Monday, 17 November 2014

It's not about the gear

Guitarists love gear. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) is a common condition. Lots of people are on the quest for Ultimate Tone (whatever that may be). They talk about it on podcasts and have endless debates on forums. I personally have fairly limited experience of different gear. I've owned 2 electric guitars and sold one of them years ago. I've had a few cheap amplifiers, but am now fairly happy with my Roland Cube 80x and Belcat 20r valve amp. I've not had many effects pedals, but my Zoom G3X is doing the job for me now and giving me some experience of what I actually need.

Would I like more gear? Of course I would, but do I need it? I feel I have to justify any purchases, so most of what I have bought in the last few years has been to allow me to play in a band situation. Previously I played almost entirely at home and wasn't even recording. I'm hoping the current band will play some gigs next year. Come that day I could probably justify having another guitar as a back up and to give some more tonal options. I'll go into detail on that nearer the time.

So, why do people obsess so much over gear? We would all like to be better players, but it's easy to blame playing issues on the gear. The way I think of it is that most of our guitar heroes who grew up in the 50s and 60s had to learn with guitars and other equipment that we would consider pretty bad. In many cases they had to build it themselves or modify what they could find. Even when they could afford something better the options were limited and quality was probably a lot more variable than now. They just had to get on with it and made lots of amazing music.

Now you have the choice of hundreds of different guitars with huge ranges from each major manufacturer, thousands of effects pedals etc and at prices from pocket money to eye-watering. It's probably fairly hard to find anything being sold that is really bad as competition and mass production methods mean that quality is consistent. We are spoiled for choice and I think the excess of options leads to confusion and stress over making the wrong choice. Those are general problems in modern society. 1st world problems.

I could buy lots of cheap gear, but I'd rather save up for something special and I feel that I need to be a better player to justify having the good stuff. I believe that what I have is probably good enough for the performing and recording I want to do and I plan to invest time and money in playing. Having a family means there are other priorities when it comes to the budget.

I was actually thinking of starting a podcast that talks more about playing than gear. The much missed Six String Bliss had a good mix in that respect. I may look around for someone who would be up for co-hosting a show, but I'd like to have interviews with players of all levels. I've no experience of this sort of recording, but I have a few friends I could ask for advice.

All opinions are very welcome.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Life vs guitar

By now most people have heard of the 10,000 hour theory that you need that much practice at anything to achieve success (or something like that). Malcolm Gladwell cites +The Beatles as an example as they put in a lot of time in Hamburg before they made it big. I'm sure there are plenty of people who have done the hours and still not made it as they didn't get lucky or perhaps they didn't practice the right things.

I've been playing guitar on and off for nearly 40 years and I'm not sure I've played for 10,000 hours yet. That equates to about 40 minutes per day, but I've had long periods where I didn't play much or just didn't progress much. I would play the same old songs rather than learning new ones. Back then you had to get books or magazines if you were not learning by ear. Now you can find a lesson for just about any song on-line. That's a facility I'm making a lot of use of.

These days I play for several hours a week rather than watching television as my evening relaxation. The obstacle to that is that I have two teenage children who also want to use the study/studio for playing music or games. I have to grab some time once they have been sent to bed and at weekends when they are all out doing stuff. I'm not logging my time, but wonder if I will ever get to 10,000 hours, if that even matters. I'm trying to apply myself to improving my playing using the lessons on the +ArtistWorks Paul Gilbert Rock Guitar course. I reckon that has done a lot of my technique since I started in January. I've had a dozen video responses from Paul where he has picked up on various issues to keep me on the right course. I'll get to see him on stage next month when Mr. Big play in London.

I've still playing with the blues/rock band. I have been doing the singing, but we have agreed that we need someone with a better voice. We're in the process of auditioning people. We need to find someone whose ambitions are compatible with ours as well as having the talent. We only really aspire to playing a few pub gigs each year. Ideally we want someone who also plays guitar to fill out some of the songs that need it. I'd still like to at least do backing vocals and maybe sing a couple of songs. I'm getting more confidence at playing lead guitar. I'm trying to learn a few of the original solos to start with, but will look to do my own variations. With luck we could gig early next year, if not before. We need a few more songs in the set first and to get them 'polished'.

