Songwriting Tips

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Songwriting Tips

 

 

I don’t have any set way of approaching songwriting.  I’ll never be referred to as “prolific”, that’s for sure.  Because of that, I am always searching for inspiration from any source that comes my way.  I write tons of riffs and chord progressions, but 95% of them end up on the scrap heap.  That brings me to my first tip:

1. BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF:  I kind of run through a mental checklist with any riff or part I’m working on.  I ask myself hard questions. Is this fun to play?  If I wasn’t the one playing it, would I really enjoy listening to it?  Can I imagine a room full of people rocking out to this?  Am I unconsciously ripping off another song?   Is there anything “special” about what I’m playing?   If I answer all these questions truthfully, I scrap what I’m working on the vast majority of the time.   On the rare occasion something passes the test, it goes in the mental “riff bank.”  Once a new riff is in the riff bank, I scroll through my other “keeper” riffs in the riff bank and see if anything else I’ve got will work with the new riff.  If not, it will sit in the riff bank (sometimes for YEARS) until I find a use for it. If a couple of parts happen to mesh nicely, then I keep on polishing until the skeleton of a song starts to emerge.  Only at this point do I present what I’ve got to the band.

2. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE YOU TRUST:  “All killer, no filler” has always been my approach to songwriting.  No matter how sharp my self-editing filter is, some less than perfect stuff always creeps in.  I depend on my bandmates as a vital sounding board.  If I am sure that the people I’m playing with are talented and have good taste, I know I can trust their opinions on whatever I happen to bring to the table.  If everybody in the band immediately starts picking up on what I’m playing, I can be pretty sure that we’re on to something.  Then I listen to everyone’s input, and the song will start taking on a life of it’s own.  Things start to naturally fall into place, then the song gets finished.  YAY!!!

Conversely, I’ve gone to practice with something I was CONVINCED was the next rock’n’roll classic, only to have the band stinky-face it.  You’ve got to let it go.  If you trust them to tell you when something is good, you also have to trust them when they tell you something is not so good.  If a riff/song gets rejected, I still keep it in the riff bank, but in a special section for riffs that need to be re-worked.  I’ll change the key, play it in a different tuning, speed it up, slow it down, change the time signature or rhythmic feel, or anything else I can think of to change it up until I think it is worthy of re-submission to the band.  Brutal honesty is an absolute necessity if you want to write awesome music in a band context.  You need to be prepared to accept constructive criticism, and you can’t be afraid to give it, either.

3. THINK LIKE A COMPOSER:  When I’m writing guitar parts, I try to imagine a general outline of what the whole band will play.  I keep this fairly vague, ‘cuz things are always more interesting when every band member puts their own spin on their own part.  I might give really general instructions, like ‘this part needs a Keith Moon fill”, or “play harder towards the end of this part”.  When I say “think like a composer”, I’m referring to the use of texture and dynamics to make a song interesting.  This is the “craft” part in the art of songcraft.  Experiment with everything at your disposal, within the structure of a rock band.  The goal is to keep the listener (not to mention the players) interested in the song on a moment-by-moment basis.  A song can start with one instrument, then gradually build until the whole band is playing.  Or, it can just blast off at full tilt.  Experiment with half time and/or double time at different parts of the song.  Put in dead stops, leave holes and space so the song can breathe, have certain instruments drop out, change guitar tones, go quiet/loud, go loud /quiet, change keys, whatever you have to do make a song MOVE.  Analyze the arrangements in songs you love, and really dissect them.  Notice the neat things that catch your attention, and try your own variation of the same technique.  Experiment, experiment, experiment.

4.  PICK UP ANOTHER INSTRUMENT:  When I play guitar too much, I tend to fall into certain patterns and keys that I’ve already beaten into the ground, simply because they fall comfortably under my fingers.  Y’know, kinda thinking with my hands instead of my brain.  When this happens, I pick up a bass, or sit down behind the drums, or plink out a melody on a piano.  This forces me to actually think about what I’m playing, ‘cuz I’m out of my comfort zone.  I’ve written melodies I really like on the keyboard that I never would have found on the guitar, just because they were too easy.  Music doesn’t have to be difficult to be good, and I tend to lose sight of that because of the years and years I’ve worked on my skill as a guitarist.  This is one of the pitfalls that all instrumentalists need to be conscious of once they achieve a high degree of skill and technique.  I’m a really mediocre drummer, but sometimes I’ll settle on a beat or groove that will kick off a riff in my head.  I play bass WAY differently than I play guitar, so that can spark ideas as well.  Once I step out of the box and come up with something that catches my ear, I can pick up my guitar and approach it in a fresh way.  Always remember that you’re not just playing your instrument, you’re playing MUSIC.

5.  LESS IS MORE:  It’s a cliché, but it’s true.   This isn’t to say that music has to be simple to be good.  What I mean is that every note should be absolutely necessary.  To me, a song is only done when it falls apart if you add or take away anything at all.  It’s OK to write an epic, as long as it is as streamlined and sleek as it can possibly be.  Todd Rundgren once said, “It’s better to write a 3 minute song that people wish was 10 minutes than to write a 10 minute song people wish was 3 minutes”.  Sage advice from a great songwriter!

 

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Guffey’s Music Manifesto!!!

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Guffey’s Music Manifesto!!!

