Digging for Greatness: What Happened to the Era of Great Guitar Players?

It is well recognized that the days of gun-slinging guitar players such as Jimi Hendrix, and Leslie West are well over. The countless rock shows filled with the fluff and theatrics of burning guitars, four hour long guitar solos, and the ear-shattering volume of Marshall amplifiers three stories high have all retired, along with those who originally performed this way. However, what happened to The Greats?

No, we haven’t lost these awe-inspiring heroes of old such as Jimmy Page or Stevie Ray Vaughan to the sands of time, but where are the creative geniuses destined to follow in their footsteps? The answer is more complex than one might think. The qualities one must have to become a Great would follow along the lines of an innovator, a developer of a new approach, skillful in playing at any genre, speed, or creative setting, and has a tone all their own. A master in the same way that Picasso was a master artisan, pioneering the French impressionist period. Today, a bit if digging is needed to find anything close to players of this caliber.

To begin with the understanding of why such a strange phenomena of the extinction of Great has occurred, the musical equipment used by today’s industry must first be understood and scrutinized. Digital and easy to replicate equipment such as effect pedals, amplifiers, and other such tonal shaping tools have been glorified and over-exaggerated before being drafted into the newest versions of any major recording equipment/software. To get one’s hands on the tone of their “idols” is a matter of downloading an App, rather than slaving away in a hot garage over a single guitar, a single amplifier. Sure, this way is more comfortable, but what or where is the creativity?

Although such new technology is an absolute Godsend to those such as I who record and write on a weekly basis, it must work hand in hand with creativity and genius, in order to reproduce anything greater than what was created in the first place. That being said, the creative force which drives any musician worth his or her salt is diminished the moment the individual does not have to think for themselves; putting their brain on auto-pilot whilst software works out a melody for them. This in turn removes the ideas of music theory from them; not knowing why certain chord changes work together, or even why scales are made up in the manner in which they are laid out, only that because it sounds “right” to them, that it goes together. Now in a way, this is not a bad thing. After all, that is the basic institution of ear-training is it not? But something like a brilliant software like Garageband can have its limitations on the human psyche before the spirit of songwriting a skill starts to diminish.

The Greats of olde began learning to play guitar in a time when such recording and writing techniques were in their infancy. Reel-to-reel, 4-Track, and other such magnetic tape-based recording devices were primarily all there were to offer in a recording sense no matter your level of proficiency or fame. Not only were recording techniques shrewd by today’s standards, but the way these musicians learned to play is a giant determining factor to their greatness. Often growing up poor, many of The Greats grew up with nothing to do or play with, other than maybe a beat up old guitar. It probably didn’t play well, and it may not have even had strings, however these musicians at a young age began to innovate the way they played guitar based on the restrictions they had naturally placed upon themselves as young players.

Today, even cheap guitars can easily be made to play fantastically well, but as a teacher, I personally warn against having your guitars adjusted to playing too nicely for the first few years of learning. Otherwise you spoil your hands, giving them nothing to build resistance and muscle tone/memory upon. Of course, this is merely a way to familiarize oneself with making precision movements over the fretboard, etc under any playing circumstance, strengthening the hands and forcing one to spend copious amounts of time fine tuning one’s own personal technique. I’ve told many people who assume because they are buying breathtakingly expensive equipment who think they’ll have a perfect tone that “you’re doing it all backwards”. You struggle, fight it, learn it, bond with it. Spend thousands of hours and hundreds of dollars rather than thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours perfecting one’s own personal sound. After all, some of the most iconic music of the 20th century was written and recorded on surprisingly cheap and sometimes hard to play equipment.

The next aspect of said conundrum involves the discipline with playing at such a high level of expertise. The musicians which you see recording the most timeless music with the most elegant and complex styles are the ones who have absolutely dedicated their lives to the instrument, not surprisingly the song. Once one has mastered the instrument, and type of genre of music or complexity of song is remarkably achievable with a relatively small matter of practice in comparison to the thousands upon thousands of hours locked away in a quiet room repeating the mantra of scales and chordings, over and over again. in the same way that a Buddhist monk meditates to the point of Nirvana, a musician must play to the point of perfection on his instrument; until it has become little more than the extension of one’s body.

Glen Hansard's "Horse"

Of course in a world where we as a people are collectively more and more busy with our day to day lives, much of the time tha could have been spent is used for our careers, education, etc. This makes and effort of concentration and learning that much more difficult, with only a few finding the time between life and sleep to actually do any learning. This is why it is to one’s best advantage that he or she begins the process of learning guitar as early in life as possible, building a strong foundation to build with as the musician grows older, and more busy. As always with any art form-turned hobby, here are those who believe that playing twenty to thirty minutes a day, not to mention the same musical pieces and warm-ups will become exponentially better. This is sadly quite the opposite. If everyone was able to sit down on their lunch break and learn as such, there would be much fewer accounts and lawyers graduating with degrees, but rather touring to sold out theaters.

Dedication is, before anything else, the deciding factor on the proficiency of any given musician. Bar none.

