A few days ago Brian, Alex and I were talking as Brian was thinking about video ideas for YouTube, and we were discussing guitarists who play live regularly but still get a few things wrong. Not necessarily in terms of their playing, but their approach to the instrument. Once I started to give ideas for subjects it occurred to me that I was just talking about me when I first started playing live, some 27 or so years ago (Man, that makes me sound old).
This conversation made me think about what I would say to myself if I had the opportunity to go back and advise the younger me with the benefit of what I have learned in the thousands of gigs I’ve done since…
- You aren’t as good as they tell you.
When I was 17 I was able to play virtually anything I wanted, I was in a rock covers band playing stuff that was designed purely to impress other guitar players. After a year or so, I thought I was brilliant because people kept telling me I was as I could play fast complicated stuff, but the reality of it was that I was just showing off. Playing for their appreciation and not caring one iota about what really mattered. I should have been more humble and understood that just because I played “It’s a Monster” as an opener, including the solo without warming up (see, still showing off), it didn’t mean I was good, I was just flashy. All style and no substance, or as my dear ol’ cockney Granddad would have said, “all mouth and no trousers”. Which leads me nicely too…
- Take some lessons and learn to read.
My biggest regret in life, thus far, was not sourcing a decent teacher and learning to read properly. I was proud of the fact “I’ve never taken a lesson in my life” and thought it made me a better musician. It didn’t, it just restricted the future me. In the last few years I’ve had the pleasure and honour of becoming good friends with amazing guitar teachers and the things I’ve learned from them, just in passing, have made me 100 times the player I was. Imagine if I’d actually had some proper lessons earlier in life…
- Listen to the rest of the band, ALL of the time.
This was the hardest learning curve of them all, and it’s something I struggle with now. I really wish I had got this into my head much much earlier. After all, being in a band is about creating and playing music with a bunch of like-minded people. Listening to them, bouncing off them, playing WITH them (instead of just playing with yourself – double entendre COMPLETELY intended) is everything. Be in a band, they are not there to back you up, you are an equal part in the end product.
- Gain. GAIN! Turn it the hell down!
The most powerful gain tones are not the ones with loads of gain, just the ones with the right amount properly EQ’d. You will probably need two distinct gain tones, one for rhythm and one for lead. How this is achieved is variable, either volume control on the guitar or via a boost pedal, but you know, your lead tone is gonna sound utterly horrible for rhythm. Usually. Also worth remembering the louder you play, the less gain you are likely to need. I expect there is a technical explaination for this, but I don’t know it!
- Practice the subtle stuff, it’s what will define you to your peers.
Especially vibrato and bends. Make sure your intonation is on point, make sure your vibrato isn’t crap. Because when you don’t work on either, you will sound bloody awful and to the guys in the know that are listening, you will be severely lacking.
- Don’t be afraid of new music.
When grunge hit I was terrified, my dazzling technique meant nothing to anyone, I got completely lost so I decided I hated it and refused to play it. What an idiot. Roll with it youngling, roll with it.
- Learn the neck properly
This is something I’ve been working on recently after a long discussion with Mr Tom Quayle on a very long flight. As usual, he was trying to help me and I was arguing for the fun of it, but he won in the end. He calls it fretboard visualisation. This is knowing what all the notes are on the neck, and how the relate to each other… this way, when improvising, you can move around the neck easier as you know where the sweet spots are. And not the complicated ones, ending a passage on a third, fifth or seventh of the chord you are currently over sounds so much better than landing on the root… so, this is directly related to breaking out the boxes I suppose, something else I was stuck in when I was trying to be me back in the day.
- If it’s being played properly, there’s no such thing as crap music
Kinda guessing that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the music I liked was great and the rest was crap when I was young. I don’t particularly like certain styles/genres of music still, but I listen to it often, because you absorb stuff when you listen to it and it will increase your vocabulary considerably when you are in full flow without realising it.
- If the crowd aren’t being responsive, it ain’t their fault
If the band is boring, make up to you to make it more interesting. Well, this is going to be a contentious one I think... As a lead guitar player, or even the rhythm guitar player, it’s kinda up to you to bring the colour to the songs. If you are working with a great bass player, they will do their bit, but if you are still banging out boring chords and predictable solos, then look at yourself before you judge your audience.
- Protect your hearing
Pretty certain I don't need to explain this any further...
- Carry spares. Of everything
I know, kinda obvious isn’t it. However, there was a time when I didn’t… turned out to be the worst gig of my life!
That’s my ‘have a word with yourself’ moment... For your amusement, the header picture of me is from 1992, and this is the 2018 version - and yes, I do miss my hair!
I’m pretty old – currently staring down the barrel of being 45… So, I groan when I get up from the sofa and my idea of a great concert (as someone attending) is whether it is seated and how easy the access is to the ‘facilities’. Whereas this may sound terrible to some (especially me to be honest), it does mean one thing – I’ve been playing live since I was 17 so I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff for a long time. Along the way, having done over a thousand gigs, I’ve picked up some knowledge about some things that I might not have thought about before.
