Category Archives for "Guitar"

String Change Basics: Part 1

String Change Basics: Part 1

Welcome to our straightforward, no-nonsense, non-illustrated guide about how to perform guitar string changes. Why have we not included pictures? Well, because…

  1. If we’ve written it properly, you should hopefully be able to understand this process without the need for photographs.
  2. We don’t have the budget for photographs (hey, it’s a free email…)

Anyways, let’s get to business.

Why do I need to change my strings?

For a number of reasons;

  • You’ve broken a string. Even Gorilla tape won’t fix that.
  • New strings make your guitar sound better. The same way fresh clothes make you smell better. Probably.
  • Your strings sound dull. Some guitarists like this. Some don’t.
  • Your strings look dirty. This is an unavoidable eventual result of the cocktail of dirt, dead skin and oils from your fingers. Eww.
  • Your strings have gone rusty. This is an unavoidable eventual result of strings being made of metal. Metal rusts. But hey, you’re up to date with your tetanus shots, right?
  • Your strings have become worn. Yes, really. They’re made of metal and you keep rubbing them against other bits of metal. Why wouldn’t they get worn?

Strings are like any consumable item – tissues, tires, toothbrushes – none of these are meant to last forever. For that reason alone, it’s always worth keeping spares handy just in case.

And remember that guitar strings are usually sold in complete sets, with many guitar shops only stocking the thinner strings as individual items. Since the thinner strings are more likely to snap, we’d suggest keeping a few spare individual high E and B strings along with at least one complete set in your guitar case.

When should I change them?

Now, this depends on the kind of guitarist you are;

  • Professional gigging or studio player; every gig or session.
  • Occasional amateur live performer; every few weeks. But particularly if you’ve got an important gig coming up (do you REALLY want to risk older strings that are more likely to snap midway through your set???)
  • Occasional home player; at least once every 2 months should be ok.
  • An infrequent player who sometimes remembers they own a guitar; your choice. We’re certainly not going to try and lecture someone this laid-back…

But to all players, some words of advice. Give your strings a wipe, or even use a string cleaner such as Fast Fret, every time you finish playing your guitar. You’ll find that this makes them last much longer. And make a habit of keeping your guitar in a case rather than on a stand or hanger, or even leaning against a wall – basic exposure and air humidity will affect string quality after time.

And what strings should I buy?

Oh, brother…now there’s a loaded question.

Talking about brands at this point could be a minefield – guitarists tend to feel even more strongly about string choice than instrument choice. There are die-hard fans of Ernie Ball, Rotosound, Martin, and all the other major string manufacturers, and these fans are definitely creatures of habit. I’m not ashamed to include myself in that description either – all of my 6-strings are currently equipped with D’Addario, both acoustic and electric, and I honestly couldn’t explain why.

So, talking about string types seems simpler. And here you have some very distinct choices:

  • Electric guitar: metal strings, most commonly a steel core wrapped in nickel-plated steel on the 6th – 4th string, and plain steel on the 3rd – 1st. String set gauges determined by the weight of the 1st string – most commonly .010-.046 gauge, followed by .090-.042 and then .011-.048 (which also has windings on the 3rd string) in order of popularity. The heavier the gauge, the heavier the string. More exotic materials such as stainless steel are available, along with developments in coatings to increase lifespan and/or tone. Polished tape-wound ‘chrome’ strings are available for the jazz traditionalists amongst us.
  • Steel-string acoustic: also metal strings, again with a steel core but wrapped in most commonly in bronze or phosphor bronze wire. Alternatively wrapped in aluminum bronze, brass, a combination of silk/nylon/copper layers, colored coatings made from advanced polymers – the choice of materials and finishes here is overwhelmingly big. Gauge sets tend to be heavier than electric strings – the most common being .012-.054 and with other weights extending in both lighter and heavier directions.
  • Nylon-string Classical/Flamenco acoustic: fortunately, no longer made from actual animal guts (yup, that really used to be the material of choice), these strings are usually formed out of nylon or other synthetic fibers. Which is excellent news for vegetarian or vegan guitarists worldwide…

Multi-filament cores are wrapped with either nylon or metal for the 6th-4th strings, and plain strings make up the 3rd-1st. Generally sold rated by tension rather than gauge – low, normal and high are the main options, but (as with steel-strung acoustics) there are many others. DO NOT use steel string acoustic sets on your classical guitar as it’s not designed to cope with the weight.

What actual set to go for as a new player is going to be a game of experimentation. Lighter = easier on the fingers. Heavier = more sustain. Electric strings on a steel-string acoustic = practically no volume and funny looks from everyone. And listening to every other guitarist’s opinion on the matter = a headache.

But take heart from this; you’re going to be getting through so many sets of these things that it makes sense to try a few different brands, weights, and even materials out. It won’t take long before you find something that works for you. And look on the bright side – in terms of $$$ the guitar player has it so much cheaper than anyone shopping for violin or double-bass strings. Don’t even ask how much it costs to change the full set on a harp.

Halfway point

And that’s it for now. Part 2 is where it’s all gonna get terrifyingly practical for the new guitarist as we actually perform a string change. Unless you got over-excited by the title and have already started taking the old strings off – in which case you’ve basically crippled your guitar playing for the time being. Ummmmm…sorry.

See you next week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

The Art of Practicing

The Art of Practicing

Hi,

I’ll tell you something – one of the most common complaints I get from guitarists who have been playing for many years is that they don’t seem to be getting better. Regardless of how much they practice, no real improvements are being made. They have plateaued and whatever they do or practice, nothing seems to get much better.

This is a common trap that many musicians fall into because they make one critical mistake – they don’t understand the difference between practicing and playing.

But, what do you mean – a difference?

Yes, there is a massive difference between practicing and playing, which is why so many players fall into this trap. In a nutshell – you can only practice something that you cannot play. As soon as you can play it, going over and over, it will not improve your abilities on the instrument.

Now, that obviously makes sense, but if you think about your personal practice routine, would I be fair in saying that you can play 95% of the things you are practicing? The answer is usually a resounding yes!