This still is not all that is required of an individual to truly become one of The Greats. The quality and personality of one’s tone is crucial to being heard differently by an audience. The biggest problem I have seen in recent years is the crutch of the pedalboard. Guitarists in particular have be slowly increasing the size of their pedalboards for years, but what does that matter? That creates left-brained thinkers and innovators, right? Well yes and no. Yes to whosoever is using their effects not to drown out their mistakes or the fact that they are in all honesty, awful at guitar, but only to color the sound or palate, or use the effects to all together aid in the melody that he or her the musician has created. No to whosoever is using them, believes they are “pushing the boundaries”, but are doing nothing more than following the current trends of every other player with an Instagram or Flickr account. These pedalboards usually consist of a few low gain overdrives, a volume pedal (as if hand dynamics have gone extinct), a delay or two, and a reverb. Every last person sounds exactly the same as the others. Same guitars. Same amplifiers. No talent. No dedication. This is how musicians believe they are changing the way they approach music. They couldn’t be more wrong.

If you love effects as much has I do, use them properly. Use them for the reason they were invented to be used; to make one sound like no one else on the airwaves to date. Change the order of effects, use them for things that don’t make sense (like a Fuzz pedal for an overdrive). Yes, it will be experimental, and no, one will not always like what one hears, but if one can combine the quality of their musicianship with their drive to sound like oneself, one’s voice will be heard. I myself had a similar problem up until recently, when I realized this every problem. As most people who build equipment setups this way, my cleans were too squeaky, my drives too grainy, my guitar too thin, and my delay too “Edge-ish”. So I did the best thing there was for me to do. I removed my pedalboard, changed my amp settings, and adjusted my guitar. For 6 weeks I forced myself to play nothing other than the ideas that came out of my head, making me incredibly vulnerable.

I was vulnerable in a beautiful way. I began to experiment, and learn as if I had just picked up the guitar for the first time in years. I began learning Middle Eastern guitar techniques and Indian guitar, Japanese scales and South American chord voicings. I reinvented the wheel, and that is how a Great comes to fruition. I am not stating such things in order to brag and worship myself, but rather to inform that even I after fourteen years of playing, am learning at an alarming rate, and if I can, why can’t those stuck in this observational rut of being musically dead do exactly the same. The answer is they can. The problem is no one has told them so. But what is genius and divine inspiration if one has to be told to do so? It is nothing more than the catalyst for the same reason we have to problem with uninteresting players flooding the market for those who can actually play today. Everything they learn comes from somewhere else, not themselves.



Cleanliness is not Nessesarily Next to Godliness

soapWhat I believed to be the foundation in my constantly expanding sonic dialogue has been shaken, crumbled, and rebuilt. I had thought for years that to gain the perfect tone in your playing, you must start out with a perfectly clean fundamental tone. I did and still do believe to an extent that the high gain screeching of the 70’s and 80’s rock guitar gods was a barbaric and primitive style of expression, reserved for those who didn’t have the knowledge nor the patience to truly sculpt their own sound. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule: There is the soulful blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Ballsy-but-clean Led Zeppelin, and the classic and natural sound of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, but the list is much shorter than most people perceive it to be. The genre “Classic Rock” is anything but; filled with the he-man garbage of many a one hit wonder, but on occasion the music industry gets it right with bands like those listed above, and it is these bands that have inspired my next move artistically.

For those of you who know me, I am an aficionado of fuzz effects. The type of gain that is an almost 180 degree turn from the distorted Marshalls of classic rockdom. Thick and low gain, becoming lower and lower in fidelity with a thumping low end driving the amplifiers tubes into oblivion. Unlike regular distortion, fuzz gives you a more tangible feel for the gain stage of your signal. More cutthroat than the hardest distortion in some cases, and yet it can be more dynamic depending on the effect. The fuzz then is an extremely dynamic instrument, yet… yet this wasn’t working for me anymore.

Yes, fuzz does and will always have a place in my heart and on my board, but the difference between my clean sound and fuzz is just too drastic. To transfer from a smooth silky ala “Bon Iver” style verse to a heavier chorus using fuzz almost changes the attitude of the song, even at lower gain settings. Moving on from fuzz, I decided to try the extreme low gain types of boosts/overdrives. I’ve had and still use a Blackeye Effects Palmetto, a JHS Morning Glory V3 overdrive, and a DMB Cosmic Crunch among other low gain alternatives and still the difference between the two types of distortion couldn’t be spanned by a suspension bridge.

This is where I currently reside. I understand that I need a middle ground alternative to bridge the gap between crazy low and gritty high gain, without the thin snarly classic rock sound. After much deliberation and several hours of asking around and trying out, I have narrowed it down to two options. With both amps still set on a fairly clean setting, a JHS Angry Charlie or a boutique type of Klon Clone would both have enough gain to push the delays, amps, octave effects, and reverb just enough to squeeze every last drop of tone out of my rig.

My previously distorted ideas of distortion have been wiped clean, realizing that given enough searching and tweaking, I can make it work to better my own sound. Adding a rumble underneath the dark, rolling repeats of a Dbucket-style delay, or to push a smooth plate reverb just enough to lengthen the decay and boost its mix. This is how I will utilize the distortion effect to my own advantage, and how I will apply it to change the style of my music.

