Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - December 2017

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Ironic Nature of Rock Guitar Sound in the 21st Century

 A long time ago, on a planet not far, far away, 



It was the year 2017. Music retail was in ruins and rumor of the demise of the guitar was rampant. 

The Corporate Empire had decimated music as art.  Small groups of rebels called "guitar players" scattered across the planet still maintained the Order of Guitar, while practicing "music".

Despite being reduced in numbers, they unconsciously sought the rebirth of the Era of the Guitar Player......

 Everything recorded today sounds "good".  It's hard to find a really bad sounding recording, and believe it or not there was a time when that was possible. Recording gear used to be astronomically expensive, and in turn people who knew how to use it were like acoustic Jedi, a rare and almost legendarily mysterious group.

 Everybody now has access to equipment capable of making a Professional Sounding Recording.

 Let me point out something I think people are missing "these days":


In reality, today the word should probably be "Professional Sounding Creation".  

Recording implies a certain documentary aspect that no longer applies. You're no longer "capturing" a Crazy Rock and Roll Band in the wild of the recording studio.  You're making a sound creation.

 Which is fine, it's what I spend most of my time doing, despite the paucity of public release. But bear with me Anonymous Reader, and consider the following:

 There was a magical time between say 1950 and 1980-ish when everything was recorded with perfectly vintage gear!


  While recording technology has all but been perfected, the last holdout of Sound Creation is the mythical "great guitar sound".  Everyone kind of knows how to get it: use the same light sabers that were used by the Jedi.

 The irony should not be lost on the reader that while everyone has some sort of semi-professional recording device and capability today, most do not possess the things required to create the signal source to make a professional sound.

  In 1972, it was by default you had a tube amplifier.  And probably a non-wacked out pickup configuration on your guitar.  Even if you didn't have a Marshall or a Fender, it was probably a tube amp you played through.

 I would bet that while guitar players at the time were very concerned about sustain, beyond that it was a more abstract thing as to what good "tone" was.  Ironically again, it kind of didn't matter since everyone had the necessary components to get one.

 Which meant that "rock guitar sound" was a tube amp turned up.  That's about all.  In turn all of the weird varieties of tube amps, guitars and speakers plus microphones and studios yielded a lot of Great Guitar Sounds back then.

 More importantly, great but diverse sounds.  Not-homogenized.

 Today most guitar players are super obsessed and hung up with not getting a "good guitar sound", but getting someone else's sound.

 I will digress and say that most guitar players are not equipped with the mental apparatus or technical acumen to really fathom that idea.  People will cite their favorite guitar player, but said guitar player's recorded sounds can differ greatly, using a lot of different combinations, not to mention recording techniques. 

 That being said, they still gravitate towards Holy Grail ideals already established, and go to extraordinary lengths to buy exactly the Right Thing to get it.  Except it's a red herring. Most of these ideals were serendipity.

 In the 60's and 70's, everyone wasn't trying to get an exact sound someone else had.

 Brian May, Jimmy Page, VanHalen, Randy Rhoads, Eric Clapton, none of these have sounds like the other.  Despite a lot of gear overlap.

 The reason I'm writing this is that I'm having a nostalgia-dive through the Eric Carmen/Raspberries catalog, and there is this song:

 Not something I want to listen to, but the guitar sound on the intro is "pretty cool".  Almost kinda pre-Van Halen Van Halen.

 There are freebies there for the era: a Marshall, or a Bassman, or "?"? I don't know.  But it's probably turned up to get that distortion, and the mic was probably not right on the speaker and in a 70's Storyk flat-dry, UNCOLORED sounding room.  And a plate reverb. Vintage gear.

 It's not that it was SPECIFICALLY magical gear, just that it was obviously of the era, turned up and recorded with period gear. It doesn't sound EXACTLY like Van Halen, and vice versa.

 Which is good.  Blast it, as a guitar teacher, I am soooo tired of hearing the Perfect Metal Guitar Sound Variation #76778. There was a time when the band SOUND was supposed to be unique, and was prized.

 Now it's the opposite, there are pedestals.

 Consider the following songs by Joe Walsh:

Walk Away
Funk 49
Rocky Mountain Way

 All 3 are GREAT FRAKKING GUITAR SOUNDS.  And all 3 do not sound like the other.

Consider the following songs by Billy Gibbons:


All 3 are GREAT FRAKKING GUITAR SOUNDS.  And all 3 do not sound like the other.

