“You just need to find your sound.”
I’ve heard this so many times I’ve lost count. Living in Nashville for the past eight years has been great, but it can also be tough to find yourself in an environment like this. After signing my record deal, releasing a few singles, and working with amazing people, I felt so frustrated and confused when people would tell me I just hadn’t found my identity yet. Basically, it comes down to: Who are you? What do you want to say and how you want to say it? I’m a songwriter, I’m a singer, I’m a guitarist, and I listen to many types of music. As an artist trying to find her “voice,” these can be rough waters to navigate.
Enter Mr. Kristian Bush. About a year and a half ago, I had a meeting with the celebrated producer and multi-instrumentalist, and he asked me what my favorite album was. Without hesitation I said Continuumby John Mayer. I had listened to that album from front to back more than anything else.
“Perfect,” he said. “I want you to record the whole thing.” I stared at him blankly, not fully grasping the nature of my assignment. But it soon sank in: My homework was to re-record my favorite record of all time.
There were three rules for this homework assignment:
- I had to play every instrument on the record myself.
- I had to do it alone in my studio.
- I had two weeks to finish it.
Even though I didn’t fully understand why Kristian asked me to do this, he’s someone I completely trust, both in creativity and in life, so I cleared my schedule for the next two weeks and proceeded to work around the clock. I thought I knew the album pretty well after listening to it so much, but when you start to dissect Pino Palladino’s bass lines and Steve Jordan’s drum parts, and, of course, all the great guitar parts, you come to appreciate the music on a whole new level. When you’re forced to put an album you love under a microscope and then recreate it in your own voice, magic happens.
I learned a lot through this homework assignment. There are parts I never knew were in each song until I recorded them. Getting inside the songs and really listening to each part instead of just learning something quickly by ear made me a better player.
For any John Mayer enthusiasts out there, please know this is just music. I’m not saying what I did was right or wrong, or anything but a mere interpretation of my version of the album. I recorded these files in August 2016, and even listening back to it now there are a hundred things I’d change. But that’s the beauty of music—the fluidity keeps us coming back for more. There is always a frustration, at least for me, in finding the right guitar tone. It’s a good kind of frustration, but an ever-going battle nonetheless. So let’s dive into a few things I learned on this journey.
Disclaimer: There was one thing I fought Kristian on, but now I’m happy he suggested it. He muted all my drum tracks. At first I was frustrated because learning how to program a mere two bars of Steve Jordan’s playing could take me several hours. In the end, however, recording this album became so much more about a process of discovering my own identity that I didn’t want it to seem like a complete “cover project.” John’s version of Continuum is as good as it will ever get. We wanted this to have its own voice, coming from a completely different perspective. The lack of drums seemed to take off any “clothes” covering up what I wanted to show.
“Waiting on the World to Change”
As a guitar player, melody is key, and this solo is so simple and memorable at the same time. You don’t need to play a barrage of 16th-notes in an eight-measure solo. This is a solo you can sing along with and this song reinforced the importance of simplicity. It’s actually harder to play and write simple guitar parts. My favorite guitarists play melodically, and John is definitely one who understands the value of that.
I used a Fender American Standard Strat with Fat ’50s pickups. Because these pickups don’t have the underwound mid-scoop of John’s signature Big Dipper pickups, they sound a lot fuller. I love the distinctiveness of an underwound pickup, but I usually put them through some EQ like an MXR 10-band EQ pedal that boosts the mids. I like being able to shape that midrange for each song.
“I Don’t Trust Myself (with Loving You)”
This is probably my favorite track on my version of Continuum. I’m drawn to filter and wah effects—a lot. The pulse of this song has so much angst in it until it releases at the first guitar solo. I believe John used a Roger Linn Adrenalinn III on the original, but you can get close with an auto wah. I wanted to try to create something similar with separate effects. For the main guitar part, I used a Diamond Tremolo pedal, a touch of compression, and an Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron. Once the part was recorded, I ran it through another envelope filter in Logic. For the second guitar I used one of my favorite overdrive pedals—an Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer.
For the purists out there, here’s my stance on the amp profiler debate. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. Is a “fake” amp ever like the real thing? No. But are there instances where this technology can make sense and still get close to the sound you’re looking for while giving you additional options? Absolutely. Budget, travel, fly dates, or even your neighbor’s noise tolerance can put digital solutions in a brighter light. Admittedly, you don’t have air moving and you don’t get the same sustain, but in the studio, those aren’t as big issues as they can be live.
Do I use real amps onstage? Yes. But sometimes when I’m looking for a specific tone in the studio, amp profiling can help me shape that without buying an arsenal of 50 amps. Since I don’t have the Two-Rock or Dumble I want, amp profiling fills that gap—for now. I believe that the sonic character of distorted breakup comes from your amp, and the shape of your tone comes from your speaker. In a profiling world, you’re able to match any speaker to any amp you choose. You can, of course, do this in real life. But I can audition 10 different speakers with the same head at the touch of a button.
I’ve played through a Kemper and a Fractal Axe FX and I’m a fan of both devices. The Kemper makes it easier for me to dial in a sound, but the Fractal has more flexibility to change every single aspect of your rig—right down to an impulse response. When I was recording this album, I had a Kemper in my studio, so I was able to find a lot of different amp sounds. I was actually surprised at how responsive the presets were, and how much it reacted like a real Two-Rock. Two-Rocks to me have a lot of headroom, and they keep that really nice high end when you finally find your sweet spot.
For the solo on “Belief,” I used my Custom Shop Fender Strat ’56 reissue along with a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 and a Klon KTR. This is one of my favorite solos on John’s record—especially when he extends it live. For my purposes, I stuck to the recorded version, but his attack on each note is what makes this solo special to me, so was something I really focused on. It adds an aggression to each note and really makes the solo speak.
Check out the live extended version of John’s “Belief” here:
The delicate nature of this track is what makes it so beautiful. I wanted to approach the guitars slightly differently, so I used my neck pickup a lot. It has a throaty, warmer, fatter quality. When mixing the album, Kristian decided to keep a few seconds of digital peaking at the beginning of the guitar part on the song’s head. It’s how I actually dialed it in. There were passes without it, but it felt more human to keep it in than take it out, and that’s what this project was about from the outset. So when you hear a peaking guitar at the beginning, it was intentional.
For the guitar tone on this, I used the Two-Rock Signature preset on the Kemper. I also used quite a bit of reverb from both the Kemper and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail pedal. For the solo, I used my Klon KTR. A side note: I remember shopping for a silver horsey Klon eight years ago and thinking that $600 was a lot to spend on an overdrive pedal. Well, it was ... and now they are more than doublethat. Well worth it, I will say.
“The Heart of Life”
This 4/4 blues shuffle is so endearing, and when I recorded it with drums, everything rests on that groove. However, when you mute the drums, the rhythm guitar is now your new percussion instrument. It’s what propels this track.
I used a Dumble Overdrive Special preset in the Kemper for both guitars, but kept it really clean. In addition to using my Fender Strat for the solo, I played a Guild Starfire for the rhythm parts. While mixing this song, Kristian’s engineer Tom Tapley reamped the guitars through an old Fender Deluxe Reverb. We also ended up putting some vocal reverbs on the lead guitar to give it a thicker sound and widen the guitar in the mix. Tom is a genius.