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Quest for Tone – The “Holy Grail” [Part III]

Howdy Kids (since most of you are younger than me, that means all of you in your teen’s, twenty’s, thirties, even…GULP…your forties!!! Yeah, I’m an old fart, but I can still out rock most people ½ my age…smiley face goes here…) I haven’t forgotten about you guys. Been packing stuff up to move my shop, plus acquiring more equipment & stuff for the shop. We should be all moved by the middle of September. Just been extremely busy, that’s all. So let’s do a little recap of what we have talked about so far.

This is the third installment of The Search for the “Holy Grail”. If you haven’t read the other two, we suggest you check them out:

The Search for the Holy Grail Part IThe Search for the Holy Grail Part II

  1. WARM UP before you practice. This prevents injuries such as strained ligaments. All top level pros warm up prior to a concert, recording, or practice session. Your hands are your most important tools when playing guitar or bass. So you gotta take care of ‘em!!!
  2. Practice SLOWLY!!! Make sure your notes are perfect. Speed will come automatically, don’t rush it! Just as the Martial Artist learns his or her moves in slow motion, practicing them until they are perfected then builds the speed, as musicians we must do the same.
  3. Practice DAILY!!! Make yourself a daily regimen. It is good to get yourself a calandar or a day planner, write down a regimen for each day of the month. That way you have a guide, a road map if you will.
  4. USE A METRONOME!!! Timing is everything. If you are out of time, even the most killer solo, or passionate fill, or groovy (Jeez, did I really say Groovy?) rhythm will sound like crap. So make sure you get in time & stay in time!!!
  5. PLAY CLEAN!!! This means NO EFFECTS!!!! Effects mask & muddy your signal path. If you can’t hear your mistakes, you cannot correct them. Playing clean will allow you to hear your mistakes. Playing with fuzz, overdrive, flange, distortion, & wah won’t.
  6. Shuffle things around!!! Don’t just play your chords & scales chromatically. Mix them up in ascending & descending sequences. Try making up your own riffs. Licks, & rhythms based on your scales & associated chords.
  7. Play Legato!!! Play with your left hand only. Play your scale patterns at the 5th fret or above, and drape a washcloth or small hand towel between the nut and your fretting hand to deaden (mute) the open strings and prevent sympathetig ring between strings. As you improve your legato techniques, you can then remove the towel and you will be amazed at how much better your hammer ons, pull off’s, trills and bends wil sound.
  8. FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS!!!! Turn off all distractions.TV, Radio, Phones (Yeah, even the cell) and focus 100% of your mind on your playing. For you married guys, I know your pain. Wives don’t come with a MUTE button. (LOL) For you married ladies, you have it much easier…just give him the tv remote in another room & tell him there’s a game on channel whatever. You will have a couple hours to yourself to learn & practice.
  9. Record your practice sessions. It is almost impossible to both play & accurately critique your playing at the same time. Invest in an inexpensive recording device and take time to listen to yourself. Don’t be overly critical. Just see where you need work & work on it.

Moving Along…

O.K. Enough pep talk & review. We have spent time on the left hand (Right hand if’n yer a southpaw) techniques & general tone improvement. So let’s take a look at what we can do to improve our right ( uh left if yer a lefty) hand techniques to better our tone.

When we go to sound our notes or chords, how we pick, pluck, strum, tap, pinch, or even mute our strings makes a huge impact on our tone, and on our sound. Whether picking, plucking, or strumming, everything matters. From how hard or soft we attack the strings, to how even that attack is. Harder is usually not necessary, contrary to popular belief. This is specifically true when we are talking about electrified instruments. What most amateurs and many professionals don’t realize is that the whole purpose of the pickup(s), amp(s), and electronic signal chain is to generate VOLUME first & foremost. That being said, why not let the electronics do their job in such a way as to allow you to do yours without wasting energy…your energy. Simply put, as long as the guitar is plugged into the amp, and the amp has line voltage, and the switch is in the “ON” position, the chain will never tire out, but you will. So why not use that electrical factoid to your advntage?

Do not confuse faster with harder. Those are two entirely different animals. Just like Lions & Tigers. Both very large cats to be sure, but two entirely different creatures.

