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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2 Defining Moments For A Modern Guitar Player

I'm not much of a guitar pedal guy anymore. I used to have more than a human could possibly use all over floor when I was a kid playing in clubs (in the days before pedal boards), but I eventually learned that I sounded a lot better without most of them. That being said, I recently came across a couple of pedal sites that I liked - the Guitar Pedal Blog and Pedal Heaven. They got me thinking about my pedal experiences so I thought it might be a good time to post this excerpt from the band improvement book "How To Make Your Band Sound Great" regarding what I believe to be the two defining moments for a modern guitar player.


From personal experience, I have found that there are two defining moments in an electric guitar player’s career that turns his mindset from that of an amateur to one of a professional. What I’m going to tell you might be hard to take because it might go against your idea of what sounds good and is fun to play, but believe me that it will help you in the long run.

Defining Moment #1 - The day you hear that the sound can be bigger without pedals or anything in between your guitar and amp.

Yes, it’s true. Most of those sounds that you’ve been hearing on recordings (especially on classic 60’s and 70’s recordings) have been a guitar plugged straight into amp with no pedals (or one at most) in between. What gives it that big sound is the type of amp and the fact that it’s turned up pretty high, if not to max!

Let me tell you about when this moment happened to me. I was jamming in a garage with slide guitarist extraordinaire Gerry Groom and bass player Paul ILL (my co-writer on The Studio Musician's Handbook) and a drummer. Gerry was a protege of Duane Allman (of the famous Allman Brothers Band) and was so close to Duane that he willed Gerry his beloved Les Paul when he died. The guy really had some amazing chops and a lot of experience and was once dubbed by Jimi Hendrix’ former manager “The next great American guitar player”. I was no pup either, as I was playing about 15 years at the time and had a couple of major label record deals (back when they actually meant something) under my belt.

Gerry plugged his 1960 Les Paul Black Beauty into his 1964 Fender black-faced Super Reverb and the sound was glorious. Lots of sustain with some really good sounding overdrive. I plugged my 1981 Strat into a small rack (which was popular to have at the time) of distortion devices, chorus units, EQ’s and noise gates which then went into a fabulous 1977 Marshall JMP 100 watt half-stack. While Gerry’s guitar sang with richness and as much sustain has he wanted, mine sounded thin and buzzy, although just as loud. After about a half-hour of jamming, Gerry looked at me and said, “Why do you even use that crap (meaning my rack gear)? You’d sound a lot better without it.” I loved my pedals and rack gear and the way it made me sound while I played by myself, but I had to admit that his rig sounded better than mine by a mile. He had the sound I kept trying to get by using all the pedals and rack gear, but he got it by using none of it!

I unplugged everything and when straight into the amp, turned it up and………..Wow!! It really did sound better once I tweaked the amp’s controls a bit. It was a little shocked about how high I had to turn the amp up to get the sound, but it really was the sound I heard on countless records that I’d been trying to achieve. It was that simple.

But it did take a new technique to learn how to control the amp. I couldn’t just jump on a pedal to get enough volume to go from rhythm to lead any more, I had to do it with the volume control on the guitar. And much to my amazement, it was easy! You turn down the volume control and the sound cleans up and you automatically get some highs in your sound, giving you some nice rhythm definition. No longer were my rhythm parts heavy handed and too full. Now they were always just right. This was my moment of clarity.

Granted, it really depends on the amp. Most amps (like the ones described in Chapter 1) will work well, but a few won’t. That’s one of the reasons that guitar players much prefer tube over solid state amps. They have the right sound when you turn them up while solid state, for the most part, just doesn’t. Likewise, if the amp has too much power, you just might never be able to turn it up where you need to in order to get the right sound, especially if you play in small venues. That’s why a 50 watt amp is a lot more versatile than a 100, because you just can’t drive a 100 to where it needs to go without your audience wearing hearing protectors like you see on an airport flight line.

Now I’m not saying to throw away all your distortion and overdrive pedals because they certainly have their place, but get the sound from the amp first, then add your pedals. If you can’t make the guitar sound great plugged directly into the amp, then consider an amp that will get you where you want to go.

Tomorrow - Defining Moment #2

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