 

This post refers to guitars a lot (I am, after all, a guitar player), but the contents cross over to any instrument.  I’ve used this manifesto as a teaching aid for decades to try to get my students into a headspace that encourages them to always focus on the important big picture stuff, even as they get further and further into the many fine details of playing music at a high level.  I hope you find this article helpful! -Guff

I love guitars.  I love everything about them.  The way they look, the way they feel, the way they sound.  I love the way they make me feel when I play them.  Playing guitar has added so much meaning, depth and joy to my life.  I’ve never felt that I had a lot of natural talent on the guitar (the concept of “natural talent” will be the subject of a future blog post), but my pure love of music and the instrument gave me the strength and determination to put in thousands upon thousands of hours of work and practice.  I am always working as hard as I can to maximize my talents and abilities, and it is a lifelong journey.
Although I am primarily a self-taught player (I estimate that I had learned about 80% of what I know now before I attended music school), many people I have encountered in my life have given me great advice and pointed me in the right direction musically. I am eternally grateful to them, and I feel a karmic responsibility to do the same thing for other musicians when given the opportunity.  I enjoy nothing more than sharing the things these people taught me, as well as the things I’ve learned on my own, with others who feel the same as I do about music.
While I’m most certainly not the best musician or guitarist around, I do feel that in my 30+ years of playing, I have developed certain approaches and strategies that could possibly help out other people on their own journey with music.  In my opinion, there is no right way or wrong way to play music or your instrument, and what I present here is simply a set of guiding principles that have worked for me (and many other musicians).  My goal as a teacher is to provide my students with the tools and philosophies that will allow them to develop their own unique approach to music and their instrument.
If you hold true to these philosophies, the technique and ability will come much faster, not to mention much easier.  The battlefront is in your head, not in your hands.  If you master the mental part, your hands have no choice but to follow.
OK, here we go…

 


PHILOSOPHIES, PART 1

 

  • BE YOURSELF:  Self expression is absolutely the most important factor in any artistic endeavor.  Technical or simple, polished or raw, quiet or loud, mellow or aggressive, it doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that your playing provides the listener with an honest glimpse of your thoughts, your experiences, and what is in your heart, positive or negative.  If you accomplish that, your music is good.  Period.  Communication with the listener creates a bond between artist and audience, and true communication can only be achieved with honesty.  Give 100% of yourself when you play.  People will notice.
  • BE A MUSICIAN:  Just because you can play an instrument DOES NOT automatically make you a musician.  I’m perfectly capable of cutting someone open with a scalpel, but that in no way makes me a surgeon. It’s the same thing, y’know?.  I know some technically amazing players who are terrible musicians, and I know people with very limited instrumental skills that make incredible music.  The goal of a musician is to make great music, and I’m a firm believer in the notion that there are many roads to that destination.  That being said, all true musicians have several things in common.  A musician knows how to listen and react to the people they are playing with.  A musician is someone who puts the song ahead of his or her ego.  A musician is someone who loves and respects music.  Always strive to be a musician.
  • LISTEN:  Ears are far more important than hands or fingers.  Listen, HARD.  Listen to every aspect of a song.  Focus in on the hi-hat, listen to the production, analyze the bass line, feel the way the notes push and pull against each other, explore positive and negative space, listen to how one part affects every other part, listen to absolutely everything.  Examine every minute detail, and see how they all affect the big picture.  If you listen closely enough, all mysteries will eventually reveal themselves.
  • STUDY:  Any information about music will provide you with raw material.  Read books, magazines and interviews.  Watch videos and documentaries.  Go to as many shows as possible.  Dig deep for things you’ve never heard.  Listen to the music you love, and discover and study their influences.  Then discover and study their influences’ influences.  Never, ever stop learning.
  • STEAL, BUT NEVER IMITATE:  Steal as much as you can from any musician you encounter, but never forget to put your own spin on what you have stolen.  Every riff or lick has thousands of possible variations.  Exploit them.  “Style” can be explained as filtering your influences through your experiences and everything that makes you a unique individual.  In a very basic way, this principle can be illustrated by equations like this:  Albert King + Curtis Mayfield + Hippie Culture = Jimi Hendrix, or Aerosmith + The Sex Pistols + The Sunset Strip = Guns’n’Roses.  What’s in your DNA?  What equation could come close to defining YOU???

 
PHILOSOPHIES, PART 2: THE FIVE “T”s


These are five principles that I feel are absolutely essential to being a good musician.  I’m listing them in order of importance, but don’t neglect any of them.  Focus on this stuff in your practicing, and everything will turn out just fine.  I promise!!!

  • TIMING:  It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.  Believe that.  Music should make people move, and it should also take them for a ride.  Human beings have internal clocks, and the listener will notice IMMEDIATELY when there is an unintentional hiccup or variation in your playing.  Lock in to the beat, AND DON”T LET GO.  Practice with your bandmates until you are airtight.  Whenever it is possible, practice with a metronome or drum beat.  It will keep you honest.  Keep your playing as even as humanly possible until it becomes second nature.
  • TASTE:  I define taste as knowing how to play exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, and knowing when it’s better to play nothing at all.  Play exactly what is necessary.  No more, no less.
  • TOUCH:  You’ve certainly heard the phrase, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”.  The same holds true for music.  It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.  If you are playing something aggressive, you should be strangling your instrument with everything you have, right on the verge of breaking it to bits.  If you are playing something soft and pretty, you should caress your instrument like it’s your child sleeping in your arms.  Touch is what puts emotion in your playing, and emotion is what turns notes into music.
  • TONE:  Your touch determines 90% of your tone.  Eddie VanHalen sounds like Eddie VanHalen no matter what guitar and amp he is playing, and you should, too.  However, that last 10% of the tone equation is VERY important.  First of all, if you are happy with the way your equipment sounds, you will automatically play better.  Second of all, a unique tone grabs the attention of the listener.  There are no rights and wrongs, just play tons of stuff and experiment until you find what works for you.
  • TECHNIQUE:  I don’t define technique as pure instrumental facility.  In my opinion, a musician only needs enough technique to be able to play HIS OR HER OWN music better than anyone else on the planet.  Does it matter that Angus Young can’t play sweep arpeggios or do 8-finger tapping?  No, because he can play the holy heck out of Angus Young licks, and that’s all that matters.  People talk smack about Meg White’s drumming abilities, yet there is no other person in the world that can make those White Stripes songs come alive the way she can. There are many, many guitarists who can play the instrument better than I can, but NOBODY can play my songs as good as I play them, and that is the ultimate goal.  Do what YOU do, better than anyone.

