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.