How much difference do construction methods make to the sound of an electric guitar?

Do you remember that scene from Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian” where Brian goes up to a group of people at the gladiatorial games and asks:

Are you the Judean Peoples’ Front?”

If you’ve seen the film (and if not, why not?) then you’ll remember the reply…

F*%K OFF! We’re the People’s Front of Judea, mate!”

What this illustrates is that there is no difference too trivial for folks to get upset with each other about. The same is true in guitar circles. Simply Google the term “tone wood” and you will, in all likelihood, be directed to any one of dozens of sites where the debate rages… swamp ash makes the best strat bodies, and basswood sounds like crap… a Les Paul with an ebony fretboard MUST sound different from one with a rosewood board… etc. etc.

Some say that a guitar made from plywood will/will not sound totally different to one made from kiln dried Honduran mahogany, or that a coat of lacquer on a guitar does/doesn’t kill the sound (pick a side). These disagreements often happen in the most vociferous manner. Name calling ensues, forum admin get involved and people who SHOULD share a common interest (the guitar) end up making enemies of each other. How VERY sad.

Bearing all that in mind, I thought I’d join the debate. One of my favourite guitars is a cheap & cheerful Les Paul copy by Harley Benton. Now, I HAVE owned a “real” Les Paul or two in my time, so I DO have a benchmark to judge it against. This little Chinese made knock off is as good as any USA built Gibson. And I am 100% right about that! I can say this because whether ANY musical instrument sounds good or not is a matter of personal taste. Unless there is scientific evidence (and we’ll return to that point later), it all comes down to one question: Do I like the sound this guitar makes and is it comfortable to play? If the answer is “yes” then you have a good guitar on your hands, even if it’s a cheap knock-off. If the answer is “no” then you don’t… even if it cost you the same as a small car.

When you look at the construction methods employed by the “boutique” guitar makers and how they differ from the instruments made in the far east you’ll begin to see why anything with “Made In The USA” stamped on it costs so much more:

Methods Of Guitar Construction

The question is, though, does any of this make a difference to the sound? Well, in my experience, I just don’t think it does. As I say, my little £120 Harley Benton sounds (to my ears) just as “Les-Paul” like as either of my Gibsons ever did. Judge for yourself here (I’ll tell you which guitar was which at the end of this post):

http://geetarjohnny.fileburst.com/blog/LP%20comparison.mp3

This is my Harley Benton in a direct comparison with a USA Les Paul. Sure there ARE differences in the sound, but no more so than you would expect between even two “identical” guitars from the same company – certainly not the kind of difference that would suggest nearly a £1000 difference in price.

So, here’s an idea… let’s prove it one way or t’other. Here’s how it could be done:

  • Get a statistically significant group of guitarists in a big venue… say 500 or so in a theatre.

  • On the stage, behind a curtain, have a guitarist who will play the sample guitars.

  • Blindfold the guitarist and get them to play, in turn, a selection of guitars from “boutique” makers and a similar selection of “cheap knock-offs”.

  • Poll the audience of guitarists to see how many correctly identified the expensive guitars.

  • If a clear majority of the listeners (more than would be likely to do so simply by guessing) get it right, it proves the case for expensive guitars.

The reason for blindfolding the guitarist is to make this a proper “double blind” trial. If someone knows they are playing a top shelf guitar, this may influence how they play.

OK, you might say… but surely the guitarist will be able to tell by the feel. Well, yes, maybe. But in my experience even a cheap guitar (if properly set up) can play like a million dollars, so we’ll just make sure we’re using instruments that are correctly adjusted & set up for optimum performance, admittedly an area often lacking in budget guitars – so we’ll take that out of the equation.

And yes… I have seen the “Squier vs Custom Shop Fender” and “Epiphone vs Gibson” “blindfold tests” on YouTube by Rob Chapman & Lee Anderton (Chappers & The Captain). But they’re hardly conducted under proper scientific conditions & crucially, the audience (ie the viewer) can SEE what guitar is being used, which kind of makes the result null & void, to my mind.

