Got an unused instrument lurking in your closet? Take it out, dust it off, restring if necessary, and then
go hunting for new sounds. The extra effort will often yield creative dividends. Photo by Rich Tozzoli
One thing you learn over the years of
creating music is that it’s important to
break up your routine. It’s easy to get into
habits, whether it’s playing the same scales,
reaching for the same instrument, or using
the old standby plug-ins and beats when
mixing and producing. It’s how you get
out of those ruts that helps push you to the
When I’m stuck on guitar, there are
a few tricks I’ve successfully used to mix
things up. The first thing I do is change the
strings on one of my favorite acoustics and
then strum country tunes. It may sound
crazy, but for me there’s no finer connection
to the muse than just sitting down to pick a
simple song. I think of it as breaking music
down to the basics with the beautiful sound
of a fine instrument. It’s a way to recalibrate
or even reboot my ears and imagination.
But if that’s not working, I’ll capo my
guitar. That immediately makes those same
old chords sound different. Next, I’ll try
a different pick. Lighter picks give me a
crisper, sharper sound, while the heavier
ones deliver more tone, and switching sizes
and gauges of picks really does alter what
and how I play. Or I’ll skip the pick and go
with my fingers. I’m not a great fingerstyle
player, so that’s a routine-buster for sure.
Then I’ll move to a different tuning. It
can be as simple as dropped D (D–A–D–
G–B–E) or perhaps DADGAD, which I
play in quite a bit. Lately, I’ve been playing
a lot in open D (D–A–D–F#–A–D) and
not just with a slide. In that tuning you can
discover many interesting chord shapes that
sound fresh and intriguing.
Another cool trick: Play with your eyes
closed. This forces you to find chords only
by ear. I’ve made up a few doozies that way,
as it pushes me out of my normal element.
With my electrics, I’ll experiment by
composing with a different guitar than I usually
grab. For example, playing my Fender
baritone immediately creates a new world.
You could do the same with a 12-string.
Using a different amp can also initiate new
ideas. The identical chords played through
my Mesa/Boogie Mark IV sound completely
different on my old ’64 Gibson Falcon with
the reverb and tremolo turned on.
Speaking of electrics, another thing that
will break the rut is to use different amp
modeling plug-ins. Instead of reaching for
that familiar Fender or Vox model, go for a
Marshall or Engl sound. Take the distortion
down and play clean. Or use something like
a SansAmp to get your distortion. That delivers
its own world of fuzz, making you think
in another way about the part you’re playing.
This “try something else” approach
applies to my production mixing as well.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ll often import the
settings of my favorite plug-ins that I know
work for me and start a mix from there.
That delivers proven results, which can be
fine. However, it can also make things stale.
Sometimes you have to force yourself to
try new techniques—take the time to learn a
new setting or parameter. When looking for
ideas, I sometimes go online to manufacturers’
websites and check out plug-in videos.
The good ones have tips and tricks that can
inspire you to go in a different direction.
Beyond tweaking parameters in familiar
plug-ins, you can choose effects you’re not
used to working with. For example, instead
of opening a Universal Audio EP-34 Tape
Echo—one of my mainstays—I’ll instead
reach for something like a SoundToys
EchoBoy. Or, since I’m primarily a Pro
Tools guy, I’ll even go for the stock Avid/
Digidesign delays. This is especially true
with reverbs, as there are so many to choose
from. Calling up one I rarely open almost
guarantees something new will happen. If
that isn’t working, try experimenting with
the presets. It’s worth investing time to
learn what’s inside each plug-in, and I’ve
never regretted acquiring such knowledge.
When I’m stuck in composing-land, I’ve
found it helps not to use track and instrument
templates. If I start a session from
scratch and create the tracks one at a time,
I think differently. I feel like I’m working
from scratch, which opens the mind.
Sometimes I’ll just stop what I’m doing,
take a break, and then return with a renewed
attack plan. I’ll literally give myself a pep
talk: “Dude, it’s time to push the limits.”
Guess what? It often works. In my experience,
pushing yourself can get the job done.
So the next time you’re stuck, try something
new, different, or unusual. Break it
down to the basic elements, like a simple
acoustic, or kick up some new effects or
plug-ins and trust your ears. Challenge
yourself. Reach into your own bag of tricks
and take it to the next level. Remember,
change is good.
engineer and mixer who
has worked with artists
ranging from Al Di
Meola to David Bowie.
A life-long guitarist, he’s
also the author of Pro Tools Surround
and composes for the
likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel,
Nickelodeon, and HBO.