It’s almost impossible to be creative while learning to use complex new gear. Here’s a better idea.

There’s so much great musical gear out there, but with each new piece of gear comes a new time commitment. From the simplest effect pedal to the most complex recording and editing software, you often have to invest serious learning time before you can make the most of these tools. This can be frustrating when you’d rather be practicing guitar or writing a new song.

Make the Most of What You Have
First off, it’s important to get the most out of the gear you already own. We’re all familiar with the acronym GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), and how easy it is to get caught up in the cycle of buying and selling the latest and greatest toys and tools. YouTube demos create gear lust. Guitar forums are full of folks (myself included) going on and on about some new piece of gear that floats their boat. Online shopping makes it easy to pull the trigger on the latest pedal or amp. Temptation is everywhere! But sometimes it’s best to take a deep breath, look at what you already have, and ask yourself if you’re maximizing your gear.

My first professional guitar-effects switching system was a modest, six-space rack affair. It had a few pedals on a pedal drawer and a Voodoo Lab GCX loop switcher. A single Rocktron Replifex rack unit provided time-based effects like reverb and delay. I did quite a few tours and sessions with that rig and knew it inside out. I could program it quickly and I felt like I was getting the most from every item in the rack. It wasn’t fancy, but it worked great, and I spent more time playing and less time tweaking because my options were limited.

These days guitar pedals include more and more features. Today’s multi-effects can demand an incredible amount of time just to explore the factory presets before you even think about learning to program them. New gear costs not only money, but also time.

A Time to be Creative
The time to be creative is not when you’re learning a complex piece of gear or software. Does the following scenario sound familiar?

Today’s multi-effects can demand an incredible amount of time simply to explore the factory presets before you even think about learning to program the units.

A guitarist decides to set up home studio. He or she gets a new computer, studio monitors, a recording interface, and the latest and greatest recording software. After a several long days of setup and software installation, our guitarist, ready to record a new masterpiece, excitedly boots everything up. But problems begin immediately: “Hmm, how do I make a new project?” “How do I arm a track for recording and bus a signal to it?” “Where’s the manual?” And so on.

This story usually ends in frustration. The problem is, it’s really tough for us humans to simultaneously be creative and master new skills. I believe creativity requires us to be in a certain headspace, one where you’re not thinking too much. There’s no getting around the fact that something as complex as a software recording program demands serious learning. The same goes for rack gear, like the incredibly powerful Axe-Fx II or Kemper Profiler.

My Suggestion
When learning recording software, allot time to consume the manual and other tutorial material before diving in headfirst. Make good use of any demo songs that come with the program. Using a piece of music you have no connection to allows you to be in a learning, analytical headspace. Consider getting a third-party book on your software. Also, online courses like the ones at can supercharge your knowledge. If you allow yourself time to learn before attempting to get creative, you’ll be ready to track your ideas quickly and effortlessly when inspiration strikes.

The same goes for complex guitar effects units like the Axe-Fx II, which can have steep learning curves. I recommend getting in deep with the manual and learning as much as possible before taking the unit to a rehearsal or gig. Learning to program, tweak presets, and assign foot controllers should be done at home, not at band practice or shows. Your band and audience will appreciate you more if you aren’t paging through menu screens when you’re supposed to be playing inspiring licks!

Instead, compartmentalize your time. Set aside times to practice, write, or play, times to tweak your gear, and times to learn complex new gear or software. Attempting all those things at once just doesn’t work. Until next month, happy rocking!

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