Ask Charlie...

How Do I…

I get asked a lot of questions. Sometimes I’m asked about this guitar or that guitar, this piece of gear or that piece of gear. Other times they begin, “How do I…” and always refer to being better in some way—sound better, play better, sing better… You’d think that the obvious answer would be practice. And while that can and does help, it’s rarely that simple. People want a simple answer and they want it to be easy. If I am to answer truthfully, it will be neither of those. For example, if your desire is to be a better player you really must ask yourself exactly what that means to you. It is an incredibly complicated question when you analyze it. The first thing to ask yourself would be “better in what way, or ways?” Do you just want to know more basic chords, or do you want to explore more sophisticated chord voicings as found in jazz? Does better mean that you want to learn to play some lead guitar? How about learning to play by ear or being able to pick up on an unknown song by listening to it once or twice? The possibilities are nearly endless and are different for anyone asking the question. If I were to attempt to fully answer the question, I’d need to ask a multitude of questions myself in the attempt to know what that individual is really looking for. If that person is a student, then we’ll likely have time to find out what they really want to know and have the time to explore and work on those things. If, however, we meet at a gig, the time for interaction is very limited, so the answer is usually highly compressed in time and content. That doesn’t mean I don’t want you to approach me at gigs. I do, and I welcome the chance to interact with you, but just know that I may not be able to give you an in-depth answer. Where I’m going with this is that you need to have a focus for your practice, and you need an outside source to tell you when you’re doing it correctly and when you’re not. Practicing something wrong is worse that not practicing it at all. And, you need to have someone to guide you to the next step in the process, because as you add knowledge and skills to your inventory, you’ll see how much more there is to add. It’s an endless process. The good news is that at some point you’ll have gained enough knowledge and skills that you’ll be able to continue that process on your own. If you’re not there yet, you probably know. Likewise, if you are there, you know that, too.

Now, a lot of musicians know all the above and are fully competent to improve their playing on their own, but they feel completely lost when confronted by the challenges presented by technology. When it comes to gear, the choices can be as infinite as the choices to improve one’s playing. If this sounds like you, don’t fret (pun intended), you’re not alone. The “How do I… sound better?” question is probably what I hear the most. Here I’ll state an exception to the “it’s not simple” rule: if you are playing a junk instrument, you are almost guaranteed to sound better if you buy a better one. Let me rephrase that—if you buy a good one. I’ve written about this a dozen times so if you want some guidance on how to select a good instrument you can read some of my previous columns that are dedicated to instrument selection. But let’s assume for now that you have a good, professional-grade instrument but you are unsatisfied with something about the sound you’re getting from it. I’ve written about this many times, too, but it bears repeating: you can start with a proper setup and a quality set of strings. You’d be amazed by how often players will purchase a high-quality instrument and just assume that it is ready to go as-is. With rare exceptions, a new instrument will have a generic factory setup that is intended for consistency and repeatability in the manufacturing process and not for making the instrument play its very best for you. And I still see corroded or otherwise used-up strings on a quality instrument. When I’ve asked, “When was the last time you changed your strings?” I usually get, “Um… I don’t remember.” Really? I know that some players are harder on strings than others. Sometimes it’s body chemistry, other times it’s just playing a lot. Either way there are solutions, so whether it’s using coated strings or a different alloy or even developing a lighter touch, keeping a good set of strings on your instrument is essential to sounding your best.

But it’s when you must “plug in” to play that I find people having the most problems and complaints with getting a good sound. Acoustic guitars with pickups have come a long way from the early days of simple contact pickups. Under-saddle pickups have become the standard and contact pickups have improved exponentially. Internal microphones have added even more realism to capturing the true sound of a fine instrument. But it’s in the preamp—either internal or external—where these pickups really deliver their magic. Modern preamps are matched to the pickups or microphones that feed them and deliver exceptionally natural and realistic sound. But they are also prone to generic sounds, so you must really listen and work the controls to get everything to sound the way you want it to. For me, I want my guitar to sound as much like itself as I can get to the way it sounds unamplified. In addition to a high-quality pickup and preamp, I use an external graphic EQ to further shape the sound—mostly to remove unwanted frequencies and tonalities rather than adding them. This approach reduces the overall gain of the preamp and requires that I add some gain after the EQ to bring the signal to a useable level. A lot of processing, yes, but I’m picky and you should be, too, if you’re asking me how to sound better. But what to get? Experiment with as many different pickups, preamps, and other tone-shaping devices (like EQs) as you can get your hands on and listen to how they sound. Choose what sounds best to you and dig deep into the inner workings of each component. Learn as much as you can so that you can control the variables you encounter.

But if you need to know more, just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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