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Buying Great Sounding Guitar Gear, CHEAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Buying Great Sounding Guitar Gear, CHEAP!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

The Cheapest Good Guitar or Bass is the One You Already Have


What do I mean by that?  I’ll tell you.  Although the wood and construction of a guitar or bass do play a part in the overall tone equation, a HUGE percentage of what an instrument sounds like is determined by the electronics.  Simple things like upgrading the pickups, pots and other electrical components can make an incredible difference in your guitar’s tone.  Luckily, this is also relatively inexpensive, at least when compared to buying a new guitar! 

The initial quality of entry-level guitars and basses has never been higher.  25 years ago, a $200 instrument was pretty much unplayable. These days, with advances in CNC technology and the proliferation of automated instrument factories overseas, you can get a pretty decent instrument for not a lot of cash, and for a small additional investment in parts and labor, your budget guitar can play as well as an instrument that costs 5 times as much!  The areas that usually can stand to be improved on are tone, tuning stability, and playability.
Making sure that your instrument reliably stays in tune is dependent on two things: quality tuning keys and a perfectly cut and installed nut.  99% of all tuning problems originate at these two often-overlooked locations (and of the two, 90% of tuning problems happen at the nut).  Again, these are relatively inexpensive upgrades that will make your instrument infinitely better.
Once you have purchased your upgraded pickups and electronics, quality tuners, and a properly sized nut blank, remember these words: 
TAKE YOUR INSTRUMENT TO A REPUTABLE REPAIR TECH, AND HAVE THEM DO ALL THE INSTALLATION WORK, INCLUDING A FULL SET-UP AND FRET-DRESS.  DO NOT SKIP THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

Leave this to the pros, or put in the time and effort to become a pro yourself.  This part, unfortunately, isn’t so cheap.  However, when you play your perfectly set-up guitar for the first time, you’ll know it was money well spent.
A set-up includes setting the intonation (adjusting the bridge saddles so each string plays in tune up and down the fretboard), adjusting the truss rod (the metal rod inside the guitar neck that counteracts the tension from the strings and keeps your neck from warping), setting the guitar’s action (the height of each string from the fretboard), and a general check up of the electronics.  This should be done every few months on guitars that get played often.
A fret-dress (also known as crowning or leveling) isn’t necessary every time you get a set-up, but should be done at least once a year on guitars that see a lot of action.  As you press the strings on the fretboard (hundreds of thousands of times throughout the course of a year), the strings start to make small impressions in the frets.  We all have our favorite chords and keys, and you’ll notice that certain areas become more worn than others (if you have never had a fret-dress on your guitar, take a minute now to really look at your frets and be horrified).  When this fretwear goes unchecked long enough, it will be very difficult to get your guitar to intonate properly and play in tune in certain spots.  A fret-dress shaves a microscopic amount of metal from each fret and reshapes it so every fret is perfectly level with the rest.  There are only so many times frets can be leveled and crowned before they are just worn out, in which case you’ll need a re-fret.


Resources: Parts


www.guitarfetish.com:  a full line of quality replacement parts of all kinds for guitars and basses.  GFS pickups are an excellent value.
www.callahamguitars.com:  Super high end stuff.  This is the place for upgrade CTS pots, switchcraft jacks and switches, high quality capacitors and vintage style cloth covered wire.
www.seymourduncan.com:  The gold standard in replacement pickups.
www.rsguitarworks.net:  Pre-wired electronics upgrade kits for most guitars, as well as individual parts
www.tonepros.com:  The best in replacement parts for Gibson-style guitars

Buying Used:  The ONLY way to go!!!


In all honesty, you’re going to need to sink some money into any used OR new piece of gear that you buy in order to make it play and sound its best.  Just remember to factor that into your decision making.  It’s better to pay for better quality used gear that has depreciated a little than to buy less expensive stuff new.  Musical instruments are relatively simple things, and with proper care and maintenance they will be useful for a long, long time.  While there is definitely good, inexpensive gear that can be purchased new, remember the most sought after gear is VINTAGE gear, because it has stood the test of time. 
There are lots of places around Vancouver and Portland that specialize in quality used gear at fair prices.  Here are a few…
Briz Loan and Guitar: 506 Washington St., Downtown Vancouver.  AWESOME shop.  I always find the weirdest, coolest stuff here.  The guys that work there are always listening to Sleep or Neurosis, and they have cute shop dogs.  
Trade-Up Music: 47th and Division and 19th and Alberta in Portland.  Cool people, tons of cool gear.
Centaur Guitar: 28th and Sandy in Portland. Lots of great used stuff, and the best selection of boutique pedals in town.  Kelly and Jason are awesome dudes.
Old Town Guitars: 55 SE 11th Ave. in Portland, around the corner from the Doug Fir.  Specializing in vintage guitars, pedals and amps.  Hank is the man.

