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Origins (part three) — January 29, 2013

Origins (part three)

The first thing I saved up for when I started work was a decent guitar and amp. I bought a Yamaha RGZ guitar on the basis of a very good review because Soundcontrol in Glasgow were selling them very cheap and didn’t have many left. I was very lucky, it could have been a disaster but it played as good as some Jackson guitars 3x the price.

I wanted a Mesa Boogie MkIV amp but they were way too expensive so opted for a Marshall Valvestate 8040 instead. It was loud and had a valve pre-amp which were my main criteria.

I also had an Amiga A500 computer at the time and played a lot of games on it. Then one month a magazine had Octamed, a tracker on the cover disk. Bear in mind this was 1991 and the Amiga had a 7Mhz processor, 4 track sound chip. Octamed squeezed 8 tracks out of the equivalent of a calculator.  Unfortunately samplers were very expensive so I could only play with a few supplied sounds but did manage to create some tracks. I didn’t understand midi so couldn’t get my keyboard working with it. I bought a drum machine but didn’t understand how to program it. Eventually I had some limited joy with midi and a fullsize keyboard but it was very hit and miss so all in all that put me off electronic music making.

I stuck with the guitar instead and got into effects. I had a few pedals then bought a Boss SE50 half rack unit. It was good but only allowed certain effects in a certain order which I thought was rubbish for a rack unit. I really wanted an Eventide Ultra Harmoniser (because Joe Satriani used one) but couldn’t afford one. Instead I bought a Zoom 9030 which I loved but it was very easy to over process the sound so over time I used it less and less.

It was very good for recording which I did on a Tascam portastudio. I could have recorded on my PC by this time but being a bit of a purist and having had bad experiences I went for the 4 track.  Of course it is the much harder option because you have to play all of the instruments yourself and ‘live’ too.  The Zoom plugged straight into the 4 track and because it had a pre-amp, distortion could be cranked up way beyond what would cause feedback through the amp. The sound died very quickly if you fluffed a string though. I was also going more acoustic and recording with a mic required careful placement which was an art in itself which I never quite mastered.  Ultimately the portastudio, Zoom and Yamaha were traded in for an acoustic period.

I did end up buying the Yamaha back after a couple of years because I missed it. I knew it was mine because I’d fitted a Dimarzio Fred humbucker before I sold it.

I do miss effects and about a year ago I borrowed a Boss GT-8. Simply amazing. Unfortunately was a bit pricey at the wrong time but maybe now is a good time to downsize my amp and get some effects again.

Most essential guitarist gear? — January 27, 2013

Most essential guitarist gear?


It may not be everyone’s first choice but I think a decent tuner is essential. Not just for gigging but home use as well.

I didn’t have one to start with and relied on a keyboard but my ear wasn’t great so it was not easy.   Still, it was a lot better than one of my mates who had this ridiculous pitch pipe thing.  I then bought a cheap analog one where you read a needle on a meter.  That wasn’t much better than the keyboard method, very hard to use and only useful for standard tuning.

A more expensive chromatic digital one like the Yamaha TD-1 above is much easier to use.  I bought this used for about £30 over 15 years ago and it’s still going strong.  It’s compact, about the size of a cassette and easy to use – the in-built mic picks up a strummed electric guitar without even needing to plug it in your amp and turn it on.  There is a 3.5mm input socket on the side of the tuner but I have always just used the mic.  The display is clear and easy to read, showing the pitch with red LEDs which turn green when in tune.  On the photo above it’s easy to see the A is slightly flat.  The beauty of a chromatic tuner is that you can tune to any note so it’s useful for dropped D or open tunings or detuning a semitone as so many bands do.

I didn’t buy one for a while.  Typical guitarist attitude thinking I could buy a pedal, some strings or books instead.  They are well worth the investment though because you can tune up very quickly which gives you more time to play. Let’s face it, if it takes ages to tune up you might not bother playing much because it’s such a chore in the first place and then often doesn’t sound right.

I say that from experience.  I was much more motivated knowing it only took a few seconds before I could start playing.  I was often put off detuning a semi-tone because it was such a job to do it. Similarly, I never used open tunings before I had this tuner.  So not only does it help you get playing straight away, it can open up new sounds and possibilities.

Why am I posting about cookery on a music blog???? — January 19, 2013

Why am I posting about cookery on a music blog????

I never formally learned the basic rules of cookery but it has never stopped me from cooking. Over time you tend to pick up the basics, what works well together and if it doesn’t taste very good you don’t make it again.

If I’d known some of the fundamentals, it may have helped make a cake a bit lighter, cooked meat a bit more tender or help make a meal quicker but it didn’t stop me cooking.

The same is true with music theory.  Some people are well versed, like Joe Satriani who knows an incredible amount of theory whereas others know little, like George Lynch.  Both are still phenomenal guitarists and musicians.

I was very surprised when one of my mates informed me he knew no theory whatsoever. His tracks always sound well produced and, err, musical. I guess I mean it’s not experimental or avant-garde.  He’s Narel on Soundcloud if you want to hear what I’m talking about.

The same is true with music theory.  My guitar teacher advised me to learn the rules then forget them.  After 3 weeks of struggling I didn’t think I’d ever understand them enough to forget them.  At this time he also said that he had a cupboard full of herbs and spices but sometimes he just wanted a little bit of salt.  So I was more confused than ever, but I stuck with it and the hard work paid off.

