I have been using Elixir Phosphor Bronze Extra-Light strings on my acoustics for at least a decade now. I like the gauges; they are comfortable, and easy to play. They do not stress my wrists, and left arm tendons too much, which as I get older, is becoming increasingly problematic. I like the feel of the coating that Elixir uses, with the additional benefits that this coating minimizes string talk, and extends the life of the strings to quite an astonishing degree. They are familiar; I am used to them.
My acoustics are a Taylor 414ce (fall limited), and a Martin GPCPA4R. Both have similar characteristics, although they do sound remarkably different. I would describe the Taylor as crisp, chimey, and bell-like, while the Martin is mellow, even, articulate, and warm. The Taylor is great for playing in a band or smaller ensemble due to its presence, resonance, and capacity to cut through a mix when needed. I prefer the Martin for solo acoustic work, due it's more traditional sound, and capacity for articulation. I appreciate the way the Martin responds to variations in my attack to create dynamics, especially with more intricate fingerstyle.
Over these past several lockdown months, I began studying classical guitar. (I will go into the motivations behind that decision in a subsequent blog article.) While I have picked up and played nylon string classical guitars before, I wanted to open this as a deliberate area of study, taking it more seriously. This is part of what lead me to consider alternative steel string options for acoustic guitars. I was interested to see what steel string acoustic product might be out there, that can perform and feel similar to the bass E-A-D-G strings on a nylon classical guitar. I like to retain a similar feel between each instrument I use, so that switching between acoustic, electric or classical can be as seamless as reasonably possible, reducing warm-up, and re-orientation time.
On to the requirements. What am I looking for in acoustic strings?
1. Ease of Play (reduced tension, extra-light gauges with the bass E at 0.47 or less).
2. Tone (warm, articulate, responds to dynamics, and changes in attack).
3. Longevity (I don't care much for changing strings regularly, and Elixirs have been a fantastic choice for meeting this requirement. They last a ridiculously long time).
4. I like the coating on Elixirs because of the feel, and the reduction in string talk, but you can use string cleaners, and lubricants like Tone Finger Ease to accomplish the same end, so this is not a deal breaker. I have also found that the "slipperiness" of Elixirs can be inconsistent from one set to another. Sometimes you get a batch that feels uncoated, and squeaks (string talk). I occasionally use glissando on the bass strings, so reducing friction, and squeaks is important to succeed on some of the songs I play.
5. I personally do not like 80/20 bronze, so that is not under consideration. I find the warmer, mellower tone of phosphor bronze much better.
1. My incumbent long-time favorite, Elixir Phosphor Bronze, must be included. This would serve as the control sound for this project.
2. Ernie Ball Alumnium Bronze. While I doubted these would offer ease of play, or reduced string talk, this is innovative, and new. I was interested in what their tonal characteristics would be. I expected bright, clear, natural amplification, and projection. I also expected tremendous string talk.
3. GHS Silk and Steel. This got my attention because the bass strings contain a rayon core, rather than a steel core, with a silver plated copper wrap wire. As such, they are quite similar to the bass strings on a classical guitar. The low gauge and low tension also piqued my interest. I hypothesized they would be supremely easy to play, but with a substantial sacrifice in the tone for an acoustic guitar.
4. GHS Silk and Bronze. Similar to Silk and Steel except the wrapping wire is a phosphor bronze alloy. I expected these would work quite well, in terms of the trade-offs, and before actually trying them, I was already leaning this way.
Let the games begin.
Ernie Ball Aluminium Bronze were nice tonally overall. I totally understand why they are so popular with percussive fingerstyle players. They are crisp, clear, ring out with light and heavy touches, chiming with a bright bell-like tone, and are incredibly punchy. As mentioned, the tone was nice, but not what I am looking for. String cross talk was off the charts on these, and the wound strings just didn’t feel nice against my callouses. I also didn't like the gauges on the bass strings. They would have been better in my opinion if the low E bass started at a .47 on their extra-lights.
GHS Silk and Steel. These were definitely closer to what I was looking for. The gauges were very light, but with a substantial loss of volume. I personally did not really like the tone from the silver plated copper wrap wire. I absolutely loved the way they played, but the volume, and tonal sacrifices were not acceptable for me personally.
GHS Silk and Bronze. These have slightly higher gauges than the Silk and Steel, but produce more familiar acoustic tones. They mellowed out the Taylor nicely, calming down the jangly aspects of the Taylor sound, which is a big plus. They actually also corrected the variation on tone as you move up and down the length of the fingerboard. My Taylor tends to get more bass emphasis as you go beyond the 7th position, the same effect as moving your strumming hand closer to the fretboard, or selecting the neck pickup on an electric guitar. With the Silk and Bronze on the Taylor, the tone was much more uniform in different positions, so they pair very well with this particular guitar.
Right now, I have Elixirs on my Martin, and the GHS Silk and Bronze on my Taylor. I will keep running the comparison, but am inclining toward transitioning to use GHS Silk and Bronze exclusively with my acoutsics. The tone works for me, they sort out some of the issues with my Taylor, and playability is improved.
I hope you enjoyed this little subjective analysis of my String comparison. This is not about which product is inherently better than the other. This is more about researching how this space has developed, and finding the right fit for my particular set of changing preferences. Every manufacturer of strings that I compared here are deserved market leaders, produce excellent quality products, with models that meet the particular requirements they set out to address. This is more a matter of momentarily breaking out of brand loyalty to see what else is out there, where the trade-offs on playability, tone, and string talk are, and consider other innovations that may better suit my evolving needs.
Blown loudspeakers can mean several different things; either:
There are many attributes of great musicianship. Knowledge of theory, technical skill, feel, or intuition to name a few. However, the attribute that I value the most from my musician friends has been kindness.
