I started playing guitar when I was 9 years-old, at Junior School
[Elementary School for those in the US]
learning basic chords during music class and
[a very small amount of]
classical guitar in individual lessons.
At age 11, though, I started playing Trumpet, and subsequently French Horn; after that, I never had a formal guitar lesson again. I never stopped learning though, teaching myself chords and lead over time – my teachers were the records I listened to, the players I respected.
The first book I had was by Mel Bay which got me grounded in chords
[and helped me grow my first calluses]
then I picked up the first position Blues Scale from another book, which I unfortunately can’t find to reference. Then it was the back pages of Guitarist magazine, and a book they brought out in the early-mid 80s of tab for famous solos and riffs
[which I still have downstairs somewhere, and which introduced me to Need Your Love So Bad, by Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac]
Even with those years of attention, and guitar was just one of MANY things i had to pay attention to, I always learned enough to get by, and never pursued learning for excellence, or even over-and-above necessary. I just wasn’t interested. My natural style was to experiment, take risks, improvise and know some of it would fall flat.
Most of my learning came from playing, listening and adapting, not from reading, thinking and repeating
[in my day job, I've come to know that my preferred learning style is that of a Pragmatic-Activist - learning by doing something real/that counts]
By the time I went to university, I had a reasonable grounding in both rhythm and lead work, had been playing in various bands on and off for about 8 years. I knew that the guitar, and song-writing, was very, very important to me. Indeed, in that first year of university, there was a very real chance of my dropping out just to be able to play more.
Then, two things happened which changed my path markedly.
The first, late in my first year of university, was the appearance of a patch of dry skin on the middle finger of my left hand. Misdiagnosed as an allergy
[possibly even to the nickel in guitar strings... Argh!]
and treated with various, and strengthening, courses of steroid creams and moisturizers, within a matter of months, my palms and finger-pads were covered with scaly psoriaritic calluses. Every morning when I woke up, I’d have to crack open the calluses by leaning on the bed frame; my fingers bled every day.Within another year, whole chunks of my outer skin were peeling off to reveal the dermis beneath.
This led to the second turning point. I couldn’t play guitar, so I began to write; finishing my first novel within a year.
My hands stayed that way for over 16 years, and I wrote several books.
Though I played all the time, hands cracked and bleeding every time I did, I never had the capacity to extend my capabilities through structured practice – it was all just play, listen, adapt. I knew I was a slow-hand, I knew that I could only play a limited amount of stuff, and I knew that changing that would mean significant pain. Stylistically, my playing, songwriting and recording adapted – I was an all-rounder more than I was a guitarist. It meant I could pick up any instrument and make a reasonable noise, but always had an inferiority complex about my playing
[which, I think, most artists have?]
Fast Forward to now, a decade after moving to the US – which is when, for several reasons, my hands cleared up
[for the interested, it had been a fungal infection originally, which was exacerbated by the steroids, and which left my hands sensitized to glycerin - the main ingredient in most sensitive-skin treatments, shower gels, moisturizers, shaving creams, etc - as soon as I made that connection and went back to plain soap, my 16 year affliction disappeared in a month!]
and I’ve been playing a LOT more guitar
but feeling less and less fulfilled when doing so
Having written over half-a-million words in fiction and fact, I have command of my art and voice when it comes to writing. More and more, though, while my ‘good enough’ guitar playing is, well, good enough, I’ve been feeling the need/want/wish to extend my practical knowledge a little, increasing my vocabulary as it were.
This came from an interesting observation
[well, interesting to me at least...]
while I was having fun improvising lead on less structured pieces, and my originals, when I was coming into more constrained/structured forms – blues, country, etc. – I was having trouble finding my groove – mostly I’d be playing too many notes, and too many of the wrong notes. And I realized that feeling had been ticking away for a LONG time – in my weaker moments, it made me feel like a fraud, an impostor, though in my stronger moments, I could see it as a function of my musical free spirit. All those crazy arpeggiated licks I’d found by trial-and-error just didn’t seem to fit – and, while I could hear that, I didn’t know why or what to do about it!
