Brent Mason - Musicians Hall of Fame

I had a weird sense of pride wash over me last week – seeing Brent Mason inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame (with the rest of the Nashville Players – John Hobbs, Eddie Bayes Jr, Michael Rhodes and Paul Franklin) was literally a moment of “About bloody time people, what took you so long?”

You see, not only am I ferocious fan of the man’s playing, but also of the man himself and I personally have a lot to thank him for – so, seeing this recognition hit me right in the feels. 

To cut a VERY long story short I owe my work with Brian over the last 10 years, in part, to Brent. It was Brent that Brian spoke to when he was scoping me out about redoing the company website in 2009. I had previously stalked Brent into submission on MySpace and the erupting platform of Facebook and I started one of the first ever Facebook fan pages for Brent in 2007 (so, as my brother would say, you make your own luck). I contacted Brent via MySpace and, from that moment on, both Brent and Julie were very helpful and provided me with loads of material…  When Wampler was exploding around that time, Brian spoke to Brent about me, Brent said “Yeah, he’s OK” or something and that was that. Here I am, 10 years later, with about 30 pedal releases under my belt writing about Brent Mason.

All in all, over the last 12 or so years, I’ve got to know Brent and Julie really quite well – OK, so I’m not going to do that social media thing and declare that he’s my best friend and all that crap, but you know, over the years he’s proved himself as being a fine human, who just happens to plays the guitar inhumanly well. 

First of all, let’s consider his career as a session musician, best guess right now is that he has appeared on about 1800 albums, in 2019 was inducted to the Musician’s Hall of Fame, in 2011 he was inducted to the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame, Grammy winner: 2009, CMA Musician Of The Year: 1997 & 1998, Nashville Guitarist Of The Year: 1995, ACM Guitarist Of The Year: 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2009 and Music Row Session Guitarist Of The Year: 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2010.

I first heard Brent in early 1998; playing wise I was stuck in a rut, and then I heard the album ‘Hot Wired’ which totally relit my fire for playing. It’s weird when I think about it, the five things I can remember with utmost clarity in my 46 years of walking this earth are Princess Diana dying, the moment I laid eyes on my wife, the birth of both of my children and hearing Brent that first time. So, as you can see, for me he’s quite the monumental player.

Over here in the UK country music isn’t very popular, it’s slowly growing, but it’s still pretty much classed as an ‘underground’ scene. We have no country radio stations and it was only recently that we got a country music station on satellite TV. It’s quite funny as we sometimes have it on in the background and I often play the game of “Yep, that’s Brent” when a track comes on. It makes me laugh and still surprises me to this day that he’s played on so much stuff. It is rare to hear more than 5 songs in a row before my ears prick up and I think “there he is”.

Most of all, I’d like to pay tribute to, not only the player, but to the man himself. Over the years we have talked a lot, I’ve done a lot of social media stuff for him and we’ve continued with the Hot Wired pedal (he sent me one in 2009 which was my first Wampler). As a thank you for all the work I did for the original fan page and website, he gave me one of the first PRS signature Brent Mason guitars that came off the production line in 2013 (it remains my #1 to this day) it landed right before my 40th birthday, which was amazing. However, nothing beats the video he sent me on that day in which he sang and played ‘Happy Birthday To You’ in the style of Jerry Reed, which remains the most treasured gift that I have ever received… This was made all the more special as, when I first started talking to him all those years ago (I was being a nuisance and asking about his influences) he said to me “You have to listen to Jerry Reed, and listen properly, you just have to”.  Quite often Julie will email to catch up, or my wife will email her, one day I was rehearsing with the singer of the band I am in and I was having trouble getting my fingers around the solo (a Brent solo) so, as I was sat there, Lisa emailed Julie. Within 5 minutes she had spoken to Brent about it and there, in her inbox, was a pointer as to where I was going wrong with it…. And there was the time he gave me a one on one lesson over Skype to refine my country playing… I could go on for ever, but I don’t need to. He’s just a wonderful human being.

What can we say about Brent’s playing that hasn’t been said before, nothing really. All that is left for me to say is here are what I consider to be his finest moments, but this is purely a subjective list, and I would hope that yours is somewhat different to mine.

 

"Blowin’ Smoke" – the riff that floored me when I first heard it that introduced me to Brent

 

I Don’t Even Know Your Name”, Alan Jackson – are these the finest improvised country solos ever recorded?

 

When”, Shania Twain – one of those solos that makes you sit up and say “wut???”

 

"Nothing' To It" My favourite Brent lick of all time is in here, 1:35... blows me away

 

First Rule Of Thumb” - showing his love and appreciation of, and being inspired by, Jerry Reed.

 

Smokin’ Section” – Brent writing the stuff he truly loves

 

Don’t Try This At Home” – it’s called that for a reason, to all of us shredders who use high gain, this is how it's done!

 

Congratulations Brent, never has an award been more deserved. 

 

Humbuckers - split coil and coil tap

Way back when… and I mean way back when, I was working in a guitar shop and it was right about the time that the concept of the Superstrat REALLY took off. It was the early 90’s and affordable guitars that allegedly bridged the gap between a Strat and a Les Paul were just about everywhere.

Every month I opened up Guitarist magazine be treated to the latest advert from companies like Washburn, Jackson, Ibanez, Charvel and countless others stating that the perfect gigging guitar was available to you. People wanted the power and the balls of a Les Paul (remember, this was before high gain amps were readily available, so you had to push a tube amp to get it to clip in that perfect way) and they also wanted the option to get that bitey, cutting through tone of a Strat/Tele.

Every advert contained the words of either “Coil Tap” or “Split Coil” Humbuckers to give you the best of both worlds. The trouble is, none of them were ever convincing, they always did the HB sounds well, but the SC tones were always kinda meh.

