order of business is to address the settings on your guitar. Since the guitar is the first element of your signal chain, it only makes sense to tweak that first. Brief experimentation showed that the pickup selector needed to be on “Treble” so it is using the bridge pickup only. Many references assume you already know this and do not mention it. Big difference, so before you begin tweaking anything else, experiment first with your pickup selector, otherwise you will be chasing an elusive tone all over the place without dealing with the source first. Ditto on the volume and tone controls on the guitar. From there, it is a balancing act.
Each setting of each element in your signal chain affects your tone. Cranking the overdrive on the Tube Screamer to the firewall only served to create a muddy tone. One thing that immediately became apparent is that “Heavy Metal” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll” as AC/DC characterizes themselves is not simply mega distortion. The tones are cleaner than that. Where I ended up after experimentation is as follows:
Guitar Pickup selector (figure 1) – Treble
Guitar Volume (figure 1) – 90% - to compensate for not having the driven Marshall amp sound I used the guitar volume knob to put more gain into the Tube Screamer.
Guitar Tone (figure 1) – 100% treble
Tube Screamer (figure 2) – Overdrive at 70%, Tone at 60%, and Level at 50%.
Amp (figure 3) – Clean channel, reverb at 30%, treble at 90%, bass at 90%, middle at 50%, Normal/Bright set to Bright.
I tried ramping up the drive on the Hot Rod Deluxe but it did not have the crunch of the recordings. Added drive from the guitar volume, brightness from the guitar tone, the Tube Screamer, and the clean channel of the amp created the crunch that matched up well with the recordings.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
When I started out, duplicating the sounds from favorite songs was (and still is) an exciting aspect of the hobby. “Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC, a long time favorite of mine provides a good example of how you can crack the code on the guitar tones you love.
An AC/DC saying I like is that they have one song but man, is it a good one. I recall late nights in college, beer and buddies, standing directly in the path of speakers driven beyond their distortion limit listening to classics such as “Whole Lotta Rosie”, “Highway to Hell”, and “For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)”. So, when I finally took up the guitar, learning some AC/DC was a no brainer. I started with acquisition of “Play Guitar With…AC/DC”, a guitar tab book accompanied by a CD.
This guitar resource is valuable because it outlines the gear and effects used by the artists to reproduce each track. A great feature is that it provides backing tracks with and without lead guitar. This way, you know what it should sound like but can then play the lead part with accompaniment. Most importantly, this resource stresses the open power chords used by Angus and Malcolm Young to create their sound. If you use bar chords instead of the open chords, the equipment and effects pieces will not matter. I spent some time learning some new chord shapes as well as the lesson that there is more to this than just gear!
On the gear side, The AC/DC songbook provided the gear list used by the artists that recorded the backing tracks so I did a gap analysis between the list used on “Shook Me..” and what I already had.
Guitar - I had a Gibson Les Paul Special with hot pickups that would provide the humbucker tone.
Overdrive – I had an Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 reissue pedal to provide the overdrive tone. BTW, if you are going to get one pedal, it should be the Tube Screamer.
Amp – I did not have a Marshall stack but started by substituting my Fender Hot Rod (TM) Deluxe.
Delay/Reverb – I did not have a pedal as outlined in the list so I played with the reverb settings on my amplifier.
In my next article, I will outline how I tweaked each component in this signal path to achieve a satisfying approximation for the lead in the original recording.
How to Tweak Your Signal Chain and Nail That Elusive Tone
How to Build a Pedal Board
Monday, November 19, 2007
I finally took up the guitar in midlife because I wanted to be more interactive with the music I enjoyed. Once you go more than skin deep you open up a wealth of fascinating details and history on the world of the guitar, which increases the appreciation for your favorite music. Here are some resources I have used to increase my appreciation for what makes the music:
“Electric Guitars; The Illustrated Encyclopedia” by Tony Bacon covers the products and history of guitar makers from the well known to the obscure and provides gorgeous photos throughout.
“Beatles Gear” by Andy Babiuk and The Beatles Anthology DVDs really bring home how gear and techniques for live performance and recording evolved into what we take for granted today.
“Led Zeppelin” the two DVD set is a must have, especially if you are not one of the lucky ticket holders for their upcoming concert.
“Austin City Limits” Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan episodes are great. The Stevie Ray Vaughan DVD is especially interesting as it features footage from shows early and late in his career. It really gives you a sense for how he grew as an artist.
“Cream at Royal Albert Hall” is a two DVD set from their 2005 series of live concerts in London. One of the highlights of this resource is the interviews with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker
Be sure to read the artist profiles and rock history articles in your guitar magazine of choice.