Buying Used: Craigslist and Ebay, and Reverb


Vancouver and Portland have thriving music scenes, and our local Craigslist is TEEMING with great deals.  I’ll admit it, I’m a Craigslist junkie.  I check it 20 times a day at least, whether I need gear or not.  I always find killer deals, and I’ve bought and sold thousands of dollars worth of gear over the years.

Some guidelines…

 

  • If you are underage, ALWAYS have your parents make the deal.  There are creeps out there!
  • Know what you’re looking at, and test it thoroughly before you buy it.  Once the cash changes hands, it’s YOURS.
  • HAGGLE.  ALWAYS.  You might not get the person to come down in price, but it never hurts to ask!

Ebay is a different story.  There are auctions and Buy it Now listings, and it takes a little while to get the hang of it.  I suggest just lurking on there for a while until you kind of get the lay of the land.  I do tons of research on Ebay to know what the going price of used gear is looking like at any given time.  You can literally find almost anything on Ebay.  It’s much more involved once you actually want to buy something, however.  You need a PayPal account, and there is shipping involved, plus you never actually get to check out the gear before you buy it.  It has its risks, but overall it usually works out great.
Reverb.com is the newest entry into the online used gear market, and it’s pretty awesome.  It’s kind of like Ebay, but strictly for musical instruments.  Both private sellers and music stores around the country sell on Reverb, and you can find a LOT of cool stuff.  The site also features great articles on gear and interviews with all kinds of musicians.  Highly recommended!

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Stage Management

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Stage Management

The purpose of this article is to explain the basics and also some of the finer points of professional conduct on the less glamorous side of being a musician. Namely, those less glamorous things include loading in to a venue, properly setting up and maintaining a stage for performance, soundchecking, loading out of a venue, and the etiquette that goes along with each of these tasks. 

Being able to do all of these things efficiently and politely is an often overlooked part of getting your band to the next level. Of course, you have to have your act together musically and performance-wise, but acting in a professional manner at all times is nearly as important. The staff at venues, from booking, to management, to bartenders, to security, and especially sound engineers, all have very difficult jobs.  If you can make their jobs easier by being pleasant to work with and knowing what it is that you’re doing, it will not go unnoticed. Most music scenes are very small and tightly knit, so if you can endear yourself to the staff and booker at one venue, word will get around, and it will be much, much easier for you to get gigs. Conversely, if you are difficult to work with and unprepared, bookings become much harder to come by.

 

The Basics: Load-in

 

The following is a list of simple things that you should do, and also a list of the things you should NEVER do.

 

ALWAYS

1. Show up on time for load in. No exceptions.

2. Introduce yourself to the sound engineer, and remember his or her name.

3. Ask the engineer how and when they would like you to set up. Always do what they ask.

4. Let the engineer know in advance if you need any special accommodations (weird instruments, samples, extra mics, effects, etc.). Try not to need any special accommodations.

5. Load your gear in quickly and efficiently, and stay out of everyone’s way as much as possible.

6. Say “please” and “thank you”. 

 

NEVER

1. Never show up late. Load-in time is load-in time for a reason, and being late will throw off the entire production staff.

2. Never be demanding.

3. Never argue with anyone on the production staff, about anything.

4. Never act like a rockstar, even if you are a rockstar (PS: You’re not a rockstar).

5. Never let your singer get out of loading in. Load-in is an all-hands-on-deck-affair. If your singer pulls the “It’s not my gear” line, find a new singer!

 

If you can follow these simple rules consistently, your load-ins will always be smooth and efficient.  Now, let’s talk about some of the finer points that will make your load-ins even smooooooooother…

 

 

The Finer Points: Load-in

 

1. Get a van or truck.  Having access to one vehicle that can hold all your gear simplifies everything TREMENDOUSLY.  It’s hard enough to get a decent load-in parking spot for one vehicle at most venues, much less multiple lil’ Hondas and Toyotas or whatever.  Having an appropriate band vehicle also sends a subliminal message to the staff that your band is professional and means business.  Buy one, borrow one, or rent one.

2. Have your gear organized.  Don’t come in hauling your gear like a hobo.  Have a single larger case or two smaller cases that contain all of your (neatly wrapped) cables and accessories.  Put casters on all your amps/cabinets so you can just roll them in. Drum cases usually aren’t necessary (and they also slow down load-in/load-out), but you should have a wheeled drum hardware case or bag, and also a cymbal bag (preferably wheeled as well). If you can afford it, get a small dolly/cart to roll in everything that doesn’t have wheels in a single trip.

spaghetti

 

3. Take up as little space as possible.  There are other bands loading in as well, and gear storage space is at a premium. After the sound engineer tells you where to put your stuff, organize it neatly so the other bands have room as well.  Everyone hates the band who gets in the way, so don’t forget that!

 

Setting Up the Stage for your Performance

 

We’ll go instrument by instrument in this section.  Knowing how to properly set up your equipment onstage will minimize mishaps, increase ergonomics, and make you sound better.

 

Guitar

 

1. Push your amp as far to the back of the stage as possible.You’ll hear yourself better, and you’ll be able to turn up slightly louder because you’re further away from the audience and engineer. Also, if your amp has tilt-back legs, use them to increase the benefits mentioned above.

