Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Science of My Sound and Playing Philosophy:

Ok, so this type of post is long overdue and maybe it is for my own satisfaction but I think a small handful of people (Pete DeGraw, Matt Ellis) would read it and find it interesting.

Like all guitarists, ok, well, not all guitarists, I'm obsessed with the my sound. This is commonly referred to as "tone" by those in the know. Unfortunately being in the "know" often means you find yourself surrounded by a bunch of "musicians" who invest more time into investing in true-bypass pedals and pure signal chains rather than actually playing their instrument. Tone. Tone for the guitarist is equivalent to the singer's voice. It is the sound by which we are identified. If you have good tone, and style, (Hendrix, SRV, etc.) just one note can be played and people will know it's you.

Now if you don't know, take my word for it. Millions of hours and pages on forums all around the internet have been dedicated to replicating and dissecting tones. Time probably better spent practicing. I think all guitarists have somewhat of an inferiority complex. I mean, there is always someone out there better than you. It's hard to find a unique voice. But I've found that through the years, it's actually much easier than I thought.

I've primarily been the sole electric guitarist in most of my musical endeavors. (Brothers is a bit of an anomaly for me, in many ways!) As a result, I have had to fulfill both "rhythm" and "lead" roles. But therein lies the first of many problems. Those are traditional roles, and I'm uninterested in being bound by that particular tradition. Music for be, by and large has always been dependent on one key factor: atmosphere. I have a post about my favorite guitarists a little ways back, and they all have atmosphere as their main weapon. I'm not talking about ethereal, spaced out echo flanger phaser fx, I'm talking about attitude and style. As a result, I had become obsessed with the guitar playing of Johnny Marr of the Smiths. His style of "lead rhythm" was exactly what I was looking for. Now, I could get a Rickenbacker, a Fender amp, a compressor and try and cop Johnny Marr licks until the sun goes down, but I'll never get there because I'm not Johnny Marr. I'm also not in a pop band. Nor will I ever be! It's not my style! I'm a hardcore heavy metal noise punk! It's what I do! I can't be something I'm not.

That is the first lesson of the day. Don't be something you're not. Embrace what you are good at and run with it. Now, that is not to say that my playing is all of the buzzsaw Ramones style, I have nuanced abilities, but I'm not going to create a harsh black metal track and then go sit in with a jazz trio, or blues band. Doesn't mean I don't love jazz and blues, I'm just not cut from that cloth. Too many guitarists try and master it all. They end up being "jack of all, ace of none." There are notable exceptions (Alex Skolnick) but for the most part, it's impossible.

Around the turn of the century, I had become metalpunked out! Too much! Overdose! I never stopped loving it, but I expanded my tastes. I got really into ambient electronic and noise. A lot of it started with Aphex Twin and the Warp label, and spiraled into obscurity from there. Just as I had plumbed the depths of metal and punk (or so I had thought) I plumbed the depths of the avant-garde. I found bands like Einst├╝rzende Nubauten that used guitars in a very non-traditional sense. Sure, I had been into Sonic Youth with their altered tunings and textures but the guitar was always still kind of "guitar-y" if that makes sense.

So here I am, obsessed with the sound of noise and ambience, but I have six strings and a slab of wood in my hands. I could go one of two routes. I could invest in a hundred, wild and crazy effects boxes to make my guitar sound like anything but a guitar, or I could figure something else out. Now, I know of a few musicians who make the guitar sound not like a guitar and it is genius (Fennesz, a few others). But I don't want to cop their style. So I have to create my own thing. Or, at least attempt to find my own voice in a sea of unique voices. How? Well, I decided to take my love of heavy metal, hardcore, noise, and punk and mesh it with my favorite style of guitar playing, best exemplified by Johnny Marr. So here I am, alone. A heavy metal Johnny Marr. Bringing jangle into black metal and hardcore, genres best known for their "CHUNK" as opposed to their "sparkle," but dammit, I'm going to try and make this thing work.

