Thursday, April 16, 2009

Achieving a consistently good and accurate sound

I was involved in an interesting discussion with another guitarist on Twitter, and it lead me to realize that this might be an interesting topic for a blog post. Here on the blog, I have mentioned from time to time about the characteristic tone of different guitars and different amps. Some players have developed a guitar tone that is highly recognizable, and it is due to the particular guitar and amp combination that they use.

There are times in a musician's career where just the opposite theory might need to be applied. Sometimes when you travel a lot and do many shows, it is impossible to carry your own equipment to every show. Unless you are the Rolling Stones and can load all the equipment into your own private jets, sometimes you can't cover the route as quickly as you need to if you have to rely on a bus of truck to move the equipment. You might have to do a guest appearance in the afternoon and then fly to a concert at night, so the equipment is being set up at the concert while you are at the afternoon show. The answer is, of course, to rent equipment as needed. I have a friend that used to own a musical instrument rental company, and I remember all the stories he told about musicians complaining about the gear they rented. He also told me some nice stories about the musicians that were easy to please.

If your choice of guitars and amps is common, you just might be able to get something from a rental company that compares to what you are used to playing. If your choice of gear is a bit more exotic, then you will have to settle for something different from what you would have preferred.

The secret to success is to plan ahead and develop a system of easily achieving your tones from a system that in independent of the guitar and amplifier. As much as I admire the sweet sound that comes from a fine vintage guitar and amp, I have to admit that I admire even more the performer that can sound good no matter what they are playing. Some guitarists are so fussy that they get upset if they cannot have things go completely their way. I would rather be the guy that you hand a guitar to, any guitar, and he makes magic with it.

I learned this lesson long ago at a young age through a very interesting experience. I believe it was in 1967. The band I was working with was booked into a night club dance in a small town called Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. I think it was a Saturday night. When we arrived to set up for the show, we were met by the road manager from "Tommy James and the Shondells," a group that was extremely popular at that time, with chart topping hits such as "Hanky Panky," "Say I Am," and "I Think We're Alone Now." We were told that the band was in town to do a concert, and their equipment had not arrived due to a vehicle breakdown or some other delay. The band's road manager had already arranged with the manager of the club I was working to allow us to start late if we would loan our equipment to the Shondells for their show. We were given a police escort to the recreation hall where the Tommy James and the Shondells concert was, and worked with their band to get the equipment set up quickly. Now the interesting part about this was that, at the time, we were a relatively unknown "local" band. I had only been playing guitar for 3 years at the time, and most of our equipment was still in the "garage band" category. We didn't even have a PA system - we plugged our high impedance microphones into guitar amplifiers. And the microphones themselves were not concert quality. When "Tommy James & the Shondells" played their set, my jaw dropped clear down to the ground! They sounded just like their records! How did they get such a great sound out of this cheap equipment? My band certainly didn't sound like that when we used the same equipment!

It was then that I learned that true music comes not from the equipment, but from the skill of the performer. One cannot rely on a guitar or an amp to sound good, but must rely on their own experience. This lesson was reinforced many years later through a different experience I would like to share. I was sitting in a recording studio in Hollywood. I think it was Britannia Studios (owned by Tom Jones), and I think the year was around 1983. Some friends of mine were recording an album after their demo effort was picked up by a backer. Some of the musicians were seasoned professionals, such as Tony, former bass player from the "Cascades" ("Rhythm of the Rain"). The producer for this recording session was Kim Fowley, an eccentric Hollywood icon who is best known either for his song "Alley Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles, or as the person who discovered and promoted one of the first popular "girl groups," "The Runaways" (featuring Lita Ford and Joan Jett). As a producer, Kim was usually hard to please. He made a comment while I was there that stuck with me all these years; he said "you can always tell the difference when you are working with professionals." That led me to realize that there are three types of musicians - those who are not professional musicians, those that are professional musicians, and those that are not professional musicians, but think they are! The musicians that fall into the last category are the ones that are impossible to deal with. It is possible that every one of use goes through this stage. Some of us move past it and become professional "for real," and some never get past this stage. I know a lot of famous musicians with great talent that fit into this category!