So… here’s a challenge. Companies like Gibson & PRS easily have the resources to set up this kind of trial and settle the matter once and for all. I can’t believe I’m the first person to come up with this idea, so why hasn’t it been done? Maybe it would prove them right and me wrong… and I will have learned something. But maybe… just maybe they’re nervous that the result might not back up their marketing claims. Expensive guitars being made using expensive processes with expensive materials sound better? Prove it!

Until next time,

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

Twitter: @JrobsonGuitar

P.S. Guitar 1 = Gibson Les Paul/Guitar 2 = Harley Benton copy

Create Harmony Guitar Parts With Ease

Bizarro World

For those unacquainted with early 1960s DC comics, I’d better explain what Bizarro World is…

In short it is a cube shaped planed called Htrae (“Earth” spelled backwards) that featured in a series of Superman comics. In this world, everything was topsy-turvy and back to front. Beauty was despised and ugliness celebrated; stupidity was regarded as a positive attribute, and to be called intelligent was a grievous insult; creating anything deemed to be perfect was a crime. You get the picture.

Imagine if we had a similar culture here and now. What would it mean? Here are a few possible examples…

  • Katie Price would have a trophy cabinet full of literary awards for her erm… “novels”.
  • Every McDonalds “restaurant” (do they know how ironic they’re being by describing their fast food outlets with that word by the way?) would be awarded the coveted Michelin star for culinary excellence.
  • The Daily Star “newspaper” (another unintentionally ironic description) would have a string of Pulitzer Prizes to it’s name.
  • The head of Volkswagen’s diesel car division would be the recipient of a Nobel prize for outstanding contributions to combating climate change.
  • Donald Trump would be declared sane.
  • Tony Blair would be made a Middle East Peace Envoy (oh… hang on, that actually happened, didn’t it?)

All of these things, including the last one, all seem too ridiculous to be true don’t they? But we DO live in a world where things just as absurd are happening. Allow me to explain…

Out of all branches of the arts, the music industry seems to be the one most populated by critics and awards panels who, frankly, couldn’t find their own arse even if you drew them a map. Witness the recent Grammy awards. The young lady who swept the board (I’m not going to name her because she has quite enough publicity already, thank you very much) is considered by many to be a supremely talented singer/songwriter. Such is the adulation she receives you would imagine, if you’d never heard a single note of her music, that her use of chord progressions was ground-breakingly original; that her voice was the type that only came along once in a generation; that her gift for lyrical & poetic expression was on a par with Dylan Thomas or William Wordsworth; that her skills as a writer of melodies set her apart from her contemporaries much like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Someone who possessed all of these attributes would, surely, deserve the critical acclaim she has received in recent times? Right? Well, it is at this point that we leave planet Earth and head directly for Bizarro World. The recordings inflicted on us by many award recipients these days (including those by the heroine of this tale) are full of the tell-tale digital artefact that is evidence of a performance which has been enhanced by pitch correction software. Can’t hit the difficult notes? Don’t worry… we can just use auto-tune to fix that & you’ll still get the Grammy (we can even do this for your “live” shows too these days). Stuck for ideas for your new song? Never mind, just use the same formula you used on the last one, churn out another big power ballad & the award can still be yours. Scared you might fluff a big, important performance, even WITH auto-tune? Fear not… It’s OK to just mime nowadays.

Let’s not ignore the phenomenon of plagiarism either. Another recent Grammy & Brit awardee was found to have directly lifted the melody from someone else’s song & had to give them a credit (and, presumably a royalty cheque) as a co-writer for the ditty which won him his gong. Was he stripped of his award? Of course not… he was considered to be “cool” and that, ladies & gentlemen, trumps everything in the music industry equivalent of planet Htrae.

What can be done? Well, how about instituting the same system as in other fields when it comes to giving out awards? Which chef gets a Michelin Star (for example) isn’t decided by ordinary punters who can simply tell if something is tasty or not; these awards are adjudicated by people who know their way around a recipe and can tell if a dish is truly original in it’s use of ingredients and preparation… as well as being scrumptious. The Palm D’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival has NEVER been won by a superhero blockbuster franchise, no matter how “cool” or commercially successful it proved to be. And you don’t award Olympic Gold to the “coolest” athlete… it goes to the person who crosses the finishing line ahead of the others. If they are found to have cheated, they have to give their medal back. Seems fair to me.

