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Three Ideas To Help Jumpstart Your Playing…and Your Tone


Aubrey Singer’s recent post on was a thought-provoking piece on sounding good through musical development, instead of just sound good through gear.

When it comes down to it, finding good-sounding gear is not that hard.  Musicians have a ton of choices out there, from generic to boutique to outright crazy.  Even so, not every pedal, amp or guitar sounds right for every player.  While finding the gear is easy, finding your sound is the tricky part.  And so our tone quest marches on.

After thinking about Aubrey’s post, I realized that the same thing goes for guitar instruction.  Through the magic of the internet, guitarists have a huge range of learning options available to them.  We can interact one-on-one with teachers, famous and not-so-famous, we can call up videos on YouTube any time of the day or not or we can find printed lessons and song tabs within mere seconds.  In my 26 years of guitar playing experience (though most of the time it sounds more like 26 minutes), I’m pretty sure I’ve done all of those.  And, just like gear, some methods have worked well, while others have left me wanting.

Still, Aubrey makes a very important point: we can make any piece of gear sound great (or at least interesting and musical) if we take care of our chops.  And in the last couple of years, I’ve had some major revelations about playing music that have made a tremendous difference in my guitar playing.  And it’s all amazingly basic stuff…at least for me it was.  I hope one or two of them work for you and help you get the most of your gear!

Stomp that foot

I don’t claim to have spent significant time with every online lesson out there, but many that I have used seem to neglect the importance of rhythm.  My first guitar teacher, a multi-instrumentalist with tons of experience playing in group situations, once told me that if you’re forced to choose between playing a bum note or playing out of time, choose the bum note (and call it “jazz”…cue the rimshot). Playing out of time, especially in a band situation, could make the whole ensemble sound awful, whereas a bum note is at least a temporary issue that would probably solve itself almost immediately.

A teacher (whose name you probably know) that I take online lessons with emphasizes the importance of the foot stomp when playing.  This is exactly what it sounds like; you simply stomp your foot at a tempo of your choosing and play to the beat.  It’s not the same as using a metronome, though (something he actually discourages).  The physical movement and feeling of your foot stomping literally puts you in the groove.  Instead of hearing a beat, you really feel it.

It took a little while to get used to stomping my foot, but I noticed almost right away that I actually exerted less effort trying to play speedier lines, my playing had a more melodic quality, and my lines actually started to “swing” a little more.  The foot stomp, more than anything, really improved my playing overall.

pedals-the-screamer_4Make your guitar talk

Read something, anything, aloud to yourself.  Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Line 6

Great job! We would’ve chosen something other than that strange Back to the Future fan fiction novel you picked up, but it’s the thought that counts.  Anyway, listen to your voice when you read something aloud.  Unless you are purposefully attempting to sound like a monotonous robot, you probably varied the speed and cadence at which you recited the words.  Your voice probably got louder at some points and softer at others.  You may have even thrown in a couple of “ummms” or “ahhhs” or paused to take a breath.

This is another technique that improved my playing almost immediately.  Instead of worrying about how fast I was moving from note to note, I was finding natural spots to add more dynamics or space into my lines simply by thinking about the way humans talk and mimicking it.  I also found the natural speed variations added more interest to my playing.  It’s a nice way of adding variation to your playing that let’s you take better advantage of the natural dynamism of overdrive pedals like the Baroni Labs  “The Screamer”  and Maxon OD series.

Slow down

Once again, if you’re reading, you’re a player who takes a particular interest in gear and the sounds it makes.  So why not slow down and enjoy it a little bit?  Yeah, playing fast is definitely cool and sounds great on it’s own, but a few tastefully executed slow bends and sustained notes can add killer drama to your solos.  And varying your speed can have the effect of making your fast runs sound that much faster and climactic.

USM-RD1CWEBYou also get to settle right into the wheelhouse of some amps with amazing sustain characteristics, like the Carvin Legacy 3  or even the pint-sized Randall RD1C Diavlo.  And, of course if the natural sustain in your current rig just isn’t cutting it, a pedal like the DOD Compressor 280 can add singing smoothness to your licks.

We often talk about our quests for tone being never-ending, but we can’t let our gear quests overshadow the journey to simply becoming a better musician.  Instead, we should seem them a complementary missions.  Experimenting with different pedals, amps and guitars will often trigger new inspiration and ideas, and continuing to develop our ears and technique will help us get the most out of the gear we acquire.  And thanks to the magic of the Internet, we have plenty of resources to help us find both.

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