Over time I understood what he meant.  The rules help you to write songs, melodies and solos but they can also be a constraint.  If you’re not careful you tend to use the same Keys, chords and scales without experimenting or trying something new so they can actually limit your creativity.   There’s often also a temptation to try and put all of this new found knowledge into practice in a song and sometimes a blistering lead solo (or two) sounds great but a handful of notes may also sound great there too.  Equally there are some sounds that work well together even though theory says they shouldn’t.  You’d never find these without breaking the rules.

So that’s why the other day I put some blueberries into my salad and added balsamic vinegar.  It was surprising delicious.  And I’d never have found that out if I’d stuck to the ‘rules’.

Every song ever written is in this post — January 16, 2013

Every song ever written is in this post

Granted, that sounds crazy. There are a couple of exceptions – it doesn’t really apply to percussive or sampled sounds and only covers Western music. Still sounds impossible?

Before I go any further, the secret of music is intervals. That will make more sense later.

Western music is based a series of notes from A to G. To confuse you, it’s often discussed as starting at C so is written C D E F G A B then back to C again. The interval between these notes is called a tone. There is also an interval called a semi-tone which is the smallest interval in Western music. It is one key higher or lower on a keyboard or one fret higher or lower on a guitar. To confuse you further there is a semi-tone between C and D, D and E, F and G, G and A, A and B but not between E and F or B and C. This is easier to see on a piano keyboard.

Notes on a keyboard

When the note repeats back at C it is double the frequency of the first C when ascending or half when descending. This interval is called an octave.

When we write music on a stave, each line and the gaps between them represents a note. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge is often used to remember that the order on the lines (starting at the bottom and working up) is E G B D F and the gaps between them are F A C E. If you need higher or lower octaves you can add extra lines above or below as required.  This is also shown in the attached document above.

There are 12 notes in an octave. It’s amazing to think that every song ever written or that will be written is based on only these 12 basic notes, albeit in a number of different octaves.

So in a fundamental way, by describing the notes and how to write them down this post contains every song ever written.

But wait, if you want to use these basic 12 notes to create something musical you need to arrange them into a series of Keys containing 7 notes with a specific pattern…..

You are not James Hetfield — January 9, 2013

You are not James Hetfield

As well as the physical side, there’s also the mental aspects of learning the guitar.

The best lesson I could of had would have come before I got my first guitar and needed simply to say “You are not James Hetfield”.

I remember reading an interview where I read he only downpicked.  And so did I, to learn a few Metallica riffs.  But the problem is I wasn’t James Hetfield and so I subsequently only used this technique for all future playing.

I had fallen into the trap of thinking I could sound like who I listened to.  If you practice a lot (and better still have talent) you may play their songs like them but not sound like them. That’s the point most beginners miss. You need to find your own style and sound.  That usually takes a long time so copying a particular guitarist is the usual route in.  Unfortunately most guitarists don’t progress beyond this stage and just sound somewhere between a poor imitation and mediocre copy.

After a couple of years learning by myself I could play a few riffs (but not a whole song) and thought that was I was doing ok.  Until I had my first proper guitar lesson.  I sat there and my teacher said ‘this is in G, play along’ and I realised that I actually had learned virtually nothing, apart from a lot of bad habits which took ages to undo.

Beginners’ guitars — January 6, 2013

Beginners’ guitars

The first guitar I had was a red Encore strat copy.  It was awful.  It weighed a tonne and the high action meant that the strings were about half a mile off the fretboard which made it very difficult to hold the strings down.  That’s the problem with cheap beginner guitars, they make learning much harder than it needs to be.  I’m not suggesting buying a custom shop fender USA strat or something like that, but you do need something you can at least play fairly easily and stays in tune for more than 10 seconds.

Origins (part two) — January 4, 2013

Origins (part two)

Although no one in the family played an instrument, music was always there.  This was not always a good thing.  My parents collection was very hit and miss with Anne Murray, Abba, Val Doonican and Boxcar Willie.  Neil Diamond was also an ever present, I didn’t mind that too much but still can’t stand Abba.  My favourite records turned out to be Ray Charles, Little Richard and a Rock n Roll compilation.  My sister wasn’t much help either, she was into the NOW albums and typical pop music of the time.

I did start getting into songs like Rockit by Herbie Hancock and 19 by Paul Hardcastle.  I’m not sure how I got into rap but it was hard work.  The local Our Price in a small city in England didn’t stock LL Cool J or even know who he was.  The Electro 9 tape got a lot of hammer though.  I was also impressed by groups like Altern 8 and The KLF but none of my mates were into rave.

My first guitar was not my first introduction to an instrument either. There was the obligatory recorder from quite an early age and later on the trombone. I was also interested in keyboards and synths but could never afford one, although I did work all summer of 1988 to buy a Yamaha PSS-680. This was a keyboard with mini keys, drum pads and FM synthesis, which I didn’t understand at the time. I did use it to record an EP called ‘Voyage to Arcturus’ which was a collection of spacey ambient songs recorded on cassette, sadly lost but probably for the best.

It wasn’t the easiest time to be learning either.  There was no youtube or internet tabs and even music shops didn’t sell many tab books. One of my mates, Adam, who had the best music collection at the time and arguably got me into metal (Dark Angel, Dead Kennedys, Metallica, Artillery, Helloween etc) had to send for Master Of Puppets from the States which took ages and cost a fortune.

So I was at a crossroads of electronic, metal and rap and the Satriani video sent me down the guitar route. But if you looked hard enough in my record collection you’d find the S-Express record, even if I wouldn’t have admitted it back then.