11 Things Picked Up Over 11 Years Of Guitar Playing

date: 01/30/2004 category: features
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Be warned this is long, take your time or read it in bits, or complain about the length in the comments, either way please rate it, this is my first Strumming away the other night, I almost fell off my chair when my Mum mentioned that it was almost twelve years since our last family holiday. It was true, it was July 1992 when my Mum, Dad, Sister and I flew out of our mild Perth (Western Australia) winter into the lush tropics of Bali, Indonesia. The trip was significant for two reasons: 1. I bought my first Iron Maiden album. A pirate cassette copy of No Prayer For The Dying, chosen simply because it had the coolest cover (well in my 12 year old eyes it did). And 2. I got my first guitar. Sure it was a heap of shit, pirate copy Yamaha classical bought for $30 Australian from a department stores sporting goods section (figure that one out). But it had 6 strings and had the potential to make some of notes I was hearing Dave Murray play on my new favourite album, "No Prayer For The Dying" (it was another three days before someone pointed out Number of the Beast to me). Six months later I was playing an old Ibanez Blazer (I snapped the neck on the classical guitar after trying to put acoustic strings on it live and learn) and paying a 16 year old with a mullet and a pointy Jackson to teach me to play like James Hetfield or guitar virtuoso's such a Kurt Cobain (hey I was 12, it was 1992 and I had much to learn). Eleven years on I am still learning, although I have changed my notion of virtuoso slightly to the Vai, Petrucci, and Malmsteen school of thought. I am far from a good guitarist, hell it took me two weeks to nail the solo from Beat It. To save a lot of messages after this article, Yes! you probably could play me under the table but I really don't care. I am slack and rarely practice theory but I think after more than a decade of playing I have picked up a few things that will hopefully help a few kids or beginners, or even those numerous guitarist fed up with not progressing after two years of playing. Those that are on the verge of packing up their Squires, Epiphones and Valvestate amps for good. I almost did and would have regretted it to this day.

1. Slow Things Down

This piece of advice comes up in almost every guitar column. But people do not listen! I know. I didn't take heed of this advice for the first six years of my playing. I was so frustrated that I had been playing for so long yet my solos were so awful and messy. Slowing things down does not mean, play it once or twice slow until you remember the notes and then go for it. You have to play it over and over again until your fingers and picking hand know exactly where to be (not your head telling them where to be). Do not run before you can walk. For three straight years my version of the solo from "Master Of Puppets" sounded like a dog's breakfast. I put it down to me being a shit player that would never be able to play like Kirk Hammett. One day a guy in a guitar shop cringed whilst I was playing and suggested that I slow things down and start learning the solo over again. After four weeks of going over it at 10%, 15%, 40%, 60%, etc speed, I nailed the solo. I thought I found the Holy Grail, yet every guitar magazine had been screaming it at me since I was 12. On a side note, I bought a metronome to help me slow things down, as it is so tempting to speed up. Buy a metronome. Metronome companies do not sponsor Vai, Satch, Eric Johnson at all. Why do you think they swear by them? It really is genuine good advice. I would have continued being mediocre and frustrated had I not got that little ticking box.

2. Accoustic Guitars Are Damn Hard To Play

Why do so many people buy acoustic guitars to start off with? Their action is high, the strings are heavy, most you can't access past the 15th fret, you can't get all of those distorted sounds that almost every rock guitarist use. If you want to take up guitar and are interested in mainstream pop, rock, metal, blues or anything except folk buy an electric and an amp. Trust me, you will enjoy it more and your untrained hands will learn so much faster. Just turn on the clean channel or turn down the gain when it comes time to learn strumming folk passages. The only reason I give this drastic piece of advice is I have 6 very close friends that have taken up guitar. Out of the 7 (including me) of us, only three still play. The four that don't all bought acoustic guitars to start with and wondered why their playing did not sound like Nirvana, Greenday or Alice in Chains (the bands that inspired them to play in the first place). If you want to play rock music buy a rock guitar. If you wanted to be the next star of a Motor Cross you don't go out and by a scooter and then wonder why you can't take it off road, do you? Needless to say the three of us that started with a little Peavey Rage, Squire or other piece of crap electric are still playing.

3. Accoustic Guitars Are Damn Good For Your Playing

Now, after a year or so, you have some idea of how to play your first electric try and find an acoustic guitar. They do wonders for your fingers. Once you know that guitar is in your blood practice what you would on your electric on an acoustic guitar. It is so good for building strength in your fingers, especially for bending. I moved from Perth to London (United Kingdom) and bought an acoustic to get me by. Ten months later I bought an electric and was amazed at how much my playing had improved from solely playing lead on the accoustic.

4. Gain Vs Volume

The balls in your sound do not come from having your Gain up full. So many kids do this and then wonder why their sound is thin and drowned out by their bass player. No, you do not need a Mesa Boogie (although it does help hee hee). Try coming back on your gain to about three quarters and going up on your master volume. Wow! You now have bottom end and you bass player is back to being part of the rhythm section, just as he/she should be. I can't think of one band that cranks the gain on their amps to 10 (maybe some of my Scandinavian Black Metal friends may be able to suggest some).

