Stop Reading and Play

(Except for this blog of course…you can read that. 😉 )

So a few years back, we’re at worship practice. And let’s see, this is about 4 or 5 years ago, so we were probably playing something by David Crowder, and I was probably replacing all the signature guitar riffs with either pseudo-ambient (whoa! wordpress didn’t underline ‘pseudo-ambient’! That’s a word? Score.) wanna-be keyboard swells that did succeed in shaking the room, but no so much in meshing with the song or with…what’s that other thing you usually like to do as a musician…oh ya…sounding good, or with U2-dotted eighth delay riffs…without the dotted eighth part. See, I’m just trying to get you a picture of the sound that was filling the room at that time. It was right in that weird in-between time for me when I had just realized that forcing a much less talented version of a Michael-Landau-meets-John Petrucci-solo into every worship song was not doing as much as say, a Johnny Buckland 3-note Coldplay riff. But I wasn’t sure how to get there yet. Couple that with my newfound discovery of the ‘warmth’ of tube amps, and for a few months you got this cacophonic mesh of every note in the scale just delaying into each other unstoppably, drowning out all sense of harmonic progression in the song in what I proudly called ‘ambient swells.’ It did sound ‘warm’…I have to give myself that.

Anyway, we’re practicing at our drummer’s work (a metal shop…kind of fitting), and this was the time when we were all young, single, practicing our Dream Theatre riffs and beats and how we could fit them into I Can Only Imagine, in a sweaty warehouse every Friday night from 6 pm to 2 am, and wondering why were single. (Except for me, because remember, I’m just moving out of those riffs and into, what were we calling them? Oh ya! ‘Warm ambient swells’. And also, somewhere, and sometime, the thought finally breaks through that perhaps sweat and metal are not as attractive to the ladies as certain movies make them out to be.) And through the wall of phased-delayed mud and metal-shop man sweat, comes this burning smell. And I look up at our drummer, who’s facing me, and he gets the Orlando Bloom frightened look on his face, and just lifts his drumstick to point behind me at my amp. Which is on fire. 

(Here is the patented ‘Orlando Bloom frightened’ look. hehe Everything he does is so over-the-top. You can see it in his eyes. ‘Okay, act frightened! Is this right? I hope it’s right. Maybe a little more intensity will help!’)

(Oh, yes. The Orlando intensity. This is ‘confused.’ You gotta say, though…he is trying really hard. Really, really hard. Just relax a bit, Orlando. It’s not 1930. There’s actually color and sound in these films…you don’t need to over-act anymore. We get that Legolas is confused.)

So I kind of saunter over there, pretending that these things happen all the time, and that I know tone and gear so well, that this is all just part of it and I’ve got it under control. Remember, I’m totally in that in-between stage, which means I’m reading about tone and gear and musicianship like crazy, but have very little real-world experience. Yet I still feel like all that reading and research and knowledge should be worth something, so I’m kind of putting on this pretense of being a tone-head. But inside, I thought my amp might explode onto my face. But I’m able to switch it off, and get the fuse out, and we can see where the fire came from, but it’s all on the inside, so the structure of the amp still looks generally fine. And then, in my infinite genius, I say, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad fuse. Happens all the time.’ Because fuses definitely start fires when they blow. So our drummer says, ‘Well great! This is a metal shop, so I’ll just go get you another one.’ So he goes and gets me another one. ‘Yours said .5 amps, and this one says 1 amp. Do you think that’ll matter?’ And in my best ‘I know tone’ voice, I say, ‘Nope!’ So we put the new fuse in, turn on the amp, and proceed to re-start the fire. At which point the drummer looks and me and says, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing?’ And with a smoldering circuit board of an amp staring me in the face, I am forced to say, ‘No.’

So I end up taking the amp to get fixed by Jerry Blaha. He lives in Hollywood, was the guy who apprenticed Mark Sampson of Matchless Amp fame, used to be the guitar tech for Black Sabbath, and has fixed amps for Aerosmith. And that all sounds awesome, and like I must be really special or famous or something to have him be my tech…and that’s honestly how I like it to sound (oh, the honesty again). But in reality, he had an ad in the Recycler mag, and I called him. How I wish my band was opening for Aerosmith at the Hollywood Bowl, and he was there to check and make sure his mods on their amps sounded good, and heard my tone, and came up to me and said, ‘You have the best tone I have ever heard. It made me cry. Please let me be your tech.’ Which is how it happened in my mind. (There’s this really cool world in my mind, where everything works like that, and I have the greatest tone known to humanity. It’s not real.) But nope. I found his number in a used junk magazine.