Imagine if Brits & Grammys were given out by a panel who actually looked at the sheet music for a song, and rejected those nominees who were just churning out yet another 70BPM, Aeolian Mode woeful dirge documenting a failed relationship. Imagine if musical awards were distributed on the basis of actual musical talent (can you or can’t you hit those high register notes without the sound engineer’s laptop giving your voice a leg-up?)… and not just doled out to whoever had shifted the most product that year or whose publicity machine had managed to get them the most coverage in the popular press. If that were to be the case, then these awards might actually be worth something. Now there’s a thought!

Until next time,

Have fun.

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

The Power Of Polyrhythms

Often, when the topic of “lead guitar” trickery is raised, what follows is a discussion on how to add exotic jazzy licks into a solo or how to play blindingly fast licks with the minimum of effort. But one aspect of playing a great solo is usually overlooked – that of timing. What I’m going to show you today is a great little method of making an otherwise mundane repetitive lick sound a little more interesting, and all you have to be able to do is count… no scary technique!

Let’s begin by defining what a polyrhythm is. It’s easiest to describe it by looking at a lick with just three notes. Something like this for example:

groups-of-3

You could play this repetitively, once per beat which would sound like this:

 

Whilst this sounds OK, it does get a little bit boring after a few repeats. Simply by messing with the timing, it can sound that little bit more interesting. How you could do this would be by grouping this repeating cycle of three notes into groups of four. Instead of going:

EDB EDB EDB EDB

It would now go:

EDBE DBED BEDB

You can see that it’s still the same notes in the same order, but we’re now playing four notes per beat rather than three.

And here is the TAB:

3against4

And this is how it would sound:

 

You can do the same thing, in reverse, if you start with a four note lick… like this, for example:

groups-of-4

Played with four notes per beat, it sounds like this:

 

But, once again,we can rearrange the timing so that instead of going:

EDBA# EDBA# EDBA# EDBA#

It would be grouped into bunches of three notes per beat, like this:

EDB A#ED BA#E DBA#

Once again, here is the TAB:

4against3

And here is how it would sound:

 

These are examples of the kind of polyrhythms found everywhere in popular music. With a little bit of practice you can make use of them too. Here’s a couple of handy hints for counting groups of notes:

  • If you want to know what four notes per beat sounds like, just say “PepsiCola” on each beat & that will give you the correct rhythm to fit your notes into.
  • If you want to hear three notes per beat, say the word “Evenly” on each metronome click or beat, and that will give you the sound of three notes per beat (or a “triplet” as it is known).

I hope you found this useful & until next time…

 

Have fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

 

Creating An Entire Solo From Just One Lick

Many guitarists get to the point where they’ve got a couple of scale patterns under their belt and/or learned a solo or two from TABs. The problem they’re then faced with is how to turn this knowledge into an ability to come up with a solo for themselves. This is what this lesson aims to help with.

One solo I use to introduce students to the world of pentatonic soloing is Noel Gallagher’s lead break from Oasis’ “Live Forever”. If you listen to the track, you’ll hear this lick at around 2:15…

001

Click HERE to hear this lick.

The scale being used here is the G major or E minor pentatonic, meaning that this lick will work in any situation where a G or Em chord is the focus of the chord progression you’re soloing over. Now, let’s use this simple phrase as the basis for building an entire solo.

So, where do we start? Well, timing is an important element in an effective solo and a good rule of thumb is to avoid playing the first note of your solo on beat 1 of bar 1 of your solo. It tends to work better if you begin either slightly before the start of the bar or slightly after. Take a listen to this example – to begin with I play the lick starting exactly on beat 1 of the 1st bar. I then play it again, but this time I start on beat 4 of the bar before & finally, I play exactly the same phrase beginning on the “and” of the 1st beat of the bar. Essentially, you’ve got the lick on beat 1, then a bit early, then a bit late. I think you’ll agree that the second two examples sound somehow “stronger” than the first one. Click HERE to listen.