In the world of guitar & bass playing, speed is equal to less pressure on the strings while volume equates to more pressure on the strings. Not to say there aren’t reasons or times for you to really “dig in” with the pick or your fingers, but in doing so, it will tend to slow you down and if not done properly will make you sound sloppy. Sloppy in any form is antithetical to good tone. Period. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar or a fool, or a sloppy player. Notice the keyword here is “PROPERLY”. Just like everything else, there is a right way and a wrong way.

There are a variety of other facets to how good, or bad our tone is when it comes to playing our notes with our “Picking Hand”. The type of pick material, the thickness, the size & shape of our picks, the angle at which we strike the strings, the depth we reach when picking or strumming, even how we hold the pick & where we pick or strum the strings.

We have a lot of ground to cover over the next few weeks with regard to right (or left) hand picking techniques, and how to improve them. So bear with me. You are about to learn that some of the improvement techniques we use for our fretting hands, we also use for our picking hands.

Sidenote: Don’t Sound Like Crap

  • USE A METRONOME!!!! I can’t stress this enough. If you cannot pick or strum in time, you will sound like KA-KA. Period!!! I don’t care if you have a $50,000.00 Les Paul Gold Top and a wall of Marshall full stacks. If your picking & strumming is off, you may as well pack your tone up in a Pampers because that’s what you will sound like.

Take each of the techniques we will show you, use a metronome, start slow…around 60 BPM (Beats per minute) and focus on clean, perfect, even sounding notes. Getting the notes to be even means even in both volume & clarity. Remember, you can always raise the volume by turning a knob on your amp or guitar/bass. So clean even notes picked slightly softer to make the volume even will clean up your tone immensely. I have my students work at smooth even picking by using open strings first. After they become familiar with what smooth even notes sound like, while only down picking, then I have them start adding in notes from either a chord or a scale. (This depends on the individual student & how quick they are on the uptake.) After they are familiar with all down picking, and can do so smoothly & evenly, then I have them do the same thing using only up picking. From there I have them alternate pick. Once again it is to develop their skill at smooth & even above & beyond all else. An inexpensive mixer with LED’s for the VU meter helps out in this (Go to www.AxCaliburIndustries.com, I have some really nice ones at a very reasonable price) as you can place it in line between your guitar & amp and use it LED’s to keep you at the same volume level. If you pick to soft, you will have few, if any LED’s lit up. If you pick to hard, you will overmodulate and most or all of them will light up. Set it up so when you are smooth & even the LED’s on the VU meter read 0db. If you play too soft, you will see -2, -4, -6 db. If you are playing too hard, you will see +2, +4, +6 db. Learn to keep it “Clean & Green”. Be sure that you have the volume knob on your guitar or bass all the way up, but your amp turned down. This takes all the guess work out of setting the VU meters. All channels to 0db. Your ears can and will deceive you. But the meter won’t lie, it only measures, and far and away much more accurately than your ears ever will.

Once you can get up to 120 BPM in a 4/4 beat playing 1/8th notes, and they are all smooth & even, you will find a dramatic difference in your tone.

Under Pressure

One of the biggest mistakes guitarists make is using too much pressure to sound their notes. I recommend that someone who is really serious about smoothing out their picking, getting faster, smoother, & cleaner, invest in a STYLUS PICK. You can order them from www.styluspick.com. These are really great because they force you to lighten up. Pick too hard or too deep, and the pick is designed to stop dead in its tracks. Because of this, you will train your hand to use a lighter touch. The stylus pick really helps you with your alternate & tremolo picking techniques. For some really good picking exercises, I recommend 3 books/CD’s/DVD’s. The first is “Terrifying Techniques For Guitar” by Carl Culpepper. The second is “Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar” by Troy Stetina. The last is the “30 Day Guitar Workout” by Jody Fisher. (Tip: Use the stylus pick to practice the excercises in these books. You get the best of both worlds. The books give you the techniques, the pick forces you to do them right!!!) All of these books are available at Guitar Center, as well as Music dispatch (www.musicdispatch.com).

OK Boyz & goylz, go get your axes, your stylus picks, your metronomes, order up the books, and get going.

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About AxCalibur-Industries

Owner/ AxCalibur Industries

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