One of the things that became evident to me is that those two features became a solid marketing point for guitars, and guitarists appeared to buy into it without ever really knowing what makes a Humbucker sound the way it does, or why a single coil sounds the way it does, and why it’s virtually impossible for any player to get the sound of both convincingly from their guitars. In fact, there are SO many issues involved in this that I think I can safely say it’s not virtually impossible, it is impossible.

Let’s look at what makes these things react the way they do.

Humbucker pickups.
This is not a one size fits all description and all the names associated with them are used interchangeably. I won’t go into that, but instead we shall concentrate on the pickup developed by Seth Lover, for Gibson, called the PAF. PAF means “patent applied for” and now appears to be one of the generic names for a HB pickup, the irony of that is delicious!  Now, a PAF style pickup has two magnets (sitting with opposite polarity) that are wound individually. As the coils were of opposite polarity it cancelled out the hum, it bucked it completely, therefor giving the name we enjoy today. The generic Humbucker.

Split Coil.
This is probably the most common of all the switching types, using a four wire system from the pickup, the switch completely turns off one of the coils therefor giving you a ‘single coil’. This, in theory, appears to be a ‘pick yourself up and dust yourself down Son, job done” moment but as we all know, the first thing that happens is that you get a drastic drop in level (as well as the return of the hum) and it always sounds kinda disappointing. 

Coil Tap.
This does not just apply to HB style pickups, it can apply to single coil as well. Basically, what this does is offer an alternate ‘out’ point from the winding, cutting out some of the coil therefor reducing the power coming out of the pickup – because the more winds a pickup has, the higher the output it has. This, in practice, and rather obviously, only serves to reduce the output of the pickup and doesn’t offer any effective change tonally.

The best way to distinguish these two is like this.

Coil Split - Removing 'one half' of a double pickup.
Coil Tap – Reducing the output of a pickup. 

The real issue when thinking about these, for me, is that I was completely hooked by the concept of “Yay, I can have a strat and a Les Paul, all I have to do is flick a switch” and all I was left with each time was a feeling of disappointment. Even today, my main gig guitar is a PRS Brent Mason signature that has the ability to tap each HB independently. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a really convincing SC sound out of a HB sized pickup, amazingly, there is no level drop between the two either, the SC is just a ‘loud’ as the HB. I don’t know how they did this, but I like it. However, when I pick up a Strat or a tele that little bit of spank you get from a great SC guitar is just that little bit more prominent, that extra little something that is worth it’s weight in gold.

The most important thing to remember is that tele and Strat pickups are NOT the same. A tele pickup is generally bigger, allow for more winds around a wider coil that a Strat. This increases the output and because the pickup is general mounted on a plate (often brass), giving the whole thing more output, or as I like to call it, balls. This will come from all of the above also gives it a little more high and a little more low end (partly because the pick up is at a slightly more severe angle), so when running into a decent tube amp, it’ll clip quicker giving it the reputation of being a more powerful system. So, any guitar advert that tries to tell you it can do humbucker, and sound like a Strat and a tele is really making an outrageous statement that it probably can’t live up to. Because not only are the pickups are constructed differently enough to cause tonal differences, you then have to take into consider that the neck pickup on a tele is completely different again from the bridge which is then completely different from a neck pickup on a Strat… then you go into the wood within the guitars, the amount of wood, the bridge style and you get more and more distinctions.

Can a guitar ever truly sound like a Les Paul, a Strat and a Telecaster just by flicking a switch?

 

 

10,000 hours of practice to become an expert?

 

My youngest daughter is 13, and unlike many 13 years ago she still subjects us to a constant barrage of irrelevant questions, kind of like when she was only 5.

Most of the time this is delightful as her questions can be about absolutely anything, some of them are infuriatingly irrelevant (“What do you think the cat’s favourite colour is? I think it’s yellow, what do you think?”) to ones you have no idea how to answer “who invented the spoon?” and some that quite often cause discussion and debate in the house… for example “Who’s idea was Brexit?”. And then there are the ones that utterly destroy my day… On Saturday I was in full flow with a good friend talking about the finer points of David Gilmour’s and Pink Floyd’s music (I was playing the guitar and he was on Piano), having a lovely time discussing Michael Kaman’s addition of the sus2 in place of the minor 3rd in the root under the second solo of Comfortably Numb, we have since discovered is most prominent in the live versions within “Pulse” and “Delicate Sound Of Thunder”, but that’s another story) when she destroyed my day with a simple “How many hours do you think you’ve played the guitar, Dad?”

This stopped me dead in my tracks as I’d never thought about it before. So, I reached for my phone and broke open the calculator. I started playing when I was about 8 or 9 and I’m now 46 (ouch), so that means I’ve been playing for about 37 years. Bloody hell, look at that number. That’s ridiculous. I took into consideration that as a kid I played all the time, I worked in a guitar shop for 6 years, played in many bands up to 4-5 nights a week and also the 10 year period of when I went to University which immediately preceded getting married and starting a family (in which I barely played at all) and up to the work I do for Wampler, we estimated that I was, on average, playing around 5.5 hours per week…. Which, if I am being honest, is a little on the low side. Based on the basic formula this means (at minimum) I’ve played the guitar for 10,582 hours in my life (5.5 x 52 x 36).

I was initially really impressed with this, felt like I’d reached some kind of personal milestone I previously wasn’t aware of until, until my Piano playing friend Dave (who is somewhat of an academic and has a PhD in music composition) said “You’re an expert then!”. Obviously, my self-deprecation instinct took over and I laughed and said something along the lines, bit in a much more coarse fashion, of “Go away” to much laughter… and he said “Seriously, there’s been a study saying that if you practice something for 10,000 hours, you can be classed as an expert”. I was horrified by this, as although I am comfortable with my playing I’ve met FAR too many players who could legitimately be called an expert to consider myself to be in that category… So, once again, the phone was reached for and I googled “10,000 hours expert” and the first thing that came up was Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book “Outliers” that says “the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours”.