2. Angle your amp slightly towards the other side of the stage. This allows your bandmates to hear you a little better, and keeps your amp from directly blasting the faces of the audience.

3. Loop your cable through your strap! If you learn one thing from this entire presentation, let it be this.  It’s so tragic to unplug yourself mid-song by steeping on your cable (or having your crazy singer step on your cable) when it’s COMPLETELY avoidable by doing this one simple thing.

4. Secure you cable at the amp. This is the amp side equivalent of looping your cable through your strap. You need to take every precaution to avoid getting unplugged! If you have a combo amp, you can loop the cable through the handle, or run the cable underneath the amp (this is my preferred method, as it looks cleaner and is more secure). If you have a head/cabinet, run the cable through the side handle of the cabinet, and under the front caster. 

5. Bring your own guitar stand/stands.  It’s super easy for your guitars to fall over, so let’s avoid that, shall we? J

6. Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail. Bring at least two guitars. It’s WAY faster to change guitars mid-song than it is to change strings! Other things to remember are spare picks, cables, tubes, fuses, strings, a strap, and anything else you can think of.

 

 

Bass

 

1. Always put your amp right next to the drums.  The drummer is your partner in the rhythm section, so get in there close!  Either side of the drummer is fine, but most bass players seem to prefer the hi-hat side. Like guitar amps, your bass amp should be as far to the back of the stage as possible.

2. Point your amp straight at the audience.  Bass frequencies are different than guitar frequencies, so straight on is your best bet to be heard equally by everyone onstage.

3. Loop your cable through your strap! If you learn one thing from this entire presentation, let it be this.  It’s so tragic to unplug yourself mid-song by steeping on your cable (or having your crazy singer step on your cable) when it’s COMPLETELY avoidable by doing this one simple thing.

4. Secure you cable at the amp. This is the amp side equivalent of looping your cable through your strap. You need to take every precaution to avoid getting unplugged! If you have a combo amp, you can loop the cable through the handle, or run the cable underneath the amp (this is my preferred method, as it looks cleaner and is more secure). If you have a head/cabinet, run the cable through the side handle of the cabinet, and under the front caster. 

5. Bring your own guitar stand/stands.  It’s super easy for your guitars to fall over, so let’s avoid that, shall we? J

6. Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail. Bring at least two guitars. It’s WAY faster to change guitars mid-song than it is to change strings! Other things to remember are spare picks, cables, tubes, fuses, strings, a strap, and anything else you can think of.

 

 

Keys

1. Always bring your own stand.I guarantee you, the venue won’t have one.

2. Bring your own cables.  6’ cables are ideal for keyboards. I also recommend having the end of the cable that goes into the keyboard have an angled plug if possible. That will reduce stress on the jack considerably, and reduce the chances of having a malfunction. Also, remember that venues virtually NEVER have extra ¼” cables available.

3. Bring a spare power supply.  Power supplies fail ALL THE TIME, so make sure you have an extra.

4. Bring an extension cord.  Power supplies usually have 6’ or 10’ cables, and sometimes that’s not long enough.  You never know where the power outlet is gonna be, so be prepared!

5. Bring your own direct box.  Direct boxes allow you to plug a ¼” cable into them, and allows the engineer to plug a mic cable into the other side to connect to the mixer.  Venues generally supply these, but they always seem to have issues. Better safe than sorry!

 

 

Vocals

1. Bring your own mic.  House mics are gross!!!

2. Bring a foam mic capsule cover.  Sometimes venues have REALLY sketchy power, and there is a possibility that the mic will shock you. If you’ve never had a 110 volt shock to your lips, well, I’m very happy for you and I would like you to keep it that way. The little foam cover will keep you from getting shocked if there is an issue.

3.  Help your bandmates bring their gear onstage. Don’t be a jerk. It’s the right thing to do!

 

 

Drums

1. Bring a drum rug.  Most venues have it taken care of, but you never know.  If possible, attach a short 2”x4” to the front with some big bolts and washers to prevent the kick drum from moving forward.

2.  Bring a drum key.  This should be a no-brainer, but we’re talking about drummers here. J

3.  Bring a bunch of sticks.  See above.

4. Make sure the spurs on your kick drum work.  It’s always a bummer when the kick drum starts sliding forward, so make sure your spurs function as intended.  That’s way better than having to put a cinder block in front of your bass drum. 

3.  Bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail.  Always bring two snares and two kick pedals, and one extra hi-hat clutch.  These are the things that usually fail during a show.  Also bring extra cymbal felts, spare parts for your stands, extra snare cord/straps, extra tension rods, and some cardboard and gaff tape in case your kick drum head breaks.  I’ve seen this last suggestion save MANY shows.

 

 

Soundchecking

 

Soundchecking is a CRUCIAL part of ensuring that your performance comes off as seamlessly as possible.  Knowing how to do this task quickly and efficiently will also endear you to the sound engineer, which is always a good thing.

 

Once you have your equipment set up on the stage, the engineer will come up to mic everything.  Stay out of the way!  Once they have all the mics set up, be ready to soundcheck immediately.  The engineer will call each instrument one by one to do a LINE CHECK.  This ensures that sound from the mics is making it to the PA system.  As you are line checking, the engineer will first get the sound straight in the front of house speakers.  Once that is squared away, he or she will put your instrument into your monitor until you are satisfied with what you hear, then the rest of the band will be asked how much of your instrument they want in their own monitors.  Once this process is complete for everyone onstage, the engineer will have you play an excerpt from a song (NEVER play the same song you’re going to open the set with!) so he can fine tune the levels in the front of house speakers.  Listen to your monitor mix very closely during this time, and then ask for monitor leveladjustments to fine tuneyour onstage mix.  Once you’re onstage and playing, you can ask for adjustments after the first or second song as necessary.  After that, just work with what you’ve got.

