Ask Charlie...

Dirty and Loud

Hello Troubadourians! I think it’s safe to say that most guitarists will eventually invest some money and time into an electric guitar and an amplifier. Depending upon the relative success of that initial sortie, the electric side of guitar playing either becomes a passing fancy from which you quickly tire and return to your acoustic muse. Or, more often, it becomes a nearly boundless obsession with gear, tone, and being the coolest kid on the block. If your experience leans toward the former, and you’re still playing, studying, and improving, then I salute you for you decision to make your music with the guitar in its purest and most basic form. If your experience leans toward the latter then this column is for you! Let’s get dirty and loud!

Well, sort of. While that phrase sounds like a call to arms for a rip-roaring Southern Rock extravaganza, what I’m really talking about is how to approach the electric guitar as a means of expressing your music. I think it’s safe to say that most of us – if we’re male – dove into the electric guitar as thoroughly and deeply as our hormone-driven adolescent desires would allow; that and our often meager lawn mowing, paper route, and allowance restricted budgets. This point in development for most of us really was dirty and loud. We plugged in and turned our amps up to 11, gleefully becoming the Nigel Tufnells in our neighborhoods while spewing sloppy licks that somehow sounded so much better the louder we played. We proudly shouted our mantra; “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!” …until the cops showed up. Eventually, most of us realized that there was more to the electric guitar than just the ability to piss off the neighbors. There were subtleties of tone and texture that were just as musically valid as anything played on an acoustic guitar and a freedom provided by the lighter touch and increased sustain that allowed us to reach higher and dig deeper into that part of us that demanded to be expressed by music in the first place.

We joined bands that required us to actually blend our instrument with others. If there were vocals, our task became even more challenging as every voice, every note, every percussive slap, vied for space and equality. We often failed in this pursuit of blending with our bandmates. Sound and room acoustics are difficult to understand and even more difficult to master. Most bands never get out of the garage or rehearsal space because they find it impossible to manage their sound. I have written many articles about sound and how to control it. And while it should be obvious that the louder everything becomes the more difficult everything is to manage, the solution it isn’t always as simple as just turning everything down. And yes, while there are nightmare rooms where no placement of instruments, people, microphones, amplifiers, or speakers will yield useful sound – at any level, it remains that electric guitarists and drummers are notorious for playing too loud for the situation. And even when they aren’t the primary reason for the excess loudness, they are by reputation the easiest targets for complaints by bandmates, audiences, neighbors, soundmen, and venue owners.

What are we as responsible, creative guitarists to do about it? I chose a rather Draconian path. I got pissed off and stopped playing electric guitar altogether and focused on creating a new style on acoustic. Eventually, I really missed my electric guitar and all I really want to do was get friendly with it again. To get there this time, I decided to try a more moderate running to vs. running from approach. A change of gear was a good start. If you are playing through a 100 watt – or more – tube-based amplifier, you probably have found that there are a limited number of stages, venues, and even musical genres where that much amplification would work well. As I have written here before, and as every electric guitarist knows, there is definitely a sweet spot where the amp and guitar just seem to come alive. The synergy when that happens makes the guitar feel like it is playing itself. The tone, and just as importantly, the feel, makes for an inspiring playing experience. But while you’re getting experienced with that magic tone and feel, the rest band is probably pounding away trying to keep up. On a big stage, in a big room – and I really do mean big, like arena-size big – there is enough acoustic space for everyone to crank-up and pound away. Since probably less than 1% of us actually play in that environment with any regularity (or ever), the rest of us should probably be thinking about how to achieve that sweetness in a more manageable package. So what are we really after? In my experience what you want is a rig that sounds loud and more importantly feels loud, but isn’t loud. Further, you need to be able to control the loudness, volume, and dynamics while preserving tone.

Okay, if you’re with me so far, you’re ready for me to tell you how to achieve such a feat of tonal bliss, right? Well, I can tell you what works for me. You can use my experience as a guideline and adapt it to your situation. The first thing I did was to choose a small, low-wattage amp that had a good, classic clean tone that I could blend with an unamplified acoustic guitar and would stay clean until is was nearly half-way up, (I chose a Fender Princeton) and I practiced with just my electric guitar and amp until I could replicate the tone and touch that I had on my acoustic guitar. That was a lot of work but only half of the challenge. If you want to use effects, especially overdrive or distortion, try out several and choose those that will give you the tones you’re after but still allow you to control your dynamics and tone as you could without them. (I chose a Tech21 FlyRig5). When you are able to control your electric guitar – effects and all – as you would an acoustic guitar, I think you’ll find you’re able to consistently find that sweet-spot of tone and feel but at a reasonable, usable, volume level. Imagine how much fun playing your electric guitar will be when you can get that magic tone anytime, anywhere, and in any context. Careful gear choices, and lots of focused practice will get you there. Really.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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  • September 2016

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