I was delighted by this as I was 100% of the hook. Purely because of the section of that sentence that says “a matter of practicing the correct way”… If I think about it, and be honest, my “a matter of practicing the correct way” runs at about 10 hours maximum over those 36 years. I’ve never practiced despite regularly receiving ‘the look’ from Tom Quayle when he’s asked me what I am working on right now, because I simply just don’t practice. I work out songs and then I play them. Sometimes, if the song is a bugger to play (for example, we’ve started to do Brad Paisley’s Nervous Breakdown with the band and it’s taking some time to get up to speed and work out the solos), I will work on it to get the speed and accuracy up, but I’ve never practiced properly. Never thought “I need to think about that properly and practice” or anything, I just get it (eventually) and then move on to the next challenge. 

That delight of being off the hook lasted for about 10 minutes until I started to think about this properly, again. Have I wasted 36 years of my life playing the guitar and NOT actually practicing properly? If I had practiced in a structured way would I be the guitarist I want to be? Can I be arsed to practice? Am I too old? Is that why I play the guitar?

In order to think about this, I need to remember why I play the guitar in the first place. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play along with my favourite songs. I was lucky enough to be born with fast fingers so it seemed that once I got my head round playing the guitar I could easily play the music I was into at the time… Iron Maiden, AC/DC, etc. and when Satriani hit I would pretty well be able to play most of it straight away but had to do quite a lot of work on the Vai stuff, as his writing tends to be a little more lateral in construction and his lines simply didn’t make sense, but I could get there quick enough not to worry about it and I could pass myself off as being able to play it, providing people didn’t listen hard enough… This was good enough for me, at the time. This kinda changed when I discovered Brent Mason and proper country picking, as I had to do some work, but that was basically repetition and rethinking the physicality, not practice. To this day, I’ve only ever had about 4 official lessons in my life (because I wanted to be that cool guy who could say “I don’t take lessons, all this is me”… yeah, I was a dick) and since I’ve grown up I’ve never had the money or the time to change that attitude.

This is all going to change now, I want to play like the person who has put in as many hours as I have. So, this week, I’ve had a proper guitar lesson with my current favourite player and we talked about chord construction and playing according to intervals instead of scales and boxes… I doubt I’ll keep to a practice regime, but I’m going to give it the best shot I can!

 

 

Music Education in schools and the problem with ‘The Arts Last’

Today we give the blog over to my current favourite guitar playing walking the earth, and long time Wampler artist (he performed at the Wampler NAMM booth this last January), Mr Jack Gardiner. Jack's musical life was transformed when he took his first lesson with Tom Quayle aged 16 and has progressed to be one of the most exciting players performing today, and I'll say it again, my current favourite player... the tone, the notes, the phrasing, the versatility... you can check out his YouTube channel here. Jack is a session guitarist, touring artist and teacher based in Liverpool (UK) and Switzerland, has toured with countless amazing artists such as Stu Hamm (you can read Stu's impressions of Jack here) and taught at clinics with players such as Guthrie Govan.... Anyway, enough of my waffle, here's Jack!


I’ll never forget my first day teaching in a Secondary School (High School for my friends across the pond). Me being 20 years old - not much older than the students I was about to teach was a slightly daunting prospect. Knowing the area I was about to teach in and the reputation of the school that Steven Gerrard (Liverpool Football Club legend) studied at, had me ready for the typical ‘Scouse’ (Liverpudlian native) humour/insults that could be thrown my way, being a bearded, long haired, wizard-looking guitarist. Not a common look for suburban Liverpool to say the least.  

As I was walked to my white-washed, no window room I was given a list of all the students I’d be taking for the following 6 hours. The Head of Music warned me that there was one student in particular who had some slight anger management issues, but wouldn’t tell me which one it was. ‘You’ll know when you meet him’ was her response. So I go about my day, which for the most part was pretty pleasant, when I get a knock on the door – my last pupil of the day. I introduce myself explaining how I’m the new guitar teacher and ask the boy, (we’ll call him Josh), ‘How’re you doing?’, to which he replies ‘F*****g s**t’. Ah… Here he is. Now the thing is, Josh was in Year 8 at the time (12-13) and I soon discovered that he was really getting into heavy-metal music. Delighted at the prospect, I introduced him to some of the heavier music I was listening to such as Animals as Leaders, Periphery, Lamb of God etc. He soon realized that with practice, he could actually start playing some of this stuff. By the time he was in Year 11 and taking his GCSE’s (16 years old), the difference in him as a person was huge. It was hard to recognize this polite, humble young lad, when compared to my final pupil I had on my first day. Now Josh ended up coming away with really good GCSE results – especially in Music, but when it came to him entering 6th Form, he hadn’t picked Music for his A-Levels. I was shocked that he hadn’t to be honest, but upon asking him, he told me that he didn’t think there was any future or job to be had and that his parents thought it was more important to focus on ‘real’ subjects. I was gutted, but at least I thought he could continue his one-to-one lessons with me at least – something he was very keen on. That’s when I noticed that he wasn’t on my list of pupils at the start of the new academic year and this is where the issues begin.

Most Secondary Schools in the U.K. will either part subsidise, or charge the pupil’s parents the full amount in order to pay peripatetic teachers. The reason being for this is that over the years, successive UK Governments have continually slashed budgets for Music and the Arts in the name of austerity. When I was 9 years old, growing up in Anfield (home of Liverpool Football Club/one of the most deprived areas in the country), my local Primary School had music teachers that were sent from Liverpool Music Support Service (now called Resonate) who provided free musical instruments and lessons, fully funded by the Arts Council. That meant free music lessons and an instrument to practice at home for those that really wanted to do it! With the background I’m from, it would have been a nightmare financially for my parents to pay for lessons and an instrument privately. Especially not knowing whether it’s something that I’d actually be interested in enough to take seriously.

