Friday, September 9, 2011

Covert Chops

Long time - no blog. But that's to be expected. My blog fu is not strong.

Today's topic is COVERT CHOPS.

To a musician/singer, chops is a term used to indicate a high skill level, I.E, 'did you hear that guitar solo! that dude has CHOPS!'

Urban definition:
Ability to play a musical instrument. From the slang term "chops" for jaw, it originally referred to singers and perhaps wind instrumentalists. It eventually grew to include any type of instrument, though it is mostly used for instruments in more popular styles. (That is, you're more likely to hear about Eddie van Halen's chops than Yo-Yo Ma's.)

But what I want to blog about are 'Covert Chops'. The chops that most people don't notice.
The stuff that in my not-always-as-humble-as-i-should-be opinion is the most important.

Covert Chop #1 - TIMING
A lot of musicians have a high level of technique, immense scale knowledge, etc, but lack a very basic ability - playing in time. 
Matthew 5:37 says 'Let your 'Yes' be Yes, and let your 'No' be No. 
With that same bluntness, I say this: let your 1's fall on the 1's. Let your 2's fall on the 2's. 
Let your accented, anticipated 3-and be, well, a beautifully accented, anticipated 3-and.

I've seen everyone from beginners, to intermediate, to expert, degree level players and singers make the mistake of being lazy with timing. It's not cool. 

How to improve? 
Practice with a metronome. (And actually practice) You can't know exactly where a 2-E-and-A is with out listen and counting carefully at a wide range of tempos.
And listen critically to your own playing. Ideally, record your own playing. 
Often we just get used to our slack playing, and will have a tendency to ignore our timing issues.

Covert Chop #2 - JUST SHUT UP, WILL YOU!

'Silence is the secret to sanity.'
Astrid Alauda

Billions and billions of musicians just don't know when to shut up. They fill every single fleeting shaft of light that even closely resembles a gap with their little riffs/fills/vibrato/runs/slides/wah pedals (wait, that's only Metallica) and goodness knows what else.

It's really, really important to let the music breathe. Step back for a verse. By simply shutting up, you might learn that your bassist is doing something really cool and clever. And by shutting up, you just made space for that cool clever little thing to be the star for a verse.

There's shutting up for a verse, but even more important is shutting up within parts. Check out this song:

This song has a unbelievable keyboard part - and everyone else carefully makes space. 
The drummer doesn't do a fill or any extra color until the first chorus. 
The bass is playing a single notes on the 1's with an tiny bit more on 3. 
Guitar one is playing a single strum on 1 with a wah. 
Guitar 2 playing the chords, but sparsely.
And then in slides a svelte, well dressed, dirty little minx of a keyboard riff with such confidence and groove it takes my breath away. Nice work, and great Covert Chops, Stereophonics.

Covert Chop #3 - Tuning

A simple one, but important nonetheless.
You don't want to be this guy:

Or these idiots:

Anyway, I think thats enough for tonight - I need to go to bed. 

I'll leave you with a final tip. Spend as much time on Covert Chops as you do on technique, and you'll be a flipping excellent musician in no time.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

ben's guitar tone primer

I remembered that I've never done a post on guitar tone. 

Clearly, this must be remedied, ASAP.

We've all heard guitarists who we would rather not hear. Guitarists who have a guitar sound that is almost physically painful to listen to. Here's a few of my tips based on nearly 11 years of playing guitar on how to develop your own guitar sound, (and a guitar sound which other people can stand)

1. Less = More:

Say I had $2000 to build a pedalboard. I could use that money to purchase approximately 33 Behringer pedals. I could use that money to buy around 12 Boss pedals or I could use that money to buy 2-3 high end pedals from Empress, or Strymon, or Eventide, or any other flash brand.

Option a would get me a huge pile of different sounds. But they would be unreliable, noisy and many of them would actually sound pretty bad. Also, with 33 pedals at your feet, it would be ghastly to find the right sound in time. And they are ugly. and ghetto as. 

Option b would get me a large pile of different sounds, and Boss pedals are well made, so they would be reliable. But still, not every pedal would truly sound incredible. Might also be noisy.

Option c is more my cup of tea. I would hand pick just a few pedals, all of which have amazing sounds. They would be quiet, reliable and easy to use. I could hang on to these pedals for 20 years, as they're made to last.

2. Buy a tuner pedal.

It's not complicated. An in-tune guitar sounds significantly better than a out-of-tune one.
And if you buy a tuner pedal, it's easy, quick and silent to tune your guitar. No excuses. Bassists too. go buy one.
I recommend:
Korg PitchBlack or Boss TU3. Both around $150 kiwi pesos

3. Distortion works best in stages:

Lots of guitarists seem to have two sounds. Clean, and nuclear disaster. Best to have an in between level as well. And dial back the nuclear disaster to a simple bogan beating, please.
So: Clean. Overdriven. Distortion.