Your appreciation for music goes up when you do more than just listen to it. By taking up the guitar hobby, you are participating in the world of music and that insight serves to increase your appreciation of it. You can gauge your guitar lore knowledge by seeing how many classic rock references you can name in the movie “This is Spinal Tap”!
Sunday, November 18, 2007
When practicing I prefer to stand up and use a guitar strap so I decided to upgrade to something wider made out of a suede material that I felt would be more comfortable. I had been using the ubiquitous nylon guitar straps usually thrown in free with any gear purchase. On my next practice session, it seemed my speed and accuracy was up a bit.
I marked that down to it was just a good day. However, I noticed improvement on subsequent practice sessions as well. What I conclude is that the suede material on the strap keeps the guitar from sliding around like a seesaw effect. My fret hand doesn’t have to chase a moving target. I switched back to the nylon strap as an experiment and I definitely noticed a difference.
My goal was comfort and the improvement in speed and accuracy was a bonus. I don’t know about you, but any way I can identify a shortcut I’ll take it! A trip to the local guitar store (fun any time) and $15 was a small investment.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Once you have your gear and theory basics, your technique can really take off. Technique for me is the guitar riffs and guitar licks that make up your toolbox. Building speed, accuracy, and improvisation skills are also part of the toolbox.
On my third lesson, my instructor announced it was time to work on improvisation and pulled out a “Let’s Jam!” CD by Peter Vogl. This CD contains a variety of instrumental backing tracks in rock, blues, and jazz styles. My initial reaction was that magic would occur years from now before I contemplated improvisation. Instead, he said don’t worry about that, and had me start playing the E Minor Pentatonic scales I had been learning on top of track 7; E Blues. The magic was here! I had not developed any licks by then but each note seemed to fit magically against the E Blues chord progression. I would highly recommend this CD. When I am working on adding some techniques to my toolbox, playing against these backing tracks is a great way to refine them.
“How to Play Hard Rock & Heavy Metal Guitar, The Ultimate DVD Guide” from Guitar World with Andy Aledort as the instructor has been another valuable reference. This guide is really a prepackaged toolbox. Andy takes you through techniques from classic rock to the techniques of the 21st Century. If you like this one, “How to Play The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Axis Bold as Love, The Complete Guitar DVD” is another reference by Andy Aledort from Guitar world that you will enjoy.
In the DVD “Total Electric Guitar” Eric Johnson takes you through a wide range of rhythm and lead techniques as well as the techniques of some of his influences such as Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, and Jerry Reed. Again, the reference provides tablature accompanied by video of the instructor demonstrating the techniques.
Another category of references I use is the “Signature Licks” guitar tab books published by Hal Leonard Corporation. These feature transcriptions of your favorite artists along with a CD that you can use as a backing track to play along. You get a description of each track including history and theory aspects of the track. Typically, the CD features regular tempo as well as slowed dow versions of each element of the song.
With the building blocks of gear, theory, and technique basics, you are ready to rock! In the next post I will outline the guitar lore that has really helped keep guitar playing an engaging hobby for me.
Friday, November 16, 2007
Since beginning the guitar, I have seen many people start with enthusiasm only to get frustrated and quit. As long as you do not expect to play like Eddie Van Halen within a week, there is no reason for your orderly rise to guitar fun to dissolve into a disorderly retreat. Your first task is to avoid viewing the guitar gods as…well, gods (and conversely yourself as a mere mortal not worthy to try) and make sure you are approaching the process in a way that keeps it fun.
I used to operate under the assumption that the guitar gods sprung from the womb, picked up their axe and started shredding right there in the delivery room. As you get into this hobby and begin researching the careers of the guitar greats, you find the reality is much different.
Charles R. Cross, author of “Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix” outlines how years of work followed by years paying his dues on the Chitlin’ circuit made Jimi an “overnight” sensation in London. The reality is more impressive than myth and more motivating for us baby boomers picking up the guitar. All guitarists, no matter how great, had to work at it and keep working at it through their careers. If it were not the case, why do the greats (whoever they are) do extensive rehearsal before going on tour? None of it comes overnight.
Sure, the chance that you will play as well as Jimi or Eddie is remote at best. However, as you progress, you reach a point where that does not matter anymore. Instead, you focus on what you are doing and in developing your own style while still recognizing what the superstars have achieved in their careers. The tough part for many is reaching that point before getting frustrated.
Rather than talk about discipline and sticking with it whether you feel like it or not (this is a hobby and it is supposed to be fun after all) in my next posts I will address what helped me reach the inflection point and what keeps the hobby fresh for me.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Music theory as it relates to learning the guitar follows the old proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you are going to learn songs by rote, you have learned one song. Learn a few aspects of music theory (music conventions really) such as pentatonic scales and you have the basis for just about every rock song ever written as well as the fundamentals of improvisation. That’s a lot of fish! For me, it has been a great return on a small investment of time.