I share this openly, because I think every musician has had to deal with this at some point. For me, the greatest obstacle to my performance, in general, is fluctuating self confidence. Performance anxiety is never truly overcome. It takes considerable discipline of will to get my prefrontal cortex out of the way, so I become less aware of myself, and can put energy into a song. I can specifically remember times when feeling that in my mind I was seriously sucking. One such time a musician friend told me "I rocked". Another such time I was told, "you have an incredible attack". These small statements made all the difference. Other times when I truly sucked, patience, and kindness got me beyond where I was, motivating me to continue.
While I have come across a few arrogant musicians, for the most part, kindness, and patience is the overriding personality. We all started somewhere, and we all struggle with the same things to some extent. I wouldn't be half the musician, or person I am were it not for the reservoirs of kindness that have been opened to me. I only hope I can even begin to pay this forward in some way.
I organize the effects pedals that I am currently using together on a small, portable pedal board for the purposes of convenience, and efficient setup, and tear-down.
I recently learned that daisy chaining the 9v power to the effects pedals through the "1-spot" type power brick can cause ground loops (earth loops) that create electrical interference which introduce a hum as you crank amplifier volumes higher. Interestingly, this appears to be a lesser issue with my solid-state amps. With solid-state amps, running the power in a daisy chain seems to only add a very slight hiss. However, with tube amps (valve amps), there is a loud humming or buzz. I expect this is because a tube amp draws a lot more current than a solid state amp, and the circuitry in this technology is a lot more susceptible to electrical induction. The hum is particularly problematic with vacuum tube amps, as it significantly pollutes the tone, thus killing the vibe.
Of course, if you notice a hum or buzz, it is worthwhile to do some proper troubleshooting first, to identify the source of the problem. You may have a bad cable, the sequence of your pedals could be creating an issue, or buffering circuits in the pedals might be another cause. So, running each pedal into your amp independently, or systematically testing cables may be worthwhile as a first step.
In all likelihood though, if you are chaining the power supply, it is a ground loop issue. In this case, you should provide isolated power to each pedal with multiple outlet, isolated power supplies. These types of power supplies use multiple transformers to electrically separate each 9v output to each pedal. While some of these types of isolated power supplies can be pricey, they pay for themselves over time with the savings in 9v batteries, and you reduce complexity, and save space on your power strip by not having many wall warts.
According to String Theory, all objects in the universe are made up of hypothetical vibrating filaments (strings) and membranes of energy. Strings vibrate in a multi-dimensional spacetime. The vibration of the string in different dimensions determines whether it appears to be matter, light, or gravity to us in our 3 dimensional perception.
Let's consider another multi-dimensional problem: Sight reading musical notation and guitar. We have a notation system that is designed for the right hand position on a piano, which runs in a single linear (left/right) dimension. The guitar's fretboard is not linear or one-dimensional, and you use both hands to play a note, so there are ambiguities that confound the guitarist's ability to sight read.
However, many guitarists do sight read from standard notation (not tablature). They mentally transform a notation system designed for a one dimensional keyboard to the note positions on a two dimensional fretboard, where the same note can appear multiple times in different places. From my research, there are 3 components: Fretboard knowledge, notation knowledge, and repetition of basic exercises. I have always approached the sight reading problem by figuring out the notes ahead of time, while concurrently figuring out the best position to play them based on what comes next. This has the disadvantage of taking a long time, but the advantage is that by the time I am finished, I have essentially memorized the piece of music. It does not qualify as "on-the-fly" sight reading.
After recently taking on a challenge that required me to learn a huge amount of music from notation in a small amount of time, the next step in my musical evolution is to improve in my sight reading; being able to play from notation after two or three passes without having to go through a major decoding exercise first.
Wish me luck as I journey into the 6th dimension.
There is a continuum of philosophy on the subject of naming guitars. Some people have strict rules that guitars should only have blues era female names. Others have a more playful whimsical approach. Then there are those who loathe the idea of naming a replaceable inanimate object, typing this with the sort of boredom induced decision making that leads to silliness, like creating a Social Media page dedicated to share the events in the life of a pet rock. In the middle of this spectrum is the argument that one forms a personal and sentimental connection to a guitar because of the time spent, the music, and the memories created, along with a sense that the instrument either exhibits a particular personality of its own, or becomes an extension of yourself. Another reason for naming a guitar could be the memorialization of a decisive life moment, or perhaps a cathartic event in your life.
There is nothing in this tradition that is either novel or unique to guitar players. Davey Crockett named his firearm “Old Betsy,” succeeded by a newer firearm that he named "Pretty Betsy". And, a scientifically unreliable web survey I found relays that at least a quarter of all people have named their cars.
Back to the topic of guitars, there is a very long list of famous artists who have named their guitars. Examples that I am aware of include, of course, BB King's, "Lucille", and also Yngwie Malmsteen’s, “The Duck”, Eric Clapton's, "Blackie", and my favorite, Eddie Van Halen’s, “FrankenStrat”.
I have named most of the guitars that I have owned. My first guitar was a Washburn dreadnought acoustic with a single cutaway that I bought used. I regret selling this guitar because I learned to play on it, wrote many songs on it, it had a great sound, and it therapeutically pulled me through a very lonely and difficult time in my young adult life. I named it “Wanita” because of the “W” in Washburn.
My first electric guitar was a used candy apple red Japanese Fender Stratocaster which I still own, although it has been significantly modified over the course of time. I named this guitar “Sylvia” because of the “S” in Stratocaster, and the metallic (aka silvery) finish in the candy apple red paint. At the time I purchased it I did not have enough money for an amp. To get around this, I rigged up a cable with a soldering iron in order to line into the mic input of a small cassette player. Using my finger, I would force down the safety tab in the cassette player mechanism so the record button would engage, allowing me to monitor the mic line input. This offered up a rather good clean Strat tone through the tiny cassette player speaker.