 

A few important tips…

 

1. Never ask the crowd, “How does it sound out there”?  Sound engineers find this very insulting, as it subtly implies that you don’t trust them to put your mix together competently.

2.  Don’t be too picky or demanding.  Every club is different.  Some have great onstage sound, some don’t.  Follow the steps listed above to get a basic monitor mix, then deal with it.  Sometimes it’s great sometimes it’s not, and you need to be prepared for anything.

3. NEVER noodle while another instrument is soundchecking.

4. Never, EVER, get on the engineer’s bad side.  If you think it sounds bad when the engineer is doing their best, imagine how bad it will be if you make them angry! JSound engineers are a stereotypically cranky lot, so always be polite, efficient, professional, and accommodating.  It’s in your own best interest.

 

The order in which the instruments are soundchecked is generally drums, bass, keys, guitars, then vocals, so that is the order we’ll go in to list out the specifics for each instrument.

 

 

 

Drums

 

1. Always hit the drums as hard as you’ll hit them when you are actually playing.  For some reason, drummers tend to pitter-patter a lot during soundcheck, resulting in SUPER loud kicks and snares in the FOH mix.  Hit’em like you mean it!

2. When checking each part of the drum kit, do it with medium tempo quarter notes, and keep doing it until the engineer tells you to stop.  The order the set will be soundchecked is kick, snare, rack toms, floor tom, and finally the hi-hats.  You can go ahead and play something fancy when checking hi-hats because the engineer needs to hear if the mic is picking up the details. 

3.  When asked to play the whole kit, make sure you play a good mix of techniques.  Start with a straight beat for a few seconds, then work your way around the kit to see if anything sounds wonky.

 

 

Bass

 

1. Pick a good riff that involves a lot of eighth notes on the low E string.  That’s your lowest note, so play it a lot and play it hard so the engineer can adjust the levels and frequencies to optimize you in the mix. 

2.  If the engineer tells you to adjust your EQ or turn up or down, do it.  Always follow the engineer’s instructions. They are there to make you sound good!

 

 

Keys

 

1. Play a good mix of big chords and single note lines.  This lets the engineer really fine tune where you sit in the mix.

2. Cycle through a few of the sounds that you are going to use during the show.  This lets you double check that the levels on your patches are roughly equal in volume, with no weird volume drops or jumps.

 

 

Guitars

 

1. Play a good mix of big, open chords and palm muted chugs on the low E string.Don’t get too flashy and noodly up there. It’s annoying.  Just keep playing basic rhythm guitar stuff until the engineer has your sound dialed in.

2.  Check both your clean and distorted sounds.  They need to be balanced volume-wise.  Adjust each one as the engineer directs you.

3. When playing distorted, accentuate the midrange frequencies on your amp and pedals.  The midrange frequencies are where the voice of the guitar lives.  Occupying the sonic space that is intended for the guitar will help you sit perfectly in the mix, without the need for excessive volume.  Dial back the bass and treble a bit, as those frequencies just get eaten up by the bassguitar and cymbals, respectively.  You may find the tone a bit “boxy” by itself, but once the other instruments kick in, you’ll get the picture.

4.  If the engineer tells you to turn down, TURN DOWN. Guitarists for some reason always want to be the loudest thing onstage.  Excessive stage volume compromises the entire mix, so get a tone you can work with at the lowest possible volume, and then ask for what you need in the monitor mix.

 

 

Vocals

 

1.  Use proper mic technique.  Get very close to the mic (about one inch from your lips is ideal), and sing DIRECTLY into the top of the windscreen.  Vocal mics are very directional, so any change in distance or the angle that you sing into it can have DRASTIC effects on tone and output level.  Also, don’t cup the windscreen with your hand.  Admittedly, it looks pretty cool, but itmakes you sound like you’re singing in a cardboard box.

2.  Say “CHECK, CHECK, CHECK, CHECK” like a MILLION times. The “ch” at the beginning of “check” is called a plosive, which is any vocal sound that is created through a sharp output of breath. Plosives create sibilance, which is distortion of the miccapsule.  The engineer uses the info from this to adjust the levels and frequencies in the mix to keep that distortion from happening and messing up your beautiful vocal sound.  Keep saying it until the engineer tells you to stop.  You can say other stuff too, but “check” should always be your main thing.

 

 

 

 

Stage Management/Troubleshooting

 

Once the show starts, you still need to be cognizant of what’s going on around you to see if anything goes haywire, and you need to know what to do to fix any problems that occur quickly and efficiently in real time.  Sometimes there is a person in the wings that takes care of this stuff, but more often than not, everyone onstage is responsible for it.  Here are some helpful tips…

 

1. Periodically check mic positioning onstage, ESPECIALLY on guitar amps and kick drums.  As you move around onstage, sometimes mic stands get bumped.  Moving mics even slightly is big deal to the overall sound, so get them back in place as quickly as possible.  The de facto position for a guitar amp micis about halfway between the center of the cone and the edge of the cone, pointed straight at the grill cloth, anywhere from about an inch away to actually touching the grill cloth.  For kick drum mics, just make sure it stays inside the hole on the front kick drum head. 