The instructor I selected when starting out was my best source for introduction to theory. View an instructor like the "Electric Guitar Handbook" I referenced in an earlier post. He or she can provide you with the map and your starting point, which provides your frame of reference for further research.
“The Guitar Grimoire, Progressions & Improvisation” by Adam Kadmon is a reference I picked up recently, which leads you through the building blocks of music theory systematically with clear examples. “The Gig Bag Book of Guitar - Complete” compiled by Mark Bridges is a compact reference to scales, arpeggios, and chords. The Internet is especially valuable here. Search on any term in music theory and you will get a variety of mostly quality references.
I am not advocating that you need to immerse yourself in theory to the detriment of practicing your guitar. But, if you want to start rocking sooner, I recommend from my own experience that you learn the theory basics. The basics are especially important when it comes to learning the guitar techniques behind the music that interests you. More on that in a future post.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
For those readers who are pet owners you found out quickly that the pet is the cheapest part. You have to acquire accessories as well as learn the care and feeding part. Your guitar is the same way. Reading up will ensure you do not waste money and quickly learn the care and feeding of your guitar.
I brought home a copy of “Electric Guitar Handbook” by Alan Ratcliffe along with my new guitar and read it through. This single step saved me a ton of time and money. The coverage is a mile wide and an inch deep, which works out just fine when you start out. This way you know the full guitar landscape up front and can turn to additional sources such as guitar magazines, the Internet, and your local guitar shop for additional details on areas of interest.
The handbook also includes clear instructions on how to tune the guitar, change the strings, adjust the action, and check intonation. If you are not familiar with these terms, it shows the importance of finding a reference like this up front! Playing (or trying to play) a guitar with a bad setup can be difficult and will hold you back. Why deal with that when you can learn how to keep it in shape in an hour or two?
The bottom line here is that starting guitar at our stage in life means making up for lost time. The best way to do that is not waste time figuring out small but consequential details of the hobby universally covered in print and online. You need to spend that time rocking!
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Practice time invested plugging in wires and adjusting settings reduces my rate of return. Sure, an acoustic guitar is a solution; you just pick it up and go. However, I wanted the benefit of backing tracks, metronome, tuning, and effects with the ease of picking up an acoustic; so I put together a touch and go practice rig.
At the top of Figure 1 is the TASCAM Guitar Trainer outlined in previous posts. Next is the Line 6 PODxt, another wonderful device, and a Fender practice amp. Here is how they go together:
I took up the guitar at age 50 and my greatest fear was that I would not reach critical mass before flaming out. Yes, motivation goes a long way when you start out on the guitar. However, at some point, you need to see a rate of improvement that keeps you motivated. It is sort of like a feedback loop: if you can see measurable improvement towards your goals, it keeps stoking up the motivation. I used a “knowledge is power” approach to mitigating that fear.
After reviewing my first few posts to this site, I already see that I am using common guitar terminology that someone just starting out will not know. I recall remarking to a fried of mine when starting out “hey, it sounds different when you move this switch.” I got this blank stare until he realized what I really was saying is I get different tones when the pickup selector is on bridge, neck, or both. Since he was an experienced guitarist, it never occurred to him someone would not know that.
To rectify this, in the next few posts I will recommend four categories of resources; gear, theory, technique, and guitar lore, which will help you utilize the “knowledge is power” approach to advancing your own progress.
Monday, November 12, 2007
Keeping with my theme of maximum progress in the limited practice time available, the TASCAM Guitar Trainer is a magic bullet. It integrates a guitar tuner and metronome, and a powerful CD player feature to help with one of the key skills you need to grasp early on, which is to play in time with the beat. If you are not maintaining the beat (whether scale exercises or learning a new song) it may sound good to you but not to others. Playing along with a CD will train you to stay in time but the song is likely too fast at first for your skill level to play cleanly. You can use a metronome as a backbeat and adjust the tempo but that can be boring. The TASCAM Guitar Trainer, latest model CD-GT2 above, solves all.
When learning to play a favorite track you can slow down the tempo of your CD to match your skills without changing the pitch. Your favorite tunes as backing tracks is more enjoyable than a metronome. If you are playing against a different tuning such as down a half step, you can simply change the pitch of the CD if you do not want to spend the time to tune your guitar. But wait, there is still more!
The guitar trainer also provides a wide range of guitar effects such as distortion, chorus, and delay. It also provides the ability to cancel various frequencies across the stereo spectrum. For example, maybe you are learning the solo for “Hey Joe”. You can cancel out the solo, which is panned hard right, and provide the solo yourself backed by Jimi, Mitch, and Noel.
As fun as all that is, the key thing to remember is that the investment in this one device can help you progress much more rapidly and have a lot more fun at the same time. While I have acquired a lot of gear since starting out, the TASCAM Guitar Trainer remains my central piece of practice gear.
