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.

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!

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.

How to Play Fast, Part 3: Accuracy before Speed

Hi, and welcome to the third and final installment of a three-part series called “How to Play Guitar, Fast”.

In part one, we talked about relaxation.  In part two, we talked about efficient movement.

Part three is about playing accurately before trying to increase the speed of your playing.

Sometimes people tackle the speed issue by trying to muscle through it.  In other words, they keep slamming into the same mistakes over and over in the hopes that they’ll make a breakthrough one day. As a result of making the same mistake over and over, this eventually becomes “muscle-memory” and you’ll be stuck having to break these habits before you can progress. Why not avoid this situation and wasting time? Get it right, at the start.

Start slowly. Impatience is the biggest enemy here but it actually doesn’t add much to your practice time.  In some situations, you can see a dramatic increase in your ability to play fast even after 30 minutes of focused practice.  Make sure to articulate each note, avoiding fret-buzz and incomplete notes.  If you’re using alternate picking, then make sure your pick stroke directions are correct.

When people play fast but inaccurately, it is the musical equivalent of talking in a fast and slurred speech. It can be distracting and take someone out of the moment of an amazing musical experience. However, there are some musicians who are not technically accurate but still manage to convey strong emotion.  Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) comes to mind. While he may have figured out a way around his technical limitations, it’s important we don’t use it as an excuse to be lazy about our own playing. He is an exception to the rule.

Thanks for reading part 3! Next time, I will follow up with a few practical exercises that apply the three principles we’ve talked about.