Music

Back to classical guitar

It’s been many, many years since I’ve played classical guitar. I learned in high school, from a lovely teacher called Ms. Dunlop, but aside from romancing my wife with some classical numbers when we were courting, I haven’t really played it much in the past couple of decades.

Domenico Scarlatti (pic from Wikipedia)

Domenico Scarlatti (pic from Wikipedia)

Added to that, my classical guitar had its bridge lift off on me many years ago, so I haven’t really had a nylon stringed guitar around the house for a very long time now (Hmm - perhaps it is time to go guitar shopping?) :)

But just this month, I was motivated to dig up some of my old favourite pieces and give them a go again. It was surprising how much I had forgotten, but also surprising was how the muscle memory in my fingers seemed to go back to how I played 20 years ago. While re-learning and practicing, sometimes my mind would wander, and when I snapped back to what I was doing, I realised that my fingers were automatically going to the right frets like they did two decades ago. Over thinking and forcing myself to remember was actually detrimental to that process.

I have a particular affinity for Baroque era pieces. Most of my friends love the Bach Lute Suites, but for me, my favourite composer of the era is Domenico Scarlatti (and to a lesser extent, his father Alessandro). Something about Scarlatti’s pieces are more uplifting that others of that time. The fact that most of them were written as love songs for the countess he was infatuated with probably helps!

Here is my attempt at his Sonata in A minor (K.322) after about a week’s practice. I don’t think Ms. Dunlop would be too happy with my sloppy technique, but I am going to keep practicing to try and get better and smoother.


Guitar Modeller Shootout

I was looking around my audio plugins folder on my computer the other day and realised that I have a lot of guitar modeller plugins that I have collected over the years. It’s been a while since I have done any sort of shootout between them to compare, so I thought I would use this Easter long weekend to tackle this mini project.

I want to concentrate on clean Fender-y sounds this time, and what better way to test out the Strat build I just completed a couple of months ago. I just finished doing more setup work on this guitar and am enjoying playing it again.

The Guitar

It is a Lake Placid Blue Strat, with a baked maple neck. It has a set of BareKnuckle “Irish Tour” pickups in it, and I used the middle position for this experiment.

Guitar was plugged straight into my PC via an Apogee Element 46 audio interface, then routed to Logic X.

IMG_4665.jpg

The Method

What I did was to record a short dry track into Logic X on my iMac, then copy and paste that dry track onto different channels where I set up different modellers. This way there would be NO bias towards a certain track due to my different playing styles over time. The same dry track would ensure that the input signal was consistent across all modellers.

On each modeller, to ensure some kind of consistency, I also set all knobs to ‘5’ on the amp face. I turned off any Boost or Bright switches to ensure as raw a tone as possible. I also tried to use the same 2x12 cab where possible, with a ‘57 Condenser mic placed at the 2 inches from centre and 2 inches away.

I also used a delay pedal as the only pedal in the chain for most of the modellers - set at around 250ms delay with minimal feedback and mix. Some modellers didn’t support effects pedals in the amp signal chain, so in those cases I used a separate pedal plugin by the same manufacturer to get the delay pedal in the chain (e.g. Bias and Logic)

The Modellers

Here are the 5 modellers I used, with a screenshot showing the settings that I set each amp, cab and delay pedal at.

Logic X

Yep, I admit that one of the tracks here is using the plain old in built amp modeller from Logic, mainly because I wanted to see how it compared against the other more ‘serious’ modelling plugins.

Fender_Clean_Logic_X.png

Amplitube 4

This is probably the modeller I have been using the longest - since Amplitube 2 days!

Fender_Clean_Amplitube_4.png



Slate TH-U

This is the newest modeller the I only got this week, and which prompted me to do this shootout.

Fender_Clean_TH-U_Slate.png

S-Gear

Probably my favourite modeller which I use the most. This is usually my go-to solution for recording guitars these days.

Fender_Clean_S-Gear.png

Bias 2

I admit that I bought this modeller last year sometime, but just haven’t got around to using it much at all.

Fender_Clean_Bias_2.png

The Results

Here is my SoundCloud link to the sound samples for each modeller.

I may refrain from stating which modeller is which sound sample for now (No, they are NOT in the order of the modellers I listed above!). I will wait to see which ones people prefer in ‘blind’ mode first, then reveal all in a couple of weeks! <evil laugh>

UPDATED:

The modellers in the sound clip were in this order:

  1. Amplitube 4

  2. S-Gear 2

  3. Bias 2

  4. Slate TH-U

  5. Logic X

Regaining my timing

Regatta_de_Blanc.jpg

Like most musicians, I usually struggled to ‘keep time’ especially when playing solo compositions. But a few years ago, events which resulted in a stress induced condition (which I won’t bore you with here) has resulted in further degradation in my ability to keep time, even in a band situation where there is a drummer doing all the hard work.