The lucky thing about the current Secondary School I’m teaching in, is that they actually pay all peripatetic teachers at their own hourly rate, out of the schools own budget. This means that pupil’s parents don’t have to contribute anything towards lessons. Essentially, it’s a free 20-minute guitar lesson a week aimed at pupils who are showing promise/looking to take GCSE Music. Now going back to Josh, for him not to pick A-Level means that he’s taking a lesson slot that could potentially go to a new pupil looking to take GCSE Music. His name falls down the list. This brings me onto my next point…

I posted recently on Facebook about how a pupil of mine who showed promise in his playing had came to me at the beginning of term telling me how his parents had requested to change his lesson slot. Now according to his parents, his guitar lesson could not be taking part during his Math’s lesson. Bare in mind that a Math’s lesson is 1 Hour long, 3-4 times a week. A guitar lesson is 20 minutes long, once a week. A study published in 2007 by Christopher Johnson, professor of music education and music therapy at the University of Kansas, revealed that ‘students in elementary schools with superior music education programs scored around 22 percent higher in English and 20 percent higher in math scores on standardized tests, compared to schools with low-quality music programs’… Regardless, the Head of Music and I desperately tried to find a new time slot for him, without moving other pupils into core subjects for fear of the same thing happening to them. Week two of term comes along and the young pupil comes to me to tell me his parent’s have told him he can’t be having his lesson in this new time slot as it’s in his ‘History Lesson’ which is a ‘proper subject’. I asked him then, which lessons have his parents’ deemed ‘non-proper lessons’ to which he replies ‘Art, Music or PE’. My heart broke and my blood began to boil. He’s now left with no guitar lessons and no prospect of taking GCSE Music. I’m not saying that this kid could have been the next revolutionary guitar player, but he at least showed talent and desire. I see this time and time again. If we go back to Josh, there is someone who was willing to take time out of ANY of his A-Level Subjects (arguably more important) to have one-to-one lessons but can’t because he’s not taking A-Level Music. Just recently I had the exact same situation with a seriously talented 17-year-old, who can’t afford private lessons outside of school. No A-Level/GCSE Music, no lessons.

Growing up in Anfield was a rough experience. I remember coming home from school one evening to see a guy injecting (what I can safely assume by his demenour and appearance to be drugs) at the bus stop in broad daylight. I was verbally abused aged 12 coming home from school by a woman who told me to ‘get your f******g hair cut you scumbag’ in front of my father. A SUV flipped over on our driveway one evening, before two men jumped out and stabbed the guy they were chasing on foot at the side of our house. The boy who I grew up with playing football over the other side of the street recently died in what seemed to be gang-related crime. Crime was and is everywhere. I’m not saying that I would ever be involved in any of this if I were not doing music (as my parents would’ve killed me), but it did provide a whole host of other opportunities, a distraction from what was around me, everywhere around me. The kids I was introduced to via Tuesday night and Saturday morning music schools (funded by Liverpool Music Support Service) were from all sorts of backgrounds. I met some of my long-term best friends there, most who are actively involved in the Music Industry these days. I discovered all kinds of different bands/musicians. All of these factors contributed to me becoming the person/player I am today. All thanks to free music education. 

My point is, when funding is constantly being cutting, labeling a subject as ‘improper’ and forcing the kids to think about their future ‘real’ job at the age of 12, they could be closing a whole host of doors for them in the future. They don’t realize how;

  1. They’re taking away an opportunity from someone else who WANTS to do Music Lessons
  2. They’re taking away an opportunity for your child to make new friends and build relationships, develop cognitive skills; improve listening skills, etc. etc.
  3. Falsely labeling a subject as ‘improper’ is dangerous. It demeans and under values the whole world surrounding it – how many memories do we all have that are cornerstones because of the music of the moment – is that improper?

Please, everyone...not only must we not under value the emotional benefits of learning and making music, but also the academic value and benefits!

- Jack Gardiner, 2019.

 

Here is Jack giving his brand new Strandberg* it's first play, total improvisation! - feel free to hit me up if you need an interpreter to deal with his strong Liverpool accent!! 

 

 

How fast do guitar pedals drain batteries?

 

One of the things I hear the most, and it’s literally almost a daily occurrence, is “why does this pedal eat batteries so much?” or something similar… 

Here’s the starting point, in my opinion of course… what we should all remember when thinking about guitar pedals is that, with the current scope of power supplies available to us, from the dirt cheap (ba doom tish) to the really expensive, there is really no real need to still use them… It would appear, on a global scale, we don’t appear to have any kind of system for disposing of used single life batteries right now, although local recycling is present in a lot of the Western World. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s probably best to try to avoid dumping them in the trash, or maybe we should be walking away from them as much as possible.

Now, before you say it, I will… “But Eric Johnson says…” let’s face it, we are not Eric Johnson… I consider myself to have a pretty good ear for stuff, and I truly cannot tell the difference between a fresh battery, of any kind, and a decent power supply (providing the same amount of power). Obviously, when a battery starts to die, it tends to make certain effects sound slightly different. But the power supply people have already thought of this and many now have variable amounts of output to emulate and reproduce the symptoms of a dying battery, but consistently.

Another thing we hear a lot, a sub question to the original, is “why do pedals appear to drain batteries so much quicker than they used to” well, the answer to that is simple, pedals tend to be considerably more complicated than they used to. Back in the good ol’ days you have a buffered bypass, volume, gain and tone. These days you often have relay switching bypass, 3 band EQ’s, multiple gain stages and so on therefor the simple equation is “the more stuff it has in it, the more it’s gonna drain your battery”.

With a pedal like the Tumnus, and other K styles (if the pedal is done properly) there will be some serious power shenanigans happening inside, it’s taking your 9v and bringing it up to about 25v. So that makes the pedal considerably more thirsty than if it was just taking the 9v… when you look at the Tumnus Deluxe you have the power coming up to about 25v, 3 band EQ, relay based switching, extra gain… so, that’s why it’s rated at 70mA draw which will chew up a regular battery in no time.