This means that you are not really ‘practicing,’ what you are doing is ‘playing.’ There is obviously nothing wrong with that, it is, after all, the reason that we took up the guitar in the first place. But, that is why you are not continually improving. You can play all day, and maybe you do? But you are not practicing new material that you can’t play and will enhance your skills.

So, how to change…

Now, that we understand the difference between practicing and playing, it’s time to move on to the Art of Practicing.

What I’m about to say may shock you, I’ve already shocked enough people, so why change the habit of a lifetime. But, for effective, continual improvement on the guitar, or any instrument for that matter, all you need to do is practice for 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

That may not seem like much, and you probably think you are doing much more than that already, but the fact is that your probably not, you might be playing for an hour or two a day, but not even practicing for a minute.

To practice effectively takes a lot of concentration and effort, every second of those 20 minutes a day should be spent on perfection and fluidity. That’s why most people can’t cope with any longer.

And, you can’t spend a single second of it playing anything you already know and can play well, it all has to be on learning new skills or absolutely perfecting those you already know. A 20-minute jam over a blues backing track is not practicing I’m afraid.

So, how do I break the time up?

This is where the ‘art’ really comes into it. I always recommend that students do everything in 3-minute sections, so you’ve basically got 6 sections to fill per day with a few minutes of rest and metronome time changing in between to make up the 20-minute session.

Ok, let’s start off with an exercise to get the fingers nicely warmed up, keeping things simple, we’ll start with one of the most basic, the Finger Independence Exercise – or Spider or Crab, as it is also sometimes called.

To play this start with your first finger on the 5th fret of the low E string. Then add your second, third and fourth fingers to the same string one at a time, over the next three frets, without removing any fingers.

Now, move your first finger down one string to the A string on the same fret (5th). Remembering to keep every other finger where it is, then the second finger, third, etc. – again you can only move one finger at a time, all other fingers must remain exactly where they are.

You will probably have noticed by now that this is far harder than it seems. It is, in fact, one of the best exercises to get your fingers working independently, hence the name. It will improve every aspect of your playing.

But, there’s more…

That’s just a basic explanation of the exercise. When you practice it, you need to time yourself for an exact 3 minutes. If you experience pain before that time, obviously just stop playing, there is no point in straining your fingers.

You also need to use a metronome at a speed that you can play the part perfectly, I personally recommend 60 or once per second as a starting point, which can be increased continually as you get better at playing the exercise.

While on that subject, you need to ensure that every note sounds perfectly clear and is sustained until the next note is put in position. There can be no fret buzz or sloppy notes. You are aiming for absolute perfection, nothing less. And of course, you have to use perfect alternate picking (continual down-up-down-up pick strikes).

Think that’s slow, think again…

Plus, if you think a metronome speed of 60 is slow, you need to strike each note on every second metronome beat, not each one! This is far better for you than trying to hit a note on every beat, because if you play slightly ahead or behind the beat, which is normal for most players, you will not get the full benefits this exercise can give you.

Hitting on every beat will not improve your timing, you will continue to play slightly ahead or behind the beat. But, by playing on every other beat, your internal rhythm aligns with the beat that you are not playing on but are listening to, and your timing will improve.

Once, you can do all of the above absolutely perfectly at a speed of 60 playing every two beats, then you increase the metronome setting to 63. And, practice that until you can do it perfectly. Then up to 66, 70, 75, 78, 81, etc. If you get to a speed where you can’t play the exercise perfectly, you have to go back to the previous setting and make sure you can play it at that speed before moving back up again.

Once you get the hang of this exercise and can play it at a high speed, replace it with another exercise such as a finger stretch or number cruncher exercise.

And, that’s just the first 3 minutes of your daily routine. You then do the same with a scale, again keeping it simple, play the first position Minor Pentatonic, using the exact same principles as we used in the Finger Independence Exercise. When you can play it fluidly and perfectly at speed, move to the second position, or a Major Scale, or whatever?

You then fill up your six daily 3-minute slots with anything that you cannot play – exercises, scales, arpeggios, chord shapes, improvising, rhythm exercises, style studies, ear training, sight reading, anything that you cannot already play or do perfectly.

Wrapping it all up

If you follow these very basic steps and concentrate 100% on accuracy, fluidity, and perfection. And, only work on material that you either cannot play or want to play better then you are absolutely guaranteed of continual improvement every time you sit down and practice.

You can still ‘play’ for as long as you like every day – jam with this, play along with your favorite songs, etc. etc. But, that’s playing, not practicing. Do both, and you won’t believe how much better you will be in 3 months’ time.

It’s only 20 minutes a day which is about the time it takes to boil 7 eggs one at a time, so there really is no excuse! If you want to become a better guitarist each and every day you now know the secret!

I’ve gotta admit…this is some good stuff!  But there’s more where that came from.  The problem is you’re going to have to wait until next week for some more guitar goodness.

So, until then…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Ten riffs every guitar player should know

Ten riffs every guitar player should know

Just when you thought it was safe, ……..I’m back!!

The guitar riff is one of the pillars of rock n’ roll. Classic riffs are basically masterpieces in their own right. That magic combination of notes that penetrate your soul. An immortal riff is perhaps the most solid way to become a legend. Riffs have defined bands, careers, and generations. There are so many great riffs that it’s hard to come up with such a short list. However, here we’ll try our very best. In no particular order, here are the ten riffs every guitar player should know.

(I can’t get no) Satisfaction

A simple yet extremely moving riff by the Keith Richards. Composed of only two bars of music and mostly single lines, it is a relatively easy riff to play. This would be a good choice for a beginner guitar player. But make no mistake, advanced guitarists can also learn a lot from the simplicity that encompasses so much punch. Released in 1965, “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” is one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest songs. And it starts with a killer and unforgettable riff.

Smoke on the Water

There is a good chance that this is among the first riffs a guitar player learns. This says a lot about the staying power of this riff. Without question, it’s the most famous Deep Purple cut. Composed of a simple succession of power chords, this riff is super easy to play. As a matter of fact, “Smoke on the Water” is one of those favorite songs for young bands that are just starting up. Immortalized by the legendary Ritchie Blackmore riff, this song was released in 1973.