Simplicity is Bliss

I know what you’re thinking; I have to be the most self-contradicting burk humanity has ever beheld for making such a statement after building one of the most difficult to understand stereo setups I could find. But, on the contrary, I completely understand the concept of simplicity in a gigging musicians environment. Although I run through up to sixteen pedals at a time, my signal path only runs through two before entering the front of my amp. I only use one guitar for ninety five percent of my work; I have only used two amp for an entire album, and even more amazingly my live setup this week has been boiled down to become even more logistically logical than ever before. Therefore on paper, and in the studio, my rig does its job beautifully, but when push comes to shove, simplicity makes the life of a working musician easier, and from time to time better sounding.

The reason I am writing on this topic is because of this past Sunday morning’s worship service I had been invited to play at, at Forest Hill Baptist Church. After being invited by my friend and seriously talented musician Christopher, I sat down with my current setup to run though and hone sounds for the Sunday morning service. After several hours of tweaking my pedalboard, amps, and even changing out guitars, I came to this simple conclusion: This is not going to work. As much as I love the sound that this large amount of equipment gives me, I need to think smaller, and easier for this specific type of gig.

I decided that for worship music there are only four types of effects that are nessessary for a great sounding set, of which are compressor, drive, delay, and reverb. Only one amp was needed, which I instantly picked the AC30, and only one guitar, which naturally was going to be my Fender Stratocaster. When I had been employed at one particular church in years past, I had used a similar setup to craft “my” tone, which I still use to this day. I had started out with an Ibanez TS-7 Tubescreamer, which I later gain-stacked with a Boss BD-2 Blues Driver. Shortly after, I discovered delay in the form of a Ibanez AD-9 Analog Delay, and the world changed. I began using more reverb and low-wattage combo amps, as well as the same Fender Stratocaster I still use today. This old-school, analog style was the direction I wanted to take myself again, so I quickly began to pull my new rig apart.

Surprisingly, I only needed one pedal (The MojoHandFX Clementine compressor) which was permanent to my “Mothership” pedalboard to complete the new “Analog Baby” flatboard. I used the tabletop from an old seventies T.V. Table for the board itself, and after upholstering it with hooked velcro carpet and adding modern stainless steel handles, was ready for the addition of effects.

I started with the copmressor; my MojoHandFX Clementine. The Clementine is a simple, one knob compressor/booster that I use at the front of my signal to not only add a light compression to the overall sound, but for its incredible clarity. I have never heard a pedal which can add such a full-spectrum sound, with only a single volume knob! Talk about simple setups! Moving on to the drive section, I used a JHS Morning Glory (V3) low gain overdrive, for its natural, smooth clipping and the way that it pushes my amp instead of coloring its tone. With the tone rolled back while just using the Vox AC30, I was able to emulate some of the great worship lead guitar tones, with just a single click of my foot, making this one of the all-time great analog overdrives. 

Picking the delay was a bit of a harder choice. I wanted to definitely use an analog type D-Bucket circuit, but with my small collection of delays slowing growing as I can afford them, the choice was a little difficult. I finally settled on my original Ibanez AD-9; genesis. This was the first, and what I would consider to be one of the best analog delay pedals ever made, which made it a clear answer as to which delay I should use on my home-brewed analog board.

Finally, I finished my board with a bit of a surprise. I had received my Malekko Chicklet reverb as a Christmas present four or five years ago, and quickly began to hate it. At the time, I wanted a smooth and clear plate reverb, or a hall/arena type reverb unit that could sit nicely behind a digital delay. After buying a Strymon BlueSky, I gave the Chicklet the boot, leaving it on a shelf for the last few years. I never had the heart to sell it because I believed it to be a wonderful emulation of a spring reverb, but I could never find the place to use it. I never even sound-checked the board after installing the Chicklet, but once on stage at Forest Hills, I began kicking myself in the head for not using it more. Sitting in front of my Vox, it had a airy creaminess that my BlueSky, no matter the tweaking just couldn’t match. This may have differed if I had been using my stereo amp rig, but running such a pedal into a single combo amp was exactly what I was looking for in an analog-eques reverb pedal. 

For the amp settings, everything remained the same, save the volume which was almost halved. Luckily, this made for a sweeter and chimier sounding AC30, reminiscent of Vox tones from years’ past. I kept the amp off the floor, on an amp stand at a forty five degree angle, projecting out into the front of house.

Once plugged in, I was taken back a few years to the church where my search for my own personal tone began. The exactly same organic, clear, balanced and bell-like tone all came back in a flood of sound. Simplicity in many cases can trump complexity, just as in the way one plays an instrument. I love the sound of my “Analog Baby” just as I love the sound of the “Mothership” in their own different ways, just as you love the sound of an Alembic or a Telecaster in much the same way. I have changed my AD-9 out for a more versatile DMB Lunar Echo, but the idea is the same; being a good musician is not in the same as being a clever musician. Things such as guitars, amps and effects should not be used to hide your imperfections, but enhance your abilities.