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Ask a Working Guitarist, Part 1

Looking the part, drum plug-ins, and protecting your ears in the first round of reader questions.

For my column this month, I decided to ask the fine folks at the web forum to come up with some questions regarding being a “Working Guitarist” that they’d like answered. I’ve picked my favorites and answered them to the best of my ability. If you have a question you’d like answered, leave it in the comments section and watch for the answer in a future column!

It would be interesting to hear how you feel appearance, style, clothes, fitness, etc., play into auditions with pro acts. It's a topic much discussed here but not many touring pros have stepped up to give an opinion. – Ulysses

I feel that it’s definitely important to think about your appearance when heading to an audition. It boils down to this: If you are auditioning for Nine Inch Nails, and you show up looking ready to play with Kenny Chesney, well, you are sort of shooting yourself in the foot. This goes for your guitars, amps, and effects as well. I don’t think Melissa Etheridge would dig it one bit if I showed up with this axe:

Just use common sense and you’ll be fine, but definitely put some thought into what you wear and bring to an audition! It’s showbiz, after all...

I'd love to see "the guitarist's perspective on programming drums," or some insight into how you're getting that bitchin' rhythm section happening for all the stellar demos. – Higher Landrons

Thanks! “Higher Landrons” is referring to the gear demos on my YouTube page.

First off, there are a ton of great drum plug-in instruments available today to use with your DAW of choice. Some popular ones include Addictive Drums, BFD, EZDrummer, and Drumkit From Hell. I use Steven Slate Drums, which were recommended to me by Steve Stevens. Steven Slate Drums is a collection of samples that uses Kontakt Player from Native Instruments as a drum sample plug-in. Essentially you use Kontakt Player to choose what Steven Slate samples you’d like to use as a drum kit. There are vintage drums that sound like what you’d hear on Led Zeppelin records, modern drums that sound more like Metallica, and everything in between. Within Kontakt Player you can mix and extensively alter the selected drum samples. You can pan the individual drums, add EQ or distortion, blend in room mics for each drum, etc. Basically you can do everything you’d do to a traditional mic’d drum kit, and more. I used the Steven Slate Drums extensively on my album Guitar Nerd, and I’m really happy with the results!

Certainly the sounds are important, but equally important is developing good drum programming skills. It helps to “think like a drummer.” For example, if a drummer is playing a straight beat and does a drum fill, they probably can’t keep playing the hi-hat during the fill. So don’t program a hi-hat pattern at the same time as a fill! But drummers do sometimes play the hat with their left foot while moving through a fill. So maybe program an open and closed left foot hat thing—you get the idea. Pick some of your favorite drum grooves and practice by programming them into your DAW. Finally, I like to use a Waves plug-in version of the classic Urei 1176 compressor on the stereo drum bus, with a 4:1 ratio, slow attack, and fast release... get 3-6 db of compression happening. Now you’re rocking!

How about how a touring/gigging rock guitarist takes care of his ears? – Shallbe
+1 on this. How often do you end up using in-ear monitors live, and how did you make that transition? When you don't use them, how do you make sure you've got a good mix & good tone, w/out frying your ears? – jbd3

Well, to tell you the truth, I gave myself tinnitus in my left ear using IEMs. You have to be very, very careful—I’d recommend only using IEMs with the built-in limiters that most of the receiver packs have in them. These usually limit at 100db or so, and will protect you from loud volume spikes or accidentally turning up the volume on your pack onstage. IEM volume can be very deceiving, and you can hurt yourself easily!

I use a wedge whenever I can—I just prefer it, for a few reasons. I can hear my amp naturally that way, and I can hear the audience, which I like. I feel like I play better—I’m less timid. With IEMs, when the guitar is right there in my ears it makes me more aware of every little error or inconsistency, and I’m really picky about my mix, so I find myself asking for more of this, less of that... all night long. And it’s not the monitor guy’s fault—I’m just really nuts about in-ear mixes. If one little thing is off, it can really throw me. I was in the middle of a Melissa Etheridge tour, and one night I just asked the monitor guy, John, to give me some drums and some of Melissa’s guitar and vocal in the sidefill. I wore no IEMs that night, and I didn’t even have a wedge! And I had a blast playing, so I finished the tour like that!

I do think IEMs are great in some respects. They can really save a singer from pushing too hard, and if you are doing lots of big multi-band festivals and you don’t get soundchecks, you can walk onstage and be pretty certain everything will sound just like the last show. You can also run all over the stage and hear yourself perfectly. When I use IEMs, I use the UE7s from Ultimate Ears.

I do recommend everyone go out and get custom-molded earplugs made, they are fantastic and I carry a pair everywhere. I use them at concerts, festivals, and anywhere that I go where there is loud sound, basically. I have a pair with both 9db and 15db attenuators that I can swap out.

Lastly, with the advent of really good amp attenuators, there’s really no need for loud stage volume anymore. Get a good attenuator and get your stage volume under control, and all will be well!

I'd like some insight into your solo CD—your writing habits, workflow, how you did the production, recording, engineering, mastering, etc. . – Scott Petersen

Thanks for asking about my record, Scott! It really started out with me wanting to be able to record very basic stuff at home. Around 2004 I got a Mac laptop, Logic Pro, and a small Presonus interface. I then invested in a UA 6176 mic pre/compressor and a few mics. I quickly discovered I could get some great recorded guitar tones at home. I started writing and recording songs just for fun, when I wasn’t on tour. Maybe I’d have a riff, or I’d pull up a simple drumbeat and start jamming and that’d lead to a riff or two. I’m very haphazard about the way I record. For instance, on the song “10th Street,” that track existed as a verse and B section for about five years—I could never figure out where to go with it. Eventually I opened up the session one day and sort of wrote another section and tacked it on to what I did five years earlier! It worked, and I finished the tune. But I had to play a last verse, and I had to try and match the tone I’d recorded five years earlier on the first verse, and of course I hadn’t documented what I’d done... you get the idea.

So I’d say my writing habits and workflow were incredibly inconsistent. I went through spurts where I’d get a track or two done in a few days, then I’d have to leave on tour for a few months and nothing would get done. But in the end, I finished, so I guess that’s what matters! I did all the engineering, and I mixed seven songs as well. Bob Clearmountain mixed the other three (thanks Bob!) and Ross Nyberg mastered the album up in Seattle.

Make sure to leave your questions below and watch next month for more answers!

Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at