on track

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

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.

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Ah, the good old Telecaster. Yes, it’s hard to play—at least in comparison to some guitars—but I view it as one of the most flexible recording and gigging guitars around.

A quartet of T-style guitars: Each is configured with different pickups and wiring schemes to provide a broad sonic palette for stage and studio use.

Ah, the good old Telecaster. Yes, it’s hard to play—at least in comparison to some guitars—but I view it as one of the most flexible recording and gigging guitars around. Let me share my experience with four Teles I’ve collected to get my work done, and then maybe you’ll agree.

I grew up as a pure Les Paul guy. I thought a Paul’s tone, beef, bottom end, sustain, and sheer power was unbeatable. But I did have trouble keeping them in tune at gigs, they were freakin’ heavy, and they couldn’t get as funky as I needed. I still have them, use them, and love them—but I needed more. (Don’t we all?) My switch to a Tele was instigated by the need for a different sound, yet it also reflected an evolution of my playing style.

At the time that I made the switch, the bands I was gigging with were mostly groove-oriented R&B outfits, so the choice was almost a no-brainer. But my collection of Teles really grew as I began to do more TV composing. Sure, I could use the Les Paul in the studio with no problem, but I needed the sound of country, blues, rock, reggae, and even metal. Could a Tele handle all of those? Yes, but to make this happen I needed to outfit them with different pickups for maximum versatility.

All four of my T-style guitars were built by Rob DiStefano at Fret Tech (frettech.com), who I introduced you to a few columns back [“Emergency Truss-Rod Tweaks,” July 2012]. Built of paulownia wood, these Ts are all super lightweight, and when you play them unplugged, they resonate almost like acoustic guitars. But I think of them simply as vehicles for my pickups—each of which delivers a distinctive tone for different jobs.

The main workhorse (which I also play live) is a cherry burst that I string up with .010–.052 string sets. I hate noisy pickups, so it’s got Bill Lawrence L-200 Noisefree Singles. Noiseless pickups— okay, pickups with very low noise—are especially crucial when tracking in front of a computer or when recording solos through a cranked amp, and this guitar records as quietly as any 6-string I’ve ever owned. The L-200s are wired to a 4-way switch. This guitar covers clean country in position 1 (neck pickup), funky clean in position 2 (bridge and neck in series), max rock distortion in position 3 (bridge and neck in parallel), and solos that cut through the band in position 4 (bridge). I love this guitar!

My second T-style guitar is a hybrid with a Lace Sensor PS900 soapbar in the neck, and a Bill Lawrence L-290TL in the bridge. It’s my whammy guitar—it’s got a Trem King vibrato (soon to be replaced with a Bigsby B50)—because sometimes you need just a touch of trem in country tunes to get that desolate desert sound. The main thing this guitar gives me is that dark, edgy P-90 tone, and it simply sings when plugged into my vintage Gibson amps. I also string this one with .010–.052 sets.

The third T was built to be a light, highgain replacement for my Les Paul, both onstage and for studio work. It’s outfitted with a set of 4-conductor Rio Grande Barbeque Bucker pickups. DiStefano wired the guitar like my ’burst T, with four pickup positions, but when I pull up on the tone knob, both pickups run in single-coil mode for even more tonal variations. This guitar is strung with .011–.050 sets, and it puts out a very hot signal, which in turn drives amps quite hard (though I also use a pedal for extra gain). It sounds best through my Mesa/Boogie Mark IV head and is even brighter than my Les Paul—with almost as much beef. The distortion tone is quite nice, but it also gets a cool funky sound with an almost Gretsch-like quality, so it can cover country when need be. I’ve noticed that humbuckers typically don’t have as much sonic personality as singlecoils. To me, humbuckers have an edgy sound that reflects less of the guitar body’s character and instead is more defined by the amp they’re running through. But this guitar rocks hard and covers all my heavy, nasty humbucking sounds when recording away from home.

The last T-style guitar has Esquire-style wiring and a single pickup handwound by DiStefano. Featuring alnico 5 magnets and overwound with 11,500 turns, the pickup delivers a full, thick tone that makes amps sing. To keep the noise floor down, it also features a dummy coil that sits under the pickguard. It has no magnets and simply generates a signal that’s the inverse of the main pickup, which helps kill some of the hum but with minimal treble loss.

This guitar has a 3-position selector switch, where position 1 is just pure pickup—with no tone pot in the signal path—while position 2 engages the tone knob, and position 3 features a .0047 μF cap that slices off some treble. The latter sound is similar to what some players call the “cocked wah” sound—it’s as if you have your wah pedal engaged and set to a fixed position. It’s also strung with.011–.050 sets, and I keep it in open D tuning for nasty blues, open chord work, and slide.

My point for this column is that, for the most part, one guitar can’t cover all your sonic needs. But for the way I play, a Telecaster-style guitar provides a flexible platform that I can load with different pickups to get a huge variety of sounds. Sure, I have a closet full of guitars—and every single one of them gets used—but these four are my main workhorses. So if you need a variety of tones in your music, go forth and buy more guitars ... or at least more pickups!

