The Volume Knob

Here’s a little fact that you may not have known about the volume knob on your typical electric guitar: it actually changes the timbre of your guitar as you move it.

Without getting into the technical aspects, as a volume knob is turned down it will typically remove high frequencies along with lowering the overall volume. Don’t believe it? Try playing through a guitar amp with the volume knob at full blast, then turn the volume knob down and turn the amp volume up to compensate so it stays at the same volume. Notice the difference in tone? It can be subtle, but it’s there.

For the most part, this won’t cause any major problems. You just need to realize that if you’re going to adjust your instrument volume through the volume knob on the guitar, the tone can vary drastically depending on where it’s set and you must compensate for it.

There’s a psycho-acoustic phenomenon where sounds with a lot of higher frequencies are actually perceived as being “closer” to you. By reducing volume AND higher frequencies, you are actually pushing the guitar further back in the mix than if you were to only reduce volume. Try and use this to your advantage, by allowing some room for other high frequency instruments in your mix to come forward (especially vocals!) Another way to approach this concept is to start with the volume slightly lower and boost for solos. If your sound includes distortion, it will also affect the quality of distortion.

I mentioned earlier that there are some guitars that compensate for this effect that is a natural part of the volume knob: some volume knobs do the opposite and actually reduce lower frequencies as the volume is turned down. Personally, I prefer this sound much more since the guitar isn’t really a low frequency instrument, and the effect is far more subtle.

One other fact you may not have known about volume controls are that they can be either linear or logarithmic in the way they attenuate volume. Linear volume controls are more common but logarithmic volume controls perceptually increase/decrease volume in a smoother way to the human ear. Linear controls will have spots on the control where the amount of  volume (perceptually) changes suddenly.

The volume knob is one of the immediate controls at your disposal in a live setting, so understanding its full potential can unlock a lot doors for you. No need to reach over to that amp as much. Have fun!

Advertisements

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!

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.

How to Play Fast, Part 2: Efficiency

Welcome to the second part of a three part series on how to play the guitar, fast!

In the first part, we talked about relaxation of the hands and body.  The idea was to not try and muscle through difficult musical passages but to only use the minimum effort required.

Now we’ll talk about efficiency. In other words, we’ll be getting rid of any excess movement that doesn’t help us do our job of playing music.

We will start by focusing on the hands again.  The left hand tends to be guilty of moving the fingers too far from the fingerboard after playing a note, especially the third and fourth fingers. This creates more distance for the finger to travel to the next note, and a split second can make a difference in a fast flurry of notes. Also try and keep the fretting hand in a consistent position (ideally, the “classical position”) so that it doesn’t need to make sudden, large movements to get to the next note. This is most pronounced when there’s a stretch involved.

Sometimes a player’s picking hand can travel too far from the strings, especially if the player develops a habit of picking outward from the guitar.  The pick has to travel a longer distance to get back to the strings and can accidentally land on a different string. Try and pick directly downwards, or even a little bit towards the guitar to remedy this issue.

The next point might ruffle some people’s feathers: avoid excessive foot tapping, swaying, dancing, etc. Some people are really emotionally attached to the movements they make when playing, as a form of physical expression of the music.  I’m okay with that, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of your playing. Quite often, it will be painfully obvious that this is a huge detriment to a musician. Don’t let your physical movements dictate what you can and can’t play; learn to execute the music properly then let your body move naturally.

That’s it for now! Keep an eye out for part 3, and a practical exercise to tie all three concepts together.