Understanding Effects: Distortion

I notice a lot of guitar players tend to be, through no fault of their own, groping in the dark when it comes to using effects pedals. I find that a big problem is that manuals only delve into quick-and-easy type settings that doesn’t explain much about what is actually happening to the sound. I’m going to try and demystify some of this so that you can learn how to get the exact sound you are going for.

To begin the series, I’d like to talk about a fundamental guitar effect, that’s become so ubiquitous that it comes built in to most amplifiers: distortion.

We all know the sound – a screaming guitar solo or a thunderous riff are products of distortion that have become the hallmark of the rock guitar sound. So what is happening to the sound that causes this change? To put it simply, it does exactly what it’s named – it “distorts” the actual sound waves that are coming from you guitar. Imagine a sine wave with its nice flowing curves when it’s visualized. Distortion occurs when this signal is boosted past the limit of the maximum volume. The wave literally hits a ceiling, visually chopping off the top/bottom curve to produce a flat part in the wave. This is what we hear as distortion. Different types of distortion are available, but they are generally categorized as saturation/overdrive (mildly distorted) and distortion (greatly distorted sound). When these deformities in the sound waves happen, they also create harmonics/overtones that we perceive as adding a richness to the sound.

The controls that we have over this effect are generally: level/volume, and the amount of distortion (sometimes there’s a bit of EQ as well). It’s easy to hear the difference each of those controls make, but there are some traps that you will want to watch out for. Distortion is a dynamics based effect, meaning it affects our perception of volume. If you’re switching between a clean and distorted sound, it’s important that the volume level transitions smoothly. This is more difficult than it sounds, because if a distorted signal and a clean signal were to have the same amount of energy, the distorted sound will be perceived as being louder. Secondly, when you’re using heavily distorted guitars against the drums, there can be a lot of overlapping high frequencies between the cymbals (and crowd noise, if you’re in a venue) and guitar sound. You can avoid this by using and equalizer to get the guitar to sit in an less occupied part of the frequency spectrum. Many distortion stomp boxes will have a built in tone control to deal with this issue.

Overdrive is a type of distortion that is often associated with driving the power amp to distort. This is distinct from (heavy) distortion which is done in the pre-amp stage. Power amp distortion is generally described as a “crunch” tone. Historically, this is how all early forms of distortion were achieved, before amps came with the effect built-in. That means if you want a vintage blues/rock type of sound, you should go for this type of distortion by cranking that tube amp up.

Now for a few tips and tricks. When it comes to distortion, I want to emphasize that less is more. Even heavily distorted genres like metal can benefit from this mindset. Dynamic range is lost as more distortion is used and eventually you will end up with little difference between the loud and soft parts of your playing. If we were to take this idea (less is more) to the extreme, we get to the territory of saturation. This is a type of distortion that is most often associated with analogue gear that is powered by tubes. By using an almost imperceptible amount of distortion that retains most of the original sound, you’re able to add a subtle layer of overtones to the signal.

Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!

Pomodoro Technique for Practicing

The Pomodoro technique is a useful time management tool that can make your practice more focused and effective. This is a tool that has many applications and we will take a look at how we can use this technique to improve our music practice.

The concept is simple: work in short but focused bursts of uninterrupted productivity. The name pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, because the inventor of the method used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

Traditionally, the pomodoro technique uses 25 minute intervals of work followed by a short break of three to five minutes, but there is no reason to be attached to these numbers. I’ve used the technique to practice in shorter intervals when the practice material took shorter to complete than that, or were particularly mentally demanding. I find the interval lengths should have an inverse relationship with the amount of energy and focus being used: IE shorter lengths with high intensity, longer lengths with low intensity. My breaks were generally around the 5 minute mark.

The full method goes a little bit beyond just breaking up work into chunks. The complete process goes like this:

  1. Plan out what the practice item is
  2. Set the timer
  3. Uninterrupted work until the timer goes off
  4. Record the completion of this interval
  5. If you’ve completed less than 4 intervals, take a short break (3-5 min is suggested)
  6. If you’ve completed 4 intervals, take a longer break and reset this count

We all have about a million things that we can improve on, so prioritization is going to be an important part of the planning stage. It’s fairly simple: practice the most difficult items first.