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I’ve amassed a small but very useful amp collection that actually has a lot to do with plug-ins.

Top: Line 6’s Amp Farm modeling a 1966 Vox AC30 mic’d by a Shure SM57.
Bottom: Used creatively, the Treadplate amp simulator in Avid’s Eleven Rack can deliver convincing high-gain tones.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of experience recording with both real guitar amps and amp plug-ins. In this column, I’d like to share some of the pros and cons of each as they relate to real-world studio production.

When I first started playing, I was lucky enough to plug into some nice tube amps, so I grew up with the sound of glowing filaments and that particular give-and-take that only a good, nuts-and-bolts amp can deliver. Since then, I’ve amassed a small but very useful amp collection that actually has a lot to do with plug-ins.

Here’s what I mean: I’ve found that plug-ins do a good job of emulating Fenders, Marshalls, and some heavier-gain amps by Soldano and Mesa/Boogie—and, yes, I do have a real Mk IV Boogie head for comparison. But the software makers don’t seem to offer classic amps from Gibson and Magnatone—both of which I use quite a bit in my TV work, which is heavy on blues and country. So that’s where I focus on the real thing. What these Gibson and Magnatone amps offer is amazing reverb, vibrato, and tremolo, as well as a spongy saturation that’s unmistakable and otherwise hard to come by.

I drive all my amps with a Creation Audio Labs pedal called the Holy Fire. Offering up to 12 dB of clean boost, this pedal allows me to hit the input hard and bring out the true character of tubes. I can also edge down some of the treble with the pedal’s filter knob. The feel I get from these amps—being able to increase the crunch as I hit the strings harder—helps me play better and lay down more dynamic parts. But this comes at a cost: To get a kick-ass sound from these amps, I need to play them fairly loud, and that has its own set of issues. Also, the amps need to be captured properly— which is an art form in itself.

I get the best results using a combination of mics. I like to pair dynamic and ribbon mics—either a Sennheiser MD 421 or a Shure SM57 dynamic, along with a Beyer M 160 or a Royer R-121 ribbon mic. They go through good cabling into high-quality preamps—usually something from Universal Audio, Focusrite, or Grace Audio. But that’s just what works for my ears—as long as the amps are properly represented, other combinations can work well, too.

Sometimes, I’ll crank up a room mic with a Universal Audio 1176-type limiter/ compressor to get a huge sound. Again, what this affords is a quirky sonic signature that plug-ins usually cannot achieve unless you re-amp their output to a room. What’s important here is preserving the inspiration that small, unique amps like my Gibsons and Magnatones deliver as you play—and, of course, their unique tone. However, old, off-the-beaten-path amps like these have to be properly maintained, which adds to their cost. It’s like owning an old classic car: Things happen, so be prepared.

Amp plug-ins, on the other hand, don’t have to be maintained (though the computers they reside on do). And, of course, it goes without saying that the biggest boon they offer is the wide variety of amps, virtual cabinet combinations, emulated pedals, and effects they put at your fingertips. I’ve been using amp plugins since they first came on the market, so I can attest that some of them are quite good now. And, yes, some of them can deliver both convincing tones and a lot of the spongy give-and-take we guitarists love in real tube amps.

Using headphones, you can track with plug-ins at any time of the day or night, and there is no real setup. Just plug in your guitar, dial up an amp, and get to work—there’s no creative time wasted on fiddling with stands, cables, and mics. In addition, when it comes time to mix the tracks, you can easily alter the sound. You can decrease signal saturation, change the EQ, insert a few pedals, or turn up the reverb—things that are not so easy to do on tracks cut with real amps.

One trick I’ve found with amp plugins is to not use their built-in reverb. Instead, I’ll use something like Audio Ease’s Altiverb, which models real springs, rooms, and studios. I’ll often send my amp plug-in into Altiverb’s Fender Super Reverb or an impulse response I made from my Gibson Falcon. These tasty reverbs help sell the sizzle of the plug-in and generally make for a better-sounding production.

Another important aspect of guitar plugins is working with your computer’s latency— the signal delay that happens between the time you play your guitar and when you actually hearing it through the computer. I’ve been running Pro Tools TDM for many years, and I’ve used Line 6’s Amp Farm 3 with great success. The low latency of a TDM system and TDM plug-ins makes it possible to feel your guitar response in a manner that feels natural—like you’re playing through a real amp. However, I’m about to move up to Pro Tools HDX and, for some reason, Line 6 is not updating Amp Farm for this new platform. I’ve talked to other professionals who use HDX and are in the same boat, so I’ll be trying to figure that problem out shortly. I’ll have to start tracking through RTAS plug-ins, so stay tuned for that info.

The point is, it’s important to consider latency when working with a guitar plugin. You have to make sure its response time allows you to properly perform your part without the delay lag throwing you off. Real amps don’t mess with the immediacy of fingers touching strings—what you play and hear is what you get.

Both technologies—real amps and plug-ins—have their pros and cons. And, like most everything else guitar related, we all have our opinions on what’s good and what’s not. But, from my experience, playing to the strengths of each and using them for what they do best rather than picking one side or the other is the way to go.

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