This week I want to talk about speaker placement when you perform… When I was a nipper, before the gig time, I had to keep my sound levels down low at home, because – you know, parents. I quickly found out the best way to do this was to lean my amp back (up against the wall) so the centre part of the cone was pointing at my ears. During this time, I wanted to be Jannick Gers before I knew that Jannick existed… basically, I wanted to stand between Smith and Murray on your bog standard Iron Maiden world tour. My bedroom came complete with a full-length mirror so quite often I was stood with my foot on the bed in that classic “on the monitors” way and other various poses the band are known for admiring my potential for being in the band... It was during this time I realised that where the speaker was pointing made an enormous difference to how I heard my guitar. It was either muffled if I wasn’t dead on, or bright and clear when I was. Based on this experience when I started with my first band I used to put my amp on stuff to make sure it was at head level as much as possible – I found that not only was it the best way to keep my stage level down but also the very best way to know that the people out front only heard what I was hearing. From there I went on to live mix large bands around the circuit which taught me also that in regards to upper mids and high end, speaker placement is absolutely everything. The lower the frequency goes, the more omnidirectional they become (this varies with speakers size) so you can put them anywhere and they’ll be heard, but those high ends have to be facing the right direction and high enough to literally go over the head of people, otherwise anything further than 10 feet from them with people in front of you, they are just gone.
Now, any self-respecting guitar player will be able to tell you that the best tone you get from your amp (providing you aren’t on a weak hollow stage) is to have your amp on the floor, but this is a nightmare for the people out front – you can’t hear your top end if you have your tone going into your calves, and also, if you are anywhere near the drummer you have to be literally twice as loud to hear yourself. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a band where the guitar amps are on the floor and the first few rows have been slaughtered by sheer volume and gnarly top ends while the player thinks he sounds incredible.
With all that in mind, where do you put your speakers when you play live? Are they on the deck, or are they elevated? The current band I’m ruining is set up like this, my cab sits on top of a flight case, it’s a 2x12” (and I have it vertically) with the head on top. This means that because I am stood anywhere between 1 and 10 feet from my cab (usually about 2 or 3 tbh), at all times the top speaker is sitting close enough to head height for me to hear it properly. I have to have my cab a certain way ‘up’ as one of the speakers is truer on the higher end and the other is more about warm mids and lows. The top speaker has to be looking at my head, so I can keep the high end under control. As I play in a band that borders on country music, I have my cleans set on very clean with some sparkly high ends going on, so I sit on that verge of being shrill if I am not careful. I am so paranoid about this that I often hold my nose and blow down it to pop my ears out to ensure I am hearing all the highs properly… Something Mrs Wilding finds most amusing!
My current live speaker set up... vertically aligned so I can hear what I am doing... I don't play shoegaze, I promise...
Well, that’s the story part of the piece out of the way – what about the facts that support it, because we all like the sciencey facts part, right?
Speakers, and the frequencies that they protect vary in directionality. The higher the note, the more directional your sound will be projected. Here’s a little test… play a low E note and then one as high as you can straight after. Do that stood to the side of your amp, then at a 45 degree angle, and then right in front (also do this crouched down if your amp is on the floor). You’ll notice that the low-end notes sound pretty identical in all three but the higher notes will sound much duller when you are at the side.
Most guitar amp speakers are 12” and they demonstrate ‘beaming’ at about 1335hz – that is the frequency they become immensely directional. So, everything below that will feel a lot more omnidirectional. To put this in real guitary terms, a tubescreamer has a hump that is most prominent at 732hz and that’s considered to be a mid-range bump - upper mids is generally thought to be between 1khz and 2khz so everything above the midpoint of your upper mids is being protected in a strict direction. Now, think about standing on a stage with your amp on the floor about 5’ behind you. There is an enormous chance you are not actually hearing the high end of your amp properly, so your tone will be brighter than you think.. chances are you compensate for this by increasing the treble control on your amp/pedals. Now think about all those people who are standing on the floor about 15’ in front of you. Yep, it’s your high end that’s actually hurting them and ruining their night!
There are several companies that try to put a stop to this happening, most noticeably the Deefleex, it provides a deflection panel that sends your upper frequencies up to your ears - this is great - but in order to work properly they stick out quite a bit from your amp, so unless you are playing on a bigger stage, you just can’t use it as it will get in the way... if you don’t have that problem though, this simple solution could make a world of difference to your understanding of how you, and your audience, hears your tone.
While we are talking of speaker cabs, here’s another thing to consider… how you have your cab laying. If you are using a 1x12” cab, the sound will spread out evenly in all directions (this isn’t strictly true, but for the sake of this piece let’s keep it simple), but if you are using a 2x12” cab it will react quite differently. If you have the speakers in your cab aligned horizontally, you will get a bigger spread ‘up and down’ than if you put them vertically which will spread the sound wider. This is why I have my cab elevated off the ground and vertical, so the cab will spread more to the sides that it does up. If I had to put my cab any lower I would put it so the speakers are horizontally aligned, so the sound goes up more. For me, in a band that plays smaller venues, the dispersal of the sound to the sides is WAY more important because there won’t be enough room for a horizontally aligned cab to fill the room with sound. And there’s no point in taking all this gear to a gig if only a few people directly in front of me can hear it, right?