For every guitar that is played, there are many more gathering dust in the closet, possibly to become “vintage” a few decades from now. You want to start out with an inexpensive model initially. If you later decide the hobby is not for you, you are not out a lot of money. I got into the guitar based on an interest in exploring blues driven vintage rock, but the comments would apply to any type of guitar you wish to acquire. I was lucky enough to have a co-worker who loaned me a guitar out of his 20+ guitar collection, a great option if you know any guitar enthusiasts. However, with a little research, you can purchase your own and will find that inexpensive does not mean poor quality.
The major makers produce guitars that range from a couple hundred to many thousands of dollars. Manufacturers such as Fender and Gibson and many others produce quality guitars with good playability for a low price point.
Playability is especially important when you first start out because you are building new muscle memory for fretting notes, picking strings, forming chords, and building calluses on your fingertips. You are not going to progress as quickly as you are capable of with a poor quality guitar unless you are especially gifted. Just because Jimi Hendrix started out on a ratty guitar with one string does not mean you have to or can. Think of it the same way you would about golf clubs with perimeter weighting for a larger sweet spot. To find the guitar that will give you that sweet spot playability, your best chance of finding it for the right price is to do a bit of research.
Bookstores such as Borders® and Barnes & Noble stock a large variety of magazines devoted to the guitar, all of which include gear reviews in each issue. Experienced players conduct these reviews and clearly outline the pros and cons of each model. In addition, these magazines provide web links and other resources for further exploration. For example, the Epiphone Dot Studio, pictured at right received high marks in GuitarWorld magazine and sells for under $200 at "Guitar Center" stores. Through research, narrow down the options that appeal to you and then head out to your local guitar store!
Guitar stores feature electric guitar starter kits (guitar, amp, cable, strap) especially during the holiday season. Likely, the guitar options you are interested in based on your research will not come packaged like this. Starter kits will likely have a lower price than the guitar you have decided on but remember that the goal here is the best playability for the lowest cost. This enables you to maximize the practice time you have available. Stick to the research you have done and leverage the knowledge of staff at your guitar store.
I have yet to visit a guitar store where the staff was not knowledgeable and enthusiastic about more people learning to play guitar. Outline to them what you are looking for, the research you have done, and go from there. Worse case, if you do not like your purchase these stores usually have generous return policies.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
I started my guitar hobby with a borrowed guitar, Danelectro single-cutaway U2 model. I started poking around the Internet, guitar magazines, and instruction books at guitar shops to figure out what to do next. The choices were staggering. I acquired a Jimi Hendrix book by Andy Aledort and started working through “Hey Joe” note by note. Although I started to make sounds that bore a remote (very remote) resemblance to the piece, it was not moving very rapidly. I went into this under the impression that the guitar takes time, but having just achieved AARP membership, I really wanted to minimize the time component needed to start rocking.
My daughter was taking lessons and was going to miss her next one and my wife suggested I take her place. “No, honey; I’m self taught, got my Jimi Hendrix book and I’m covered.” As you suspect, I went to the lesson, signed up for more, and made more progress in the next week than in the previous three months of plinking away at my Jimi Hendrix book.
Signing up for lessons was the single decision that made the guitar a great hobby. There is a staggering amount of great resources for the guitar, but without a frame of reference, it is time consuming to make use of them. Your instructor already has the frame of reference and can ensure you invest your time where you get the greatest return. Being able to make the same amount of progress in one week as the previous 12 weeks made the $75 per month cost a no brainer!
One day waiting for my order to be delivered at a Sonic drive-in restaurant I was listening for the umpteenth time to “Hey Joe” as covered by Jimi Hendrix in his debut album, “Are You Experienced”, which launched him as a superstar. For the umpteenth time I said to myself, “How did he do that?” Ever since a brief and unsuccessful encounter with guitar playing in High School, my response to “How did he do that?” has been “One of these days I need to try the guitar again.”
What was different about that day is I had recently become eligible for AARP membership and the midlife crisis that accompanied it. The “One of these days…” response was looking more like a punt. I needed to do something, either try it again or move on. Thankfully, I decided to try it again, and two years later, I am still at it and enjoying what has become an enjoyable and sometimes overly absorbing cure to the midlife crisis. What became immediately clear was that picking up the guitar in middle age has different dynamics than picking it up as a teenager.
As a teen, you have state of the art plumbing, lots of free time, and limited financial resources. Middle age is usually the inverse. Much of the first few months turned out to be a struggle on how to improve rapidly with limited available “hobby” time. The purpose of these postings is to outline what worked and what did not. If you are about to rock, spend five minutes reading a post and learn something that took me days or more to figure out.