Back in Black

Few riffs are as powerful and punchy as this masterpiece by guitar legend Angus Young. It combines a few power chords with two licks, to give AC/DC the biggest song from their biggest album, also named Back In Black. This album is one of the biggest selling records ever, by any artist. Released in 1980, it has sold over 50 million copies.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

This is the riff that put Seattle on the map back in 1991. A series of palm muted bar chords by Kurt Cobain set off a revolution that put grunge rock on the top of the charts. Despite its simplicity, it almost sounds like a 180-degree turn from everything that came before. It is the most recognizable song and riff by Nirvana, and a very popular one with guitarists all around the globe.

Whole Lotta Love

Jimmy Page wrote this riff in the late Sixties and it still resonates profoundly today. It helped make Led Zeppelin, one of the greatest rock bands ever (the greatest, according to many). Recorded in 1969, this riff and song remain one of the most learned. Even though the entire Led Zeppelin catalog is a riff mine, “Whole Lotta Love” displays the power and finesse of one of the greatest guitar players ever: Jimmy Page.

Sweet Child O’ Mine

The story goes like this: Slash was fooling around with his guitar and started playing a riff. Drummer Steven Adler spoke up and told Slash to keep on playing it. And the rest is history. The riff for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is an instant classic, based on outlining chords through some sort of arpeggio. It’s not an easy riff to play, but just like most things guitar-related, practice makes perfect. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was released in 1987 and became Guns N’ Roses biggest hit and a classic rock anthem.

Purple Haze

No riff list would be complete without a Jimi Hendrix cut. And that is a fact. “Purple Haze” has become a guitar player standard tune at jam sessions and other scenarios. And this includes the likes of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash, (not to mention Stevie Ray Vaughan’s classic version of this song). Released in 1967, “Purple Haze” is one of Jimi Hendrix’s best-known songs and features several classic riffs.

Iron Man

This classic song by Black Sabbath features the accompanying immortal riff by the great Tommy Iommi. It is probably the best-known Heavy Metal riff ever. It has the added benefit that the actual riff is also the main vocal melody line, as recorded by one Mr. Ozzy Osbourne. Recorded in 1970, it still sounds menacing and very heavy today. It is another favorite riff to learn by beginners as it is fairly easy and sounds so great.

Day Tripper

Released in 1965, “Day Tripper” features a classic riff that is both easy and fun. Like many riffs in this list, its beautiful simplicity is what made it a classic. No band had a stronger impact on music and culture than the Beatles. You could even make the argument that their influence is present in every riff in this list, even if by accident. The fab four have plenty of classic riffs in their repertoire, and “Day Tripper” is one of their best.

Enter Sandman

Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield are one the best-known guitar teams ever. In “Enter Sandman” it is clear why. This riff is extremely powerful and pushed Metallica into the mainstream back in 1991 when it was released. It is still a favorite riff to learn for many guitar players, although it is not particularly easy.

Wrapping it all up

There’s is nothing quite like a great riff. It can set off a mood and make your heart pump blood faster. Like in any shortlist, there will inevitably be some great ones left out. So please… don’t stop at 10. Learn as many riffs as you can. The modern music industry as we know it is largely dependent on riffs, and rightfully so.

One last thing – take a few minutes to look up some guitar tab for these riffs, or even check out some YouTube videos.  Some of these iconic riffs may be a lot easier to play than you think!

Time’s up for this week. Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head.

What is a riff? Seven things you need to know

What is a riff? Seven things you need to know

We meet once again,

Oh, the guitar riff… the ever-popular, often mystified fragment of music that makes songs instantly recognizable. Or is it the musical phrase that can define a generation? Perhaps an immortalized series of notes you are proud to learn? Yes, yes and yes. A riff is all those things and so much more.

Part of being a guitar legend is to come up with those riffs. You could even make the argument that riffs are just as important to a guitar player’s reputation as his solos (if not more). And as a guitar player, you will definitely be playing lots of riffs. A riff might as well be the very first thing you learn on guitar. But… what exactly is a riff? There are many kinds and types. Here are the seven things you need to know…

A riff is a succession of notes or theme

 This succession of notes can be double stops, chord progressions and/or single notes. It often constitutes a central part of the song. Of course, a song might have more than one riff. A simple arpeggio pattern over a few chords can be a riff, like in “Paradise City” from Guns N’ Roses. An even simpler chord strum pattern can also be a riff, like in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana. In both cases, the riffs are instantly recognizable and could be considered a theme.

A riff can feature a combination of techniques

 Even though many riffs are composed exclusively of single lines or just chords, there are many others that feature both. As a matter of fact, you can basically use any infinite combinations of techniques to build a riff. For instance, the riff of “Back in Black” from AC/DC features a series of chords that alternate with two very specific single lines or licks. The first one on the high string and the second one the lower strings.

Another classic song that combines chords and single lines to form its main riff is “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix. This happens in the very intro of the song. That riff, in particular, has become a popular choice for guitar teachers and students alike, as it is relatively easy, very recognizable and extremely cool as well.

A riff can also be a part inside a song

Let’s stick with “Paradise City”. Even though the main riff is a simple arpeggio pattern over a few chords, it is not the only riff on that classic song. Right after it happens, a new riff comes in:  a distorted series of simple power chords that step up the verse. This riff is not the “main riff” in the song, but it’s definitely a very important one as well.

This also happens in “Purple Haze”. That Hendrix classic employs different riffs throughout its structure, to create a guitar anthem and a must-know song if you play Rock guitar.

Riffs are a great learning tool

Riffs are a great educational tool for guitar players. Given that there are so many recognizable riffs, it should be fairly simple to pick something you like and that fits your playing ability. There’s also the immense added bonus of playing along with the original recording once you learn the riff.

This fact should not be understated, as it is a great tool to learn not only riffs but music in general. To play along with, say Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin, or any other great artist, is a very useful tool. You can really try to emulate the players feel and intensity and play with an incredible rhythm section, if only for a moment. The benefits of doing this on a regular basis are immense.

You should learn riffs by ear

Because of today’s technology and the endless amount of information available, learning music by ear is not as common. This is quite unfortunate because the musician is missing out on great ear training. Learning riffs off a recording not only trains your ears but also develops the connections between brain, ears, and hands. The importance of learning by ear cannot be overstated.