2.  If something stops making noise, check the signal chain starting at your instrument and work your way back.  Always start with the volume knob on your guitar/bass/keyboard.  That fixes a LOT of situations.  Make sure you’re on the right pickup, thencheck your cables, power to any pedal, any direct box you might be using, your amp, any power strips, and the wall socket.  Above all, STAY CALM.  If you work methodically and calmly, you can usually identify and fix the issue quickly and jump back in.  THIS is why bring spares of EVERYTHING that can fail during a performance! 

3. Use gaff tape to secure any wires/cables that go from the front of the stage to the back of the stage.  There is NOTHING more embarrassing than tripping and falling on some random cable when you’re performing.  Take the proper precautions!!!

 

 

Load Out

 

After you are done performing, if there are bands after you, follow this one simple rule: GET THE HELL OFF THE STAGE.  Time is of the essence.  Grab your gear and hustle it off as quickly as humanly possible.  Be aware of the next band, as they will start moving gear onstage before you are completely finished, so maximize efficiency here by paying attention.  Follow these helpful tips… 

 

Load-Out Tips 

 

1. NEVER break down drums onstage.  This is the cardinal sin of cardinal sins.  Everyone will HATE you for it.  Everyone grab a piece of the drums and move offstage and out of the way of the next band.  This is a GREAT way for vocalists to make themselves useful. 

2. Pull up and dispose of all your gaff tape.  It’s just the right thing to do.

3. Once you are offstage, pack and stow your gear neatly.  Get it packed up and ready to go and out of the way.

4. If there are bands playing after you, DO NOT LEAVE.  This is unbelievably rude, and amateur bands seem to do it all the time. Professional bands NEVER do this.  No matter where you are on the bill, watch every band, and be conspicuous while you’re doing it.  Network with EVERYONE in EVERY BAND on the bill.  Other bands can get you gigs, and the band that opened for you today might be headlining somewhere else tomorrow.  BE A PRO, WATCH THE SHOW.

5.  Thank everyone on the venue staff, and try to lay the groundwork for a follow up gig.  If you put on a solid performance and acted professionally, the venue will be happy to have you back.  Also, always send a follow up thank you email to the booker for the great opportunity.

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Tube Amp Basics

Tube Amp Basics

Preamp…

The preamp is the “front end” of the signal path in your amp.  It determines most of the tone characteristics of your sound.  This is the section of the amp that the EQ knobs control.  It is also the part that determines the amount of distortion in your tone, usually controlled by the “Gain” knob.  Preamp distortion is characterized by words like “grind”, “crunch”, etc.  The tubes that are generally used in the preamp are 12AX7s, which are the little tubes in your amp.

 

EQ Section…

EQ stands for “Equalization”.   These are the knobs on the amp that let you shape your sound, and the “center” of your signal path.  Some small amps only have a Tone knob, which simply rolls off high end as you turn it down.  Other amps have what is known as a Baxandall Tone Stack, which consists of separate bass and treble knobs (turning the knobs past halfway scoops mid frequencies, while turning the knobs less than halfway accentuates the mids).  The most common EQ is the traditional TMB (Treble/Middle/Bass) Tone Stack, which is sometimes also paired with a Presence knob, and less frequently, a Resonance knob.  Treble controls high frequencies, Middle contols midrange frequencies, and bass controls the low frequencies.  Presence accentuates high-mids, while Resonance accentuates low-mids.

 

Power Section…

The power section is the “back end” of your signal path.  This is the part that actually AMPLIFIES the signal sent to it from the preamp, then sends it to the speakers.  The “Master” knob controls the power sent to the power tubes, which are the larger tubes in your amp, thereby determining the overall volume.  The EQ knobs do not affect this section, but the “presence” knob determines the midrange voicing of the power section. 

As the volume increases, the power tubes will begin to distort.  THIS is the magic of tube amps.  Power tube distortion is rich in complex, musical harmonics.  It’s not crunchy, but sweet.  It gives an amp “guts” and “oomph”.  You HEAR preamp distortion, you FEEL power amp distortion. 

 

 

Power Tubes…

Different amps use different kinds of power tubes, and they all have a different musical character.  Play them all to determine what suits your musical style best.  Certain tubes are associated with certain amps, so find out what your favorite bands play.  Almost everything is some variation of a Fender, Vox, or Marshall.  Here is a short list of power tubes…

6V6: Low power Fenders, such as Champs and Princetons, up to the medium powered Deluxe.  6V6s distort quickly, and have a growly midrange.

6L6/5881: Mid and high powered fenders, such as the Bassman, Super, and Twin.  Mesa Boogies also use these for high gain.  6L6s have a glassy clean sound with a scooped midrange.  When they are overdriven, they have a very aggressive, tight character.  This is the classic “American” power tube.

EL84:  These are closely associated with the British VOX sound of the AC30.  For cleans, think of the chiming sound of the Beatles.  Distorted, think of the warm, boxy midrange of Brian May’s rhythm guitars in Queen.

EL34/KT77:  British muscle, the sound of a wide open Marshall.  EL34s are warm in the midrange, and loosey-goosey and forgiving in the bottom end.  The sound of ROCK.  Even the clean sound has a little hair on its chest.

6550/KT88:  The most powerful power tube.  Very even harmonic response, with the tightest low end of any power tube.  When overdriven they have a beautiful, woody character, but they are DEAFENINGLY loud.  These can be used in some Marshalls, but they are most associated with the Ampeg SVT, the mother of all bass amps.