Keeping with the Tumnus Deluxe, if you are using a regular Duracell battery, or even an Energizer, they are rated at about 310 mAh (milliamps per hour). So, if you were to put one in a Tumnus Deluxe, it will start to feel the effects of the draw within a couple of hours. If you are lucky, it will drop below the 9v required and start to flash at you before that point, so I would very much doubt you’d get a gig out of a standard 9v battery. An Energizer MAX is rated higher than the Duracell, so you might get 30-45 minutes longer. Still not enough, I would say, to warrant the cost of a single use battery.

There is a simple equation to work out how long your battery will last, it’s not exact as it’s averaged down from the strict parameters…

Battery Life = Battery Capacity in mAh / Load Current in mA x 0.70

So, if your pedal takes 70mA, your battery is classed as 300maH, it will give you about 3 hours of power. At approaching $3 a piece, a power supply will very soon pay for itself and you won’t have to worry about it dying on you mid epic solo!

One thing to remember, if you use a single use battery, and it gets thrown straight into the bin and not recycled, the following heavy metals are within most batteries… Lead, copper, Cadmium, Lithium, Mercury, Zinc, Manganese, Potassium etc… so, we don’t want tons and tons of that stuff being thrown away, it’s not good for us when it breaks down and enters into the water system.

A decent power supply, you know it makes sense!

60 years of pop music and the charts

Quite often you see a thread on social media about how much poop modern music is, especially in ‘the charts’… Granted, the charts as we remember them (if you are as old as me) are gone, with streaming, YouTube and everything else, it doesn’t represent how music is consumed these days – long gone are the days of saving up and going into town on a Saturday to buy a Single, or listening to the latest chart update on radio etc, but the US Billboard charts now does take into consideration modern ways of consuming music, so theoretically, it’s still the same thing in terms of consumption, just calculated differently.

Music these days is ‘ranked’ for the charts the old fashioned way, by good ol’ fashioned sales, but also streams… Paid streams from the subscriptions platforms are now put in alongside radio air play… to quote Billboard themselves…

Billboard will have multiple weighted tiers of streaming plays for the Hot 100, which take into account paid subscription streams (representing a full point value per play), ad-supported streams (representing a 2/3-point value per play) and programmed streams (representing a 1/2-point value per play). Those values are then applied to the chart’s formula alongside all-genre radio airplay and digital song sales data. Streaming remains the most dominant factor on the chart, followed by radio airplay and digital sales in descending order of significance. 

So, does music suck these days, or has it that the way we consume it changed so much it just doesn’t happen like we remember it? If you think for a minute that popular music, as we know it, started to explode in the mid 50’s, reached epic levels in the 60’s and then grew from there, everything has changed. Popular music has always been, generally, the domain of the younger audience so right now, the younger audience that was there at the start is now the older generation, and they still listen to the music they listened to back then, as well as modern music. The previous generation that classed Rock and Roll, pop music, and all that as being ‘unsuitable’ are now gone… so, popular music has expanded geometrically in that times, especially the genres. In the 50’s (and this is off the top of my head and not meant to be exhaustive) you had rock and roll, doo-wop, pop, swing, rhythm and blues, blues, Country music, rockabilly, and jazz… 60’s bought a new level to all that including original R&B, British invasion, Surf and Psychedelic, Folk and Protest… the 70’s gave us Heavier Rock, Prog Rock, Southern Rock, Punk, Disco, Funk… the 80’s brought about Electro and the more modern side of Dance, Ska, New Romantics, Gangsta Rap, Thrash… the 90’s saw Grunge, BritPop, Boy and Girl Bands, Modern R&B, Dance music split up into so many sub genre’s etc etc… That’s the key, music has massively diversified over the last 70 years, but we are still judging everything on the same format… and generally, as we get older, we tend to be retrospective about our music habits. With the world’s population (from 4B in 1960 to 7B now) growing and ageing, music has been spread so thin, it’s impossible to classify music these days as ‘sucking’, it’s just different.

However, let’s look at the US charts for this week over the last 60 years. And then you can make your own mind up…

 

For those who can’t zoom in, here is the top 5 breakdown

1959

#1


2: Sleep Walk, Santo and Johhny. 3: Sea of Love, Phil Phillips and the Twilights. 4: I'm Gonna Get Married, Lloyd Price. 5: Red River Rock, Johnny And The Hurricanes. 

1969

#1
 

2: A Boy Named Sue, Johnny Cash. 3: Sugar, Sugar. The Archies. 4: Green River, Creedence Clearwater Revival. 5: Get Together, The Youngbloods.  

1979

 #1

2: Good Times, Chic. 3: After The Love Has Gone. Earth, Wind & Fire. 4: Don't Bring Me Down, Electric Light Orchestra. 5: The Devil Went Down To Georgia. The Charlie Daniels Band

1989

#1

2: Cold Hearted. Paula Abdul. 3: Don't Wanna Lose You. Gloria Estefan. 4: Heaven, Warrant. 5: Right Here Waiting. Richard Marx

1999

#1


2: Unpretty, TLC. 3: Summer Girls. LFO. 4: Genie In A Bottle, Christina Aguilera. 5: Lost In You. Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines

2009

#1

2: Down. Jay Sean Featuring Lil Wayne. 3: Party In The U.S.A. Miley Cyrus. 4: Use Somebody. Kings Of Leon. 5: You Belong With Me. Taylor Swift

2019

#1

2: Senorita, Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello. 3: Bad Guy, Billie Eilish. 4: You Need To Calm Down, Taylor Swift. 5: Old Town Road. Lil Nas X Featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.

 

Now, let’s look at it again. You know what, although a lot of the bands/songs in the top ten this week decades ago have some amazing songs, can you remember all of them? There are some there that I’d not forgotten, just never heard of… and also an awful lot of utter crap in there as well (in my opinion).

