The Winning Combination: Gear & Skill

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The Winning Combination: Gear & Skill (Part 1)

Since this is my first blog here, let me start this series by telling you where I am coming from. I learned guitar and music with the mindset of “I have to practice enough, sound good enough and perform well enough to play in front of some audience”. In my first few months of playing, I already played in my church. A year after that, I played with my high school band Rage Against the Machine tunes! The ballgame has shifted, but the idea is still the same. In my thinking, you are a musician if you write songs, arrange songs, improvise and play these songs in front of an audience or at least involved in some sort in that process.

A perfect analogy would be the word “engineer”. You are an engineer when you build something from scratch and someone ends up using it. It’s the Engineering Process. So if you have built nothing, or have not been involved in any of its process, then you’re not an Engineer. Maybe you passed the board exams, and you got the title! So being more clear:

Engineers builds stuff for the user, Musicians play for the Audience (real or maybe online nowadays)

If you’re the type that do not want to be in the musician/audience dynamics then stop reading because this is not for you.

Now, addressing the other side of the fence, when you call yourself a musician or want to be in that world or maybe you think you are being called to be one, then there will be responsibilities. God will provide you the tools. You need to have the desire for learning to use these tools and become good stewards. Both gear and skill are tools but you acquire them at different rates.

Gear can be acquired easily sometimes, when you have the resources, the money to buy, or the forceful will to get it as fast as you can. How many times have we seen guitar players with a $4000 guitar, $5000 amp and a $10,000 pedalboard that sounds like garbage? A lot!

Skill, on the other hand is a wild and disrespectful animal, it does not want to be caught, it takes time and it will always try to escape. It takes years of non-stop taming! I developed my alternate picking for 10years, and I still am finding new ways to develop it more. Check out one of my video practice logs on my page to see how I keep up. John Petrucci said in one of his clinics it’s all about work ethic and conditioning. True that!

Here are my alternate picking heroes:  Steve Morse, Don Mock, Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, John Petrucci Pat Martino and tons more!

You stop for a week? You rust out!

You don’t practice? You sound like garbage!

You don’t know how to set up your gear? You sound like a cockroach!

You don’t learn the songs? You get stage fright!

You come ill-prepared? You play 2million notes so the audience think you’re good but you’re not!

I digress from such long introduction and get to the Part 1 of this series.

Let us dissect the title and focus on Gear today! Under gear, let’s talk about pedals. Some people call it effect pedals or stomp boxes. It is whatever you put in between the guitar and the amp.

Pedal Choices: Let’s begin with what I use, (I mean I can only advise on things I use myself) when you are starting out, you get swayed by a lot of hype from the internet or the people around you who have “better” gear. The word “Better” means nothing. My first pedal was a cheapo distortion that sounded too harsh because the gain stage RC circuit was tuned at 3.5Khz, I had to open it up and modify that stage. Then you hear someone with a $300 overdrive who never worked on his subdivision picking rant online blaming his gear for sounding bad!

The most important pedal for me is the tuner, so get one first. Be it a clip on or the floor type. The next best pedal for me is not a pedal, but a nice clean power supply, clean meaning no 60hz hum, minimized EMI, RFI, EMI noise. Good ripple rejection and power factor correction with isolated outputs so no ground loops. What I use for my board is the T-Rex chameleon it has not failed me for 8 years, hundreds of gigs, different venues even outside the Philippines, I have recorded about 8 albums with it already. It’s beat up and been to war! If you get a good power supply, then everything you get next will be easy.

Gain based effects: Next up would be a nice overdrive, there just thousands to choose from, but I get one from my brother’s pedal store ElectricNim manila blues screamer (shameless plug!) Overdrives, if designed well will give a tube like saturation via smooth asymmetric clipping of the waveform, producing more even harmonics pleasing to the ears. My approach is set the gain to max and just use my guitar volume pot to change gain structure. It does not mean it will work for you though, you have to figure it out yourself. Most pedals will have 3 basic knobs to tweak:

GAIN – amount of drive, distortion

VOLUME – how loud you want it to be when you hit it, normally set based on the clean sound

TONE – most of the time, it’s the brightness. Too much and it becomes too bright, too low and you become muddy and dark.

I also have a booster from the same maker called “Electric Maya” it goes before my overdrive. It helps when I need more gain for soloing or if I want to drive the preamp stages harder. For boosters, you want it to be as clean of a boost as possible and it has to compliment your overdrive.