And that's just it. It wasn't really a conscious effort to mesh the two, it just happened. Lesson #2: Let it happen. It's not just the name of an MxPx compilation album, its a philosophy. Don't over-think your approach. Let everything soak into you and filter it and process it through your own unique creative person.

That leaves me to the question of tools. How am I going to create these hypothetical sounds in my head. Enter my real-world experience.

I was managing a warehouse for a backline company. When you're providing gear for musicians, you become aware of issues relating to equipment failure and durability. Through years of research and hours of talking with by buddy Pete and our friend John, I realized what was obvious to many before me. The more complex the circuit, the more options, the more "things" a piece of gear offered, the more likely it was to fail. Furthermore, when a piece of equipment does fail, a simple circuit is easily diagnosed and repaired quickly. Now, I am not a wealthy man, so when I invest in a piece of gear as a working musician I have very high expectations. I expect to put it through its paces and have it perform to a high standard consistently. Now that means I'm investing in either new boutique gear, or vintage equipment. The mass production PC board crap found at Guitar Center is not going to cut it. For the beginner or still-discovering-his-path amateur (I'm still an amateur, I just know my path!) Guitar Center has plenty of great gear to guide you, but for the most part, it's crap. Nothing agains Guitar Center, they're just a company. I'm just saying this type of gear is not for cats like myself. So, gear must be simple, effective, durable and sonically pleasing. Unfortunately, affordable does not fit in with those listed requirements, though you are often able to find a diamond in rough piece of gear that meets those requirements for a nice price tag. (Guild Bluesbird,Fulltone pedals, CERTAIN Peavy tweed-style amps, etc.)

Really, you must invest in quality to get quality. I remember the dudes in If He Dies He Dies. A brilliant band. Amazing songs, great sounds! Cool tones! They played on rubbish equipment, but it worked for them. Well, sometimes. I mean, it always sounded cool, somewhat... but sometimes reliability was problematic. I don't want to be that guy who breaks a string on stage and is looking for a guitar. It's embarrassing. It's unprofessional, not that I'm a professional, but I'm not an amateur hobbyist. I take this too seriously! In the backline industry you always send spares of everything. You never know when something is going to fail and you can't NOT have a spare. It's just out of the question. Most of the time when equipment fails there isn't time to break out the toolbox and the soldering iron. It'd be nice in a perfect world, but we're not in a perfect world.

Having learned from this experience, I try and carry spares of whatever I have. Practically speaking, but I digress from the science of my sound. The true purpose of this rant, though this is sort of part of it all. It is my part of my overall encompassing attitude.

How am I to get these ambient, textural sounds that I desire, but have a guitar rig that remains simplistic, reliable and above all- sounding aces. Ok, I love the ambient sounds, but I love guitar too. I don't want to make my guitar sound like something else, I love the sound of six strings and wood. What do I do?

Lesson #3: Embrace your limitations.

I removed all pedals, overdrive, delays, noise gates, etc from my rig and made a simple signal chain. Guitar -> Cable -> Amp. Even within this dead-simple set up the amount of options are nearly endless. What kind of guitar? What kind of strings? Pickups? What kind of internal electronics? What kind of cable? What amp? What tubes? What speaker? What speaker size? configuration? GAH!!! The amount of options in a minimalist set up are dizzying! Somehow though contemplation and just gut-feeling and reaction I decided to pare down my rig to its most basic, pure elements. For me, that's a Gibson Les Paul Custom or Gibson SG, totally stock, or Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster (also stock) into a quality tube amp. Maybe a Marshall, Fender, Vox, or VHT, but something nice. And really, one of my secret amp weapons isn't even tube, it's solid state. So, really, just a good sounding, simple amp. The more simple the better. Preferably something with a single channel where I can manipulate tones based on onboard controls that the guitar provides via pickups, volume and tone controls.