The greatest benefit to this method is the sense of achievement you will feel as you cross off completed tasks from your list. As a part of using this method you will also have a record of your tasks completed which adds to this feeling. It will motivate you to complete even more tasks!

Practicing in all 12 keys

Practicing in all 12 keys can be an overwhelming task for many beginner improviser, but is absolutely essential to internalizing and developing your own improvisational vocabulary. Luckily, the process can be fairly simple on the guitar because of the nature of the instrument.

Transposition on the guitar is just a few frets away. Simple in concept, right? Just move that lick and fingering and move everything by a certain number of frets to transpose to the key you want. Don’t let your guard down. A major hurdle that is overlooked is that it becomes visually disorienting. The fret markers that you use as reference points shift around. It’s easier than transposing on a keyboard, but there are still challenges. Don’t fall into the trap where you think you’d easily be able to transpose a lick on the fly.

If you are advanced in your understanding of theory, you’ll probably be trying to understand the relationship of the notes you’re playing to the harmony that it’s being played over. If you do this, then you have another layer of understanding to tackle. The physical aspect of transposition is easy, but the theoretical aspect will be challenging as any other instrument.

A great tool for transposing an idea through all 12 keys is the Circle of Fifths. This tool has been a source of many guitarists’ confusion. Without getting into the theoretical explanation of this tool, we’ll simply apply it to the order of keys we’ll play through. I recommend going in the counter-clockwise direction on the circle (in the direction of flat keys). IE: C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B, E, A, D, G. Start with a blues lick in A minor pentatonic? Next play in D minor, then G, etc.

When you’re first starting to do this, you will have to practice slowly to make sure all the mental processes are in check. Realistically, it might take an hour or more to get through this exercise. If you’re short on time, I recommend breaking these up into smaller chunks, like six keys at a time. Once the concept is solidified in your mind, you’ll be getting through licks in a matter of minutes, so hang in there!

Solkattu for Polyrhythms

Indian classical music (Hindustani & Karnatic) has a long tradition of rhythmic complexity that became popularized in the Western world through bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Shakti (both lead by John McLaughlin). In this tradition, rhythms are often learned by vocalization (spoken syllables) and gestures (claps and tapping with fingers). This tradition is known as Solkattu.

Western European music’s distinction is found in it’s harmonic system, which is rooted in the understanding of the harmonic series. Many non-Western musical traditions do not have as sophisticated a system for harmony, but they frequently excel in rhythmic complexity. In the Western tradition, rhythms are approached by counting beats with numbers, and subdivisions in syllables. If we are to take 16th notes as an example: 1e+a, 2e+a. Triplets can be counted “one-trip-let” or “1+a”. While this is effective, it can become difficult to manage multiple layers of contrasting rhythms (polyrhythms) since the voice can only produce one sound at a time.

Even a basic understanding of Solkattu can benefit your rhythmic awareness.

Hand gestures are used to keep track of the meter: IE 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, etc. Let’s take 3/4 as an example. Beat one is played with a clap. Beat two is played by tapping the pinky on to the palm. Beat three is played by the ring finger, then the cycle repeats. You can keep adding beats until you run out of digits, making a total of 6 beats possible. More beats are possible by turning the palm around.

Over top of this, you can use vocalized syllables create a second layer of rhythms. For groupings of two, “ta-ka” is used. Three note groupings: “ta-ki-ta”. Four note groupings: “ta-ka-di-mi”. Five notes: “ta-ka-ta-ki-ta” and so on. Most rhythms will be easily handled with combinations of 2 or 4 note groupings. combines with 3 note groupings. For example, seven note groupings can be expressed as “ta-ka-di-mi-ta-ki-ta” or “ta-ki-ta-ta-ka-di-mi” depending on where the rhythmic emphasis is placed.

As an exercise, try this rhythm: Using hand gestures, tap a 3/4 time signature. In eighth notes, sing a 4 note grouping over it. When you do this correctly, the claps will fall on the emphasized syllables: “TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta, TA-ki-TA, ta-KI-ta”. There you go, you have a polyrhythm!