Riffs also have a difficulty level

If you have never picked up a guitar before, try to steer clear from hard riffs. Trust me, if the first riff you attempt to learn is “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson, you will be very disappointed. Better start with something simpler and build up to the more complex stuff. Remember: to run, you first need to walk. And before that, you need to crawl.

Riffs can be found in all instruments

 Yes, yes, I know. At least in rock, most riffs are on the guitar. But that does not mean we have to stick to those exclusively. Take for instance the bass riff on “Under Pressure” by Queen/David Bowie. It is so instantly recognizable that Vanilla Ice decided to use it on his 1991 hit “Ice Ice Baby” (don’t kid yourself…you know that you liked it…).

For a more obscure reference, Dave Grohl does a killer drum riff at the beginning of Nirvana’s “Scentless Apprentice”. This makes the song instantly recognizable to any Nirvana fan.

Wrapping it all up

 Riffs are the bread and butter of a rock guitar player. They are a crucial stepping stone for learning and getting better as a guitarist. They can combine several techniques, happen in different parts of songs and run the gamut from easy to complex. The best way to learn them is by ear. And one of the best ways to practice them is playing along to the original recording.

That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Seven simple facts about chords

Seven simple facts about chords

Guess what?  It’s me again…

As a guitarist, you will probably be playing chords about 80 percent of the time, if not more. Even if you end up being the lead player in a band, chords will take up most of your playing time. In other words, there’s no way around this one. A guitar player that can’t play chords, might as well give up the instrument.

That being said, chords can be extremely fun to play. They appear in killer riffs, sweet accompaniment for songs, and everything in between. Like most things guitar-related, practice is key when it comes to chords. For now, let’s get more familiarized with them.

Here are the seven simple facts about chords – but we are going to look at them a little differently.  I’m not going to show you a ton of chord charts (you can find those anywhere on the internet).  These facts are more like ‘background info” so that you know what a chord actually is, and what makes them what they are.

A chord is a combination of notes

The simplest definition of a chord is: two or more notes played at the same time. As simple as that sounds, it is nonetheless an accurate definition. Double stops? They are chords. Power chords? Obviously chords. Complex extended harmonies? Yes, those are chords as well. Whenever you strike two or more notes at the same time on your guitar, you are playing a chord.

Chords are related to scales

Even though a chord can be made up of any random combination of notes, randomness is not commonly associated with chord construction. So, what is? Intervals, or the distance between two notes. Take for instance a C major chord on its simplest form. It is composed of the root, the third and the fifth. This might sound complex, but if you attended kindergarten, you can comprehend it. Remember your C, D, E, F, G, A, B? Well, that’s a C major scale. Take the first note of that scale (C), the third note (E), and the fifth note (G). Now play them together. That’s it, that’s your C major chord! And this is exactly how chords are constructed.

Want to play a C major 7th chord? Well, then just put the root (the first note), the third, the fifth and the seventh. That would be C, E, G and B. That is your C major 7th chord. Of course, we are using the easiest scale with the simplest chord quality. But once you learn a bit of theory, you can figure out what any chord is, note by note. And that applies to very complex chords as well.

Power chords are for guitarists

Even if you don’t play rock, chances are you will play power chords any time you have distortion on. So… what are power chords? They are composed of the root note and the fifth. Back to our C major scale, that would be C (root) and G (the fifth). No more, no less. These chords are almost always played with some kind of saturation. That could be anything from warm overdrive to screeching distortion. Power chords are a lot of fun and lend themselves well for riffs on electric guitar.

And here comes the fun part. Power chords are not major or minor (or dominant seventh for that matter). Because they don’t have a 3rd (the note that dictates the chord quality, i.e. major or minor) power chords can be used for either one. Think of it more a bass note. So how does the song get its sound then, you might ask. The quality of the harmony is going to be present regardless, even if you use only power chords. But that is a topic for a more advanced harmony article.

Chords can be played in many ways

It is quite amazing that chords can take so many shapes and forms… literally! They can be power chords, double stops, inversions, extended harmonies, and even arpeggios. Don’t know what all those terms mean? Don’t worry. With time and practice, you will come to dominate these ways of playing chords and many more. The point here is to illustrate that chords can be played in a wide variety of ways.

So, if you are bored with playing that open C chord over and over, know that there are other ways to play it. However, it is important to note that how you play a chord will depend on the style and context. For instance, a C major open position chord is not automatically interchangeable with a C major 7th chord or even a power chord. Again, only practice and studying will reveal when and how to use a particular way of playing chords.

Chords are found in all styles

It doesn’t matter what style of music you play – unless you’re B.B. King, you’re gonna have to play lots of chords. So, you might as well master them. Rock? You’ve got your power chords and more. Jazz? Then extended chords and beyond will be your friends. Country? Triads and open chords will be your thing. Oh, please don’t get me wrong. Just because you play rock does not mean you don’t have to learn extended chords. And vice versa.

Let me state it very clearly – the more chords you know, and the more ways of playing them you can master, the more complete guitarist you will be. You should learn all kinds of different voicings and ways of playing chords. This will make your playing stronger. It will also make music much more fun to play.

Chords are not exclusive to guitar players

Simply put, chords are present in harmony. And harmony is always present in the music. Even instrumentalists that cannot play more than one note at a time know chords. In-demand sax or trumpet players typically have a deep understanding of how harmony/chords work. They also tend to play a chordal instrument, typically piano.

Wrapping it all up

Chords and harmony, in general, are a central part of the music. This is true of any style, from rock and blues to country and bossa nova. As an accompanying instrument, guitarists are expected to be able to play chords. This is true even for a beginner guitar player. If you are at a birthday party and someone hands you a guitar to sing “Happy Birthday”, chords are what you will be playing. Remember to have fun and dedicate some time daily for practice.

That’s it for this week. Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Altered Tunings – An Introduction

Altered Tunings – An Introduction

Always good to see you back, but we have to start this week’s discussion with a public service announcement:

Disclaimer: I accept no responsibility for any strings broken as a result of reading this article

Got it?  Great…now we can move on…

Introduction to Alternative Tunings

So, your guitar playing is improving, those chords are sounding sweeter every time you pick the instrument up, you’ve maybe even started throwing a few riffs into the mix. Those hours of practice are paying off, and those sore fingers are becoming a thing of the past.

