Save Your Ears

This article might be more of a PSA than anything helpful, but I hope readers will take the message to heart.

The message is: Protect your hearing!

If you’re a musician, it is the single most valuable of the sense you have. It’s natural for your hearing to degrade as you get older, but there’s no need to accelerate that process by not protecting your ears in loud environments.

One of the worst consequences of damaged hearing is a symptom called tinnitus. As you lose hearing, often in the high frequency range, your ears start to “generate” the missing frequencies to compensate. The result is a constant high pitched ring in your ears that can seriously reduce your quality of life. Apart from that, you’ll have difficulty discerning speech because a lot of the consonant sounds of our voice use high frequencies as well.

The first advice I have to offer is to take frequent breaks from noisy environments. This is especially easy to forget when you’re in a loud but tolerable environment, such as a bar with loud conversations and music just below conversation levels. I’ve had nights where my ears would ring slightly even when there was no loud band playing, simply from being in a noisy environment for long enough.

The second advice is to get protection. The best quality ones will cost over $100 and will be custom fitted to your ears. They will come with replaceable filters that can adjust the amount and type of sound filtering to produce a very natural volume reduction. There are cheaper silicon fitted plugs that also do a decent job. The cheapest would probably be foam plugs that are often used for construction labourers but they don’t provide a very natural sound. If you’re ever in a pinch then you can grab some tissue or napkin and put some pieces in  your ears.

Third advice is to just turn it down! It’s obvious but so many people are attached to the notion that louder = better. While it’s true that louder volumes makes for an energetic experience of music, there is a threshold where the enjoyment is overcome by the discomfort in your ears. I commend venues that make an effort to make hearing protection available at their concerts but it wouldn’t be a problem if the volumes were reasonable in the first place. Same goes for bands – don’t be afraid to tell your bandmates to turn down. It’ll make for a much better performance.

I have a hard time convincing myself to go to a rock show these days for this reason alone. It’s an unfortunate trend that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I even have professional ear plugs but why should I be needing them in the first place? As a musician, I don’t want to risk damaging my hearing just for a night out, I need it so that I can keep doing what I want to do. It always blows my mind when my colleagues don’t take any measures to protect their hearing at a concert!

Anyway, rant over.  Please protect your hearing so you can keep enjoying music for as long as possible!

Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate

In the jazz idiom, there’s an old saying that goes: “Imitate, assimilate, innovate.”

What does it mean and why is it important?

The phrase is often used to describe the overall process of developing your artistic voice as a musician.

If you’ve been lead to believe that originality and artistry can only be developed by completely isolating yourself from outside influences, then you are making a mistake! Every influential artist throughout history has gone through this process of imitation, assimilation, and innovation. Music isn’t created in a vacuum.

Imitate means to simply parrot a piece of music without giving it much thought. When an infant learns to speak a language, they start by simply trying to imitate the sounds with their mouth. Later in their development, they’ll start to use more complicated words without understanding the meaning. We want to adopt a similar approach when starting to learn the language of music. In other words, learn other people’s compositions!

Assimilate means to go one step beyond just parroting, and to analyze and understand the inner mechanics of a piece of music. Continuing the language metaphor, it is similar to learning about grammar and syntax. What makes the melody so engaging? What is that dissonance in the harmony that I like? Why is the rhythm so funky and danceable? These are the questions one might ask as they begin to understand a piece of music. Learn some music theory and begin to dissect your favourite pieces!

Innovate means to take what you’ve learnt and to put your own spin on it. This is where the magic happens. Take an old familiar melody and change one note. That becomes your mark of innovation on that piece. Maybe you’ve always loved the sound of Hendrix’ use of the 7#9 chord so you’ll use it in a chord progression from a different song. You could reharmonize a familiar song in the style of Miles Davis. This is where the sum of your influences can create an identifiable voice. A fun exercise is to do an artist mashup: what would it sound like playing a Jimi Hendrix lick over a Miles Davis song?

Remember that any style of music generally adheres to an accepted “system” of what sounds good and doesn’t. If you try to innovate before imitating or assimilating, you will be going in blind and relying on chance to discover something that sounds good and is original. Avoid reinventing the musical “wheel”, countless musicians have already done the work for you!

How to Use EQ for Guitar

Equalizers are one of the most powerful yet misunderstood tools when it comes to building your guitar tone.  Often times, guitar players will twist and turn a knob without much understanding as to what it’s precisely doing to the signal. This can make for a tedious process of guessing and testing. Most of us just want to play with a satisfactory tone! Understanding the basics of equalization can go a long ways to minimize the time wasted.

The biggest misconception is using the equalizer as a creative tone shaping tool, as opposed to a corrective tool. Think about the word “equalizer” – the idea is to try and make the sound as equal to the original source as possible. In other words, it’s meant to correct the tendencies of the room, microphone, pickup, and amplifier that colour the guitar sound.

A concept that has helped me is the idea of subtractive equalization. The idea is to take away frequencies we don’t want to hear in our tone, as opposed to adding the ones we want to hear. Subtractive EQ is effective because we perceive it to be a less noticeable change than the opposite. Additive EQ has a tendency to add noise to a signal and can cause unwanted resonant frequencies in extreme cases. When shaping the guitar tone, think of what it could use less of, not more of.

Two common problem areas for guitarists are the low frequencies (<150hz) and the high frequencies (>4khz). Having too much low end will start to conflict with other bass instruments (bass guitar, kick drum) and too much highs will conflict with vocals and cymbals.  It’s important to understand that guitars are mainly a midrange (80hz-1.4khz) instrument and to be mindful of not occupying too much acoustic space beyond that range.

Start with the EQ dials set to a neutral 12 o’clock position. Make sure you’re playing at a moderate volume as this can affect how frequencies are heard (Fletcher-Munson curve). Then while playing a song with the rest of the band, adjust the bass and treble/presence knobs to a sweet spot where it doesn’t mask other instruments while providing a balanced tone. The mids dial can help to bring the guitar forward or back in the mix.

I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to how powerful the equalizer tool can be. I hope I’ve inspired some of you to look deeper into this topic so that you can achieve a consistently musical tone in your performances. Good luck!

How to Play Fast: Putting it All Together

I hope that my “How to Play Fast” series has been helpful to you.

Part 1 was about relaxation. Part 2 was efficiency. Part 3 was about playing accurately.

Now we will talk about the practical applications of the three principles.

The first application is to play as quietly as possible. Electric guitar players should turn up their amps to compensate. This accomplishes relaxation and efficiency because people will lighten up on their touch when trying to play quietly. Once you gain enough control over this new way of playing, you will find it easier to control the volume and tone you get from the strings. You will be able to make it “yell” or “whisper” for example.

The second application involves using a metronome. This will improve your accuracy. Start slowly, around 60bpm if you are playing eighth notes. After no less than three perfect repetitions of a piece of music, increase the tempo by 2bpm.  Within a half-hour, you will be reaching tempos you were unable to before. At a certain point you will no longer be able to keep up with the metronome. Take note of this tempo and aim to break the record next time, even by 1bpm. With daily practice, after a month you will be playing 30bpm faster! I also encourage the use of various metronome exercises that involve placing the clicks on different beats (2&4, only 4, etc.)

It can be hard to remind ourselves of all of the principles as a practice session progresses. A full length mirror is a useful tool to observe these principles being applied to ourselves. If you don’t look relaxed, you likely aren’t relaxed. Make sure no matter which angle you observe yourself, that you always look and feel no tension. Be patient with yourself as your body learns these new approaches and practice them until they become a habit.

That’s it! I hope you found this useful and good luck on your journey.