This is only scratching the surface of possibilities. I highly recommend exploring different combinations of time signatures and subdivisions to create your own unique rhythmic grooves! If you’re interested in some literature on this topic, check out this link.

Mixing Gypsy Jazz Guitar

There are so many great Gypsy Jazz records out there now that are well produced; Selmer #607 and Les Doigts de l’Homme are among my favourites. However, there are even more poorly mixed records out there.

I don’t blame the mix engineer. This is a small niche in the jazz world and requires an entirely different approach to mixing the guitars. If you haven’t listened to a ton of Django Reinhardt records and modern Gypsy Jazz artists, you can’t expect them to be aware of the different roles the guitars take in this genre. Having experienced mixing in this style myself, I’d like to offer some advice to those who might be less informed in this style and looking for some guidelines to follow.

Let’s talk about the instrument itself first. These guitars (Selmer/Macafferi design) tend to be voiced as a lead instrument rather than an accompaniment instrument. Tonally, it translates to having much more of a mid range bite rather than a deep low end and shimmering presence. One huge mistake I hear frequently is giving these guitars a shelf-EQ boost in the presence (>4khz) which results in a harsh and unpleasant attack.

When the guitar is not playing lead, it will be playing rhythm. This isn’t to be mistaken with sustained and open chords ringing behind a lead. The guitar actually replaces the drums as a percussion tool, since this style is usually performed without drums. A rhythm guitarist will generally play short chords with a heavy backbeat that imitates a snare drum. To that extent, applying EQ and compression in a similar approach to drums would yield better results than the traditional approach to mixing guitar accompaniment.

Now that we understand the roles of the guitars, I’d like to address the history of recording technology and this style. Django Reinhardt’s recordings are often considered the holy grail, but the tone on his records are a result of the technology available at the time, as much as his technique. Ribbon mics were the norm back then, and recording in mono around one microphone. The high frequencies were attenuated even further by the medium of vinyl records. There’s no reason to slavishly follow this approach (although some have achieved an uncanny resemblance to the original recordings). Now you have plenty of new technology to create a compelling modern sound, but it’s important to understand what the ears of the audience has been trained to expect.

Let’s get down to the practical part now. EQ and compression are the most commonly used mixing tools so let’s talk about those. For EQ, it seems fairly obvious now that you will likely have to cut the high frequencies instead of boosting them. Pay close attention to the pick attack of the players, as it is probably the most distracting part. Low frequencies can be extremely lacking in these guitars so sometimes a little boost in that range can help thicken up a sound. If the sound is otherwise pleasing, you can apply a high pass filter to make room for other bass instruments in the mix.

One component of the high frequencies is pick noise, which is especially problematic in this style.  Players tend to use a technique called rest-stroke picking that accentuates the attack. If an equalizer doesn’t quite cut it for dealing with this annoyance, a multi-band compression can be a handy tool. I’ve sometimes used vocal de-esser (essentially a narrow band compressor) to specifically weed out this problem area in a natural and subtle way.

A trend that’s becoming increasingly common is to compress the crap out of the rhythm guitars, to give it an extremely aggressive and punchy swing feel. The guitars are often played with very little sustain so a fast attack/release is recommended. If there is a doubled rhythm guitar, you can get a wider stereo mix by hard-panning the two, a common trick in rock mixes.

Finally, any mix should always be tested against a reference track. My recommended reference recordings are (if you haven’t guessed already) the Selmer #607 record series, and the Les Doigts de l’Homme records (particularly Mumbo Jumbo and Couers des Vivants). The Selmer #607 series is particularly interesting as Ghali Hadefi’s production style evolves over the course of the records.  It’s particularly interesting to hear the latest Selmer #607 record and its treatment of the high frequencies. To me, it borders on sounding unnatural but the result is very smooth on the ears. Les Doigts de l’Homme records have incredible arrangements that do a great deal to create an amazing mix but the rhythm guitars is where it particularly shines.

This ended up being a little long but I hope it helps you create a more compelling Gypsy Jazz mix!

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!