And now you read this …. excuse me? ….. alternative WHAT?!?

Tunings – y’ know – like how the guitar is tuned

But, but, but (take a deep breath) surely that’s one of the first things I learned? It’s tuned EADGBE, right?

Of course. And don’t worry, you’ve not been doing anything wrong! Most guitarists worldwide use what’s referred to as ‘standard tuning’, simply because it usually makes more sense than tuning a guitar in any other way. In fact, the EADGBE style of tuning has, in one form or another, been used on the various instruments that eventually evolved into the modern guitar since at least the 16th century.

Why is EADGBE the ‘standard’ tuning on a guitar?

Simply because over many centuries and after many experiments, musicians throughout the world decided it made more sense than anything else. And it really does make sense on a guitar when you compare it with how most other string instruments are tuned AND played.

Think about the violin, the viola, the cello, and even the mandolin. They’re all tuned, from one string to the next, in pitch intervals known as ‘perfect 5ths’ (which you might recognize as the ‘power chord’). And that’s just fine for playing solos – people don’t strum too many chords on a violin or a cello. Also, remember that all these instruments have a MUCH shorter and thinner neck than a guitar, so stretching your fingers a little further won’t be too painful.

So, what if a guitar was tuned this way – using 5ths across all its strings, starting at a low E? Let’s have a look at what I’ve decided to call ‘Torture Tuning’ on this occasion, and how you would then have to play a basic E chord…..

Weird huh? And not hugely comfortable. Incidentally, we do NOT recommend you try this tuning unless you want to snap either your strings or your guitar neck.

But ok, 5ths don’t make much sense. So why don’t we tune in 4ths across all strings instead? That would only actually change the top 2 strings from standard tuning, and give us EADGCF. Hmmm – I’ll call this ‘Extreme Torture Tuning’ and show another basic E chord

OMG – it’s actually getting worse. Unless you’re blessed with 6 digits on each hand of course.

History doesn’t record precisely which geniuses came up with the solution, but it was a good one;
stick with 4ths between most strings, but add one major 3rd between strings three and two.

And hey presto…

… we have a tuning system that makes it physically easier for a normal sized human hand, with a normal number of fingers, to play both scales and chords. The idea of mixing these intervals – mostly 4ths with one Major 3rd – really has proved popular over the years when tuning fretted string instruments. You’ll find variations on this theme used as standard on the Lute and the Ukulele just for starters.

So why use an alternative tuning if a standard is so great?

You might as well ask ‘why try sushi if a burger is so great?’

Burgers are great – certainly every guitarist I know eats enough of them. But from time to time it’s fun to have a little variety, to maybe try something new. Something raw. Something that perhaps takes you a little way out of your comfort zone. A journey of discovery… OK, I’ll stop there. Any more of this and we’ll be discussing meditation.

But apart from trying something new, there can also be practical reasons for using alternative tuning. For example;

#1: Lowering the pitch

Simple, no-nonsense, low-frequency fun and games. And the simplest way of doing this is the ‘Drop-D’ tuning. As basic as it sounds, this just brings your low E string down a full tone
to a D

It doesn’t do much to make the E chord any easier, but look at that massively extended D5 power chord! Throw a good dose of distortion on your sound and you’re in rock heaven – this technique’s been used by the Foo Fighters, Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, the list goes on. Not to mention how easy it is to play other power chords with just one finger – look at the F5 and G5 chord boxes. Most thrash and speed metal genres rely on this level of convenience!

#2: Using just one finger or a slide

Simple in a completely different way. Do you want to play complete major chords with just one finger? Try an open tuning – in this case, the ‘Open G’ tuning. This drops your low E and A strings by one tone, your high E string by one tone, but leaves your D, G and B strings unchanged.

 

Immediately you have the worlds simplest G chord. And have a look at the A – you could do that with just one finger, or even using a slide. Blues and roots rock players love this tuning for just that reason, not to mention how relaxed the neck action suddenly feels now you’ve lost tension from half the strings. Someone else who loves this tuning is Keith Richards – the C and F/C chord boxes form the intro of ‘Start Me Up’ by the Rolling Stones.

#3: Like, totally expanding your mind, man…

Yes, this IS a valid reason to try an altered tuning. If you change the basic way an instrument reacts to your input, it’s likely to result in completely different musical output – chords, harmonies, and ideas you’ll have never tried before. One very popular method is to try the ‘DADGAD’ tuning (sometimes called ‘Modal D’). Re-tuning is pretty self-explanatory in this case!

Straight away you have a wonderfully ethereal sound by just strumming the open strings to make a Dsus4 chord. It’s not major, it’s not minor, it’s just spookily different. Many players looking for a non-Western-music sound have used this tuning – folk and rock artists alike (Davy Graham and Led Zeppelin for example). But creating a standard D major or minor isn’t tricky as you can see. Or adopting a Mumford & Sons approach to a nice warm-sounding G(add9). Play around with this tuning and I guarantee you’ll find many, many sounds you never even imagined could come from your fingers…

Wrapping It Up

And there you have it – three completely different approaches to the guitar that don’t involve buying any new kit. Possibly except new strings.

I’m tapped out for this week, guys (and gals).  You’re gonna have to catch up with me next week.

So…as usual…until then…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Buying An Electric Guitar

Buying An Electric Guitar

We meet once again,

Buying an electric guitar is typically a very exciting endeavor. Few things can be as thrilling as going on a hunt for a model of an instrument that you love. However, with a seemingly unlimited number of models from so many makers, the excitement can quickly turn to anxiety. There’s endless advice about what you should do and what you should avoid when buying an electric guitar. Ask ten people for advice, and there’s a good chance that you will get ten different opinions on what to get.

The reason for this is simple: choosing a guitar is a very personal matter. If there was only one piece of advice, I wish all players could heed and take to heart, it’s this: get a guitar that you connect with.