I traded “Wanita” for a new Yamaha APX 7 slim profile acoustic-electric. This guitar travelled around the world with me, was most certainly the best neck, best fingerboard, finest build quality, and most easy to play instrument I have ever owned. It was played to death, yet, I never truly bonded with it. It felt to me more like a well purposed, utilitarian tool for a trade. Solid wood guitars were once trees; ancient and alive. This Yamaha, being built largely from composite and synthetic materials may have prevented that organic connection to something that is somehow still “alive”. The bracing eventually warped causing the top to sag, and the rosette cracked into pieces, while it developed adjustment and tuning stability problems, probably because of heavy air travel, and careless baggage handling in a poor quality case.
On these travels, I met my wife, who owns a slim line Celebrity Applause; the affordable answer to the Ovation range. While strictly not my guitar, it has a definite place in my guitar family. I find the bowl back on the Ovation body causes the guitar to slide, forcing my wrist into difficult contortions. Therefore, I call this guitar “Tendonitis”.
After trading the Yamaha, I passed through a frustrating and wasteful process of elimination on a series of budget acoustics, eventually deciding to just spend some money on a decent instrument and be done with it. Enter a Taylor grand auditorium acoustic which I named, “Tatiana” because, yes, you guessed it, the “T” in Taylor, but also because she can be used for a variety of purposes, thus being flexible like a Russian gymnast. Tatiana is simply perfect, marred only by Taylor’s underwhelming proprietary expression system, which only works effectively when paired to an outboard pre-amp to “fix” the poorly pre-amplified piezos. A few years and some clever equipment trades later, I picked up a second Taylor in a dreadnought form factor. I named this guitar, “The Dreaded Nought”.
Because I often gig around the Nazareth area, it is sometimes impolitic to play a Taylor, so I picked up a used and somewhat abused Martin dreadnought with a cutaway, and a nasty crack in the headstock. I called this guitar, “Martina Crackhead”. Despite the headstock issues, this is a very playable guitar that expresses personality in spades. If you pardon the extended personification, “Martina” is like a puppy that was rescued from a bad situation, and I get a sense she is happy when played, appreciating the good home.
On the electric side, I picked up an affordable Epiphone Les Paul because the ache and roar of an overdriven Les Paul grips me in a visceral kind of way, and I really wanted to emulate that type of sound. Sadly, Les Paul’s and I don’t get along. The humbuckers are too hot, and don’t respond well to the dynamics in my playing style. This particular guitar kept coming out of adjustment and exhibited tuning stability issues. I understand this was a common issue at one time with the affordable Epi Les line. I hated the chunky neck profile. I found the dense single cutaway body to be crude and heavy with the controls stupidly placed when compared to the thoughtful layout, and comfortable contoured design of a Strat. I never named this guitar. There were a few magical wonderful times when that gut grabbing, soaring tone happened. I played it a lot, held onto it a long time, and tried to figure it out. But all too often it behaved like an angry caged predator; unwilling to cooperate, lashing out unpredictably. It bit me too many times when I needed it to behave. I have heard many people play the Les Paul with refinement and control. I clearly lack the magical beast taming qualities those people have. I found it to be sonically out of control, while coming out of tune, or out of adjustment at critical times. With disappointment I decided to trade.
After a lot of research I traded the Les Paul and picked up an entry level PRS Custom 22 with a solid antique white finish. I was lucky to find a PRS like this because the typical visually contrasting flamed maple finishes on most PRS guitars are garish to my eyes; just not my thing, so I am happy this has a solid finish. While not quite the voice of a Les Paul, it is still in the mahogany with a maple cap sonic family, so it is close enough. The guitar is impeccably well-designed, responsive to dynamics in my playing, with the ability to tap the coils and play either as a single coil, or humbucker. A very comfortable, well-balanced body design, as well as a very comfortable neck matches my preferences perfectly. I named this guitar, “Birdy Guitar” because of the bird inlay design element on PRS guitars, and because she is liberating – you forget about the guitar while you play and can really get in to the music, and sings oh so sweetly.
Thus concludes my guitar-naming experience to date. My naming philosophy loosely follows a convention based on the brand, with a mix of practical whimsy occasionally thrown in. I feel it is completely appropriate to name an inanimate object if there is a sentimental connection, if it is an extension of how you express yourself, and it means something to you.
Video as a Practice Tool
The famous double-slit experiment shows the duality of light which can behave as both a wave form and a particle. This experiment had the side effect of illustrating that observation can completely change the outcome of an event. When a camera films the experiment, the photons act as particles. However, when no observation takes place, photons act as waves and particles simultaneously. The implications of this are mind blowing, and show that there is a lot about our universe that is, well, just odd.
So, does filiming yourself performing, change the nature of that performance? In the same fashion as studio recording, you become mindful that what you are doing is being captured. The camera makes you acutely aware. Every fret buzz, missed note, every rhythm and timing issue, every vocal part that is slightly sharp or flat, it all comes to a jarring reality. When I practice in private, without that additional level of scrutiny from a video camera, or audio capture device, things normally flow comfortably. Sometimes I have off days, and can deal with this by adjusting practice goals to work around the obstacles. So, you may be comfortable with yourself when you can't observe from the outside.
But, plant myself behind the camera, and a heightened alertness to every nuance takes over, and a new level expectation emerges. In this sense, using video as a tool for practice is an exceptional way to develop musical discipline. Hearing yourself play is different to hearing yourself playing. It does not sound the same when you propagate that energy, as when you observe your own energy represented upon a screen. It is both affirming and terrifying at the same time. It is different even from watching yourself in a mirror. You gain an entirely other perspective, and upon honest review, you can see right away every facet that needs development.
