Monday, November 24, 2008

Textures, Pt. 2

Last week I started writing about using textures to take your playing to a new level of musicality. For starters, we should always look for the inner voices in a piece of music, and then adjust tone and timbre through slight adjustments to our playing techniques.

That first part is very important because it's about using what you have before relying on effects or other equipment to manipulate your sound. For most of us, money is going to limit what kind of equipment we'll have, so we may never have exactly what we think we need to get a certain texture. But even for those with huge bankrolls, there will be plenty of instances where you can't bring along all your gear. Therefore, it's always important to learn how to find the simplest solutions first, and build from there.

Now that we all know how to use the Force for good, let's talk about some of the stuff money can buy.

I'm a guitarist; my people are known for our smoke and mirrors tactics usually associated with effects. But many guitarists' signature sound is due in part to their gear, so it's worth investigating. Let's review the basics:

Acoustic guitars are made from different tonewoods and come in different body types or shapes. Knowledgeable salespeople usually match a guitarists playing style to certain types of wood and body styles because it balances out their sound. But if you're a well balanced player that can manipulate the sound with your fingers or pick, it's usually worth shopping for guitars with different tonewoods and shapes that will expand your sonic possibilities.

Electric guitars capture sound with pickups. The two basic pickup options are single coil (found on Fender Stratocasters or Telecasters) and humbuckers (found on Gibson Les Pauls and SGs). Popular opinion describes single coil pickups as having a bright, clean tone while humbuckers have a fat, warm tone.

Secondary to the pickups, wood and body type can also change the sound of an electric guitar. Archtops and hollow bodied guitars allow the top to vibrate, similar to an acoustic guitar, but with humbucking pickups. These produce a woody, warmer tone usually used by jazz or blues guitarists. Different types of wood can affect sustain and ultimately tone.

Look at some pictures of classic rock bands like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones and you'll see a variety of guitars on stage. Before digital effects became widely popular, using different guitars created all the tonal textures they needed.

If you can't afford a new guitar, sometimes a cheap, used guitar that's been beat up a bit can give you a unique sound. I have a few in my collection, and while I don't use them live, they've been very handy in recording situations.

Next, you've got amplifiers. Most people are going to tell you tube amps are the way to go. Frankly, the only time you can argue against that is when a solid state amp can do well enough to save yourself the trouble of dragging a tube amp to the gig. I recently spent a good amount of money on a Class A tube amp, and while I don't understand all the technology behind it, I do understand the wide range of tones I can create. In general, I'd recommend a simple but well built tube amp over any digital amp simulator. Nothing tops the genuine tube sound, and if you put a decent EQ between your guitar and amp, you can mimic most classic amp sounds.

Everything other than your technique, guitar, and amp is just details. But textures are often created in the details.

I've always considered myself a guitar-to-amp guy, but I ended up with a decent collection of effects pedals. My favorite effect is the vibrato on my amp, not pictured below, but here's a rundown of what you see on my pedalboard: Jim Dunlop Crybaby Wah, Electro-Harmonix Mini QTron envelope filter, ProCo Turbo Rat distortion, Boss Giga-Delay (with an FS-5U pedal I use to tap tempos), Boss Flanger, Boss EQ, Ernie Ball Volume.
I can create more sounds than I'll ever use with this rig, and when I use it, I use it sparingly. In most live situations, I'll change my tone by switching channels on my amp, changing pickups, adjusting my tone and volume knobs, and picking closer to the bridge or neck. But with my trio, I often take it a step further using my pedal board. The wah-wah and envelope filter pedals allow me to quickly sweep a wider EQ range. The distortion and flanger color the tone. I usually only use the EQ pedal when I'm dealing with a house amp. The giga-delay lets me program four different pre-sets. I'll use some light delay during some solos, and then I've got some wacky settings for taking things out. Psychadelic jazz doesn't happen without some enablers.

The trick is to know when to use these options. Django Reinhardt made legendary music without any of these effects. Jimi Hendrix practically played effects like they were an instrument all their own. Yet if you took everything away from Hendrix, he still sounded like Hendrix. Jazz guitarists Pat Metheny and John Scofield both have very distinct tones on electric guitar. Yet both have recorded acoustic albums, and their playing is immediately recognizable. In fact, every great artist has at some point recorded or performed acoustically and maintained their unique sound.

The point is to use your textures to suplement musicality, not replace it all together. Learn how to manipulate your sound organically first, and then introduce some other effects to alter your tone even greater. Used tastefully and with a strong musical purpose, textures will add new depth to your songs.

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