OK, so let’s use the lick which begins on the “4” of the previous bar as our starting point. This (as you’ve heard) will sound pretty good. What next? Well why not repeat the lick? Using repetition like this will help to give your solo a sense of continuity. Click HERE to hear me play the same lick twice. Notice how, on the second time, I still play the first note of the lick on beat 4 of the bar… we’re going to keep that the same throughout the solo.

So that’s the first couple of phrases in place, what next? A trick I often use is to take a lick and play it backwards – it totally changes the sounds & feel of a lick. Click HERE to listen to the lick we’ve been using, played backwards, and here is the TAB.

002

Now, listen to the original lick, played twice, followed by the reversed lick, also played twice. Click HERE.

So far, so good – you’ve got an 8 bar solo out of one simple lick. But is there anything else we can do to make it sound a little more interesting? Well, as it happens… there is! All of these licks can be moved down 12 frets to the open string position (simply subtract 12 from all of the TAB numbers). You can ALWAYS do this… move a lick up or down 12 frets and it will stay the same – just a lower octave version of itself. Click HERE to hear me play the four licks (original + repeat followed by reversed lick + repeat) the same as I did in the last example. The only difference here is that I’m going to alternate between the open string position & the 12th fret. I think you’ll agree that this sounds particularly effective. Don’t worry if some of those open position bends are a little tricky – as you’ll hear on the next example, you can easily turn a 2 fret bend into a 2 fret slide… in fact that little bit of variation adds an extra texture to the solo.

Right… what else can we do? Well, let’s move away from our original lick a little bit by moving it onto a different pair of strings. In case you aren’t aware, the scale pattern we’re playing from is this one (notes used in lick shown in GREEN)

004

How about we move the lick from the 3rd & 4th strings onto the 2nd & 3rd strings – you can see from the diagram where the notes would be. That would make the original lick look something like this…

003

We can now do all the same tricks with this version of the lick that we did with the original one… reversing it, and moving it down to the open position. Click HERE to listen to a solo using these new ideas in addition to the previous ones.

This provides you with a great set or resources to conjure up a solo. For the purposes of keeping it easy to follow, I kept the licks pretty recognisable here, but you’re not restricted to that in the real world… why not take the end of one lick and graft it onto the beginning of another? Then you’ll have another lick that you can flip backwards and get even more mileage out of… the possibilities are endless! Couple this with the ability to move to other pentatonic patterns around the neck (get those shapes learned!) and a bit of note targeting & you will NEVER run out of licks to play. Click HERE to listen to a final example of me adding in all kinds of variations on what we’ve discussed here. All the licks have their origins in that initial Noel Gallagher phrase we began with… as promised at the start… an entire solo from just one lick!

Until next time…

Have fun!

John.

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

My Writing Process

When it comes to writing music, I will occasionally stumble across an idea when I’m just noodling away on the guitar. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. What normally happens is that I begin with an overall feeling or emotion I want to convey & go from there.

Knowing that minor chords sound sad & major chords sound happy is a good starting point, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can find more colours for the palate. Here’s what I mean…

Supposing I want a minor chord “sad” feeling for a piece: well I know that the aeolian mode will be good for expressing a sense of sorrow or loss; the phrygian mode is a good starting point for something a little darker; the harmonic minor scale adds an exotic touch to proceedings – there are all kinds of options for refining exactly what kind of minor/sad mood you want to create & the same is true for conjuring up something with a major chord/happy mood. Take a listen to the examples below to hear what I mean.

If the subject of modes is a closed book to you, then you can find an introduction to it HERE. All modes & scales have their own inherent moods. Here is a list of those that I use most often when writing with a description of how they sound to me:

Aeolian Mode – sad/angry (with a faster tempo)

 

Dorian Mode – still sad, due to the minor chord at it’s heart. But perhaps a little “sweeter” sounding than the aeolian. Good for jazz & blues riffs.

 

Phrygian Mode – Very “dark sounding”. The flat 9th in this mode creates real tension. Everything you can do with the aeolian mode is true of this one, but it just sounds a bit more intense.

 

The Harmonic Minor Scale – essentially just an aeolian mode with a raised 7th note. It somehow sounds a bit “eastern” & exotic.