Perhaps this is another element of the exposure therapy I am using as a means for me to confront performance anxiety. The problem with my live performance schedule is that I am not at a point yet where I have a consistent frequency of suitable outings. So I have a few close together, start improving, then the schedule dries up, effectively undoing any progress made by the next opportunity. My own goal setting to share my reinterpretation of the universe that I see in simple singer-songwriter material has been driving positive change in my music and my life, as I peel away the layers of the onion skin to find things about myself that entangle me, or create beautiful interference patterns, or present obstacles that I just try plow through. All this to say that observing myself on a screen after capturing video offers a point of reference I would not otherwise have access to, and shifts ideas of what to focus on.
The one piece of gear you never knew you needed
I am talking of the power conditioner. A power conditioner will correct problems with power supply that introduce noise into your sound equipment. Wiring in a building might be bad, motors, compressors, thermostat switches, fluorescent lights, some incandescent lights, even the activities of the power company as they load balance the grid; all of these cause what we commonly refer to as dips, spikes, brownouts, surges that supply incorrect voltages and can disrupt the frequency, and phase, introducing harmonic interference into the power supply, which you will hear as undesirable pops, buzz, crackle or hum.
The function of power conditioners vary based on the manufacturer, but in general they should do the following:
Power conditioners are not surge-strips or multi-plugs. A surge protector usually only protects for overvoltages. A power conditioner performs the functions of a surge protector, while also filtering out dirt or harmonic contamination in the power supply. They come in rack mountable formats, but you can also find more affordable units that resemble a surge strip or a multi-plug. You may in fact want to consider this for your home theater setup also.
Electric Guitar Modification
Is it viable to consider purchasing an affordable and very basic guitar, and then over time, modify this guitar to get an instrument that is as good as the higher end? Yes, it is possible to do this. But before embarking down this road, be prepared that at the end of the day, you will have spent the same amount of money altogether as the cost of a higher end instrument, possibly more, yet if you sell, you will not recover the costs of the high end hardware. The fact is, it will still only trade at around it’s pre-mod / stock config. blue book value. The benefits behind this sort of approach are that you can make small improvements when you can afford to do so, and you don’t have to part with a guitar that you have formed a connection with, when it is time to trade up. You will end up with an instrument that exhibits a great deal of character, one that is completely unlike any other. One that has grown and changed along with your story and fortunes.
The basic idea is to take a good, solid, and affordable guitar, and over the years, keep improving it. You can start with the intention to build something completely unique, or take a guitar that is based on a modular design, and make it like its more expensive cousin (for example: Squire to Fender, or Epiphone to Gibson).
My modification story involves a late 1980’s Japanese Stratocaster in Candy Apple Red. These guitars were very popular among my peers in the early 1990’s because being budget conscious, we could pick them up for a bargain on the used market. They looked the part, and played every bit as well as a standard Strat, with real Strat tone. I have taken this guitar through two rounds of modification. Once in 2001 and again in 2015. On both occasions there was some work that I was comfortable doing myself, and when I got in over my head, I went to my guitar store and contracted the help of their guitar tech. I also had very clear ideas about what my goals were.
The stock Japanese Stratocaster came with single coil pickups, a vintage style tremolo, and vintage style tuning heads. The tuning heads and tremolo on mine had corroded badly, creating tuning stability problems. The pickups were also buzzing and humming more than they should, probably due to buildup of gunk.
In 2001 I worked with a guitar tech to replace the tuning heads and the tremolo with those found on the Deluxe Strat. I also replaced the pickups with Fender Gold Lace Sensors. The tuning stability was improved, and changing strings was made much simpler by the better designed newer style tuning heads. The Lace Sensor pickups really woke the guitar up, tremendously improving the tone and sustain.
In 2015 I had the plastic nut replaced with one made from a synthetic bone graphite material, to improve both tone and sustain. I also wired the bridge pickup to the bottom tone control. In a standard configuration, you cannot change the tone of the bridge pickup on a Strat. The goal here was to add a greater range of tonal possibilities when playing with over-drive. Lastly I made a significant cosmetic change by replacing the white scratch plate with a pearloid black scratch plate. Having a guitar tech at the store really helped here, because although the Strat is based on a modular design, there are variations over the years, and the newer scratch plates are not countersunk in the same way as the older ones. Based on the age of the guitar, and amount of play it has seen, there was significant cleaning, adjustment, setup, and setting the intonation also required at this time.
The picture below illustrates these changes:
(left: Stock Japanese Strat)
(center: New tremolo and tuning heads, new Lace Sensor pickups)
(right: New nut, bottom tone control changed to also control bridge pickup, new black pearloid scratchplate/ pickguard).
Handling the Open Mic
The open mic format offers great opportunities to increase exposure, while rapidly developing your act. It is a quick way to measure the success and quality of your performances, while finding out what you still need to develop. Jostled between other performers of varying abilities, you typically play a small set of anywhere between 2 to 4 songs. It is focused and intense, almost like the “speed dating” of musical performance contexts. I consider the open mic to be the easiest way to get yourself out there and play publicly. However, it is also the most challenging performance situation because there is no time to warm up, and you have a tiny slice of time in which to make some sort of impact. How do you rock the open mic?
Make sure you know the songs you will play both inside and out. Play your familiars. Be well prepared, and well rehearsed. Simulate and visualize the live situation in your final practices. Unless you are a regular, and they know you well, I would not try something new, or something you are still working on.
Don’t be shy about your originals. Originals that are well conceived are refreshing, and will help you stand apart from the cover performers.
Introduce yourself. Recite a prepared brief “boilerplate” 2 to 3 sentence biographical introduction to tell the audience who you are and what you are musically all about. Be careful of the “this is a song about …”. Unless the message of the song or an interesting story is an integrated part of your overall act, introducing each song breaks the flow and is usually needless. But, I do think it is very important to introduce yourself.
Certain covers should probably be avoided. Several memorable songs that we grew up with, and love, are generally difficult to reproduce without a lot of assistive production. Choose songs that work in the solo performance context, or that can be musically arranged for the situation.