On top of this I'd like to do more recording at home. I've had some technical issues with this lately, but I've tried doing a fresh Linux Mint install at the weekend that seems to be working better so far. My daughter wants to record a rock violin piece, so we'll aim to do that soon. Stay tuned...

Friday, 22 August 2014

Radio Guitar

I may have mentioned that I listen to a lot of podcasts on my long drive to work. I listened to the radio in the past, but got bored with that. I went through burning podcasts to CD to playing them from my phone once I had a way to plug it in. I listen to shows about music, science, technology, comedy and other assorted shows that take my interest.

Since the demise of the mighty +Six-String Bliss: The Guitar Podcast I have sought ways to fill the guitar-shaped hole. Some of the community members have been inspired to start their own shows, so I listen to:

None of these could be called regular, but the guys are doing them for fun when they have the time.

There are also a few others that I've found:
There are probably more. A few I've listened to are no longer active, but you may be able to find archives out there. There's probably enough to keep you busy for years.

I only just learned about the one from GAK. Will check it out soon.

Update 25/11/14: I've also started listening to the show from Wampler Pedals. They tend to ramble off-topic, but it's fun. 

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Still got the blues

I've been keeping fairly busy musically. The band I mentioned a while back is starting to get somewhere. I'd played a few times with the bassist, but last week we had a rehearsal session at a local studio with a drummer. That really makes a difference and I found myself really going for it on the solos. The new tube amp was sounding great. I used a few effects on my Zoom G3X for variety. We're building a set list of covers. I thought we needed another guitar to fill the sound on some of them and we may have someone joining us next time. Stay tuned. We need to come up with a band name. We're a bunch of older guys playing blues, classic rock and southern boogie. Could probably come up with some pun on that.

I'm still doing the +ArtistWorks course, but need to get back to working through the lessons and submitting some videos. I ought to find some areas of my soloing to get suggestions on. I also have some extra learning material after winning a competition by +Licklibrary - Online Guitar Lessons. I now have DVDs for the styles of Billy Gibbons and Gary Moore. I've started on the former and am incorporating it already. I'm playing most evenings. I need to learn more songs for the band as well as developing my general playing. It's good to have a focus now as I was lacking direction between bands.

The new PC is mostly working fine. I've had some audio issues. The sample rate for the interface does not always get properly initialised, so audio ends up playing too slow. I had a workaround until it seemed to sort itself. I think there may have been a driver update. Unfortunately the problem came back this week. I've not being doing any recording lately, but I'll need to get this fixed somehow.

To try and get the PC nearer to silent I purchased a NoFan CR-80EH fanless cooler. It's an interesting design that should work on my 65W CPU, but when I got it installed I found that the temperature was going over the specified maximum, even with no load. I could only check this from the BIOS anyway. I also had some issues installing it. I had some contact with the manufacturers in Korea, but they couldn't come up with any answers, so I've sent it back. I'll probably get something else with a quiet fan. The AMD cooler is just loud enough to be annoying.

When I do get to some recording I have a new set of plug-ins from Linux DSP. They were on special offer for a while and I couldn't resist. I'm still learning to use things like EQ and compression, but these come with detailed manuals that I need to read.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Bigger and better

A while back I blogged about my PC. It has served me well for about seven years, but has been showing signs of age lately. There's some hardware issue that causes it to lock up at times and it seemed to struggle with modern web video, e.g. HD Youtube or G+ video hangouts. Things have moved on a lot since I built it, so I finally pulled the trigger on a new build.

I've gone with AMD processors in the past and sort of know what to expect from them, so I went with the A8 6500. The price is reasonable and it's a 65W chip which should run a little cooler than some of the others. I've used nVidia graphics that came on the previous motherboards, but this processor incorporates Radeon graphics that should be supported on Linux.

