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 next level.
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.
Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated 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 Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.