Hey everyone! I've taken a small departure from my usual style of writing about big issues and causing all kinds of controversey, and will instead be doing a sort of "beginner's lesson." I'll be talking about how you can get a greater range of sounds from your guitar without effects pedals, stompboxes, or even channel switching on your amp. For some readers, this article will seem like common sense, but I've been seeing more and more people on these forums who have no idea how to coax a good range of sound out of their guitars, and I thought I'd post a bit of my knowledge in hopes that newer players can learn from it. You might realize that you don't need that fancy footswitch, or that distortion pedal to get the sound you want.
We'll start with the basics.
I often see newer guitarists who only know one way to use their pick. They basically just strum or pluck at a medium pace and apply the same pressure regardless of what they are playing. This makes their playing sound flat, and unlively. What I'm getting at here is playing with feeling. If something is soft, slow and intricate, use a ligher pick attack. Simple as that. Don't pluck as fast as you would normally pluck. I'm not talking about the actual speed at which you play the song here. I'm talking about the tiny amount of time it takes you to touch the pick to the string, and move it off of that string. Consider the very beginning of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," which is an excellent song to learn if you want to improve you pick technique. This song MUST be played with a light touch. If you try and slam this song out, it sounds like crap. Click here to see the tab.
Using Hendrix once again, let's look at the song "Fire." You can't just strum those riffs without enthusiasm. You've gotta be libusting it out! The song is fast and urgent. Why not play it like that? Click here for the tab. Even when you're playing your own songs, think about how the song feels, and play it that way.
People always blame this type of problem on their gear. I always hear people say "well, I'm not playing a pimped out Stratocaster through a Marshall stack, so no wonder it doesn't sound that good." This can attribute to the problem (an acoustic guitar just can't sound like an electric), but as any good guitarist knows, you don't need the greatest gear to sound at least reasonably good. Think of some songs you just can't get to sound right, and try playing them with feeling.
What's Your Fretting Hand Up To?:
Not only is your fretting hand responsible for what notes you play, it's also responsible for what notes you don't play, and for how long you play your notes. There are countless examples to use here, but I think we'll return to Jimi Hendrix once again for our lesson. Consider the verse riffs for "Purple Haze." Jimi uses the popular 'thumb-over' technique to make his barre chords sound a little different than the standard bar. He places his thumb over the top of the neck to fret the root note on the low E string, and to mute the A string. Click here to see the tab. Now, if you want to play this riff properly, there are a few things you must do:
First, make sure you let that open E note ring as you are strumming the E7#9 chord. It's important not to let the finger that is fretting your A string mute that note.
Second, you must make sure that when you are playing the 'thumb-over' power chords, you don't let the A string ring open. Be sure to mute it, or your riff will sound like ass.
Once again looking at Purple Haze, we'll examine how important it is to be aware of what notes you are allowing to ring, and for how long. Look at the very first notes, which are an octave of A#. You must mute these notes immediately after you play each one, to achieve the sound you hear on the record. But when he starts in with the signature lick, you need to make sure you let the proper notes ring after each phrase, and throw a little vibrato on there as well. This version has a better tab for the intro section.
How About Those Pickups?:
If your guitar is like most, you have two or three pickups under the strings of your guitar. There is a reason for there to be more than one of them. The inner wiring of each pickup, as well as it's distance from the bridge of your guitar affects the tone that it puts out. On a Gibson-style guitar, there are two pickups. One located closer to the neck of the guitar, and one located closer to the bridge. The neck pickup is designed more for rythm playing, and gives a chunkier, bass-ish, smoother sound. This is due to the fact that it is farther from the bridge, and the strings directly above the pickup are not carrying as much tension as they are at the bridge. Don't think this pickup is ONLY for chords and rythms though. It gives a very "vocal" sound to your solos as well, due to it's smooth output.
The bridge pickup, on the other hand, produces a sharper, more treble-ish sound, which is more suited to riffs and solos. A Fender-style guitar has a third pickup, between the bridge and neck pickups, and it simply throws another sound into the mix.
It is quite common for a guitarist to switch between different pickups in the same song. This is done by using the pickup selector switch. On a Gibson-style guitar, the switch (3 positions) will probably be labeled. Just move the switch to whichever setting you want. Putting the switch in the middle will leave both pickups on, and you will get a combination of both sounds. On a Fender, there will probably be 5 possible positions. Moving the switch all the way towards the neck will activate (you guessed it) the neck pickup. One position back and you will be using both the neck and middle pickup, then just the middle, then middle and bridge, and then just the bridge. It's quite intuitive once it's been explained to you.
Now for an example. Let's look at Slash's work on the Guns N' Roses song "Paradise City." Click here for the tab. For the intro, since it's largely an unacompanied electric guitar, I would set my Gibson to the middle postion, activating both pickups. This gives a fuller sound, and makes up for the lack of bass. For a Fender, probably use the middle pickup, or the middle and neck pickups.
When the slamming power chords come in, I would use my bridge pickup, to produce that super-distorted, powerful sound. Then when the little solo/interlude section (around the 12th fret) kicks in, I would switch over to the neck pickup to get Slash's trademark "vocal" sound from this interlude. Once the heavy riffing starts, i would switch back to the bridge or middle pickup. There you have it. All that music, and the most you had to do was turn on distortion after the intro.
A Nifty Little Trick:
Listen to the songs "What Is And What Should Never Be," and "Stairway To Heaven," by Led Zeppelin. Notice the sudden switch from the beautiful clean tones of the first part of the songs to the insane distortion of the choruses and solos. Now, consider what Jimmy Page was working with for these songs. He was playing a Les Paul through a Marshall 1959 SLP 100W head. This amp had no channel switching, as it only had two settings: ON or OFF. If you wanted distortion, you had to crank it up to 11. That's how almost everyone using a Marshall got their distortion in this era. Now, it wouldn't be reasonable to have someone come and literally turn your amp up at the right time when performing these songs live. So how did he do the clean / dirty switching?
The answer is simple: It was all done with his guitar's on-board controls. The trick is to turn the volume on your neck pickup down to about 2/10, but leave your distortion cranked up. You will get a beautiful, full-sounding clean tone. But if you leave your neck pickup's volume on 10, you can switch between the pickups the same way you would with a footswtich for your amp. The advantage is a better clean tone and less pedals to lug around. Once you get used to using your selector switch and volume knobs, you'll wonder how you ever did without them.
So there you have it. If you're trying figure out how a guitarist gets their sound, there's a really good chance that the answer lies somewhere in this article. This information may be elementary for some of you readers, and if it is, I urge you not to be a retard and post about how everyone knows this stuff. And if this was enlightening to you, I'm glad I could help. Peace.