Don’t go first, or last. If you have nerves like I do, you may be tempted to get it over with, but waiting for the late arrivals and the crowd to settle down a bit improves your impact. Going last means you are closing. The mood changes toward the end and many people will have left.
Ask the host to do sound check for you. You will be using unfamiliar gear, and the mix will be set up for your predecessor. Investing in a quick 15 to 30 second sound check will enhance your performance quality.
Consider visiting the venue before deciding to play there. This gives you the opportunity to see whether the reception and feedback is positive. Every open mic venue I have played at has featured a crowd that follows the unspoken courtesies of encouragement, and affirmation. Nonetheless, there are slightly different hosting formats, venue types, and moods. Visiting first might give you a better idea of what to expect.
Finally, it’s all about the music. Focus on your songs. Focus on your sounds. As someone who struggles with performance anxiety, I understand how easy it is to get irrationally intimidated when the person before you is extremely good, did something different and memorable, and you know your performance is overshadowed. It is best to just mentally compartmentalize; be yourself, and trust your plan and preparation. My own experience is that “going the distance”, competent preparation, consistency, sincerity and authenticity rather than “trying to be like” always wins out in the longer run.
Now, get out there and let us hear your music!
Practice with Intention
When music is your “jobby”; you have a busy life with children, and a primary career that you depend on to pay the bills, you are arguably not able to dedicate the same intensity to practice as the fully professional musician might. Maximizing the effectiveness of the practice time you have is important if you are to develop and grow. In this article I offer an unstructured list of motivational and practical concepts to help, if you face this dilemma.
1. Practice with Intention: When you practice, have an end goal in mind. What are you trying to achieve? Broadly speaking there are two aspects to any practice. You are either working on developing technique, or you are working on musical intuition.
Technique development involves woodshedding type exercises (chords, changes, turnarounds, scales, riffs, arpeggios, picking and strumming patterns), or learning a new song note for note.
Intuition development involves playing along to a jam track or song, just noodling around, experimenting with ideas, creating, or trying to approximate something you have heard.
2. Have fun!
3. Short intense bursts, with breaks: Don’t persevere beyond the point of diminishing returns. Not only does the brain continue learning during downtime, but downtime is necessary for the brain to learn. When you return, you are refreshed.
4. Don’t push yourself to physical injury. Correct posture, holding the guitar properly, and taking a break when things hurt can prevent injury that could lead to long term problems.
5. Don’t practice your mistakes: Often speed on guitar is equated with effectiveness, and while this is certainly an indicator of mastery; I would argue that feel, control and tone, rather than speed, are the hallmarks of effective musicianship. Play it slow, focus on playing one perfect note. If you play one perfect note, it is reasonable that you can follow it with another perfect note, and so on. Speed will come with patience … focus on playing it correctly with feel, control and tone, rather than playing it fast. And, remember, if you are reaching the point of diminishing returns, take a break.
6. Keep a log, and periodically celebrate your progress and success.
7. Record or video yourself, and listen or watch back. And listen back after some time has passed. We are often doing better than we think. :-)
8. Get honest and constructive feedback from an encouraging friend you trust. A guitar teacher can fill this role, but I am thinking from the paradigm of the self taught. False praise or needless nitpicking don’t help you with maintaining a positive, realistic, growth oriented frame of mind.
This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it structured, but it should help you form an attitude that leads to maximizing limited practice time for productive and goal oriented practices. There are a wealth of great free resources nowadays for the self taught that simply did not exist when I started out; tutorials on youtube, mobile apps (audio recording apps, jam track apps, drum pattern apps, learning games). Take advantage of these. Set a few realistic goals, work toward them, review progress, celebrate your success, and update your goals. Don’t overdo it, start slow, focus on correctness rather than speed, and have fun.
How to shop for your first guitar
Shopping for a guitar starts with establishing a budget. Then, it is a basic process of elimination, where you attempt to meet all your requirements within that budget. The globalization of various industries along with outsourced manufacturing have created a situation where there has never been as much choice and variety among entry level guitars. It is easy to become overwhelmed. Quality varies greatly among the more affordable products, so utilizing a methodology can increase the chances that you get the best instrument for you, one that you enjoy playing, at a price you can afford. Guitar players tend to form very close bonds with their instruments. It is an intimate instrument to play. You hold it close, it travels with you, you build memories with it. It can become an extension of your soul. This is an important decision that should be made for the right reasons. You pick a guitar for you, that suits the way you play, that fits with your sound; not for a particular look, brand, or the artist you wish to be like. Here is what I think is a good process of elimination, starting from the most important considerations:
1) Playability and feel
How does the guitar feel when you hold it, both sitting and with a strap? A guitar should be comfortable. If it is too heavy, or feels uncomfortable, you won’t want to play it. How does the neck feel? Can you form and change chords and play notes quickly? Does it suit the size of your hands? Do the frets feel comfortable if you slide your hand while holding the neck? Also get a sense of the action (how high are the strings?). A high action will start to hurt. The action on a guitar can be adjusted, but if the factory setup is high to begin with, there may not be much for a guitar tech to work with. Some acoustics have a cutaway to ease the access to the higher registers on the fingerboard, but cutaways have a slight influence on sound and do impact the aesthetics.
2) Sound and materials
Do you like how it sounds while you play it? Do you like how it sounds when someone else plays it? While the construction has a lot to do with the sound, the materials tend to be the biggest factor. Affordable guitars tend to be made with laminates rather than solid wood. Try to get a guitar with as much solid wood in it as possible. If you can’t afford a solid wood guitar, perhaps a solid top with laminate back and sides. Different combinations of woods affect the sound considerably, changing the balance of bass, mid-range and highs. Also, be open to look at used guitars. If it has a pickup, also plug it in to get a sense of its amplified sound.