Now, let's talk about the solution to coming up with a sound that is consistently pleasing. One step along the way is to play several different guitars and amplifiers and notice that there is definitely a difference in the tone. Notice also some of the big differences, such as the difference between single coil guitar pickups and double-coil humbucking pickups, and the difference between a tube amp and a solid-state (transistor) amp. Hopefully you can find a distinguishing sound for your songs and your style that does not lean too far in any one direction. Now there are the different tonal "flavors" you might desire to use - reverb, echo, tremolo, or distortion. Tremolo, for example, is not available on all guitar amplifiers. It was a popular amplifier feature in the 1960's, but then it went away in the 1980's and is starting to reappear again on the "reissue" amplifiers being sold currently. If you have to rent an amp for a show, you might get one without tremolo, so if you play a lot of "Duane Eddy" type songs, you will need to carry a tremolo pedal effect with you.

Another popular tone guitarists use is to either take a low wattage amp and turn the volume all the way up to distort the tone by overdriving it beyond it's "headroom;" or to use an amp with two or more volume controls and set the input gain high and the master volume low. This give a nice distortion of the input stage of the amp, but can be done conservatively by keeping the master volume lower. Some musicians have also achieved this "wide open" sound at lower volumes by putting a control called a "power attenuator" between the power amplifier and the speaker which "soaks up" the output power before it reaches the speaker. Perhaps a better way to achieve this desired distortion is to experiment with distortion and overdrive pedal effects. Those that have three or more controls usually allow the user to make adjustments to get everything from a highly distorted "crunch" sound to the warm sound of a slightly overdriven tub amplifier.

One device that is a popular seller these days is called an "amp modeler." It uses digitally stored recordings of the characteristic sounds of several popular guitar amplifiers, and then allows you to achieve that sound no matter what kind of amp you are plugged into by using this digital modeling technique. You could even plug directly into the mixing board and not even need to run through a guitar amp. The tone that comes out of the mixer will sound like you are wailing away on your favorite vintage amp! Of course, the only thing that sounds like a 1958 Fender Deluxe is a 1958 Fender Deluxe, and you would want to use your preferred amp whenever possible, but this method might help you get by whenever this is not possible. (I remember one time I was experimenting with one of these amp modelers, trying to get it to sound like a `65 Fender Twin Reverb amp. My guitar playing friend who was with me said "Why don't you just buy as `65 Twin Reverb?" That made sense to me!)

Some of the amp modeling devices that are available to purchase also have some of the other effects we've mentioned built in to them, such as reverb, tremolo, and overdrive or distortion. If you get a unit that works for you, you might be able to get by just carrying the one pedal with you and it will help you to consistently achieve "your sound." Personally, I have taken a small piece of plywood about the size of a small suitcase, and mounted on it a pedal volume ("hands free!") control, a Pro-Co Rat distortion effect, a Danelectro tremolo pedal, a digital delay effect (although I think I prefer the sound of an analog delay pedal), and a "chorus" effect for that "swirling" sound. In the past, I have also used octave splitters, phase shifters, talk boxes, fuzztones, flangers, ring modulators, tape echo devices such as Roland or Echoplex, graphic and parametric equalizers, band filters, synthesizers, phase modulators, Leslie speakers and simulators, and perhaps a few others. The name of the game is that if you are playing "cover tunes" that has a particular guitar sound in it, you have to be able to recreate that sound, so you need to buy whatever piece of equipment the artist used. I remember playing in a band in 1966 and we were learning the Rolling Stones song "Satisfaction," which used a "fuzz tone" effect on the guitar. These were so new at the time that you couldn't even buy them. Fortunately, our keyboard player knew a little about electronics and he had one built from scratch for me to use. I also remember that when Peter Frampton used the "talking guitar" effect on some of his songs, many guitarists were epoxying hoses onto a horn speaker driver to create a "talk box" because these weren't readily available in the music stores yet.

I'm not a particularly big fan of effect pedals, and prefer to plug directly into the mixer whenever possible, or at least plug directly into a guitar amp, but I realized that effect pedals were a useful tool when I found out that Jimi Hendrix got his characteristic tone from pedal effects, not from guitars and amps!

So, to wrap this all up, let me just ask: If I were to hand you any guitar and any amplifier of my choosing, and asked you to play, would you be able to sound like you are used to sounding? If not, try some of my suggestions, and worry less about the equipment and instead, worry more about playing some good notes into it!


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