When I get the amp to him, I explain to him what happened, and he seems mildly to not-at-all interested. He tells me that amps usually do not catch on fire, even Peavey’s. And this amp was a Peavey Classic 100 head, which incidentally, is a very good amp. It’s one of the early ’90’s incarnations, and though I no longer own it, it still had some of the best cleans I’ve heard. Anyway, I left the amp with him, wondering if maybe I just dreamed the fire. I mean, Black Sabbath’s tech told me it was near impossible, so maybe…

A week later he calls me, and he goes, ‘There was a fire in your amp!’ I said, ‘I know!’ So it was kind of a good ice-breaker, and we got to talking, and he told me that one of the power tubes had not just blown, it had caught itself on fire, and burned out a whole piece of the circuit board. ‘I’ve never seen these tubes before,’ he says. ‘Where did you get them?’

(You can kind of catch the Peavey Classic 100 in the background here. And you can also catch my unfortunate ‘in-between metal and indie’ stage here, too. I’ve got the EL84-based Classic 100; but I’m still playing the snake skin guitar. I’ve got the tight indie shirt; but I’ve still got the very ’80’s cross necklace. I’ve shaved my ‘metal-roadie’ beard growth; but I still have the stringy long hair. Ya. So awkward. And this band was actually a really good one. Very talented members. But this was one of our first shows…at the uh…mall. We thought we had arrived. Yikes, this is like, the most embarrassing picture ever. I’m like, 20 here, and I look like I’m 45. Please learn from my mistakes. Yep…look at the picture again. Do you understand my passion about this now? I say again: Please!)

So okay. Awesome. A chance to tell the big Hollywood veteran about my tonal findings and subsequent tonal genius. And unfortunately…yes. I did. I told him how in Russia, in the late ’60’s, Sovtek had sold one of their tube plants to the military, who used it to make top-secret tubes for this new type of advanced war-time computer, and how the tubes were of superior power, life, and tone, than any ever seen before, and how there were only a few hundred left in existence, and how these tubes in my amp, were some of those few hundred. And he said, ‘Ya. These are the worst tubes I’ve ever seen.’ And then he asked me where I had gotten my information. And I said, ‘Um…the guy on e-bay who sold them to me said it.’ But then I quickly added, ‘But the story checks out on a couple other tube sites and amp tone sites.’ Which was true…I had definitely done my research. 

But then he told me something I will never forget. He said, ‘I have a friend like you. You know, one of those guys that reads too much?’ ……Oh. And then he proceeded to tell me of this friend he had, and how he never actually played anywhere, but just read up on all this tone stuff, and how he would always pontificate on everything to his actually working musician friends, but then sound terrible. But I wasn’t listening. I was still stunned that Black Sabbath’s former guitar tech, whom I had hoped to impress with my immense tonal knowledge, had just completely and unapologetically put me in my place; and had also given some of the best musical advice I have ever had.

I still continue to read and do research on tone…it’s important. But it can never suffice for, and should never be looked at as more important than, real life experience. If you’re really worried about if the MJM London sounds exactly like an original Dallas Arbiter, research it for sure. But go somewhere where you can try them out; buy one; talk to people who know more than you do. And if you’re really not sure how your 36 watts will react at a small club, than book yourself a coffee house gig or club gig or small church gig (I know, I hate the word ‘gig’ for church, too…but for the purposes if this article…), and try it out.

There is nothing that accounts for more or that makes you grow in your musicianship faster than real life experience. Reading and research can be very helpful, but if left on their own, you might end up feeling stupider and stupider with every word as you explain to your amp tech that the guy on e-bay told you that your tubes you bought for $5 apiece are really some vintage Russian top-secret weaponry research that breeded the best-sounding tube in history. Ya……yikes, that sounds really not true.


28 thoughts on “Stop Reading and Play

  1. i’m sorry that you had to learn it the hard way :)

    but you know, as much as I want to play, its quite difficult nowadays to find time. reading is the next best thing and is readily available.

    i guess a former Beatle couldn’t have said it better :)

    “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” — John Lennon

  2. Hmm, in a related, but not related story….

    I was in awe this time this guy came around and played a beautiful acoustic “story telling” type set (Andrew Peterson I think…). He had this funky looking capo on his guitar for weird tuning stuff. When I asked about it, he said they always had capos lying around and just cut them to fit the tuning needs. They could’ve bought partial capos, but decided it was easier to make them. My buddies were all like me— complete enthusiasm that you could make this partial capo YOURSELF and get that great open-tuning tone, but still play like you were in standard.