I think we should all bow down before the genius of Brian Eno. Then stand up and slap in his limey face for continuing to produce U2. But his ambient music and approach is totally genius. I was watching a documentary on Brian Eno and he said something that struck me so deeply and profoundly. Eno was being interviewed in his studio and he picked up a Strat and noted that there were three pickup positions, essentially three sound options, and they were all gorgeous sounds. Then he pointed at a keyboard that had many, many options and opined it's uselessness. He said the following and it truly changed my outlook and has been my mantra ever since:

"What you need are fewer possibilities, that are more interesting. It's not more options that you want, it's more useful options." - Brian Eno

That's it. Eno has put into words what I had been struggling to verbalize for years. Granted, he's a pioneer and total genius who has been creating relevant work since before I was born, but- whatever. Eno man. Eno.

You see, he hit the nail directly on the head and hammered it flush to the wood. If you have a few interesting options, by virtue you'll never grow tired of them because they're interesting. In the same way a painting is static in that it doesn't really change - so also can a guitar sound be static but still interesting. You can change the lighting, and environment that a painting is in and that affects how you digest it. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is one thing, but if you would have seen it in a garage sale would you have looked twice? Maybe, maybe not. Context is everything. The painting will never change. Similar to my guitar sound and structure. But if you provide an interesting sound within a good context, it will never grow old. It will never be un-compelling. Take for example three bands that are brutal. AC/DC, Shellac, and Darkthrone. AC/DC is the sound of pure, driving rock and roll. Relentless in its approach and clean in its execution. The blueprint of rock and roll expanded upon while remaining true the the sonic purity of a guitar, amp, bass, drums, and voices kicking all kinds of rock and roll ass at a loud volume. Shellac is the perhaps the best indie/art rock band ever. Minimalist yet powerful. Every ounce of playing is masterful and plotted out. 100% pure sound. No gimmickry or fakery. Three men playing in a room. Granted two of those men are quite possibly the finest recording engineers in North America so it is bound to sound pretty freaking good, but the musicianship and songwriting is there. Totally. Darkthrone's 2nd through 4th albums are a study in monochromatic metal sound. The sound are a stark and plain as the cover images for those records. Nothing is overdone, nothing is overstated, yet at the same time it is so extreme and cold sounding that it washes over you and something that should be jarring is totally atmospheric and otherworldly. It's strangely relaxing.

Those three bands don't give a damn about you or how they make their music. They just do. They use what they have and they go for it. They are not limited by their instruments, at least not directly. So I have mentioned that I have a certain set of gear that I like to play through, which is nice and helps... but not important. Not that important.

Rule #4: Make it happen.

If you can't make something happen because you don't have a certain piece of gear or set up, you suck. That's all. If you have an army of pedals and you can't make SOMETHING cool happen just plugged in straight, let's say, on an impromptu gig - you're probably a hack who can't write songs. I know that sometimes effects and things are part of what inspires a song, but you know what I mean! If you're reliant on a certain thing to the point where if you remove it from the equation it becomes unrecognizable, this is generally a bad thing. I mean, even if you take the biggest douchebag guitarist of the 90s, Tom Morello and remove his whammy pedal and his wacky effects, you can still tell it's him playing. Even when he doesn't have the context of Rage Against The Machine. Man, remember Audioslave? Ughghh. It was Tom Morello alright, but it was as awful as ever. I digress. So under all these insults, I guess I sort of respect the guy for having his own style.

And what made me type out all this madness? Well, I played a church gig today. I played it with a bunch of kids that were 17. I think one kid was 20. They were all really young and optimistic and my goodness, overplayers. All of them. Lots of drum fills, lots of guitar fills, tons of effects, etc. It was a real experience to kind of help coach them along during the last week. I was humble in my approach but after our performance this Sunday they were all convinced of my ways. Rule #5 is a cliche, but it's true.

Rule #5: Less is more.