 

Master Volume…

The Master Volume control is incredibly useful.  It has two parts; the “gain” knob, and the “master” knob.  Think of the “gain” knob as the distortion control for the preamp.  When it is low, the sound will be clean.  As you turn up the gain, the sound becomes increasingly distorted.  The “master” knob controls the output volume of the power section.   By using these controls together, you can achieve distorted sounds with lowered volume, or very loud clean sounds.

 

Transformers…

The transformers are the imposing metal cubes next to the tubes on the amp chassis.  Most tube amps contain an output transformer (the big one), a power transformer (the smaller one), and sometimes a choke (the tiny one).  The weight and size of the transformers can be a visual cue to the build quality and ruggedness of an amp.  Old Hiwatts, Oranges, and Ampegs have MASSIVELY oversized transformers that weigh a ton, and you could drop those amps off a building with no harm done.  Anyway, without going into a dissertation on electrical engineering, here are the basic functions of each transformer…

OUTPUT:  The output transformer is very important, because its build quality and how well it is matched to the circuit affects tone substantially.  Companies like Heyboer and Mercury Magnetics make upgrade transformers for many common tube amps that will make almost any modern amp sound better.

POWER:  The power transformer doesn’t affect tone, but it is responsible regulating the power to your amp.  It is always good to have an overbuilt power transformer to make sure the guts of your amp are getting solid, consistent power.

CHOKE:  Honestly, I have no idea what the choke does.  Some amps have them, some amps don’t.  There are some amps that people modify to have chokes.  Whatever.  If you find out what they do, holla at me.

 

 

Rectifiers…

The rectifier is the part of the amp that transforms the AC power from the wall into the DC power used inside the amp.  Tube amps can use either a solid-state rectifier, a tube rectifier, or both.  The type of rectifier in the amp has a lot to do with the “feel” of the amp.

 Tube rectifiers have a delayed note response, known as “sag”.  When you hit a note on the guitar forcefully, the rectifier tube is temporarily overloaded, which reduces the volume of the attack slightly.  As the tube recovers from the overload, the note will get louder.  This phenomenon is known as “bloom”.   Amps with tube rectifiers are described as “smooth”, “spongy”, and “forgiving”.

Most amps since the mid-sixties have solid-state rectifiers.  They have a more direct, immediate response than their tube counterparts.  They are more articulate, and more aggressive sounding.   They tighten up the low-end response considerably.

Some amps have both features, such as the Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier.  It lets you assign either a tube or solid state rectifier to either channel, which offers a lot of flexibility.

One is not better than the other.  They are just different.  Play a bunch of amps to see what you prefer.

 

 

Effects Loops…

As a rule, all time-based effects (reverb, delay, chorus, flange) should come AFTER your source for distortion.  On a pedalboard, this is pretty easy.  You just put your time-based pedals after your dirt pedals in the signal chain, and all is well.  But what if you are actually using the overdriven preamp section of your amp as your distortion source?  The answer is simple; use and effects loop.

The effects loop consists of two jacks on the back of your amp.  The “send” jack, which takes signal from the preamp and delivers it to the effects, and the “return” jack which delivers the signal from the effects back to the power amp.  A passive effects loop is simply that, two jacks that let you patch stuff between the preamp and power amp.  An active (or “buffered”) effects loop is powered by the amp, and lets you raise or lower the input or output of the loop to compensate for varying volumes on certain effects devices.  Again, one isn’t better than the other, they’re just different.  See what works best for you.

 

Speaker Outputs…

On the back of the amp, there will be either a series of jacks with different impedance markings (4 Ohm, usually two 8 Ohm, and a 16 Ohm), or one or two general speaker output jacks and an impedance selector knob or switch.  Burn the following sentences into your brain:

ALWAYS USE A CLEARLY MARKED SPEAKER CABLE TO CONNECT AN AMP TO THE SPEAKERS.  NEVER, EVER USE AN INSTRUMENT CABLE.  IF YOU AREN’T ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE ABOUT YOUR CABLE, DO NOT USE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

This is incredibly important.  You can do some serious damage if you mess this up.  Also, don’t ever use a speaker cable for an instrument cable.  BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD.

Impedance (Ohm’s law) is really difficult to keep straight.  An impedance mismatch between your amp and speakers can seriously damage your tubes, transformers, and the voice coils in your speakers.  Most cabinets will either have their impedance clearly marked, or they are switchable to different impedance settings.  Just make sure that your head and cab are running at the same impedance, and you’ll be fine.  If you are not sure about the cabinet or the amp, have someone with some electronics know-how check them with a multi-meter.  If you’re not absolutely sure, don’t plug in!!!

 

Speakers…

Speakers deserve a workshop of their own, but we’ll do a short overview here.  Speakers come in infinite variations, and your speaker choice can shape your tone immensely.  Guitar amps commonly use 8”, 10”, 12”, and sometimes 15” speakers, and each size has different sonic characteristics.  The magnets are either Alnico (warm, chiming, expensive), ceramic (bright, cutting, more affordable), and neodymium (neutral sounding, extremely light weight, expensive).  The cone material and construction also affects a speaker’s sound.  Speakers each have an impedance rating, and depending how they are wired together, that rating changes when you use more than one speaker.  Always defer to a qualified amp tech when you are unsure, unless you are willing to arm yourself with the necessary knowledge to understand all this stuff.  Again, different speakers work in different applications, so check out as many as possible.