So, does modern music suck, no it doesn’t. I think a lot of us just looking back fondly and love what we grew up with and let’s be honest, a lot of music has been, you know, sucky since day 1!


Signal Chain - Reverb into delay, delay into reverb, or something else?


Which order do you put your delay and reverb pedals? For years and years I was a firm subscriber to the most common way of delay into reverb… once I had started to play in LogicX, you know - just messing around, I was surprised at how different, albeit quite subtly, the order of these two effects can make the final ‘product’. When I’m in full gig mode, and I’m guessing this is the same with you, it’s not really something I think about too much, but in recent times I’ve been running them parallel and really started to notice how cleaner and clearer everything is. Which is quite an achievement when you consider what a noisy bugger the drummer is.

I’m going to approach this quite scientifically, with the exact same guitar line running through the various options… the line is only 36 seconds long, it’s not a song – just some ‘stuff’ with some intentional stabby bits in so you can hear what is happening. I suspect you might get bored of the same line by the time you’ve got to the last example, but stick with it, as it’s the end one that really highlights how important this is.

First of all, here is my clean tone (is that copyright Andy Martin yet??). To make this simple for myself I used the Helix Native plug-in set on a fairly standard clean Deluxe style model running through a 2x12”. All you are hearing is my PRS Brent Mason, single coil mode, pickup position 4, straight in. There is a fraction of compression up front (and of course whatever YouTube applies at the end…), I’ve recorded it at 41k, .wav and crunched it out at 1080p in the hope that the sound is as clear as possible. I would definitely recommend listening to this under headphones or through a decent set of speakers, as your phone speakers will mush it up further. 

The compression, amp, delay and reverb settings are unchanged in any of the examples – they are the same throughout.




Here is the delay line. As you can hear, it’s a modulated delay with a few repeats, nothing startling, but it’s intentionally quite overbearing.



Here is the reverb line. It’s quite a large ambient thing, definitely not something I would usually use, but I needed something large!


 Here is the delay into the reverb. As you can hear, the reverb sounds bigger as it’s also reverberating the delay repeats as well, this is where things start to get kinda mushy if you really listen to it. – the reverb feels like it is starting to take over, and the end result is that the whole ambient reverb side is overpowering the main playing line.


Here is the reverb into the delay. To my ears, the delay has lost a little edge and is further back in the mix. It sounds more ambient and bigger as the reverb is also taking the delay lines and reverberating them. The modulation on the delay is falling over itself in places… it’s kinda cool, and a little trippy, but it’s even further lost in terms of the original piece of playing.

Here is final one. As you can see from the signal chain path on the video, the delay and reverb are running parallel to each other so they are not feeding into each other in any way. The feel of separation is clear and everything rings out the way it does in the separate videos. Now, this is easy on the Helix as you can drag a separate path for each, but these days there are a lot of products out there that allow you to separate them and, run in parallel, and then put them back together afterwards, for example the EHX Tri-Parallel mixer and the EQD Swiss Thing. Personally, I particularly like the WetterBox from the GigRig for this… it has the options and features to make sure your signal path is flawless.


If you would like to hear it all again, running one after the other, here is a longer video with them all back to back! I’ve put the Parallel one in the middle of this, because it I wanted you to listen again with (what I think is the) best way before it gets mushy.

Like I said, it’s subtle when using normal delay and reverb style (normal for me anyway), but I’ve tried to use delay and reverb sounds that will show the difference it would make in the real world, even if these aren’t the kind of delays and reverbs you would normally use, you can hear what a difference it makes how you stack them – remember though, there is no right or wrong way to do this - you need to try it, explore it, see what works for you and then go in that direction, it might be that you use multiples ways of doing it within your playing!


 

 

 

Stainless Steel frets - pros and cons

Well, I had my first EVER refret last week. I’ve never really cared enough about a guitar to get it done… well, either that or I haven’t kept a guitar for long enough and played it hard enough to even think about it. Or maybe, in the case of my favourite PRS, the frets have never been so darn weak as these are… were.

When you hear PRS talk about his guitars, all he cares about is the tone they produce. Everything is picked according to their place in the tonal spectrum… I’m all for that as my guitar is the most lively I’ve ever heard (unplugged as well as plugged in), but it would appear that in part of this trade off, the fret wires they chose for the Brent Mason signature modal are about as strong as a soggy piece of paper.

It all started to go really wrong about 18 months ago when I noticed I was getting a ‘sitar’ effect from my open D string, then about 9 months later it also started to happen on the open A string. Not only were the frets weak (I was at this point worried about the wear on them), it would appear that the nut was as well. So, I made do like a proper Englishman and stuck a small piece of cardboard under the strings in the nut. This not only meant my tuning stability went out the window, but also, some of the attack and brightness I love about my guitar went as well. Once this had become completely out of control I thought “Sod it, I’m going to have to get this fixed.” 


Cardboard under the strings to stop 'sitaring"

I contacted an excellent luthier who lives some distance from me, and discussed it with him, told him about the nut and showed him this photo of my current fret wear. We arranged for the long ol’ trip to his workshop, so I put my beloved guitar in the car (as I knew I had a week without gigs) and drove it up to him, which was about 150 miles away. As we discussed the work that needed doing, we came to the conclusion that I needed a shim under the nut (as it would appear the nut wasn’t cut correctly in the first place) and a total refret… I decided to go all in and get stainless steel. The PRS BM model ships with PRS’ version of 6100 jumbo frets, which have always been a little high for me, so I took the leap of faith and went down to the slightly lower 6150s.


6 years of fret wear

The only guitar I’d ever really spent any time on with SS frets was Tom Quayle’s signature Ibanez and I liked the attack of them, the slight zing they provide and maybe some brightness… maybe. So, I thought “why not”. At this point, I put the question out on our FB group “Stainless Steel frets, pros and cons” and quickly got a thread full of “My Suhr has them, they are amazing” and so on, so I was confident I had made the right choice!

When my guitar arrived back with me, I had 1 day to familiarise myself with it before I was due to play an all-day gig. But, as work is mental busy right now, I literally only had the time to make sure the neck was good, all the notes sung out and I could still do some of the ridiculous bends I like to show off with (I bend up to a 4th). Once I had this clear in my mind, my guitar went back in the case and the first time I properly played it was at the gig. I know, crazy, right?

The first thing you notice is that they are SO smooth it’s like there’s almost nothing there, it feels like there is hardly any resistance between your strings and the frets, so bending is MUCH easier. The first song in our set has no guitar solo in it, so I was feeling fine… when my first solo arrived in the second song, I totally over-bent the minor 3rd bend and it was hideous, but as I’ve been doing this for a ‘few’ years, I could quickly adapt and from there on in, my intonation was pretty much on point. I found that the bends were easier and took much less effort, but most surprisingly, vibrating the note at the top of the bend was considerably easier as well (my bent note vibrato isn’t great, so any help is appreciated).


Oh!!! Shiny new Stainless Steel frets for the win!

One of my biggest fears is that my string life is going to reduce somewhat, but it’s a minor worry as I am extremely picky about having new strings for each gig. I just can’t play live unless they are new and slinky to the feel and yes, that does mean I use Ernie Ball strings – after 30 odd years, they just feel right under my fingers. I’ve tried all the others, but always come back to EB regular slinky’s. As those strings are nickel wound, they aren’t the strongest strings on the planet, and going up against the SS frets I expect they won’t last as long… purely due to the fact that nickel frets against nickel strings means that the ‘damage’ caused by playing will be pretty well evenly split between the frets and strings. But, as these are now up against a much harder fret material, they will take the majority of wear and tear. However, every time I do break a string, it’s over the bridge or over the pickups (I tend to play hard when I’m really “in the zone” - lol at myself for saying that) and have never, according to my failing memory, broken a string over the fretboard, so time will tell if this will happen. 

Tonally, SS frets appear to make everything a little zingier, maybe a little brighter. Although, to be honest, I don’t know if that’s my head playing tricks on me. As they are bright, shiny and new, does it mean my brain is telling the tone is? To test this I recorded my guitar direct through my sound card, the same line I had recorded a week before (this is how I test effect plug ins) and the difference was negligible, maybe slightly more attack. I’m almost certain to the point of arrogance that once it was going through my pedals and amp, the sound coming out the speakers was not that different. I’ve seen a lot of talk online about the frets being brighter, but I’m not sure I can hear it that much, maybe a little, but certain nothing major. It’s more of an attack thing, and that’s more of a response issue than tonal, I think.

The tech who did the job used the phrase “You’ll never regret it, or have to refret it” which is reassuring as I play really hard when I’m in country mode and that tends to be a lot of what I am doing these days. So I am hopeful that the massive expensive I have laid out will be an investment for life. After spending a lot of the day playing this guitar at an all-day gig on Saturday, I’ve come to the following conclusion about SS frets. If you have a guitar you love and you want a refret, just get them done with the SS frets… it’s almost like your finger strength has been increased! 

PROS: considerably longer fret life, bends are much smoother, vibrato is much easier, more responsive to your attack, they never get dull.
CONS: string life (if you are using nickel strings) will be diminished, expensive.

Seems to be a no brainer really!

3 ways for you to make your band sound better


As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m what’s known as a ‘part time’ gigger, or a semi professional musician, or the type of person who sinks every spare penny into a hobby without any monies coming back in… pretty certain many of you can relate! I’ve been gigging now for about 30 years – including some time as a FOH sound engineer - within a variety of different styles of music. So, I thought I would take this moment to pass on some of the hard-earned knowledge I’ve picked up over the years and present it to you in a three-point checklist to make you sound better when you are playing live. I say hard-earned, because all of this was learned the hard way: by sounding pretty crappy before I sounded good (well, I hope I sound good, that’s what I tell myself anyway). 

  1. Understand your EQ and how it changes with the room and the people in it
    When we are sat at home, making our tones, or programming our tones, (or however we do it) we have to understand that the room we are in will sound and react differently to the one we end up playing in. It’s massively likely that this room is smaller, with a lower ceiling, with carpets and curtains, or softer chairs… basically, things that soak the sound up. When you go out into a gig situation, the room may well be different – in fact, I’d go out on a limb here and say that 99.9% of the time it will be the complete opposite. It’s likely to be MUCH bigger, with a higher ceiling and  fairly sparse in terms of softer material to soak the sound up. You get what are known as ‘hard reflections’ coming back at you, from the hard floor, the back wall, windows, absolutely everywhere. Remember, sound waves are not transverse waves like the pictures we see of a nice sine pattern, but a longitudinal wave (think of a worm squeezing itself together and stretching out to move forward, rather than a sidewinder snake wiggling it’s way), so the pressure from the speakers is pushing the air in front of it in a certain direction. As the bass wave is longer, it will push further and as bass is omnidirectional, it will go everywhere.

    This will result in three things happening. The low end of your tone will travel much further than the highs (this is why when you are outside somewhere with loud music, you hear the bass through the walls – those long waves are almost unstoppable) and the high end could sound very shrill, or sharp. This leaves you in a dichotomy, as it appears you won’t be able to win. You can win, definitely, but you have to play wisely.

    A lot of players set their amp EQ to be a nice smiley face, because at home, that’s what sounds best when you are jamming along with a record (do we still say record? Maybe track?) and there will be nowhere else for your sound to go. As soon as you take that tone into a live situation, you will notice that without a suitable amount of mid-range, your tone will mush in with the bass guitar and the top end will pierce the ears of all those who stand before you. If that big ol’ room you are playing in isn’t full to the rafters straight off with people standing/dancing right in front of you, your tone will be lost.

    When you do your soundcheck, or line check, or level check (which ever you do), try to remember the space you are occupying with your tone. The low end is not necessary, so you need to drop it somewhat from what you had at home. The mid-range needs to be there as that’s what people hear - the human ear is trained to hear the frequencies of the human voice, so balance it at the point where it sounds full, but not woolly. Be very careful with your high end, it needs to sit right there on the top of the mid-range, but not attack the people at the back of the room like a drunken ninja looking to test their new Katana blade. As the room fills up, you may well be able to add a little more top end to your tone, but it’s unlikely you will need to if you balance it properly in the first instance.
    Note – in a larger room, turn your reverb and delay levels down, they will just swamp your tone. 
  1. Watch your ‘gain’ levels – consider stacking rather than using a full-on dirt pedal
    When playing at home, it’s kinda hard to get that high-volume response from a gain pedal, or even a gainy amp, at lower sound levels. I fully expect there to be a mathematical or physics-based reasoning for that, but quite frankly there’s no need to go into it (translation – I don’t know). In order to make your guitar respond at lower volumes, you need to increase the ‘gain’ to replicate the feel. As you get louder (if you have even a slightly responsive amp), you will find that you can literally put your gain knob at almost halfway back to where you have it at home to get the same response… the same level of ‘alive’ under your fingers.

    If you like higher gain tones for your solos, it would definitely be worth considering two (or if you are silly like me, three – three is heavenly!) lower gain overdrives stacked up together to give you that tone, rather than a separate gain pedal for solos. This is a personal favourite of mine, the reasoning behind it is that your solo tones should ALWAYS be different from your rhythm tones (even the most foot stomping rock has surprisingly low gain in rhythm work) but at the same time, not too different unless the song calls for it, this is YOUR tone after all! The best way to achieve tonal stability in your sound is to take what you already have and add to it with an inherent EQ curve rather than a completely different tone. This is why TS pedals are so popular, as well as K style pedals. The midrange hump that they both provide don’t necessarily add a higher-level of gain to your signal, but boy does it feel like it. The power and response is increased beautifully… if you have a favourite pedal (for example, my current squeeze is the Plexi Drive Standard) and add a K style pedal with unity level, low gain and a higher level of treble/tone, your tone will fatten up and cut through. It’s like putting your amp on 6 instead of 4. If you put a TS with a similar setting between the two, your amp will sound and react like it is now on 8. Very little gain is being applied to the front end, but enough to make your end pedal, the one that creates your tone, ‘dirt up’ hugely… you’ll find that the harmonics and response within your playing will jump out at you as well.

  2. Play into the spaces, don’t fill every gap you can find
    In other words, learn when to shut up! This is the one that comes naturally to me as the first band I was in had two lead/rhythm guitar players, so everything was split pretty well 50/50 and we quickly became aware it sounded boring if we played the same thing. So, we used basic chord inversions to fill out the sound rather than duplicating. We also learned pretty quickly that, in order for the band to sound bigger, one of us had to stop playing at certain times. Because when the one who stopped came back in, the sound became huge. These days, the band I am in only has me on electric guitar, we do have an acoustic strummer type, but also quite often a keys or steel player sits in - and they exist in the same sonic space I do.

    When it’s just me, I often will play something to compliment the acoustic player as he just strums on regardless. So, I will use a different inversion of the chord, or an arpeggiated strum line thing at the start of the bar, or maybe a complimentary line with the bass player. When the song hits the chorus, I come in properly and the band sounds bigger. When playing alongside a keys or steel player, I tend to sit back even further, giving them the room to fill those spaces and they do the same so, when we are all in there, the sound (the ‘width’ of the band) increases dramatically.

    That phrase is the key to this – “leave the spaces clear”. Consider your band sound to be like taking a road trip in a car. If you have four people in the car it’s comfy and you all have the room to do what you want to do, if you put a fifth person in the car with you, space is limited so you all adjust to the situation. It’s the same with the band, as soon as someone is in there and occupying the same space as you are, you HAVE to adjust what you are doing, or it will feel very crowded very quickly.

    So, there are three small hints for you to take to your next gig, rehearsal, get together etc. Just remember, you don’t need all that gain, you probably don’t need all that low end and don’t be afraid to shut up now and then to increase the dynamics of the band you are in!!

 

Some sneaky geeky tips:

  1. When setting up your PA and the room is boxy, or you are on the stage, consider putting the PA speakers on the floor rather than the stage. Or if they are on the stage, try to get the top cabs slightly pointing downwards. If they are too far above the heads of the people who are in the audience, the sound will fly straight to the back wall and back towards you, and so your nightmare begins!
  2. Try to never put your PA speaker against a wall. If it is flush with a wall, the bass end from that speaker could be increased by up to 6db.
  3. If you put your amp on the floor and you not on a stage, your amp is playing to your legs and you’ll have to have it much louder for you to be heard. If the room is emptier than you’d prefer, by the time your sound hits the back of the room, you are likely to be considerably louder than the band.
  4. If you are using a 2x12” cab for your guitar, also consider bringing your cab up off the floor. The bass response from the floor makes a difference as per above, and if you have the cab up off the floor, you can lift your sound up away from people’s legs. Dependent on the room and whether or not I’m mic’d up, I sometimes have my 2x12” running horizontally as it fills my part of the stage up perfectly. If I am not mic’d up, I will run it vertically (with the best sounding speaker at the top) so the sound flies around the head height of people, as rumour has it that is the place where you hear stuff best!!
  5. Here’s something that may well blow your mind a little, where you place your P.A. bass bins and your top boxes could mean they are out of synch. If your top box is on a pole that sits in the bass bin, your sound will hit the audience at the same time. If your top box is on a tripod and the bass bin is sitting in front of it (so about a yard in front) your bass frequencies will hit your audience about 3ms before your top end. If your top box is on a tripod on the stage and the bass bins are on the floor in front of the stage (about 2 yards in front), the bass will hit the audience about 6ms before. It may not seem like much, but once you know this, you KNOW it!

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