When it comes to buying a guitar, there is absolutely nothing more powerful and important than that. That being said, it would be a bit unpractical to try out one thousand guitars and then see which one you connected with the most. The good news is that there are ways in which you can narrow the options based on your own personal preferences.

Even if you are a total beginner and have never played a note on a guitar, chances are you gravitate towards a certain player or players. And that is a great place to start.

Where do I start? With your very own guitar hero…

 For instance, is Slash your favorite guitar player? Then you might want to narrow the field by looking mostly at Les Pauls. If money is not a problem (and it usually is), you might go straight to the source and get a Gibson Les Paul Classic. If you do not have a few thousand dollars to spare, an Epiphone Les Paul can be a great choice as well. There’s even a signature Slash Epiphone Les Paul model for under a thousand dollars (as there is a Gibson counterpart, that is much more expensive).

Or perhaps your favorite player is John Mayer, in which case you might want to narrow the field to Stratocasters, whether it be his new signature Silver Sky PRS, or a Fender.

Maybe you are a big AC/DC fan, and thus an Angus Young admirer. Then you should probably be looking at SG style guitars, starting with the original Gibson and informing yourself about the dozens, more likely hundreds of other makers of that particular model, starting with Epiphone (which is a company that happens to be owned by Gibson).

Think about the style you want to play, and more

 Perhaps you have several guitar players that you really like, in which case you can narrow the field by style. Do you want to play jazz? Then a hollow-body or semi-hollow body style guitar might be the place to start looking for that new instrument. As always, there is something for every budget, from coveted models like the Gibson L5, Gibson ES-175, and ES-335, too much more affordable models like the Artcore series by Ibanez.

But how about wood, electronics, neck style, construction type, etc.? Those are all important considerations that will typically preoccupy more seasoned players. However, many of those considerations also depend on the style and player you want to emulate, which puts us back at square one. For example, if you want to play country music, an option for a Floyd Rose III bridge might not be an appropriate choice for you.

More choices, more opinions

As said in the beginning, there are a plethora of different opinions when it comes to buying a guitar and what components it should have. For instance, a big topic of discussion is the wood used, especially the wood used for the fretboard. It seems like about half the guitarists of the world prefer maple, while the other half prefer mahogany.

There are several other options but those two are without a question the most popular. And even though they are different, you will find great players within the same music style that has a clear preference for one or another and beyond. Again, it’s a question of what you like and what speaks to you.

The ugly truth: your budget

 We mentioned it briefly at the top, but here it comes in full swing: regardless of who your favorite player is and what style you want to play, you will have to adjust to your budget. There’s no way around this unless you happen to win the lottery before you go buy your electric guitar. Budget is one of the main considerations when buying an electric guitar (or buying anything at all for that matter).

However, there is some fantastic news. Many guitar manufacturers produce lower priced models that feature the same constructions as their more expensive counterparts but using more affordable components and labor. For instance, Fender has its Squire line, PRS has its SE line and many Gibsons have an Epiphone version of their models.

But it’s not just these three: dozens of manufacturers produce models based on Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Telecasters, SGs, Jaguars, hollow-bodies, semi-hollow bodies, etc. And these manufacturers and models run the gamut from expensive and very high quality (like the Classic T model from Suhr guitars, which is modeled after a Telecaster) to the Peavey Predator (an inexpensive but effective guitar modeled after the Stratocaster).

A great piece of advice is to take advantage of all the tools you have at your disposal and inform yourself as much as you can about guitars, especially with the styles you play in mind. It is free to browse the Internet for very expensive guitars and read about what makes them special, and also find out about options that are more affordable but dependable.

Wrapping it all up

At the end of the day, we go back to the beginning. If you feel a guitar is right for you, then you are right, even if you picked a model not typically associated with the style you play. Whomever your idol is, whatever your style and budget are… the ultimate test is: do you connect with that guitar?

That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Buying An Acoustic Guitar

Buying an Acoustic Guitar

We meet once again,

Buying an acoustic guitar is not that different from buying an electric guitar. It involves the basic steps of defining your budget and finding an instrument that speaks to you. I know, I know, some of you might cringe when the word “budget” is mentioned. And perhaps, someone somewhere has absolutely no budget limitations. However, for most of us, the money we have to spend on an instrument is a reality that is hard to bypass. But I have great news for you, at least when it comes to guitars, there’s something for every budget.

But before you start…  let’s have some serious fun!

 Sometimes we take for granted the moment in history in which we live. We have a plethora of information right at our fingertips, and we are going to use it here. Perhaps the best advice before buying an acoustic guitar is to research and experiment before making the purchase.

Read up on reviews, go on forums, go on online music stores, and explore the web on all things related to acoustic guitars. Go on the website of the usual suspects for acoustic guitars: Taylor, Martin, Larrivee, Alvarez, Cordoba, Gibson, Fender, etc. If you already have defined what your budget is, then you can even start a short list of models that look appealing. If you have not defined your budget yet, there’s no need to worry.

Regardless of your budget, get acquainted with as many acoustic guitar models as you can. Read about what makes them good, or not so good, why some features are more desirable, etc. Once you have started that, we can then move on to part two of our plans.

Try out many acoustic guitars

 Go to your favorite music stores to try out as many acoustics as you like. Spend time with them and get a feel for what you like. See if you connect with any and if so, start noticing what do you like about them. Is it their sound? Perhaps how they feel? Maybe even how the body resonates against your chest?

Feel free to try guitars that are not in your budget. The idea here is to develop some criteria. This way you will know exactly what a $ 1500-dollar guitar feels and sounds like, as opposed to, say, a $ 400 dollar one. And the best of all is that you will experience this first hand. This will be a nice complement to all the info you read online.

Talk to the sales people at the store and ask for their opinion. A word of caution: opinions will differ greatly from person to person. There is no wrong or right here, as tastes vary widely from player to player. The only one that knows exactly how an acoustic guitar makes you feel is you. Even if you have never strummed one before. When buying an acoustic guitar, nothing is as powerful as connecting with the instrument.

