hey you cant do that

Assuming that you’re on the cusp of another guitar purchase (because really, when aren’t we?) I give you the 5 questions you should ask yourself before pulling the trigger.

Let’s hop into the wayback machine this month and recall the experience of buying your first guitar. My story starts KISS, and Ace Frehley in particular. For several years I looked at every picture in Circus, Creem, and Hit Parader, scanned endlessly over the Alive and Alive II album covers and pored over the Sears catalog (this was during the Marlboro-era of Gibson Les Paul copies). As a kid who hadn’t even gotten his first paper route, it was tough to come up with real money. A Gibson was out of the question, but that Sears catalog was offering up some seriously close-looking Les Paul copies for around $100.

Fast forward to the trips to the local and slightly out of the way music stores, and there they were: rows and rows of real Gibson Les Pauls. Of course, these were still totally out of my price range so I moved onto the row with Memphis and Seville LP copies. With my newly acquired paper route gig it looked like the wine red Seville with crap pickups, bolt-on neck, and no case was going to be the ticket. For the next 4-5 months I delivered newspapers, cut lawns, asked my folks to give me chores for extra cash and slowly piled up my wad of guitar money. The time came and I plunked down the coin for my LP copy and was about to leave when I realized I didn’t have an amp…

We’ll leave the rest of the story for another article. The reason I’m writing about buying that guitar this month is that there was a serious energy around that purchase. It meant everything to me. Fast forward to 2011—does it still feel that way for you? Assuming that you’re on the cusp of another guitar purchase (because really, when aren’t we?) I give you the 5 questions you should ask yourself before pulling the trigger. Are you ready? Let’s go.

1. Can I afford it?
Great question! We live in a “gotta have it now” society. Credit cards, gear trades, selling off other stuff to buy it… these methods can all work but you need to ask yourself if it is prudent to be spending your hard earned money on this guitar right now. Can you afford it? Be honest.

2. Is there a purpose for the purchase, or is it gear lust?
Is this a trophy guitar or a tool? It doesn’t necessarily matter if you love to collect guitars for art or if you play them for work or fun. The question is important because without having a defined purpose, you may just be doing it because you’ve got GAS or you’ve been visiting the forums too much lately. We’ve all been victims of gear lust before, but it’s dangerous—you might quickly find yourself with more guitars than you can handle.

3. Is this redundant, and if so, is redundant necessary?
Redundancy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to call off the purchase—for some people redundancy is necessary. Much like computer servers at a company, sometimes you need a backup. If you’re in a band you probably don’t want to do the entire gig on one guitar. What if you break a string? In my case, redundancy is good in the studio because it saves time. It all depends on your needs, but again you need to be honest. How many Les Pauls or Teles do you need before you’ve gone overboard?

4. How long will you keep this? Is this an impulse?
I have a rule that I live by. If something hasn’t been played in six months, it’s out the door. Make room for what you will play and let that instrument that’s collecting dust go to somebody who will love it like I loved that first Seville Les Paul. Try to look ahead beforehand to determine if this is going to be a long-term relationship before you end up losing money or, at the very least, going through the hassle of selling. This does not apply to collectibles. See, I’m practical!

5. How am I going to tell my spouse?
Make no mistake. For most married people this is the king daddy of all questions, which is why I left it for last. Unless you are married to the coolest person in the world (lucky me) this is tricky. An entire column could be devoted to how to carefully word the opening line of how you’ll explain that beautiful git box that arrived today that he or she signed for. In this case more than any other it’s best to just be honest—and if your honest answer doesn’t cut it, perhaps it’s time to pass on the purchase.

If you’ve gone through the first four questions, the last question shouldn’t be hard to answer at all. Why? Because you’re about to buy a guitar you can afford (1) that will be used to enhance your life (2), has a completely justified set of tones and features (3), and will be around for a long time (4). Happy guitar hunting and I’ll see you next month.

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Steve Ouimette discusses five rutbusters that may help you find new inspiration for your playing.

Over the past few years, my focus has changed from the macro to the micro— largely due to the work I’ve been involved in (re-recording classic rock band’s versions of their own songs, as well as reconstructing new versions of old classics). Subtle shifts of texture and tone become the hallmark of a player’s sound and style. It’s because of this microscopic effort that I’ve come to appreciate how very small changes can add up to new and complex sounds. It’s also become clear that when I find myself in a stagnate time in my playing, a few minute shifts are all it takes to get me back on my feet and inspired to create new music. Getting into a musical rut is a near-universal problem, so this month I decided I’d share some simple rutbusters and how they helped me.

1. Change Your String Gauge
Probably the subtlest of changes is deciding on a new gauge of string. While most would be hard pressed to identify the string gauge of a player in a blindfold listening test, a blindfold playing test is an entirely different matter. Consider that most guitar techs measure string height in thousandths of an inch. A few thousandths here or there can make a huge difference on the feel of the action. Therefore, shifting your gauge of strings from just .009 to .010 feels significant to your hands and you compensate by playing differently.

I won’t go into the endless details of string gauges of the stars but look at players like Brian May and Billy Gibbons who get monster tones from very light strings, while SRV did the same with extra-heavy gauges. When I moved from .011s to .010s on my Strat, a whole world opened up for me. I was less fatigued when playing, I bent notes easier, and complex runs that weren’t possible before opened up under my fingertips. To simplify the results, I went from being limited to bending and holding onto notes to adding color and spice to my playing in new ways—just from a simple gauge change. And that particular rut was busted!

2. Play Like You Sing
Do your fingers tend to fall into the same places on the fretboard? Ever notice on old acoustic guitars there’s a lot more wear in the first few frets of the guitar? As humans, we tend to fall into comfort fairly easily. To bust out of this rut, just try singing a melody and playing it back on the guitar—simple as that. I like to start with small phrases and mimic them, then over time turn it over to call and response. Sing one phrase, answer back with a complimentary phrase on the guitar. As you continue to do this, you may get comfortable enough to sing and play the notes simultaneously (George Benson has made it a hallmark of his style…give it a shot!). This is a fantastic way to rearrange the association of going where your hands want to and changing it to where the notes need to be played. Depending on how good of a singer you are, this could be musical or not.

It’s not a bad idea to do an about-face and pay attention to something else for a week or two.

3. Bust Out the Capo
What I like about the capo is that it has dual-fold rutbusting power. Not only are you shifting to another key, you are also changing the tension of the strings radically. This forces you to play in new keys and also opens up tonalities that are not standard. Even shifting just a fret up to F does something emotionally, because you now have six new notes as your baseline. There have been studies done in classical music about how different keys tend to bring out different emotions (A minor is the saddest of all keys?) and I tend to believe this. Along with the shift in emotion and tension is a third benefit—reduced fingerboard access. While having one less fret to play on is hardly a big deal, it changes radically when moving the capo up to the seventh fret. You may even find that you like having the capo on for songwriting (hey, what a novel idea). I’ve written many songs using the capo to change up what I was too comfortable with and ended up with great results. There is no doubt this rutbuster will open new doors for any player.

4. Listen by Looping
It’s difficult to really hear what you’re doing unless you record. But with recording, you get a document of your performance that tends to be more of a block for us—the fear of the red light, the pursuit of the perfect take, the obsessive editing in Pro Tools. That shouldn’t deter you from listening to your own playing. Luckily, it’s way more fun and inspiring to get a looper pedal and start building your music in layers. Throw down a riff, loop it, and start playing over the top. You can sit back and listen to that last solo, erase it, and start all over again. This opens the mind to experimentation a lot better because it’s almost like watching and listening to somebody else in real time. I’ve found the difference between recording myself in the studio and using a looper to be vastly different. Nearly every time I’ve worked with a looper, I’ve gotten new results that were off-the-cuff and “unsafe”—and they opened up my playing to new levels.

5. Put It Down
It’s been said 1000 times before, but sometimes the most obvious way to bust out of a routine is to break it. If you’re frustrated with your lack of progress, it may be time to do something else. When I was younger, I used to travel constantly with my guitar, taking it on vacation and playing it whenever I could. It ended up taking up so much time on my vacations and nothing great came from all my practice, except losing out on the other fun I was supposed to be having! It’s not a bad idea to do an about-face and pay attention to something else for a week or two. When you come back to the instrument, hopefully you’ve gained some inspiration from nature, TV, or whatever experiences you had during the break. Take that inspiration, use one of the other rutbusters in combination, and you’ll find yourself re-inspired. Works every time.

I hope these give you food for thought. Remember the reason you got involved with the guitar in the first place and loosen up a little. This is supposed to be fun. It’s not a contest, but a lifelong journey for most of us. We all have those dark times when inspiration is hard to come by, but there is always a way around it. I’d like to hear what other rutbusters you’ve used—it will help next time around for me too!

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Do pricey cables make a difference? Do original PAFs guarantee great tone? See Steve''s conclusions and share your take on these topics.

Let’s have some fun this month and do some myth-busting and myth-affirming. After playing guitar for as long as I have (insert old-man joke here) I’ve heard a lot of things: thoughts, theories, ideas, beliefs…other concepts. Some are true, some aren’t. Sometimes it takes digging in and trying something out before you realize the merit in it, and other times it’s not so cut and dried. Sometimes it ends up being a bunch of HS (that’s horse s**t to the uninitiated). Here are five myths that I’ve given the Fact or Fiction stamp on through my own experience. Maybe your answers will be different, or you have other myths lying around that need some examining. Either way, it’s time to dig in and see what’s up with the whole mess.

Myth #1: High-end guitar picks sound and play better.
My Take: Fact!

For years I’d heard about expensive and fancy picks made of milk proteins, stone or other snake-oil-like materials that touted their amazing tone and durability. Give me a good old pick from the jar at the guitar store and I’ll do just fine, thank you.

Last year I bumped into the owner of a boutique pick establishment and he told me of the wonders of using a pick that cost… $25! Having a bit of a good laugh, I did what most people wouldn’t do: I bought it just to say I did, much like the $12 mustard at Whole Foods. When it arrived in the mail, I had been playing with my standard F-style heavy pick, so it was a perfect time for a comparison.

Good grief! The first reaction was that I gained about three years of playing technique right out of the gate. What previously felt normal with my old pick, felt forced after using the new one. It slid off the strings cleanly, and notes had a clarity and attack they’d never had before. Besides that, the volume had increased a good 25 percent...from a pick!

But is it really worth spending that kind of coin on a seemingly small item like that? Well, a year and a half later that same pick is still my main pick and it remains nearly undamaged. Everyone plays differently, but this experience alone has made me a believer.

Myth #2: Cheap cables sound the same as high-end cables.
My Take: Fiction!

Garden-variety guitar cables were good enough for Hendrix, Page, Van Halen, and just about every other guitar legend. Who am I to think they didn’t kind of know what they were doing? OK, maybe there weren’t that many high-end cables on the market back then so I’ll forgive them for that.

After using my regular old guitar cable for years, I had been given a mighty expensive low-capacitance cable as a gift. What do you get the guy who’s already got enough guitars and amps anyway, right? Like with the picks, I swapped out the cable and the blanked lifted—simple as that. It’s a little humbling to admit, but the improvement in tone made it hard to go back to a different, cheap cable. If you haven’t already tried it, go ahead…you might be surprised.

Myth #3: Less gain makes your tone bigger.
My Take: Fact!

Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the amp mod biz was in full swing and many extra stages of gain were being added to everyone’s Marshalls, I had my amp worked on to get more gain out of it. We had a stock Marshall 2203 in the studio (master volume 100-watt head) as well as my 1973 Superlead with the mods. After spending hundreds of dollars on the mods (yikes, this was a pristine Superlead too!), I was quite proud of my new baby. Well, it turned out that all the extra gain stages gave a lot of gain, but at the loss of clarity and, yes, bigness. The recorded sound was thinner and more compressed than the 2203 by a mile.

Need another example? That same 2203 could get a decent amount of gain and I always wanted the gain cranked. Brilliant studio engineer and robo-ear Eric Valentine would let me do a take with the gain cranked, then little by little he would scale the gain back until it was just at the edge of uncomfortable for me to play. He’d record a take and show me the difference. It was staggering. Not only was the tone bigger, it was more muscular, clearer, and better defined—and it sat in the track much better. For the past 20 years or so that has been the way I’ve worked. It’s made me a better player and the tones are definitely bigger.

Over and over I’ve seen people use more gain than they needed (me included) and every time if you just scale back a bit what you get is a boost in tone, even if it does take a little of the confidence away. But c’mon, be a man about it. Nobody ever said life was easy!

Even though I couldn’t see who it was, it was obvious when the signature flurry of perfectly executed notes came screaming out of the amps like a banshee. This sound that was previously totally unacceptable was now glorious beyond belief.

Myth #4: Tone is in the individual player’s hands.
My Take: Fact!

It’s said so often it has to be true, right? Well, in this case, pretty much. True story for you. Back in the days when I taught guitar at a local store I had my ’73 Superlead (see Myth #4) at the store one day and a few teachers got around to playing it. We were all sitting around with the same guitar passing it back and forth. I was plugged in and playing, and we were all having a great time when one of the other teachers grabbed the guitar out of my hand and started doing his thing. Where the hell did all that gain come from? The amp took on a totally different character. It was more aggressive and biting, and the sustain was incredible. The other teacher got inspired and grabbed the guitar and started to rock it. Not so good. This time around, the chords seemed cloudy and undefined, and the sustain was rather lacking. We played for a solid hour and couldn’t believe how different the same guitar and amp could sound in the hands of three guys—try it sometime!

Another true story: 1985, Yngwie Malmsteen’s sixth ever show with Rising Force (Kabuki Theater, San Francisco, January 11). I was right up front and two feet from his pedalboard and Moog Taurus pedals. Just before the show was about to start, his tech came out and strapped on the famous “Duck” Strat and started to do a mini-soundcheck. It was loud as hell and one of the most garbled and distorted shit-tones I’d heard come from a guitar. It was out of tune, messy-sounding and not much better than a Gorilla Amp (with TubeStack™ technology of course)!

Right after that aural attack, he walked behind the wall of Marshalls and handed the guitar to Yngwie. Even though I couldn’t see who it was, it was obvious when the signature flurry of perfectly executed notes came screaming out of the amps like a banshee. This sound that was previously totally unacceptable was now glorious beyond belief. Night and day couldn’t be a better description. That tone held up all night and still to this day remains one of the coolest sounds I’ve ever heard.

Myth #5: Vintage PAFs are all killer.
My Take: Fiction!

Many of us have come to love the tone, feel and expression a real PAF can bring. Some of us are fortunate enough to own one or two of them. Others might have boutique versions of them and still wish they had the real thing. This isn’t a super secret, but not all PAFs were created equal. For those of you who wish they had the $5000 pair of pickups, this should make you feel a little better.

I used a PAF for years in a studio guitar (a mid-’80s Charvel Strat—talk about overkill!) that sounded fantastic. The pickup was purchased for a whopping $250, but there wasn’t a single pickup that we used that could replace it. In comparison, every other one sounded harsh or lacking in every way. That was a good one! The same guy that sold us the $250 PAF had been doing good business with them, and after being convinced that the studio guitar needed a backup I decided to go about buying a PAF for myself. At this point they were $500, which was more than most guitars I owned were worth. The good news was that he had a money back guarantee. I picked up the PAF from him and threw it in my Ibanez 550 RG (did I mention it was the late ’80s?). Once again, very proud of my new hopped-up guitar I brought it into the studio to do a recording. Not so good—flat and lifeless, and lacking in harmonics. We tested the output of it against the other PAF and they read very close…in the high 7s. We did some recording to compare the two, and it was again night and day. Since we were all studio geeks and heard the drastic difference we figured it came down to the guitars. Easy, we’ll just swap out the PAFs in the Charvel and they’ll sound the same. Wrong. Not even close. This PAF was clearly a dud—a $500 dud. I took it back.

Fast forward to the mid-’90s. I had a buddy in Seattle that was dealing with old pickups and had some PAFs around. After testing four or five, I found the one I liked and put it in my Les Paul Goldtop (‘73 Deluxe that had been routed for humbuckers before I bought it) and started to feel like I was getting a great, classic tone. It was certainly better than the no-name humbucker that was previously installed, but I wasn’t floored with it—keep in mind, this was the “better” one in the bunch he had. After playing for a week or so with it I ended up replacing it with a Duncan Pearly Gates that ate the PAF alive. Sure, I couldn’t say that I had a real PAF in my guitar, but I was able to have a few more guitars with fantastic pickups in them for less than the one piece. We’re living in the Golden Age of Gear, so you don’t have the real thing—there’s another pickup out there for you that just may surpass the old PAF.

That does it for today’s myth-busting, now let’s hear your myths…fact or fiction?

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