Motherboard is a Gigabyte GA-F2A88X-D3H (eh?). I wanted a couple of PCI slots for my old cards. This seemed to have all the connections I need, but won't support any old IDE drives. I didn't order an optical drive as I was thinking of re-using my old one, but it won't work with this. It's not expensive to but a new one, a big change since I paid about £150 for a DVD/CD-RW combo drive many moons ago.

I've gone for 8GB of memory for now. It's from Crucial, who have a good reputation. I've never had memory with heatsinks on before. I don't plan to overclock, but I want everything to be stable.

Storage is via a 120GB Kingston SSD for the operating system and a 2TB Seagate for data.

I paid more than previously for a case to try and keep the noise down. The Cooler Master Silencio 550 has foam on the sides and a door on the front to contain the noise. Power is from a Be Quiet L8 350W PSU.

All the parts came from, who I have used in the past and have no problems with.

It was pretty easy to put together. It's easier in a large case. I like the screw-less drive mountings. It's a shame nobody has come up with a simpler way to wire up the case switches and lights. There was a moment of drama when a glass lampshade above the dining table dropped into the open PC. Luckily it didn't break, but it gave me a shock. It's a new light, but it looks like the glue failed on that shade. Something else to get fixed.

I installed my old M-Audio Delta 66 audio interface and my Freeview TV card.

Installing Kubuntu Linux from a flash drive did not take long. Everything is working nicely. Linux hardware support is really good these days. It's probably easier than Windows. I have an issue with the sound distorting that I still need to investigate.

So is this PC really quiet? It's certainly quieter than the old one, but not silent. I used the standard AMD CPU cooler and I can hear that. It may be annoying enough to replace, but I don't really hear anything else. I've run a few tests on the things that were stressing the old machine and this one has plenty of spare capacity.I'm hoping it will last me a good few years. I still need to set up the recording apps. I'll be using the KXStudio suite again.

I need to copy files over from the old machine. I tried it over the network using both Samba and SSH/FTP, but both were incredibly slow. What I could do is to just mount the old drive. That should be the quickest way. I intend to keep the old PC as a spare in the study. My kids use the computer a lot for schoolwork.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Triple time

My latest video exchange with Paul Gilbert involved me playing some triplet pull-offs. He picked up that I was actually playing three 1/16th notes. Actually it may have been somewhere in between the two. It's a subtle difference, but they are different musical feels. This is the sort of thing you need a guitar teacher to tell you.

He's given me a few examples of songs that use triplets to listen to. I should really know this as I've played various music that uses triplets on guitar and djembe. I obviously didn't have it as well ingrained as I thought.

This is what I sent him. It's part of a series of lessons with this sort of groove.

One of his suggestions was this

Paul is actually touring in Chile at the moment, so he recorded his video to me in his hotel room. The guy is really dedicated to this course.

Another feature of the ArtistWorks site is a course in music theory. I've done the first part of this. There was a lot of stuff in there I didn't know. The quiz was fairly tough, but I've passed to allow me proceed to the next part.

My daughter has been pursuing her own guitar studies playing along to some of her favourite songs. We just recorded one of those. She did bass, guitar and vocals. The drums came from a video I found of someone playing along with the song. Youtube is a wonderful resource.

This is the drum track we used.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

It's all theoretical

I'm taking yet another on-line course at +Coursera. This one is on musicianship. It covers the basics of harmony and melody with some emphasis on ear training. In the first week we had to recognise 2nd and major 3rd intervals. I know I should be able to do that anyway, but it's an unconscious thing and I need to work on it. I can often pick out tunes on the guitar by ear and get most of the notes right, but by improving my knowledge of intervals I would hope to make this easier. As with most things it needs lots of practice.

This course has peer-reviewed assessments. This week we had to find some songs in the key of C major. It's not the most common key for popular music. I found a site that listed such songs, but a lot are actually in A minor, which has the same notes, but is by no means the same thing. Anyway, I found a few, partly from that list, but I checked to make sure they really are in C.