3) Build Quality
Look over the guitar carefully and critically. Study the craftsmanship. Look at where the neck joins the body. Look at where the nut and the bridge are glued. Look at how the frets are installed. Is the inlay work precise? Look for overspray, uneven finish, glue runs, gaps, or parts that don’t fit properly.
4) Cosmetics and Aesthetics
Are you after a more traditional look, or do you like interesting finishes with flamed tops, or cross-sawn woods? Do you like a guitar that is minimalist and unadorned? Do you like inlay work? Does the look of the guitar express who you are?
You will know it when you find the right guitar for yourself. Give it a good home, and most importantly, have fun playing it.
DAW Software and Computers
If you are using DAW Software on a computer as the primary tool for capturing your home recordings, then not only the choice of an adequate computer, but some periodic tender-loving-care to proactively maintain that computer’s operating system, so that it performs well, and remains reliable is essential to capturing good recordings. (DAW = Digital Audio Workstation). This should be thought of with the same attitude as changing your guitar’s strings, adjusting the truss rod, replacing the frets when they wear out. Or washing your car, or changing your car’s oil. Engineered devices just work better and last longer when you care for them. I make my living as an information technology professional, with many years of advanced experience in server systems administration, and managing database driven enterprise systems. The same basic maintenance principles apply to desktop workstation computers as with advanced high-availability server systems in a data center environment. These best practices help assure the health and availability of your computing facilities.
My song-writing approach is very much in the tradition of the “singer-songwriter”, starting with acoustic guitar and vocals. I move to the DAW much later, to add other instrumentation and effects. However, the DAW is a creative medium also, and many song-writers start by laying down riffs and tracks in the DAW, building the song idea out, using the software as another instrument. When inspiration strikes, and you are all fired up and ready to record, you want to spent your time recording your musical ideas, not troubleshooting a borked computer or chasing down time consuming, bizarre and inexplicable technical problems. Choosing the right system for your needs comes first. Then, proactive maintenance, understanding some principles of how computer operating systems are designed, and following certain disciplines will allow you to avoid issues in the first place.
Choice of Operating Systems Platform
There are basically 3 choices of computer operating systems in the current environment. Apple’s osX, Microsoft’s Windows, or some or other flavor of Linux. Any technology decision is a trade-off, and each of these operating systems carry their share of pros and cons. It is important to understand your requirements, and to match those requirements to the right technology. Here is a basic review:
You (normally) cannot purchase Apple’s osX unless you also buy an Apple computer. While it is technically possible to either virtualize osX, or with some effort install osX on non Apple hardware, Apple’s EULA only permits this under very specific and limited circumstances. This has allowed Apple to develop an operating system without the concern for building in compatibility with different kinds of graphics cards, sound cards, processors, hard disks and so forth. Since they are only building for one kind of hardware platform this is one of the factors that make Apple computers more reliable. Also, osX is a type of Unix under the surface, which does not require the same sort of disk maintenance, or registry maintenance care regimens as Microsoft Windows computers. The major trade-off of with Apple is that you get a very reliable and well designed computer, but it does cost more than its equivalents, and you are committing to a highly proprietary and arguably inflexible, arrogant business model. This can become expensive when you need to obtain accessories, parts or repairs. If budget is less of an issue and you have little tolerance for technical problems, then Apple is fit for purpose. Otherwise …
Microsoft Windows can be installed on a variety of different hardwares, which means that components can be bespoke. You can purpose build for studio recording. However mixed and matched hardware can also be used to lower the overall costs. When selecting your hardware you can for example purchase a smaller hard disk, a slower processor, or less RAM in order to obtain a better value for money. The pitfall is that many Microsoft Windows computers are purchased with under-resourced hardware because of cost consciousness, and therefore don’t perform well. Microsoft Windows contains a registry database that maintains information about all it’s settings and software. With software installs, uninstalls, and maintenance updates, this registry gradually becomes less optimized and is a source of degraded performance over time. Also the file management system allows files to be saved in dis-contiguous pieces on the disk, which means that accessing that file might take longer, as it assembles the data from those pieces. Malware risks (which exist with any platform but are more prevalent with Windows), the condition of the registry and fragmented disks are the key reasons why Microsoft Windows computers get slower over time. Tools and utilities exist to address these problems, so a commitment to disciplined Internet use, not installing unneeded software, and simple, low effort periodic maintenance activities, will definitely keep the computer running as well as when you first bought it.
Linux is by design very similar to Apple’s osX because they have the same heritage, both being based on Unix. Great free tools exist, and distributions such as Ubuntu Studio are purpose built for sound editing, packaging excellent open source DAW software. OpenSuse (my preferred distro) will require a little more effort, but can be used for DAW activities also. The trade-off is that you are not necessarily tied to a proprietary operating system, escape the inflexibility and costs of Apple, and the inherent design problems in Windows that create more periodic maintenance needs, but vendors don’t always develop software for Linux, or only develop for specific distributions. Software availability and cross compatibility with other platforms are the main issues with Linux.
No matter which OS you use, there are some tips that I can offer for your DAW computer:
New DAW softwares for mobile and touch controlled tablet devices are emerging. These can be useful if you are out-and-about and a melody comes to you, or you want to use audio recording as part of your practice routine. At the writing of this article, I don’t think these are the best choices for serious home recording. Apple’s garage band app on the iPad comes close and could work in a pinch, but touch based mobile software needs to mature some more to offer easier workflows for creating content before these devices will be really useful for this type of activity.
Recording and Live Sound with Acoustic Guitar
For a long time I could not understand why so much noise was included in the signal; hiss, and hum, when recording acoustic guitar through the built in pick-up, or why the acoustic sound in my live performances varied from lacking punch to just being too soft, downright unclear/muddy and un-mixable. I own a good quality guitar, with a pickup system that gets rave reviews, so in theory, all one should do is plug and play, and the sound will always be of a professional standard, right? Various hypothesis stacked up in my mind:
I began a web-quest and trawled through sound engineer forums, reading one web article after another. I spoke to fellow musicians and the guys at my music shop. After sifting the wheat from the chaff, a single common denominator emerged. It seems that if you line an acoustic-electric guitar (or bass guitar) into a mixer, you need a DI Box, alternatively known as Direct Injector, Direct Input, or Direct Box.