 

The Neapolitan Minor Scale – basically a combination of the phrygian mode with the harmonic minor. Even more “snake charmer” sounding than the harmonic minor scale.

 

The Ionian Mode – sweet and melodic and easy on the ear. Easy to write beautiful music with this one. Perfect for conjuring up images of happy warm summer days.

 

The Lydian Mode – like the ionian, but that raised 4th note adds a touch of dissonance. It’s a happy scale, but with a slight edge to it.

 

The Mixolydian Mode – Because it’s based around the notes of a 7th chord, this is ideal for writing anything bluesy.

 

The Phrygian Dominant Mode – This is what you get if you take a harmonic minor scale and focus on it’s 5th note. A great scale for adding a touch of faux-flamenco to a piece. Sometimes also known as the “Spanish Phrygian” scale for this very reason.

 

The Lydian Dominant Mode – basically, a mixolydian mode (which sounds bluesy) with a raised 4th note (like the lydian mode). This adds that unsettling “madness” to it which is perfect for adding a touch of insanity to a blues riff. Best example of this mode in action is the Simpsons theme tune.

 

What’s even better is that you can mix these modes & scales in the same piece of music to combine their effects. Want to write a sad, dark sounding tune with a chorus which dispels this feeling like the sun coming out from behind a cloud? Easy… write your verse in the aeolian or phrygian modes, then go to the ionian mode for the chorus.

The relative sound of each mode is also something to take into account – for example, if you go from the ionian mode into the mixolydian, then the mixolydian will sound somehow “darker” by comparison. However, go to the mixolydian mode from (say) the phrygian or harmonic minor, it will sound comparatively brighter and more “up-beat”. Like an artist choosing colours, the effect of a colour (in this case, a mode or scale) can be influenced immensely  by what it is placed next to.

There are other scales & modes that I haven’t mentioned here and they all have their own unique flavours… the whole tone scale; the diminished scale; the enigmatic scale etc etc. However, the ones I have listed are my favourites and represent my choices most of the time.

Once I have the scale/mode chosen I’ll then write a chord progression around it, where all the chords are made up from the notes found in that scale or mode. Then it’s a case of strumming that chord progression into any kind of recorder (I normally use Audacity). Once I have that, I can begin to experiment with melodies.

For me, the best way of doing this is to play about with a software synth in a DAW, where I can drag & drop notes around until I have a melody that speaks to me. I have a few staples that I like to use when coming up with phrasing ideas for the melody, and one such stand-by is known as the “clave rhythm”- just make the main notes in your melody land on the 1 of the bar, the “and” of beat 2, then on the “4”. I find it helps to begin a melody on the “4” of the previous bar as a lead in. Also, now and then, it helps to one or more of these prominent notes, just to allow the melody some space to breathe. See below:

clave

And here are three quite different ideas based on this rhythm… a melodic ballad based on the ionian mode, a chunky rock riff using a mixture of the aeolian mode & harmonic minor scale, and finally a mid-tempo melody based on the dorian mode. As you can hear, this same rhythmic idea can be made to sound quite different depending upon the context in which it is being used.

 

This is just a starting point though. Sometimes I’ll take a melody & play it backwards or shift it along by half a beat, or chop it up an put it back together in a different order. The point is that it provides a start from which the tune can then evolve.

I know that this all sounds a bit methodical & some people believe that such practices have no place in a creative sphere like music. There are those who believe that any form of artistic expression should not involve any kind of thought process – it should all come from an unfathomable place, somewhere deep inside where the soul (if you believe in such a concept) resides. However, I consider myself to be a craftsman & I take a pride in being able to craft a piece of music from scratch whether I’m feeling inspired or not. Also, once you become fluent in all of this, it isn’t something you truly think about that much… in the same way as when you are fluent in a language, you’re not thinking about spelling & grammar as you speak… you just unconsciously apply the techniques you know in order to express yourself. Well it’s the same with music (or any artisan craft for that matter).

Occasionally, I will get a fully conceived piece in my head and then it’s just a case of nailing it down on the guitar – finding the notes & chords that I heard in my head. But this is far from the norm for me. And I really value being able to come up with something out of nowhere, just by working at it. Once I’ve got a basic “skeleton” for a tune (crafted in the manner described), I often find that it’s THEN that the inspiration will come & I’ll start flowing with ideas for how to develop the tune. Ideas that simply wouldn’t have been there if I’d sat down with a guitar and waited for the muse to call.