A word on budget

 Common wisdom dictates that with a larger budget you can buy a better guitar (as with most things). The good news is that guitar manufacturing has come a long way. This is especially true when trying to get a good instrument with a limited budget. Companies understand that most potential acoustic guitar buyers don’t have thousands to spare. And believe me, those companies want your business. Therefore, they try and offer the very best money can buy for all budgets. This is true not only for new companies but also for the very established ones. Manufacturers like Gibson, Fender, Cordoba, Ibanez, Martin, Taylor and more, offer good options for virtually every budget.

Steel string or nylon string?

 This is an important question!

For the most part, steel string guitars project more and tend to be a bit louder than their nylon counterparts. However, nylon is usually a bit easier on the fingers and lends itself particularly well for fingerstyle playing. Style is also an important consideration. If your goal is to engage in classical style studying, then nylon is definitely the way to go. For about everything else, including songwriting, it all depends on your taste. Try several models of steel string and nylon string guitars, and see what you prefer.

Plugged or unplugged?

 Another important consideration is whether the guitar will have a built-in pickup system. If your plan is to plug in an amp or speaker, then this is a must. Keep in mind that having a pickup automatically raises the price of the instrument. There are also add-on acoustic pickups that you can buy separately, but they typically sound inferior. If you want to connect your guitar to amplify the sound, a built-in system is a way to go.

On the other hand, if you want an acoustic guitar to just learn how to play and have fun, then you can skip that. The same applies if you just want to write some songs or use them in situations that do not require amplification. 

Wrapping it all up

 If you follow the advice given here, buying an acoustic guitar should be a very satisfying experience. There’s nothing like finding out what you truly like and connect with. Informing yourself and playing several acoustic guitars will not only be rewarding and productive but fun as well.

A word of caution: If you can, steer away from buying a guitar that you have not tried. It might be alluring to just order something off the Internet (which will usually be cheaper than buying at a physical store). I would advise against that, even if you have tried the model of the guitar in question. The best scenario is to try out a guitar, feel that it speaks to you, buy it… and live happily ever after.

That’s it for this week! 

Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Strumming Basics

Strumming Basics

 Hi, going to get a little technical on you this week…

I’m guessing that reactions to the title of this piece will include things like “really?!?” and “what next – how to use a spoon?!?”

Yes, it’s a very basic idea. Some of the greatest ideas ever were basic. Take the wheel for example – a simple concept that creates simple movement, makes things roll along and enables great journeys to happen. That could easily be an analogy for what good strumming does for guitar playing.

Seriously?

Sure – I’m serious. Because if you ask ANY guitar teacher about the hardest basic principle to teach a complete beginner, strumming is likely to be top of the list. It’s also probably the most common concern that older students, returning to guitar playing after years of neglect, ask for help and guidance with.

SERIOUSLY??

OK, try this; when you started playing guitar, you probably first learned how to make chords. Then you learned to strum them. And we’re willing to bet that the chords were the easiest bit.

Get over the initial pain and weirdness of forcing your fingers to accurately jam metal wires against other metal wires (if you think about it, playing guitar is a massively un-natural thing for the human body to do) and chord shapes don’t really present a problem. With a bit of practice, the digits on your fretting hand kind of end up doing the thinking for you, arranging themselves into the optimum position to play the next chord pretty quickly.

This is muscle memory in action. Your body has remembered how to shape those chords cleanly, and without buzzing or deadened strings, kinda so that your brain doesn’t have to. In the same way, it remembers how to use a pencil without tearing through the paper. Or (see the first sentence of this article) use a spoon without putting soup up your nose. Or on the ceiling. Any parents reading this will understand.

Play a chord and you’ve painted a harmonic picture – you’ve made a still image out of the noise. Think of E major as a comfortable, no-nonsense photograph of your home, imagine A minor as a sad emoji picture on Facebook, and consider Cdim7 as some kind of surreal Salvador Dali painting showing a clock melting over a pink elephant standing in a desert. Or something.

Can we get to the point?

The point is that individual chords are only still images. Strumming provides rhythm, and immediately you animate these pictures – the freeze frame becomes part of a video – and the music comes to life.

And yet strumming remains the biggest part of simple guitar playing that many players struggle with. But don’t worry, it’s just a case of stripping things back to the basics.

The physical basis

The first principle of learning to do anything well is to be comfortable whilst you learn. So,

  • Make sure you sit right. Yeah, obviously you might think. But you’re not going to relax enough to strum that guitar properly if you’re not in a position to hold it correctly. Deep sofas, tall bar stools, any chair with arms, sitting cross-legged perched on a table, these are all bad starting points. Try a normal comfortable chair, where your feet can sit flat on the floor. This means your thigh should be horizontal, so hopefully, your guitar won’t try to slide off it.
  • Make sure you’re holding the guitar right. Also, pretty self-evident? In which case you’ve already made sure both arms are completely free to move, right? You’re surely not being lazy and resting your fretting hand arm on your leg, right…?

While the upper part of your strumming arm may well be resting on the body of the guitar, the elbow and lower part of the arm needs to be able to move freely in front of the guitar. That whole lower arm section gets involved with the strumming, starting at your elbow hinge, and it all needs to move freely.

Does your strumming hand feel comfortable? If not then you’ve probably got it bent inwards like some misshapen claw. Straighten it out – you want to play your guitar, not try to attack it.

What else can you do to make the strumming experience comfortable? Well, while you’re learning…

  • Use a pick. Seriously. However, tempted you might be to try strumming steel strings with your fingers or thumb, we really wouldn’t recommend it in terms of comfort! Good habits are worth forging early on, and you’ll genuinely play more rhythmically from the beginning using a pick. Start with something nice and light – you can work up to crazy metal or bone picks once Clapton books you for a studio session…
  • Hold the pick properly. Secure it between your first finger and thumb, with all other fingers tucked in beneath so that it points out at 90º from your thumb. Keep your hand straight and in line with your strumming arm – if it’s running parallel with the front of your guitar then the pick should be pointing directly at the strings. Exactly where you want it.
  • Use light strings. Again, not something you always need to stick with. But why not make things easier as you learn?

The rhythmic basics

Strumming a guitar is almost like conducting a band. The conductor moves their arm to the beat. The guitarist does the same. Kind of…

Although there are many different styles of strumming, the simplest method is to play a down-strum (or down-stroke) on each beat (or pulse) of the music. Like this.