    I bought a capo, cut it, and it was screwed up. So I bought another one and cut it. Not quite perfect. The 3rd one I bought worked great. Then I realized a good Kyser partial capo was 22 bucks, and I had spend 18 bucks x3 to “make” my own to be cool.

    But when I showed the guys, I was cool. For a day.
    Then they all bought the Kyser.
    I still have this capo.

  3. @karl: After running sound last week at church, one of the guitarists asked me what in the world I did to his guitar. He said it sounded amazing in the monitors. I told him it was a matter of boosting some low-end and mid frequencies to give the guitar a great warm feeling. I love it when I can get a great acoustic tone out of the mixing board.

    Oh, I’ve got some tube amp’s from this WWII experiment in cryogenics. If you are interested, I can probably get them for you for $40 a piece.

    @lespaulplayerdoctor: I have three capo’s; standard, drop-d, and the short-cut. I’m primarily an acoustic player (rhythm) and these capos can add a lot of color to otherwise standard chords.

  4. @Chris— EXACTLY!!! +1 capo usage. The easiest way to add textures with 2 guitarists or more is to capo differently. The different intonations that respond add significant texturing. Add that with different rhythm stylings and you have a whole new feel.
    I use a standard and partial. If I do drop D stuff, its usually actually dropped, so the standard works for me :)

  5. Good story! Great reminder to play more and think less :)

    LPD- I also made a cut capo but that was before they sold them that way. Another secret – you can just flip a kyser over and use the “back” part to cover the middle 3 strings.

  6. ah its like you read my mind for why I stopped going to the gear page. I would spend time reading about some life changing effect/guitar/amp etc, but then when I finally had enough chances to actually play these things I thought to myself, wow, these guys are dumb.

    sadly the internet seems to breed this kind of person, once who can constantly deep link some knowledge without ever having real life experience with it, or real gigging experience. I gave up tgp and have not really looked back.

    I see this kind of behavoir in all sorts of walks of life. I have a friend who is a fellow programmer, who knows every acronym possible, and likes to be the ‘go to guy’ for current stuff. I updated my facebook a while back to say I was going to start using some particular library, and he goes off about how awesome xyz some particular feature of the library is. When I asked him why he thought so and how many projects he has done with it, he responded, oh I’ve never actually used it.

    Now thats splendid.

  7. @Larry
    We currently do that but play the same rhythm. I’d like to play a different rhythm but that’s a totally new area for me. Got any good links or general suggestions?

  8. @Larry
    I forgot…if we playing anything in the key of D, I use the drop-D capo on the second fret and play down a step. So instead of D:G:A chord forms, I play the chord formations of C:F:G.

  9. Nice post, great writing as usual!
    My friend was complaining about a Fender HRD at his church and asked me what I thought about unnamed $3K boutique brand amp. After telling him that it was overkill, I had to ask him, when was the last time you retubed and biased that amp? Never! Maybe start with servicing the equipment before replacing it. I thought it actually sounded pretty good with a Barber Burn Unit in front of it.

  10. maybe I’m just terrible a guitar, but cut capos make my head hurt. they do sound awesome though. have you guys seen that harmonic capo? I think there is a youtube video of it somewhere, seems like a pretty cool idea.

  11. @chris— I’ll see if I can find some links. This was something I was planning on doing on my blog at some point (once I take my board exams in March). But basically, say we’re doing a song (in G) in 4/4 timing. I like to have a very deliberate rhythm on the main acoustic. Like a Down, Up, Up, Down. Kind of a celtic-slow rhythm.
    I do that usually first verse and chorus. 2nd guitar comes in at the 2nd verse (caped D chords) and does a Down, Down, Up, Up, Down rhythm. Still in 4/4, but more strums, and still emphasizing the DOWN beats. First guitar is still playing D, U, U, D.

    The higher intonation really picks up the songs composure and gives a layered feelings along with a “felt” faster feel even though the 4/4 time hasn’t changed (unless your drummer stinks).
    I have more, but this is the main one I do over and over. If you listen to … Caedmons Call self-titled album, they used this technique on several songs. Jars of Clay did so as well on “The Valley Song.”

    @kenrick– I looked at that harmonic capo once. Its nice for individual fingerstyle, but its a bit much for a band setting. And a bit hyped up. My opinion, but YMMV as always.
    And +1 on TGP… its like when one of my friends who gives me advice on which overdrive to buy next: but he only plays acoustic, and never moved past the GCD phase.

    @Mike: Yeah, once someone showed me how to turn a capo UPSIDE DOWN and get a partial capo—- i felt really stupid for having gone through 3 to build my own. Ah, its been almost 11 years since that time, and that capo is a beloved memory. Heh.