Consider (insert favorite New Metal Band Songs)


 "Great" sounds?  The last Great Unique Metal Sound was Dimebag's solid state Randall's IMO.  Those recordings sounded like "those recordings". Past that recording we have nth number of super saturated Metallica Black album variations, all interchangeable.

 Brian May hits one chord, and you know it's Sir Brian May.  That can't be said for anyone "new" IMO.

 You Retro Vintage Music People: I'm looking at you.  You're not excused.  You buy the gear, but then you want to set it just like Your Hero.   You never get there, because half the sound is the recording process.  But that's ok, you're having fun I suppose.

 Here's what you're doing wrong:

 You're not using your gear like people used your gear when it was brand new.

 It's not turned up to 10.  Yeah, it sucks, it's loud, and now sound engineers get to dictate what you do.  But if you spent a ton of money on a vintage amp, and you run it on 2, it probably sounds ok.  It does NOT sound like a band in the 70's, or early 80's.  You're fooling yourself.

 I sold my vintage amps.  Because it wasn't practical to run them at levels that might damage them for what they cost.  I could put them in a closet, or in my case a complete other building to deal with the volume.  But I couldn't justify running a vintage 1968 Marshall at levels where the transformer might let go.

 ..and see, unlike a vintage guitar circuitry doesn't get better with age.  It just gets different, weird of malfunctioning.

 So I have a New Tube Amp solution.  It's very much not a "traditional vintage" replicant.  I'm not concerned about that, just as the guy on the Raspberrie's recording wasn't worried about the pedigree of the tubes in his amp.

 Those sounds from the 70's recordings were easy.  They were not all Van Halen approved Marshalls, or Stevie Ray Vaughn approved Supers/whatever.  Keith Richards wasn't worried about not sounding like SRV while deciding he liked Ampegs, or whatever.  But in reality, anything "old Marshall like" with real Celestion greenbacks, or alnico speakers, with the right mic and recording chain is going to be good.  Not unique but good.  Any tube amp is going to sound good with those speakers.

 Or even with the "wrong" speakers.  Kudos to Derek Trucks for using car radio speakers.  Bravery in action.  A unique and great sound.

 But seriously, one should go back and listen to those old 70's hard rock recordings; they don't all sound the same, but they all sound mostly great from a guitar standpoint.  Not bland, not generic.  What a concept...

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Vocabulary Differentiation and Guitar 1: Subtle and Profound

 In the 21st century we find ourselves in an intellectual dark ages.  If you don't agree with that, that is a discussion for another time, but I'm here to say people today are throwing words around without any care as to the distinctiveness of the words versus other words.

 In turn, that looseness of use affects the way a person thinks using that looseness.  
 If I have the choice to use two different words to describe an aspect of something, my awareness of the difference between the two means I'm thinking about that difference relative to said subject/object.

 The person that can speak the two words but has no bias towards using one over the other, cannot in turn think about the possible difference!

 Vocabulary alters your processing ability.  We've stressed math in "education" for the past 30 years, and now we have 12 years olds that know calculus but can't actually think about reality because their vocabulary is non-existent or worse - distorted.


 It occurs to me that people taking lessons lately want a Big Epiphany Result.  When that kind of thing happens they're very happy.  The problem is that every moment of learning can't be that.

 If I tell someone "go listen to this song, play this phrase and then count the remainder of the measure" it's for very specific reasons to address an aspect of their musical awareness.

 The problem is that when doing such a thing "fixes" a problem, the result may be subtle, but profound.


 The student thinks "oh, I can now play accents on the offbeat of 4 when I couldn't last week".  They're thinking it's just a tiny moment in music, and maybe (incorrectly) that "it's that thing in that one song I couldn't do".


 It is PROFOUND.  Previously you were blind to that entire beat.  A very big thing, that means previously if a piece of music used that beat to great effect - you completely missed it. Let's say you're 40 years old; how much music have you listened to in your life while being unaware of what happens on that beat?  You should be dismayed, but also happy: because now all of that potentially can be new to you again!  And from then on, music potentially can be "more" than it was before.

 That is the meaning of the word "profound".  The result is subtle - you can't readily explain it to a non-musically trained person, and it doesn't make you instantly Beethoven.  But, it is PROFOUND.  You have changed the way YOU perceive sound, the way YOU organize your thinking about sound, and also they way YOU can think about music.

 Subtle and profound.  Most skill acquisitions in music are going to be subtle, but don't discount their value. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Holy Frak - They Work? Ernie Ball Paradigm Strings

(Special Star Wars Crawl Edition)

  I'm very impressed.  Enough so that I'm writing something that is akin to a product endorsement that I don't actually endorse.