In essence, a DI Box is a transformer. Without getting into too many details about how transformers work, quite simply, a transformer is used to step up (or step down) voltage through a process called induction. In our sound application, we isolate the signal from the guitar in order to increase it’s voltage, before sending it to the mixing desk. We take the high-impedance signal from the guitar, and transform it to a more powerful low-impedance signal. The balanced, low impedance signal is then lined into the mixing desk. As shown in the illustration, you run your high-impedance instrument cable with ¼ inch plug from your guitar to the input side of the DI box. You run a low-impedance 3 pronged XLR cable from the output side of the DI box to the desk.
Some DI boxes are “Active” which means that in addition to the transformer, they also incorporate a pre-amplifier, that boosts the gain after the signal is transformed. This pre-amplification allows you to keep the volume control on your guitar pickup at a lower level, because overloading your pickup will also introduce noise.
I eventually chose this active DI box because it seemed a good value for money. When I tried it out, the difference was incredible. A good, clear, loud, noise free acoustic guitar signal.
Guitar Amp versus Keyboard Amp versus Acoustic Amp
A friend asked the question, “what is the difference between a guitar amp and a keyboard amp”? My simple answer was along the lines that an electric guitar amp plays a role in creating a sound for an electric guitar, while a keyboard amp just takes a sound, and makes it louder. This conversational answer was rather oversimplified. Also, I believe this is a question that many people might feel embarrassed to ask.
So, the more complete answer is: An electric guitar amp is designed to create a tone or sound for an electric guitar, which has no real acoustic sound of it’s own. An electric guitar amp might introduce levels of reverb, levels of distortion, or other effects to color the sound. Electric guitar amps are constrained by design to a limited range of frequencies, mostly focused in the mid-range, and do not reproduce the high and low ends of the sound spectrum very well. Electric guitar amps can be built according to one of three different technologies. Tube or valve amps employ vacuum tubes in the amplifier circuit and provide an authentic natural response. Solid state amplifiers replace the tubes/valves with transistors, or integrated circuitry. Modeling amps recreate the sound of classic amplifier families, and model the behavior of tube amps through various clever software modeling. The classification goes further in that there are different speaker sizes, cabinet configurations, combinations of speakers.
A keyboard amp on the other hand amplifies and delivers the actual acoustic sound. An acoustic guitar amp may include a pre-amplifier to boost the sound coming from the onboard guitar pre-amp, together with additional mid range frequency equalization controls, called notch filters, which can be used to manage the sound of piezo pickups.
Both keyboard amps and acoustic guitar amps cover the sound spectrum more completely, including the lows, mids and highs, and therefore reproduce more closely what you hear acoustically.
Acoustic Guitars and Humidity
A great deal of valuable advice can be found on the web about maintaining ideal relative humidity for all-wood acoustic guitars. Martin Guitars, and in particular Bob Taylor have informed and advocated on the subject. Your music store will no doubt also provide excellent advice. I cannot improve on these expert resources, but I will add my voice to this message. The winter months here in the north-eastern USA can be brutal on all-wood guitars. Relative humidity drops with the lower temperatures, and heating and ventilation systems further dry the air. Maintaining a humidity level between about 45% to 55% is a proactive step that protects the instrument from damage, and can prevent expensive repairs due to the wood shrinking as it dries. In the best cases, dryness affects playability. The top will sink, and the guitar will come out of adjustment with the frets beginning to extend beyond the width of the fingerboard. You may get some buzzing during play, with uncomfortable fret feel along the fingerboard and neck. In the worst cases, the guitar will crack, the bridge or neck might separate at the glue joints and the neck will warp.
An acoustic guitar is under constant stress due to the tension on the strings. It is constructed primarily out of different types of wood, but also contains other materials such as steel, nickel, plastic, bone, etc. along with various parts, like the neck and bridge, which are typically glued together. These different materials expand and contract differently with changes in temperature and humidity. Don’t become paranoid, guitars are very strong in their construction, with a basic design that has matured over centuries. As long as environmental changes are gradual, and the guitar is not exposed to extremes, or adverse conditions over an extended period of time, there is nothing to be concerned about. The key concept is to manage conditions so that the guitar can moisturize when needed, and any changes are gradual so that the instrument is able to adjust to the ambient environment naturally. For example, traveling with your guitar in the trunk/boot of your car during winter, or leaving your guitar inside a parked car in the hot summer sun will certainly damage it, even if it is in the hardshell case. However, a guitar that becomes dry after a few hours of play, can be quickly brought back to normal condition with a simple, no effort, inexpensive care regimen, that anyone can do.
Guitars are beautiful and many people like to keep them out on display. In this case, it is important to manage the relative humidity of the room where you keep your guitar. This is easily accomplished with a low cost digital hygrometer. Add a warm mist room humidifier, and you can keep an eye on the hygrometer to maintain humidity levels in the range of 45% to 50%. Various wall hanging solutions exist for display and if you utilize these, then do not mount your guitar against an exterior wall, due to the differences in external and internal temperatures.
During winter months, I prefer (and recommend) to keep the guitar in it’s hardshell case, with a sound-hole humidifier. (See illustration).
This type of humidifier is elegantly simple, cheap, easy to use, with few opportunities for user error. Just moisten the sponge, suspend the humidifier off the strings into the soundhole, then enclose in the hardshell case. The sponge naturally evaporates into the wood on the inside of the guitar body. The wood inside the body is not treated with lacquer, or other finishes, and therefore absorbs the moisture. The closed case maintains a climate controlled environment, and insulates the guitar from sudden and drastic changes in external temperature and humidity. And that is all you need to do in order to maintain playability during winter, protect your instrument from humidity related damage, and your wallet from potential repairs or replacements.