5. Hughes & Kettner Edition 15 Practice Amp

Please, please, please before you go onto auto pilot and buy a Peavey Rage, or Marshall MG15 or any other practice amp give the above a try. It will blow you away for such a tiny amp. Even if you are not in the market to buy a practice amp try one of these things. I did not want to recommend any products here but I think there is a lesson in this. Don't buy stuff for the brand name. Try and buy quality but try all the alternatives within your price range. It costs nothing to try something. There are many quality brands out there bringing out great products. In my personal opinion Fender, Peavey and Marshall have really dropped their game in terms of beginners amps. Vox, Hughes & Kettner and others are really starting to put their big amp knowledge, experience and technology into small, affordable practice amps. Although I play through a class A half stack I was toying with the idea of getting a practice amp for my bedroom and this H&K just blew me away. Try one and tell me what you think. I am sure there are better but that is for you to find out. Do I need to say that this is not a gigging or jamming amp, just simply great tone you can have in the bedroom.

6. Effects Or No Effects?

I think every guitarist becomes addicted to gear early on in their career (and I don't mean in the Dave Mustaine way). If it is in the shop you just gotta have it. I bought so many fruity effects pedals and big-arse multi-effects system and the majority of it never saw a gig, or even a jam. Today I play in a commercial cover band. We have close to 100 classic and new songs (Led Zep to Sum 41 to Avril Lavigne to Guns N' Roses to Kelly Clarkson). Guess how many effects I use? Yep right your are, three. A Flanger, Reverb and some Chorus (Yes I have a Wah but that doesn't count). Even then I hardly use these. A $150 chorus pedal is not going to give you the clean tone of insert your chosen guitar god here. He/she uses an unreal guitar, unreal pickups, unreal amps, unreal speakers and most importantly he/she is he/she and only they can sound like themselves. Do you really need that humaniser, harmoniser, pitch shifter, auto wah? I have never had a member of the audience say you didn't use a slight tremolo affect during that Good Charlotte song. Buy all means by what you think you need and will use but don't think every great guitarist needs a smorgasbord of pedals in front of them. Remember you have to carry them.

7. Wireless Systems

There are three completely different reasons to go wireless. 1. You play on a massive stage and you want to connect with your people (unlikely). 2. You play on a tiny stage and already have enough obstacles to avoid (likely). 3. You want to be a rock star and have money to burn (some cases). I went wireless for reason number 2 (okay and a little bit of 3). So now our beautiful singer can shake her arse all over stage without tripping over me. The golden rule I found while looking for a wireless was you get what you pay for. The cheaper one really coloured my tone and ruined my sound. All brightness gone and mud was a plenty. The more expensive ones are good but not perfect. All Wireless Systems Affect Your Tone. Only go wireless if it is essential. I know for a fact that Steve Vai will now only use cable live. If you need a wireless system try and save for a few more weeks and buy a good quality dual diversity system (and try it and compare it to cable in the shop).

8. Pick Your Pick

Picks make a world of difference to your playing ability. Try all different picks and see which work best for you. Don't stop at pick thickness try different shapes, sizes, grips, materials. They not only affect the speed and accuracy at which you can hit a note but they also alter the tone of your playing. Beginners should know that thicker picks are make fast runs and solos easier to play. Thin picks are great for strumming. Picks are one of the few things that are cheap enough to buy and try different ones. Take advantage of this luxury and try a whole heap of picks over a few weeks.

9. Guitars And Fashion

In 1994 my hair was long, my t-shirt was black and sported the words And Justice For All, and my pride and joy was my pointy white Charvel Model 6 with Shark Teeth inlays and a fat black Floyd Rose bridge. I hated Strats and Les Pauls (guess what I play today). Now I could not even pull my Charvel on stage for fear of being laughed off it again. The guitar has to be the most fashion conscious instrument around. Sure drums go kits go from two to one kick in cycles of 10 years. But have you every seen a bright pink pointy keyboard or a trumpet with a fourth button? You know how when you go into the local pawnbroker and all the guitars seem to be hot pink strat copy axes with Floyd Roses and 24 frets, well I will bet my left ball that in 10 years the pawn shop will be full of 7 string reverse headstock Ibanez guitars. Why? because fashions change. Be very careful what axe you go and fork out your house deposit on. If you want to spend a packet think of re-sale and what will the guitar really look like in 5 years time. Remember those Fender Heartfield Strats? Great metal guitars with everything on them, you could not pay people to pick one up today. Don't get burnt like I did.

10. Insurance

Not so much advice for beginners here but the semi-professional gigging guitarist. I read all of the time on product reviews typical comments such as if somebody stole it, I would track them down as I can't afford another. You know what I would do? I would go to the guitar shop and replace my gear with the cheque I got from my insurance company. Insure Your Gear! It costs next to nothing when you figure how much it will cost you to replace your stuff. What if it is not stolen but somebody rams into your car while your are driving to rehearsal? What if you house gets broken into during the day? What if a power surge fries your beautiful Road King combo? Don't listen to Ned Flanders, insurance is not a form of gambling. If you can afford to replace all your guitars, effects, amps, racks, cases, etc then don't insure it. If you are like the rest of us ring up and get covered today.

11. Greatness And Speed

Is Yngwie Malmsteen great because he is fast? Is Eric Clapton shite because he is slow? The answer to both is no, well Eric is not shite in the first place. Ask Yngwie Malmsteen that question and he will break your nose. So many guitarists get hung up on speed. John Petrucci is one of the fastest pickers I know of yet he usually does not rate that highly in most reader's polls (progressive categories the exception). Speed is a facet of these guys playing but there is so much more to the instrument than sweep picking, legato and just downright throttling those strings with your right hand. The thing that makes a guitarist great is their ability to connect with you. BB King can get more out of one note than I can out of a minute and a half solo. Hence he is a legend and I play in pubs in the most remote city in the world. Just think how many times have you sub-consciously been humming the main riff from Layla or Sunshine Of Your Love as opposed to Rising Force? I have heard of Slow Hand but I have never heard of Fast Hand.
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