I have another course on music theory in a few months. I regret not doing more music when I was at school. It is possible to make great music without knowing this stuff, as many people do, but my analytical brain likes to know what is going on. I should ask my daughter as she is doing music GCSE and working on the theory grades too.

I plan to keep doing courses on things that interest me. It's better for me than randomly surfing the web. It's made me cut down on that to make the time for learning. You can pick up a lot of things by surfing, but there is no focus and I need that. The big one will be Introduction to Linux later in the year. I hope that will fill some of the gaping holes in my knowledge. It's amazing that all this stuff is free. Mind you, I have paid for another year on the Paul Gilbert course at Artistworks. Still having fun with that.

Oh, and on top of all that I have the beginnings of a possible band project. I found a bassist who wants to do some blues and rock. We've met a couple of times to play through some covers. We'll have to recruit some others if we are going to gig. I've been doing the singing, but I know my limitations. Stay tuned...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

All you need...

I've just finished working on this course from +Coursera about the music of The Beatles. I've not got my final mark yet, but I did okay on the quizzes, so I'm assuming a good pass.

It's been very interesting to learn about how they crafted their songs and has led me to listen to lots of them. I've had to use Youtube as I don't actually have the albums or many of the singles, apart from the number 1s CD. I may pick some of them up some time.

+John Covach did a very good job. It's a real shame he can't play the music or even quote much of the lyrics for fear of the copyright police. This should be counted as 'fair use', and it's not as if they need the extra money.

This is part of my on-going efforts to educate myself. I have some other courses on music theory coming up as well as one on Linux to expand my knowledge. These are all free, but I intend to keep paying for the Paul Gilbert course on +ArtistWorks too. I just have to ensure I have enough time for those things I want to prioritise.

I've just embarked on another possible band project with a local bassist. We're working on various blues and rock covers. It's very early days, but we'd both like to gig at some stage. I'm covering the guitar and vocal areas for now. I want to attempt more lead stuff, so I'm working on learning some solos and expanding my musical vocabulary to improvise my own.

On top of all those I need to record tracks for some +Six-String Bliss: The Guitar Podcast albums. I've done one acoustic cover. That used my new MXL 990 microphone.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Taking the Mic

I'm still plugging away on the Paul Gilbert guitar course. I'm trying to put in an hour a day, but have been slipping lately. There isn't a fixed practice schedule, so I tend to work on various exercises from lessons I've already seen for a while and then go looking for some more. This will either be the next ones in the sequence or I'll find a video response that looks interesting. I'm learned a couple of new songs from those.

I've had four video responses from Paul now. It takes around a week for him to do these, but he's doing a lot of them. They are mostly done from a studio, but I've seen one done from the back of a car somewhere in the UK.

I may be taking on too much, but I've also enrolled in another +Coursera course about the Music of The Beatles. I'm hoping that I can fit in watching the videos when the study is occupied. Although I've heard the band all my life I've not owned their albums and don't know all the background. One of the introductory videos explores some of the available books. There are plenty of those that go into minute detail of how they recorded, the gear they used and the stories behind the songs. I'll look out for those, but I'm loaded up with books right now. Currently reading Guitar Zero about how our brains handle music.

We're also doing some family tree research at the moment. We're concentrating on my wife's family. They have been in Arlesey for a long time. There's a local project based around those men on the war memorial as we commemorate the centenary of the First World War. We have a lot of family photos, but don't know who they all are.

The studio has had an upgrade in the form of an MXL 990 condenser microphone. I've been wanting a decent microphone to use instead of my Zoom H4. That does a good job, but it is difficult to adjust the levels on it and I'm not sure it's ideal for voice. I've done some vocal testing that sounded good. I also tried it with my classical guitar. I've not played that much lately, so I was a bit rusty.