I am determined to improve that though, and have been going back to basics and working on scales using a metronome to reduce that neural disconnect between my brain and my fingers. Over the weekend, I decided to challenge myself even further.

I’ve been a fan of The Police for a long time. There was something about their reggae infused punk beats that captured my imagination, and I admire all three musicians for their eclectic ability. I’ve never really played any of their songs on stage (mainly because I’ve never really had the chance to play with a drummer as talented or frenetic as Stewart Copeland), but I found a drum backing track online over the weekend for one of my most favourite songs of theirs and decided to give it a shot.

“Walking On The Moon” - As far as Sting’s bass work, this is actually one of the easiest ones to play, as the bass riff pretty much starts on the first beat of the bar (as opposed to a lot of other songs where the bass starts mid bar (e.g. Roxanne)). The guitar parts though, were the challenge. The chimey, chorus washed bits that come in every second bar is actually on beat four of the bar. It is a huge challenge to sit back and wait for the right timing to hit that Gmajsus4 chord, and then letting the delay slapback echo it for the first beat of the following bar! Even the staccato chord whips later in the verse are on the 2 and 4 - and every music teacher in the world always tells you to emphasise beats 1 and 3, NOT 2 and 4. Yet, this song is made by the choked chords on the 2 and 4. By far, the biggest challenge though, was playing along to Copeland’s frenzied thrashing. I had to keep time outside of his syncopated fills - a further testament to the skill of the original band.

Playing this was a great exercise in freeing up my mind from the usual constraints, and also to reduce those milliseconds of delay that had infused my neural system after that incident all those years ago. Breaking up my usual ‘straight timing’ with offbeat work like this really has seemed to reprogram the synapses in my brain. Time to go learn more Police numbers.

Successful Simplicity Revisited

I am a big fan of Derek Sivers, and have subscribed to his email newsletters since I met him at the Business of Software conference in Boston a decade ago. Last month, a newsletter came from him titled ‘Successful Simplicity’. The crux of the newsletter is explained well in the following video:

Basically, people find complications in things that they don’t want to do, and dismiss those same complications if it is something they want to do.

To bring this concept back to my own world view: This reminded me of several discussions I have seen on music forums I frequent about changing guitar strings. Lots of people seem to find the task of changing strings quite arduous and something to be avoided unless really necessary.

I will admit, I used to think the same way, but I have learned to overcome these ‘complications’ and inconveniences and embrace this particular task lately. And believe me, I had to. With over 20 guitars around the house, and a professional musician for a son that I act as roadie/guitar tech for, there wasn’t much choice.

Sword_polish.png

It goes back to a book I was reading many years ago about the ancient Samurai warriors of Japan. Because the feudal system of the time meant constant battles against Daimyos and duels between blade masters, their long and short swords (which were considered the ‘soul’ of the warrior) were constantly getting damaged in combat, or by body oils and blood! Contrary to what is shown on the big screen, these swords needed constant care and attention to prevent corrosion and cracking of the blade. Almost every time a Samurai stopped at an inn or a castle, he would have to get out his polishing kit and perform maintenance chores on his swords.

But the way they approached the task was what intrigued me. Because the sword was considered their ‘soul’, they treated the blade with reverence and utmost respect. Any work done on the hardware was treated as a sacred duty. Inspecting the sword for chips or nicks was a loving action that increased the warrior’s familiarity with his blade and gave him a chance to bond with an object that was considered an extension of his own body and consciousness.

IMG_2299.JPG

I decided to adopt that same philosophy with the routine task of changing strings on my guitars. Nowadays, I usually set aside about 20 to 30 minutes for the exercise, and I clean up a spot on the table on our deck (where I can experience the breeze and hear the birds in the trees) as my workbench, and inform the family that I am not to be disturbed for a while. I set out all my tools in an orderly fashion, and select the guitar that I will be working on.

Much like a cha-no-ryu tea ceremony, I tend to deliberately emphasise every movement. Almost theatrical. I force my mind to be present to the task at hand, rather than wander away. I bring my full attention to every dent, blemish and scratch on my guitars while working on it or cleaning it - not in an accusatory or critical manner, but simply as an observation and part of the process of becoming intimately familiar with my instrument.

In a lot of way, it is like a meditative practice, that forces me to be ‘in the moment’ and to appreciate every nuance of it.

Just reframing this regular task in this way has turned it from a chore to be put off, to an activity that I actually look forward to nowadays. So much so, that I started applying the same philosophy towards other mundane tasks that I have to do on a regular basis. Still got some troubles applying it to things like doing my taxes, but I will get there eventually.

Have you tried a similar technique to turn onerous tasks into joyous ones? Let me know.