    @Karl— sorry for taking over your comments! U2!! WHOO!!!

  12. I changed the pickup springs in my strat to NOS tubing after reading about the tone-sucking quality of the allow the springs were made from.

    😉 j/k

  13. Hey there! Nice blog you have here! A friend of mine uses to read it quite often and he introduced me to your blog! Congratz ^^

    Unfortunately there’s a lot of people I know that rather read and talk than actually trying and getting to really know stuff.

    But, besides the “lecture to a better musicians’ world”, I would really like to hear a tone out of a amp on fire.
    Spectrasonics burnt a piano to get a bizarre timbre and it works… maybe with tube amps? Might be funny!

  14. Hey, everyone. Sorry, been gone for a couple days for my wife’s and my anniversary. I’ll do my best to answer everybody…although it looks like you all did just fine without me. 😉 But there were some really killer comments that I just have to respond to.

    Rhoy–unfortunately, it seems like I’m always learning the hard way! hehe And you’re totally right, sometimes reading’s all you have time for…which is totally cool. We just gotta make sure we read and play together. And great John Lennon quote. You know, I thought I came up with that quote for years as a teenager. Then I realized I just must’ve heard it somewhere. Blast!

    Larry–Capo’s are cheating.

    ……just kidding. 😉

    Chris–right on! What acoustic was he playing that needed some lows and mids in it? Was it a lower end Taylor? (I love Taylors, but some of them tend to be a bit brittle.)

    Larry–good times. That can sound really good…as well as sometimes having a couple acoustics play the exact same thing with the exact same capo position. It’s just a bit harder to sync up.

    Mike–thanks, bro!

    Kenrick–awesome comment. I am still quite guilty of gearpaging…constantly. But it’s been a big step for me to take everything I read there with a grain of salt, as well as do a little bit of research into who’s saying what. There’s a couple guys on there who I’ll listen to almost anything they say with very few questions. And then there’s a ton that it’s like…um, and what’s your musical background again? :) (Maybe I’m one of them…haha)

    And ya, great story about the computer guy. There’s a ton of people in this world who care more about looking a certain way, than actually doing it. We gotta be careful who we trust. Of course, you can always trust this blog! 😉 Everything said here is 100% tested and accurate. lol

    Chris–I think I’m butting into a conversation that’s over, haha, but I find that trying to do different acoustic rhythms can sometimes sounds too busy if it’s not an acoustic-only set. But then again, I’m always way too into simplicity. Okay, feel free to disregard this reply. 😉

    Dan–thanks, bro. And killer story. I am amazed, too, at how so many people want to throw money at a problem, instead of working at it. And I too, am guilty of looking for hours on gearpage and ebay for a new guitar before remembering I probably just need to change the strings. :)

    Kenrick–ya, that harmonic capo does look pretty cool! Probably more for use in a solo act than playing with a full band. But I can definitely see using it for a couple songs like for like, a singer/songwriter type set. Good times.

    Larry–no worries, bro! I don’t mind in the slightest. Although, if I did mind, you did happen to mention the magic ‘forgiveness words’: ‘U2!! WHOO!!’ hehe

    James–that literally made me laugh out loud. Tip of the hat to you, sir.

    Chris–Sorry! I’m here, brother! :) Although, you probably figured that by now.

    Larry–Yep. Same as above. I’d say ‘I’m okay’, but after reading this comment, I’m guessing you’re on to that already. :)

    Kenrick–absolutely I was. lol

    Breno–welcome! Great to have you here. And hey, cool idea. If I ever get some old beater amp, I’ll have to set it on fire, and then record me playing out of it real quick. lol Good times. And if you don’t mind, I’ll link your blog in my blogroll. I read a bit, and it’s good stuff. Cheers!

  15. @karl
    Hey, didn’t you explain to your wife that you at least had to check your page once a day? Oh, she mentioned the couch, did she? 😉

    I talked with a worship guitar who held a clinic recently. I brought up the question of two acoustic pattens with regards to the capo. His suggestion is one plays rhythm and one plays a repetitive melodic note progression. It’s just more ideas for me.

    Oh, that acoustic is a brand I’ve never heard of before (don’t recall it now).

  16. Kenrick–thanks, brother!

    Chris–definitely a cool idea…it’s nice sometimes to hear an acoustic doing something besides rhythm!

    hehe And ya, it was actualy pretty nice to spend a couple days without a computer. You’re never sure you can do it at first, and then it’s like, ‘Whoa! People really did survive without these things!’ lol :)

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