Now stop. Pause. Hold the phone. Because this single bar of music, this simple little exercise, this tiny nugget of information is probably the greatest thing any guitarist will ever learn. Unlike the conductor leading the band, the guitarist has just started conducting his or her self. Just that basic downward movement on each beat builds the foundation on which we move seamlessly from playing a beat to playing rhythm.

The next logical step is to introduce an up-strum (or up-stroke). Where do we do this? Between the down-strums of course!

You can clearly see that up-strums ONLY happen on the off-beats. This is the unavoidable result of strumming down ON the beat. But it’s a happy and very convenient result – we need to return our strumming arm to a position ready to play the next beat, so why not strum an off-beat in the process.

From beat to rhythm

By now the basic point should be obvious; strumming down on each beat ensures that your arm keeps moving in time to the music. The pulse is now flowing nicely, and turning that beat into a rhythm is the next step.

It looks as though there are bits missing from the strumming, right? Well, yes and no. Try playing this example, even if you haven’t got a guitar with you (just move your arm up and down – tell anyone watching that you’re ‘air strumming’ if they look worried).

You’re still strumming down on each beat, you’re still keeping that basic pulse, you’re still conducting yourself. But you’re not strumming a chord on every beat and off-beat of the bar – because you don’t have to. The plectrum hits the strings whenever you want it to, creating interesting new gaps in the sound, layering a new feel over the beat.

As if by magic the pulse has now become rhythm. Voila!

Wrapping It Up

And that’s the basics of strumming. For those readers who still find it difficult, I hope this helps. For those who have already nailed it, spread the word!

Now for a rest before I write that spoon article…so until next time…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

Guitar Strings – What’s The Big Deal?!?

You’re back again?  Good deal – got some great info for you this week on an area that is often overlooked…

Guitar strings are the most direct connection between a guitarist and the music. They represent the point of contact, literally, between human and machine. Yet they don’t get half the attention that guitars, amps, and pedals get. Here are the seven things you need to know about guitar strings.

Size matters: string gauge

Sting gauges vary from very light to ultra heavy. A player typically chooses a set of strings that includes only light, medium, or heavy strings. There are cases of extremely meticulous guitar players that like to combine gauges in one set. For instance, a particular player might use light gauges for the top three strings and heavy gauges for the bottom three. Although any combination is possible, string sets are sold keeping the gauges of all strings consistent.

Because terms like “light” or “medium” can vary from company to company, the best is to go by the actual measurement of the string gauge. The industry standard is to measure them in 1/1000th’s of an inch. The lightest high E string available measures 0.008” and one of the heaviest low E strings available measures .056. A typical medium set will have the following measurements from top to bottom: 0.011”, 0.015”, 0.018”, 0.026”, 0.036”, 0.050”.

If you decide to go with a medium set (a common choice for many styles), you can go to your store and ask for a set of 11’s. Yup, guitarists typically refer to an entire set of strings by the size of the high E string!

String gauge affects playability, durability, and tone

So… why would you choose one gauge set over the other? Typically, lighter gauge guitar strings are easier to play, and this might be appealing to beginners. But there’s a tradeoff. Lighter gauges are more prone to breaking and thinner sounding than heavy gauge strings. As with most things guitar related, you will have to try and see what works best for you and what kind of compromises you are willing to make.

Prince was known to use very light strings, like 8’s (0.008” on the high E string). On the other hand jazz guitar, great Pat Martino is known for using extremely heavy strings, like 16’s (0.016” on the high E string). Both are recognized as guitar heroes in their particular styles. Prince played smaller guitars (which tend to go better with light strings). And Martino plays Jazz on a full hollow-body guitar (even though 16’s is a bit of an extreme).

Materials matter

When it comes to electric guitar strings, the most common material used is nickel-plated steel. It offers a good amount of brightness and warmth and is relatively durable. Another popular option is pure nickel, which is warmer. The third common material is stainless steel which is the most resistant to corrosion, making it the most durable of the three. It is also popular for its brightness and sustains.

“Great, so which one do I get?”, you as?. Well, I think you know the answer already. You’ve got to try them all and see what you like the most. Simple as that!

The abyss between new and old strings

Fresh new strings are a thing of beauty. However, most players do not change strings often enough. New strings sound crisp, tight, have more sustain and feel better. On the other hand, old strings sound dull, are harder to tune and feel worn. But a lot of guitar players tend to forget about this. Part of the issue is that strings deteriorate very gradually. You might not grasp how bad your strings are until you finally replace them.

When you finally do restring them, it suddenly becomes very clear how worn your old strings truly were.

How often you change strings is crucial

You might be thinking… ok then, how often should I change strings? There is not a straight answer to this. A series of factors come into play: how hard do you pick/strum, how much do you sweat, how often do you play, how humid/dry is your environment, etc. Some players will have to change strings more often than others. This could mean one week, or it could mean one month. You have to develop your own criteria based on how your strings sound, feel and look.

It’s all about that bass

 The lower guitar strings (D, A and low E) present a few manufacturing aspects that we don’t find on the higher strings. The core of these lower strings is wounded. The core itself can be either round or hex (from hexagonal). Then, then strings can be either round wound (more textured, and the most used), flat wound (flat) or half-round (hybrid).

You can maximize the life of your strings

 There are two things you can do to maximize the duration of your strings. The first one is to wash your hands before you play. The second one is to use a dry cloth to wipe your strings after playing. If you are wondering… why do I have to wipe if I washed my hands? Well, because sweat, small traces of skin, and greasiness affect your stings, even if you can’t see it.

Is this too much to commit to? Feel that this cuts down on your inspiration and impulse to just grab the guitar and play? How about… just wash your hands after eating fried chicken before you play the guitar? That would help, and hopefully not derail your moment of inspiration.

Wrapping it all up

Understanding a bit about guitar strings will definitely have a very positive impact on your playing. You will sound better by making sure your strings are in tip-top shape. You will also have more fun and less stress by avoiding constantly breaking strings. Not to mention, you will sound crisp and feel that the music is vibrating at its very best.

That’s it for this week.  Stay tuned and…

Peace Out!

The Guitar Head

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