Fingernail Care for Guitarists
Recently, due to a workplace accident I sustained a thumb injury requiring 15 stitches, and lost some fingernails in the process. Since I play finger style guitar, this seems a debilitating (although temporary) injury. As the outlet for artistic self expression is considerably limited for the time being, I am compelled to process this event, reexamine finger and nail care for guitarists, and write about it in this blog article.
In about 1994 I was invited to perform at a friend’s wedding together with another more experienced guitarist who played folk finger style. A “strictly rhythm” person at that time, I had not considered finger style as an option for me, but was impressed by how simply she could interchange rhythm playing with picking patterns. This opened a door to tonal possibilities, of simultaneously combining two or three strings, coaxing different voicings out of a chord, in ways that are impossible (or difficult) with a flat pick / plectrum. Although a plectrum is a powerful amplifier, I became aware of, and began to dislike the clicking sound of the plectrum, and the limits of being constrained exclusively to up stroke /down stroke playing.
And so I grew my right hand nails, and began my journey by replicating the style I was exposed to at that wedding. Over time I developed a stronger tool-set of picking patterns including Travis picking, rolls, and Clawhammer. The current areas of study are to develop and incorporate alternate bass, percussive and American primitivist techniques into my style.
I generally do not allow my nails to become too long because I like to combine flesh with nail in the string pluck. This adds a thump like bass quality to the higher register sustained tones produced by the fingernail, providing for a more well rounded tone. With experimentation over time, I have found that I need to contour each fingernail to different lengths. This optimizes the available fingernail with the angle that my hand approaches the sound hole, allowing for tonal options by positioning for either play with no nail, combine flesh and nail, or play with the nail alone. The ring fingernail usually projects slightly over the flesh part, while starting from the middle finger, moving toward the index are each slightly shorter. The thumb nail projects in line with the flesh.
I have tried slip on finger picks, but these do not feel right. Some finger style guitarists will paint on a clear acrylic nail varnish to strengthen; others swear by artificial nails; others will superglue careful cut-outs of ping-pong balls; some repair breaks with superglue and toilet paper. These approaches are all correct if they work for you. I pro-actively avoid breaks, but in the event of a break, I will simply cut back the nail, reshape it, and allow it to grow again.
The steel strings on an acoustic guitar are much stronger than protein and keratin fingernail material, and with prolonged play do wear nails down, so nail maintenance is important. My care routine involves visually inspecting the edges for irregularities and gently filing with a steel nail file to maintain shape. I follow this with a three way buffer. I shape the outside half of the nail for the part of my hand that positions closest to the sound hole curving toward the inside that is furthest from the sound hole. I also keep the nails moisturized with a nail strengthening cream like "Hoof", ordinary moisturizing cream, or petroleum jelly. Diet is an important factor for healthy nails, to include foods with nutrients such as Vitamins A, C, and B12, amino acids, collagen, and other essential fatty acids. I have found that taking a daily "Gelatin" supplement, and applying a product called "Hoof Nail Strengthening Cream" helps a lot. (Always consult your Doctor before altering your diet or taking new supplements).
So in conclusion, a process of proactive care, optimized filing and diet represent my fingernail care regimen.
Very rarely will a song just come together. Typically I work on musical ideas, and lyrical themes separately, mixing and matching the results into a song. This phase of the exercise is carried out with acoustic guitar, paper, pencil, eraser, and takes weeks. It’s where most of the effort and time is spent. Every song that I have written started its life as a simple acoustic guitar and vocal arrangement. Once the song seems to unify, I practice it and work on it some more. At this stage I find embellishments for the guitar work and melody. Once I can play it and sing it comfortably, then I am ready to start recording.
I start in the DAW by choosing a drum pattern, and loop that all the way through. Then I record the guitar track, followed by the vocal track. I record guitar and vocals in one shot, very rarely do I edit, loop, nudge, or punch in/out with guitar and vocals. I believe this gives the composition more heart, making it a little more like a live performance, balancing out the clinical tightness of the MIDI bass and drums. At this point I decide how I would like to arrange it. I might decide the song needs more, or needs less. I might replace the acoustic guitar with electric, redoing the guitar tracks. Once the guitar and voice arrangements are satisfactory, I will work on the drums, deciding where the starts, ends, bridges and fills should go. After that, I will record the MIDI bass and any synthesizer portions. I establish the mix concurrent with the above activities.
Despite a high reliance on software, this is by no means cheating or easy. There absolutely is a difference when compared to playing with other musicians. You cannot see and interact with other musicians if those parts are multi-tracked, or programmed. There are no non-verbal cues. There are also technical problems to overcome, like processor latency, software plug-ins that won’t work, the learning curve of recording skill and the software itself. Of course it helps that I am technically trained, but all in all, there is a lot to learn, and a lot of time and effort spent on getting it done.
I am by no means an expert at this. A critical and professional ear will no doubt identify all the ragged edges created by many technical and musical problems in my work. Frankly thats all I hear when I listen to my stuff, so I am always a bit bemused when I receive compliments. I am after all a self-taught hobbyist, and on a budget.
On this page I share the approach to home recording that I use right now. This is evolutionary so I will not always do it this way. Nor is this the only way to do it. By tweaking and developing my technique, and upgrading components over time, as I can afford to, my studio and competence will continue to progress.
Recording hardware and software products for the home user have improved, and come down in price. It is quite possible to put together a pretty good home recording studio for under $1,000.00. With a mixture of good advice, a bit of patient trial and error problem solving, and a willingness to learn from your mistakes, I have no doubt a budget home studio’s recording capability can reach the point where it rivals the facility of a big commercial studio.
The following diagram illustrates the connection scheme.