As I said… this is what works for me – feel free to do it your own way. Until next time…

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Mixing Metropolis

I’ve just completed a new track entitled “Metropolis”, although it could easily have been called “The Never Ending Mix”, as it was a right, royal pain in the arse to get it finished. Time and again, I would set up another mix & think “yeah… it’s OK, but that drum fill coming out of the 2nd chorus needs to be longer…” or something like that. Anyway I persevered and finally got it sounding the way I heard it in my head, so I thought I’d share with you how I put a mix together.

Before we begin, let’s just get a couple of terms out of the way…

If you’re not familiar with using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or mixing desk a “track” is the individual channel that a performance is recorded onto. You can control the volume, EQ & effects of the take you record onto this track using the controls assigned to it. A “bus” is like a track, but you don’t record onto it – a bus is essentially a track that you feed other tracks into so you can manage a group of them with a single set of controls. The “Master Bus” is exactly what it sounds like – the bus that all of the tracks in the tune eventually end up going through to produce your final mix. Now, let’s take a look at how I mixed “Metropolis”…

First of all, let’s begin with the bass – all I do to this is add a little compression. You can see the settings here in this screen shot of the preset I use in Cakewalk Music Creator.

comp

Next, I plumb this track straight into the Master Bus.

For everything else in the track… drums, rhythm guitars, piano & lead guitar, I tend always to use the same reverb setting (you don’t really want a reverb-y bass sound as it will lose definition). Using a common reverb to all the instruments gives the subliminal impression that they are all in the same room & helps to reinforce the “band” sound that I’m going for. To this end, I put the outputs of all these instruments into a separate bus called “All But Bass” & place my reverb on this bus. Here is the preset I use:

reverb

The output of this bus is then fed directly into the Master Bus.

For the rhythm guitars, I tend to always double track these – play the same part twice on separate tracks & pan these hard left & right. This gives a much bigger sound. Don’t be lazy about it & think you can just copy/paste from one track onto another though… all this will do is give you a louder, centred version of the part. It’s the minute differences between the two takes that give the big sound you’re looking for when they are panned to opposite sides of the stereo picture.

On this tune I ended up doing a total of six rhythm guitar tracks:

  • Left & right clean strummed chords
  • Left & right clean strummed chords with tremolo effect
  • Left & right power chords

Each left/right pair of rhythm guitar tracks was sent to it’s own bus, so I could control the volume of each left/right pair with a single fader. The output of each bus was then sent to the All But Bass bus where it would get a coating of reverb & from there it goes into the master bus.

The lead guitar track, like all the others was fed into the All But Bass bus, but before it goes there, I always tend to add a little delay. Once again here are my settings:

delay

This way the lead guitar ends up with a little delay echo as well as the reverb it gains on it’s way through the All But Bass bus.

Finally we come to the Master Bus itself. Cakewalk Music Creator has a wonderful analogue tape simulator effect which really warms up the sound of the whole mix. Here is the preset I use on this effect:

tape sim

And lastly I always add a subtle touch of compression to the overall mix on the Master Bus & here are the settings for that.

mix comp

I’ll round off by letting you hear the difference that some of these effects make. For the reverb check out these two examples using the drums:

  • Drums with no reverb – Click HERE
  • Drums with reverb – Click HERE

And here’s how the compression solidifies the bass sound:

  • Bass with no compression – Click HERE
  • Bass with compression – Click HERE

Let’s take a look at how that double tracking trick widens up the sound of a rhythm guitar part:

  • Single rhythm guitar take – Click HERE
  • Double tracked rhythm guitar – Click HERE

The lead guitar…

  • Without delay & reverb – Click HERE
  • With delay & reverb – Click HERE

The final mix…

  • Without the analogue tape sim – Click HERE
  • With analogue tape sim – Click HERE

And finally, the whole track as it ended up sounding using the methodology described, as well as a “wash” through the LANDR online mastering service…

Until next time…

Have fun!

 

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist