A great song consists of more than just notes and rhythms. Here’s how to put the pieces together to create that extra sonic magic.
• Create simple and meaningful blues phrases in the style of B.B. King.
• Understand how to emphasize chord tones over a blues progression.
• Learn how to use repetition to build tension in your solos.
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It’s not about you. Don’t worry, though, it’s not about the bass player, keyboardist, drummer, or the singer either. It’s about all of you, and most importantly, it’s about the song. A fellow bandmate said to me recently that being in a band is the ultimate form of socialism, and I’d have to agree. I’ve been a “band guy” my whole life and it’s the place I feel most comfortable making music. When everyone checks their ego at the door, walks into rehearsal or a gig, and plays for each other and for the song, it’s truly transcendental. Since I started playing guitar, I’ve always been interested in arranging and orchestrating within the context of a band. The way the pieces fit together fascinates me and being the guitarist and singer in the bands I’ve performed with has taught me a great deal about the art of an ensemble.
Less Is More
You’ve heard this one ad nauseam. Our instrument—especially electric guitars—can take up a lot of aural real estate, so lay back. Don’t hit every note in that chord you’re about to play. Play a partial chord, an inversion, a countermelody, or double the bass line. Or here’s a novel idea: Don’t play anything. To illustrate, I’ll give you an eight-bar progression (Ex. 1) that pays homage to the Beatles. If the rest of the band is driving and filling up space harmonically and rhythmically, you don’t necessarily have to as well.
Interweave Guitar Parts
Another strategy: Combine or layer multiple guitar parts, especially on intros or other important sections of the song, like a breakdown before your searing guitar solo. Consider Ex. 2, which is something in the style of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Here’s the point in the lesson where a simple looper would be effective. Start a loop with Ex. 2 and then play a double-stop part like Ex. 3 over it. Cool stuff, huh?
Find Different Textures
Play a part on a different pickup from the other guitarist or roll off the tone knob a bit. Time for that loop pedal again. I backed off the tone knob for Ex. 4, which is a fairly simple boogie part in the key of G.
Once you have that going, turn the tone knob back up and play the bright and sparse part in Ex. 5. In this example, I’ve combined some two-note chordal stabs with some melodic bends and plenty of space.
Remember to Share
Maybe that intricate and impressive guitar part you’ve come up with is exciting to play, but is it really serving the song? Would it sound better on another instrument, freeing you up to play what the song needs, such as some solid rhythm guitar? I humbly offer up one of my own, “City Boy” from my band, Shotgun Wedding. The main piano riff in the intro was originally a guitar riff. Take a listen to a live version in the video below.
It’s really fun to emulate a banjo (Ex. 6), but when you’ve got a percussive instrument like a piano and a jaw-dropping pianist playing it … use them! Switching that part to keyboard really opened up the song, creating a different vibe. In the process, it freed me to sing and play what ultimately became a much better and more appropriate guitar part.
Remember, it’s about the song. If people can’t hear the melody and lyrics because we guitarists are too busy wanking away, there’s no point in performing the song.
Lastly, I’d like to share a piece of wisdom I was given when I was younger. “Be the best rhythm guitarist on the block. You’ll always get the gig.”
A compact digital reverb that delivers deep tones and shape-shifts with ease.
Unless you’ve been marooned on a island, entirely apart from guitar-nerd media, you may have noticed that we are mired in a reverb arms race. Around the globe, pedal weirdoes are tweaking algorithms and stuffing knob upon knob of fine-tuning power to create the most distantly spacy, authentically springy, and perfectly plate-y reverbs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the extreme, unnatural, and super-authentic sounds conjured by these tone obsessives. But how does the more practical player get in on the fun without devoting a whole season to a user manual and triggering episodes of knob navigation anxiety? The answer may be MXR’s new Reverb, a sample platter of reverb tones that run from very convincing spring emulations to cosmic-scale echoes—all in a compact, three-knob package.
Bouncing Auf Bauhaus
Compared to a lot of modern reverbs that cover this much ground, the MXR Reverb looks downright austere. In fact, the gunmetal enclosure and three-knob array seem designed to communicate the message that this pedal is as approachable and utilitarian as a toaster.
The knobs are a familiar and conventional set: decay, tone, and mix—essentially the same controls you see on a vintage Fender Reverb. The key to the wider universe within the MXR Reverb is the tone knob, which doubles as a push-button voice selector. Pushing the button illuminates one of the three LEDs in ether green or red. The color—and LED that is illuminated—indicates which of the six voices you’ve selected. One note of warning: You’ll have to use a light touch when making tone adjustments. The push switch is sensitive and it’s very easy to accidentally switch voices.
Shoot the Tube, Space Mod!
The six voices are familiar variations of what are now common reverb types in the digital reverb sphere. Plate, spring, and room emulations are more or less self-explanatory. Mod adds a dose of pitch and phase modulation to the plate reverb sound. Epic combines the reflections of multiple modulated reverbs—an effect not unlike watching light bounce off fragments of mirror. Pad adds octave-up and/or octave-down content in the fashion of a shimmer reverb.
Befitting a reverb pedal with very functional aims (and, potentially, customers who approach experimental reverb reticently), the plate and spring reverbs are very good. The spring reverb, in particular, sounds convincing enough to justify a permanent place for the MXR Reverb—even if you use the other voices sparingly. It betrays its digital origins very rarely (usually at high tone and mix settings) and sounds good on the receiving end of gnarly fuzz tones that can make a lot of digital reverbs sound like crap. It tucks in nicely behind a dry signal at the lowest levels and handles more extreme surf tones with grace—particularly when you darken the tone a touch. The plate reverb is also very good. I really enjoyed darker settings with short decay times and an aggressive mix—a nice zone for lo-fi, garage-Spector tone textures. But the tasteful, subdued neutral colors also make for an excellent set-and-forget reverb.
Of the two modulated reverbs—mod and epic—I used the former most. The extra kinetic energy adds a dreamy, drifting layer to spacious chord progressions and lazy, moody lead passages—especially when used a little lower in the mix. The colliding modulated reverbs of the epic setting are less elegant, generating high harmonic tone shards in longer decays that betray a touch of their digital origin. I did notice, however, that this texture is more effective in a band context, where ride cymbals and bass undercurrents help soften the harmonic edges.
The harder, more right-angled reverberations of the room reverb are less immediately satisfying, but provide a great blank slate for percussive delays and tremolos. Without other effects, short decay and mix settings in room mode tend to evoke the less-than-charming space of an empty apartment. More extreme settings, however, create very big spaces, with a minimum of additional color, for other effects to work within.
Enjoyment of the pad reverb depends on how you relate to the phenomenon called shimmer or octave reverb. But the cool thing about the MXR’s version is that high or low octaves can be used in equal measure or dialed to one EQ extreme or the other, enabling you to sculpt a very focused but expansive sound. I liked the effect in dark low-mix settings. But if you dig the ethereal, floating, angels-on-high sonic sensations of high-octave reverb, the MXR delivers the goods in plentitude.
MXR’s Reverb isn’t the wildest, spaciest, most radical, or most hyper-accurate digital reverb. But it may well share the crown for the most practical if you’re a gigging guitarist that has to cover many moods and inhabit multiple musical settings. It’s easy to navigate (if a bit twitchy), it’s intuitive, and it has real range that enables extreme subtlety with a quick twist.
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Identifying a 1990s MIM Strat through the process of elimination.
I have a Fender Stratocaster that I bought for my son sometime in the 1990s. He played it a few times, but moved away and told me I can do what I want with it. (Unfortunately, he never took to the guitar.) It’s candy apple red but the only information on the guitar is “Fender Stratocaster” on the front of the headstock, and the serial number MN664280 and “Made in Mexico” on the back. I’ve narrowed it down that it was made in 1996, but after looking online and at the Blue Book of Electric Guitars, I’m not sure what variation of Stratocaster this is. How can you tell?
Aaron in St. Louis, MO
The Stratocaster is undoubtedly Fender’s most popular model of all time. And they’ve capitalized on this success for over 60 years by producing more than 100 variations of the timeless guitar. Unfortunately, the type of each Strat is not usually indicated anywhere on an instrument, which leaves an owner to do some research. Having the original box/case/paperwork helps, but here, we’ll figure out exactly what variation of Strat you have by using the process of elimination.
From the introduction of the Stratocaster in 1954 through the early 1980s, there was pretty much only one Stratocaster in Fender’s lineup from year to year. (This made for easy archiving!) Aside from the Mary Kaye Strat in the late 1950s, the Antigua Strats in the late 1970s, and the 25th Anniversary Strat in 1979, there really weren’t any variations.
Because the 1970s Stratocasters were not that well received, Fender was feeling the heat by the early 1980s to return to their golden era of the 1950s/early 1960s. So in 1982, the first vintage-Strat reissues were introduced (along with a few other variations) and the Elite Series followed in 1983. Fender was struggling by 1984, however, and Bill Schultz and his investment group bought the trademark from CBS in 1985.
In 1986, Fender restructured their line entirely and introduced several new model variations utilizing many countries of origin to produce them. As Fender surged through the 1990s and 2000s, they realized that continuing to tweak the line and introducing new models nearly annually would help keep up the interest in their guitars. Because there are so many variations of the Stratocaster in existence today, however, identifying a specific model can be challenging.
The good news is that Fender’s serialization is very reliable. You are likely correct that your guitar was made in 1996 (although early 1997 is possible). And the only Mexican-made Strats offered in 1996 were the Standard Series, the entry-level Traditional Series, the Tex-Mex, and a Richie Sambora signature model.
The Richie Sambora signature was only available with a humbucker pickup in the bridge position, so that’s out. The ’96 Standard Stratocaster had three single-coils and was available in black, brown sunburst, crimson-red metallic, Lake Placid blue, and Arctic white—but not candy apple red—so that’s out. The same holds true for the Traditional Series Strats: They were only available in Arctic white, black, and Torino red. The Tex-Mex Strats were available in candy apple red, and when you also consider the ’50s-style “spaghetti” Fender logo on the headstock that was unique to the Tex-Mex Stratocaster, I can confidently say that the Tex-Mex is what you have.
Although Fender doesn’t often indicate the variation of a particular Stratocaster on the actual instrument, there are other ways to determine a Strat’s background.
It’s interesting to note that Jimmie Vaughan had taken notice of Mexican-made Stratocasters in the mid-1990s and brought the idea of a signature model to Fender. After striking an endorsement deal in 1996, Vaughan collaborated with Fender in developing the Tex-Mex Stratocaster. The following year, Fender made a few minor changes to the model and it became the Jimmie Vaughan Tex-Mex Stratocaster, which is still in production today. This made the non-Jimmie Vaughan version of the guitar a very short-lived model.
What makes the Tex-Mex Strat different from a regular Strat? It’s essentially the set of Tex-Mex single-coil pickups, jumbo fretwire, and overall styling that mimics the Strats from the late 1950s/early 1960s. The bodies and necks were made at Fender’s U.S. factory in Corona, California, but were assembled and sanded in the company’s plant in Ensenada, Mexico. The Mexican-produced guitars from the mid-1990s are generally regarded as being decent instruments, but they unfortunately don’t posses the same level of collectability as their American, Korean, or Japanese counterparts.
Today, this guitar (with gig bag) is worth between $325 and $400 in excellent condition, which leaves you with a few options: Sell it for a few hundred bucks, store it properly with the hope it increases in value, or play the thing. At least someone in every family should play guitar!