I need to record my acoustic for the Six String Bliss 70s project soon. Something I want to try is to record it with both of my microphones plus the pickup. I've got enough inputs to do all of those at once, so I can do a proper comparison. I'll try to do that soon and post the results.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Where did I put my flares?

The Six String Bliss podcasts have come to an end (unless the hosts have a change of heart), but the community lives on. We're going to try and keep producing albums for our own enjoyment. There are actually two projects in progress at the moment. One was proposed as a 'quick and dirty' 'EP' of songs from the 70s, but seems to be growing into more of an album based on songs people have reserved. The other is to cover songs from the original Woodstock festival.

I plan to contribute to at least one of these. I have a couple of ideas for 70s songs. They are songs that I know pretty well and have wanted to record anyway, so this could push be into getting that done. One will be a stripped-back acoustic version whilst the other will be a full band arrangement where I aim to play all the parts. I usually shy away from programming drum tracks, but will give it a try this time, with a MIDI file I found as a back-up.

I've not decided on anything from Woodstock yet. There are loads of possibilities, but I need to do some listening to make up my mind. I'll see if anyone wants to collaborate.

Forum stalwart JMan is blogging about his recording process, without giving away the actual song(s). This is very useful as many of us are not too organised in how we record and could do with some tips to make it run smoother. I could do with a bit more structure to how I work, but I don't know if I will ever be as organised as JMan.

I'll be using my usual toolset of Ardour and Hydrogen (from the KXStudio repos) plus various plug-ins. I may use my Zoom G3X for effects and amplifier emulation, but I need to check in on the state of Guitarix again soon.

Meanwhile, I'm still working hard on the Paul Gilbert guitar course. I've had two video responses from him now that were spot-on for what I needed. He puts a lot of emphasis on muting as this is vital for playing loud without extra string noise and is also fun for 'chikka' noises. I was working on an exercise using this last night that was crying out for some wah. I've only gained a wah fairly recently on the G3X and am slowly learning to use it.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Star struck

A while back I posted about taking some private guitar lessons. The lessons were good, but getting to them proved to be a pain. It was only a few miles from the office, but getting there after work could take a ridiculously long time. Regretfully I had to give them up, but Stuart left me with lots of material to keep working on. We did an extended last session about chords.

I had also been looking into some of the on-line courses available. I liked the look of the Paul Gilbert school from +ArtistWorks. I like Paul's teaching style. They had some special offers at the end of the year, so I treated myself to a three month subscription that started last week.

The school consists of lots of lessons grouped as Fundamental, Intermediate and Advanced. In his introduction Paul recommends that everyone work through from the start and I can see why. He includes lots of good tips in each video that are applicable to most players on basics like tuning and holding the pick. The latter is different to what I have always used. He uses his thumb and two fingers. I'm giving that a try and finding that I need to use a lighter pick to get smooth strums.

Fairly early on he introduces muting, which is a vital skill for electric guitar. Some of the exercises are fairly tricky, e.g. playing left-hand muted strums between each note of a pentatonic scale.

One of the big selling points of this site is that the instructor will give feedback on videos which you submit for specific lessons. I've sent in my first one and have another ready. I used Cheese to record the first one, but then had to convert the video (using Handbrake) to a format that they accept. GUVC offers more options, but I still had to convert the file. This is my second video. I can't send it in until Paul responds to the first. That seems to be taking a while.

I can't post Paul's response as it's locked into the site, but if you join then you can see all of them. He gives different suggestions for each person, so that makes for a lot of extra material to learn from. It's actually overwhelming how much there is.

The site has various social aspects including a forum and 'shout out' board that Paul participates in. There are also some interviews including this one with Dweezil Zappa. The whole thing is eight parts and they cover a lot of ground.

There is a free acoustic school you can join to see how it suits you. This is fairly basic stuff and I have only looked at a few of the early lessons. There are lots of other schools for different instruments and genres. Everything from classical to bluegrass.

ArtistWorks has an affiliate scheme. If you join with this link then we both get a free extra month. I think the prices are pretty good as you are only paying the equivalent of one private lesson each month.