Overdrive or Distortion? For engineers, it does not mean anything. There’s no difference, both distorts the waveform via some sort of clipping via diodes or gain stage bias.

Time based effects: Next would be a delay pedal. I have been using the tc electronics flashback, and it has been serving me well. Note about the delay though, it is easy to overuse them when you don’t know how to use them, the thing is, the timing of the delay should always match the tempo of the song, also be careful with the amount of feedback and mix the you put in. It will depend on the venue and tempo. If you are too lazy to learn these terminologies, again, you will sound like garbage.

You can also add choruses, phasers Etc. Check out The Pedal Show to learn more about pedals.

Dynamics range effects: To help you control the dynamic range get a compressor. Compressors can be explained in 3 ways: electronically, aurally and mathematically. Check this link. Become familiar with the terminologies we use like threshold, attack, release and ratio.

Threshold – is the level at which the compressor kicks in.

Ratio – It’s the ratio in which you want to compress when the threshold is reached.  

Attack – how long do you want to wait for the compression to kick in

Release – how long you want to compress when the as soon as the threshold is reached.  

So if you got a compressor, and you randomly set knobs because you are too lazy to learn it, you will sound like garbage!

I use it a lot when I record songs to even out playing nuances, set to 3:1 ratio and enough threshold to cap the transients but not too much that it kills the guitar tone too much. I look for a very subtle compression that is almost inaudible. Attack and release settings will be based on the song tempo too.

Equalizers will help you cut or boost frequencies that need to be modified. Check this article. We use terms like LOW, MIDS, HIGH, LOW MIDS, HIGH MIDS, etc

Wah Pedals – stay away from this if you’re a beginner. It can make you sound rock or make you sound like a duck! :-) But I use the Jerry Cantrell signature Wah

So my entire pedal board is as simple as possible, so any problem I encounter live will always be easy to troubleshoot. Believe me, you can have a musical career with just this. The whole setup fits inside my luggage if I go out of town.

Guitar <- (tuner and awesome power supply) Wah – Booster – Overdrive – Delay -> Amp

PEDAL Investment: Buy what you can afford, don’t rush, don’t be in debt to get gear, always wait for the best price (there will always be a legal lower price when you wait)  

Multi-effects Pedals: I used Line 6 PODxt Live (again tons of gigs and about 5 full album recordings) for a couple of years over 10 years ago when it came out. The idea behind multi effects pedals is that you have to approach it as if it is individual pedals in one box. So not understanding what I presented earlier will give you a hard time using them. I had a good experience with the zoom G2R Richie Kotzen signature a while back, it’s cheap and it sounds good. It’s been discontinued though so I am sure they have come up with better updates. I think any multi effects pedal can be made to sound great if you dive into the learning curve and the endless hours of tweaking required for it to sing.  

Technology has evolved nowadays we can get awesome tones using ipads, I have been experimenting with Bias FX and Bias Amp simulation. Promising tones!

Translation: Translation refers to how your gear will sound with different venues, amps, settings, amount of audience, etc. If you decide the gear you will invest in, make sure you understand how it will translate. You can sound great in your church and bedroom, but when used in a different place, you might have too much 1khz or maybe too thin because of the lack of low end. Again, the things I discussed above will come into play. You need to have an idea what to tweak, what frequency to boost or cut and which knob to turn, all these things you have to decide while playing live or while the audience is waiting for you to set up.

Reading Manuals: No need explaining, read the manuals! Know what those knobs do!

Conclusion: Great musicians balance gear and skill and write songs with them in their heads, because that’s the winning combination! When you spend money buying gear (including the guitar), make sure you also invest time on knowing how to use it properly. You have a daily choice of becoming a gear slave or a real musician! Hope you always choose the later because it is more rewarding. People around you can buy and buy more gear, but if you focus on balancing gear and skill, you will meet these gear boys 10 years down the road and they will still be in that same boring stagnant skill state as they are before.

Do you need to know all this to become a great musician? No. But one thing is for sure, the more mature you become as a musician, the more respect you put with the learning process for both gear and skill. Have a vision in your head on how you want to sound and do not stop until you achieve it. In the next part we will talk about developing your skill as a musician. See you!

Blog by: Dennis Llante

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