Guitar Lessons by Chip McDonald - May 2018

Monday, May 28, 2018

Speakers Are As Important as Your Amp or Guitar!

"What kind of amp should I buy?"

 I get asked this a lot.   And I beg out of the question because of the complexity involved in answering it properly.  I'm never asked "what kind of speakers should I buy?" As far as I'm concerned, this is more important than anything else!

 It's fairly easy to put amps into the Basic Food Groups: Fender, Marshall, Vox, solid state. What's harder to do, with less experience, is to understand how different models of speakers affect that selection.   

 Those amps have certain characteristics that one can learn to hear, and guitarists in general tend to be aware of these characteristics.  Speakers are a different story.

 If a guitar player has spent their life as a person that has always used combo amps, they're accustomed to hearing "the amp" as a whole as including  whatever speaker came with the cabinet.  This would tend to be, going out on a limb, more Fender amp players because of the fact that it's fairly rare to encounter a Fender amp as a separate head.  Even when that happens, the player is typically going to have it plugged into the accompanying cabinet the amp came with.

 Marshall players are typically not combo users.  As such there is always the question of what speakers is in one's cabinet, what does it sound like plugged into a buddy's cabinet, the oddball 1x12 with the speaker-in jack, the 2x12 that fits in the car instead of the 4x12, or maybe even what does the bass player's SVT 8x10 cabinet sound like with the Marshall going into it?

 So one tends to hear hard rock/metal players talk about speakers fairly often.  At some point all experienced players start evaluating their speaker preferences, including the Vox aficionado.  I'm writing this to suggest that the reader - if you don't already know what speakers you like, their different characteristics - should educate yourself on the subject before you spend $$$$$ on gear that you are not evaluating properly.   You may buy your Holy Grail favorite amp, only to discard it for something else because you're hearing it through the wrong speaker!

 I'm not going to get into detail about the differences; you can Google that, and there are ample videos where you can HEAR the difference.  Having said that, one should look up one's favorite players and note what speaker they prefer, and use that as a starting point. 

 Effectively speaking you need to learn about the following.  Note that a speaker magnet makes a big difference - alnico versus ceramic versus neodymium, and their relative size.  The cone and dustcap design matters as well.

Celestion (brand)

 "Greenback" style
"Vintage" series
Alnico Blue and Silver
"Generic" Celestions (65,75, 80 watt, etc.)


C12 series
P series (alnico)

EV (ElectroVoice)

EVM series


E and D 120 series

 Note that the company Eminence makes effective clones of all of the above, as do a few other  brands.  You still want to think in terms of the above, though.

 So first, note what your favorite players use (Google!).  Then, rummage on YouTube across the bazillion demos and comparisons of the above speakers.  Try to see if you can think of some common characteristics you hear: dark (less treble), bright, bass-heavy, thin.  Do you hear the pick attack more with one speaker or the other?  Does one sound more percussive?  Does one sound "clearer", or "muddier"?

 Not only should you know this before going out and buying amp after amp and hoping something magically works out, it also increases your listening experience to music: you're educating your sonic sensibilities to these differences.  I can point out these things in a lesson, but unfortunately not "here" in writing.  If you're motivated enough, this is one thing you can learn off of YouTube somewhat.  It's not to say that playing through these speakers isn't it's own thing, because it is - as well as playing through these speakers at actual volume!
 But you'll be much closer and have a better idea of what you like and don't like.  It might save you $$$$$ as well...





Sunday, May 20, 2018

Habitual Choice and Guitar Playing

 So I'm listening to Jude Gold's _No Guitar Is Safe_ podcast last week, and he's interviewing Zakk Wylde.

 Takeaway #1:

I'm not a big Zakk fan.  I am, however, a big Randy Rhoads fan.  But that's not why I was listening.  I was listening because even at my advanced age I still try to absorb everything I can. I listen with the hopeful expectation of gleaning some little morsel of something I didn't know before, a bit of wisdom, anything. 

 One of the cool things about Gold's podcast is that you get to hear the interviewer au naturel, playing along with Gold.  What the guitarist he's interviewing has to play through varies, and that in itself is interesting, as well as how they've apparently decided to set their sound as recorded in a less than perfect, less than pristine-studio condition.

 I digress.  The takeaway is that I listen and read everything when I'm not playing.  You should, too.

 Takeaway #2:

 While listening to said podcast, you hear Zakk fiddling around with various songs in a casual context.  Whenever he plays a chord for more than a beat - he puts vibrato on it.  It's obviously a nervous habit, and the basis of his ultra-aggressive vibrato. 

 The takeaway is that his habits are what makes him "Zakk Wylde".  Habits can be a good thing, and a necessary thing in the case of style.  You only acquire habits through practice; and what you practice is unique to you, and should be unique to you. 

 There are bad habits relative to technique, but that's not the same thing as a habit in choice.  
 The percentage of habitual choice relative to the generic is style. 

 You have to play.  A lot.  You have to play something you really like, a lot.  You have to do this to the point that it's automatic, a reflex.  When you think you might be doing it too much - that's maybe enough.

 When you improvise it has to be deliberate in the moment.  Not well before, and by "deliberate" not the byproduct of a conscious thought that requires math.

 If you don't have your entire life to devote to music, you have a choice: make a study of it, make it academic.  A worthy pursuit, if you're going to continue to listen to music the rest of your life, you should at least know something about how it works, right?

 Another choice is to embrace the habits of the value of specific things you love in music.  As an example for some it might just be the classic "Chuck Berry double stop lick".  In which case you should wear it out.  Don't worry about anything else for "a while", weeks, maybe months.  Be able to do it in all permutations, double time, backwards, off beat, accellerandos, pulling back, alternate picked, strummed, all of it.

 To the point where no matter the situation you're in, you can take that musical phrase and really and truly use it.  

 You have to make it a habit.  Style is the result of habits.  You must play enough, long enough with intent, to form habits if you want the musical "food" to produce the semblance of style.  Reading this, watching a video, reading a book on technique, buying a new pick or guitar won't make style happen.  Concentrated effort on a very specific thing is required for a habit to form.  Even if you only have one stylistic habit, it's the building block for a style.  You may as well start now...