This allows you to build the energy of your guitar sound, as the song's energy builds.

4. Chose your tone with ears close to the speaker:

When you mic a guitar amp, where does the microphone go? Right up close to the speaker.
But when we set our tone, we tend to stand on the other side of the room, often meters away. Up close, it sounds brighter, harsher, and more aggressive. And that is what us dumb guitar players feed to the sound tech. The sound tech feeds that to the congregation/audience. Nasty. So set your EQ and distortion levels while sitting close to the speaker. You will sound better in the PA. Guaranteed. 

5. Figure out what you really need:

I play mostly modern praise and worship music. This means I need an overdrive, a delay with tap tempo for those U2/Hillsong delay sounds, and a higher gain overdrive for solos, lead lines and bridges.
There's no point in spending hundreds of bucks for a Univibe if I don't need it.
In the same way, if you play in a Bon Jovi cover band, you won't need a delay, and you will need a talkbox.

6. Get your guitar fixed up:

Any half-decent guitar technician can fix up your guitar so that it sounds in tune, and it is easy to play. Get it done once a year. In Wellington I use Kenny Duncan 021 235 7000, on Manners Mall.

7. Don't spend all your money on pedals:

At the end of the day effects pedals are just that - something that effects the sound. Before you go crazy on pedals and toys, make sure your guitar, and your amp sound tasty. You don't need to spend a fortune, but you really need your guitar+amp combination to sound GREAT. If your amp and guitar sounds bad, adding pedals is like rolling a turd in glitter. Sure, it may look better, but it's still poo.

8. Don't skimp on the boring bits:

So you could spend $200 on a set of high quality cables OR spend it on a new flash whosameewhatsit pedal that does some crazy weird noise. The pedal is more exciting. The cables will make your rig sound better and be more reliable. Get the cables. You need to know your rig will always work. In the same way, buy a good power supply. I used to find my rig was noisy on some days, or certain stages, or in certain rooms. I splurged significant bucks on a Voodoo Labs PedalPower 2+ and have never had the slightest issue with hum or noise since. 
(reminds me, I really need to buy another good power supply for my acoustic pedalboard.)

and that's all that comes to mind right now. Hope that helps someone.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

ex·cel·lence      [ˈɛksələns]
1. the state or quality of excelling or being exceptionally good; extreme merit; superiority
2. an action, characteristic, feature, etc., in which a person excels
au·then·tic·i·ty  (ôthn-ts-t)
1. the quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.
We in the western church seem to spend plenty of time talking about excellence. 
Especially in regards to worship. 
But I reckon that on it's own, excellence is not much use. 
These two concepts, excellence and authenticity, are very much like espresso and gently frothed milk, 
I.E, absolutely made for each other. 
Or if you don't drink coffee, try this comparison, mint sauce and roast lamb. mmm.
Or maybe a better example is Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. They couldn't live without each other. 
The thing is this. excellence is easily measured. how do you measure authenticity?
But it's authenticity that the church needs most.
authentic love for others
authentic grace in forgiving others
authentic worship
authentic lives that are full of God's life-light, all week long, not just on Sundays
I believe authentic, Godly love in people's lives is the number one thing that attracts people to God. 
John 4:23-24 says; 
'It's who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That's the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him. God is sheer being itself - Spirit. 
Those who worship him must do it of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.'
I still have no idea how to measure authenticity. But that verse of scripture is a pretty good checklist to check yourself against.
But what of excellence?
Imagine you're an architect. You have a genuine relationship with Jesus. You love church, reach out to your neighbors, read the Word. But you are a terrible architect. You are lazy at work, don't get on with your colleagues, are late on every deadline, and when you finally do design something, it's the hideously ugly New Zealand Supreme Court:

Maybe you have an authentic love and relationship with Jesus. But do your friends see that? Does your boss see that? or are you just a frustration? Your lack of excellence has damaged your authenticity.
2 Peter 1.5 says:
'So don't lose a minute in building on what you've been given, 
complementing your basic faith with 
good character, 
spiritual understanding, 
alert discipline, 
passionate patience, 
reverent wonder, 
warm friendliness, 
and generous love
each dimension fitting into and developing the others. 
With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus.
be excellent. but not for yourself, or for glory, or recognition, or money, or reputation. 
Do it out of an authentic love for our God, maker of heaven and earth, creator of all things.
if excellence and authenticity walk hand in hand in your life, you will be living your best possible life, the life God always planned for you to lead.