In trying to achieve a big sound people too often add. It is counterintuitive. To sound bigger, you should use less gain, not more. Play simply. Simplicity allow the music to open up and breathe and become powerful. It takes on its own dynamics that are built into the song. Now, for this type of church music I do carry two effects. Since I don't write the songs I have to cop parts and sounds that aren't mine. Of course, I do them in MY style, The other guitarist in the band was technically a better guitarist than me. Technically. He could play circles around me, but he did not have what I had... restraint, style, atmosphere, and taste. Now, keep in mind, this kid like 18, and one day when he embraces my ways he'll be a million times the guitarist I am, but for now, he was submissive to my ways. He over played. I showed him the style of the minimalist. Letting the music breathe and speaking slowly with a nice sound. Not harsh gain on a lead sound, or a barrage of fast sweep picking notes, but a musical breath of notes that speaks to the heart of the listener, not the ear of the musician.

I showed them how to dial it back. I asked that they trust me. It was a struggle for them to throw away a majority of their effects and licks, but they did and I think they saw a new world. We really knocked it out of the park. I generally like to have an amp set to a nice dirty rhythm tone with my volume on 7. Then when I need to do a lead or a stand-out part, I'll goose the control up to 10. This works nice for me. But for praise music, I need to pull from a distinct palate - clean and dirty. So I chose to use my Fulltone Fulldrive 2 which has a nice fluid, clear sound. As an additional feature it has a boost channel with a gain control so I can give my solos that searing melodious tone. Since I'm covering a lot of ground, I like having that flexibility of just hitting a switch for a lead tone. And since it is a church, we all know how much praise musicians love U2 and that delay/echo box guitar crap. It does have a nice chimey sound that appeals to me, but I'd opt for a Peter Buck sound over The Edge any day. But, covering Hillsong's fifteen friggin guitar parts played by twenty different players on my own means I need an echo box. My echo box of choice? The Ibanez AD-9 Analog Delay. I used it for a 50s style rockabilly snapback delay. Not some digital U2 style stereo crap. Since I'm playing in a big room I get a bit of that stereo effect from the natural reverberations. This type of music is a bit out of my zone, but I welcome it and embrace it with my style. Less gain, subtle echo and play with my own voice. Although my heavy metal Johnny Marr vibe was distinctly more Johnny Marr than heavy metal today, it was still MY STYLE.

After spending years of trying to find my own voice on guitar, I feel like I'm finally there. There is no more gear-slut, ever changing set-up, pedal-swapping, amp changing for me. I don't' want more options, I want to utilize my few useful options. It has truly opened up my ears and my hands to all kinds of new levels. It was a long journey, but I am here. Speaking of long journey, if you've made it to the end of this, you deserve a beer! I'll buy one for you next time we're out and about. All this thought and pondering and tinkering just to arrive at the bare essentials. It's not for everyone, but it is my way. It's my style.

I think one of the top compliments I have ever been paid was via my buddy Tim Lenger. I was showing him a song I was composing. I think I didn't tell him I was writing it, I just sort of played it while he was near. He laughed and said "Oh man, that's so Damian." He knew just through my style that what I was playing was an original composition. The real kicker is that I was trying to compose an original praise song, but it still came out all punk rock Johnny Marr. The fact that he recognized my style, for better or for worse, lets me know I'm right where I need to be. I will continue to grow on the instrument and expand my playing vocabulary, but it will still be "so Damian." Maybe my style will limit my future successes, but I won't compromise. It is my style, developed on my own. Maybe my style will be the reason behind my future successes. Either way, anytime I pick up a guitar and strum a chord it doesn't feel foreign. It feels like everything is where it should be.

(not proof-read or edited)



onegoodpenguin said...

I support this post and its references to Bluesbirds and AD9s. I enjoyed the part about your worship gig, I've been itching to play some music again and I haven't given pedals and technology much of a thought. Thought provoking stuff.

superloud said...

I agree as well. You are right about "atmosphere" - all the effects, gizmos, gadgets, forums, and garbage certainly do get in the way of this! Sometimes you need to ditch the effects and fluff and just play, you'll find out if you even like it. Much more can be said on this but if you don't get it then you just don't get it. Great article, Rock on Man!