 The set I had on my guitar at work  made it from early October to late November before intonation issues happened.  Let me say right now that I hear string intonation going bad almost within a few hours.  So the above is almost miraculous.

 I'm sitting here having to think about it, "wait, is that right....?".

 What is curious is that they still sounded pretty bright throughout, particularly the wound strings.  It was a little disconcerting to find myself thinking "ok, I can't make these work", being the economically bereft musician, trying to extend their utility way past any other strings due date.

 Part of the disconcerting bit was that they didn't sound "used up", so I found myself in the middle of giving a lesson fighting the intonation, part of my mind thinking "they don't sound like they should be doing this" while the other part is thinking "gee, this happened suddenly?".   If these strings have a downside it would be that when they start to go south, it happens fast. Surreal fast.  As in, I thought something had physically happened to my guitar, "why won't my guitar stay in tune?  Did something happen to the neck joint??  Oh... the strings won't intonate anymore...".  A curious phenomenon.  

 Not really a downside in reality, unless you actually want to try to pull off repeated gigs with them until this happens. 


 When new they have a curious not-quite bright as new strings sound.  This is a bonus in my opinion, but again let me qualify that.

 I HATE COATED STRINGS.  They're not just duller sounding, they're duller in a weird way, and they seem to sound odd as they sustain (and they tend to not sustain well).  Putting goop on a string and saying "see, they'll last longer!" isn't rocket science.

 It also doesn't work in my experience.  The coating wears off on the unwound strings faster, and then they die like an uncoated string.  The coatings on the unwound strings only seem to last a very short amount of time, anyhow.

 The wound strings, when coated, may seem to hold their sound a little bit longer - 15%?  But then, they sound off, and "hold their sound" in this case means, "not completely dull/dead".

 And the worst thing is they feel peculiar.

 I know that the Paradigm strings are coated, but it's not noticeable. They don't sound coated, they sound very balanced through the overtone series, much like DRs do.  I'm not sure how much their coating counts versus the string composition, but it doesn't matter: I like how they sound.

 The best part being, they pretty much sound the same for ... months, plural?  Not dull or dead, but "broke in new".  It's ... a little odd, actually. A very strong fundamental (the most important thing as far as I'm concerned), and very pitch stable through the overtone series. 


 They're maybe a little stiffer.

 Which led me to think, "what if they're using a slightly higher gauge, but not labeling them as such?".  Maybe.  I dunno. They don't feel a whole gauge heavier, and actually, again, the tension feels balanced from string to string.  Completely not an issue.

 Most importantly they don't feel coated.  I don't have to think about the tactile friction being unpredictable.

 Which, again, a strange thing is that the only real indication of "I've got to change these" is that the intonation went off.  I'll try to get a long life out of a burned out unwound string in lessons by retuning for whatever it is I'm teaching in the lesson, but the string feels corroded and shot. Plus it's not pitch steady, and doesn't intonate.

 With the Paradigm strings, it's as if they're aging about a 5th as fast as normal strings, except for when the intonation does actual go.  


 I go through a lot of strings.  I'm playing a constant 5+ hours a day, and it's a brutal regimen on strings.  If I'm teaching an aspect of bending or vibrato, I might be doing each for 20 minutes continuously out of the 30 minute lesson.  It is highly, super duper unlikely, that anyone tortures their strings more than this environment.

 On the whole for me, the price works out to be a little less than "normal" strings.  I milk strings along a far way with tuning/intonation tricks (I'm financially insolvent), and I did a little of that with these strings.  However, the reason these strings are now my default choice is very simple:

 Instead of having to change strings 4 times or more in this time span, as well as go through a period of "intonation obfuscation" to get more mileage out of each set - I've only had to change strings and do that once with these.

 I cannot express how big of a deal that is to me.  I HATE changing strings.  It can only be done so fast, and it just sticks out in your daily life like a sore thumb, a hangnail.  Hate it almost as much as I hate being out of tune.

 I would prefer my students use these strings. It's bad enough people don't change their strings often enough, but thinking about it, these strings would probably match up well to what the new guitar player might expect from strings.  Instead of going months past when they should change strings, with these they could actually be IN TUNE and not dead sounding during that time.  A hard sell because of the cost, but in reality a good deal.


 For "most people" they might be more expensive value wise by a little bit.  That being said (paging Bobby Owsinski), that is only in the context of the non-professional player using strings well beyond their due date.  The point in the non-professional getting these strings is that you will sound in tune and not dull throughout the same period of time.

 Which in reality is a better deal.

 Spooky metallurgy, alien technology coating?  Great strings.