In passing, I was reading Guitarist and someone mentioned a desire to learn to solo ‘out of the box’ – which isn’t a reference to the hackneyed cliché about innovation, but instead a reference to the five standard positions of the Pentatonic scale on a guitar neck. I had this epiphany moment
I never learned to solo inside the box!
This started ticking away – as the best, most challenging thoughts often do. I knew that everything I played on lead guitar was a function of that first position Blues Scale and everything else I’d tried since that just seemed to work. But I also knew that my playing was mostly ’1st-position-and-up’ the neck usually ending up on only the high E, B and G strings. So if I was playing a song in B minor, it was generally 7th fret and up, with the odd hit-and-hope further down the neck. When I began to look into theory, I found that I was already doing quite complex stuff (e.g.) using Myxolidian mode notes, without knowing they were from that scale or how they fit with the chords or Pentatonic scale. I was playing weird intervals but just because they were interesting.
None of which is good or bad, right or wrong – it’s just a sign of missing vocabulary – I’m like someone parachuted into a foreign country who has to learn the language live-time. Some words I know, some I haven’t come across.
Watching videos of guitarists I admired for a long time, I realized they were fundamentally playing differently to me
[which is why I often had a hard time playing along with their solos]
I’d got by for so long playing my way, that I’d grown lazy. Or maybe to be charitable, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and didn’t care to find out.
So, as I did surgery on my Les Paul to give me all the options an experienced player could want, I took a decision to take myself back to basics.
For the past week I’ve dived back into those fundamental five boxes of the Pentatonic
[believe me, I didn't even know there were five positions until my decision to re-teach myself]
doing scale runs across and along the board, in multiple keys, as well as improvised solos over typical and a-typical loops.
It’s been fun so far – my left hand aches, particularly the little and ring finger meta-carpals where my hand broke in my 2001 motorbike accident
[forgot to mention that above, didn't I?!!]
but it’s a good ache, because I’m getting the muscle memory going. I’m still choosing to pursue my natural/preferred style of learning – play, listen, adapt – but basing it upon at least a little reading and thinking first! I still don’t have a want to take lessons, though that may change, I guess. Filling in these gaps is a great process of discovery
Oh, so THAT’S why that works!
The joy of this instrument that I love is the learning/discovery never ends, and with it the opportunity for growth and contribution.
Here’s to making our ‘good enough’ just a little bit better every day!
I just want to warn you, this post is about recent modifications I made to a guitar – if you’re not interested in such subject matter, you can choose whether to read on
[and if you choose to do so, you absolutely cannot call me a geek/nerd by the end - I gave you fair warning!]
Around Christmas 2006, I bought my Gibson Les Paul Standard Faded. It was, and still is, a quite beautiful guitar to look at:
and, more importantly, to play.
Now, I’m a very lucky boy, and I have the luxury of playing a number of beautiful instruments – and will tend to record the most appropriate guitar for any given song. Live, however, I prefer to stick to one guitar for a set and so, while the Les Paul is beautiful, it is still a Les Paul – without the flexibility of a Stratocaster say, or the bite of a Telecaster.
Everything changed when I got my Music-Man Reflex
which is beautiful to look at, beautiful to play AND has a wide palette of tones. Basically, a 5-way pickup selector:
- Bridge humbucker
- Outer coils of both pickups (the Telecaster middle setting)
- Both humbuckers
- Inner coils of both pickups
- Neck humbucker
with an additional Series/Parallel switch, giving me 10 sounds in total. I’m a pretty intuitive
[for which, the less charitable might read 'lazy']
player, and don’t have a preconceived setting per song – I tweak in the moment to bring in bass or treble, thin things out or fatten things up, using drive pedals to dirty the sound, or the volume and tone pots to calm things down. Bottom line, the configuration of the Reflex means I can dial in pretty much whichever tone the muse calls for in the moment. I won’t go on much more about the Reflex, as I already did that here.
What I do know, though, is that having the Reflex pushed my Les Paul further from the stage. And that just didn’t feel right. So I spent some time these past few weeks thinking on why that might be. Along the way, I installed some new Seymour Duncan pickups in my old Starfield Cabriolet:
and enjoyed the tone I was getting there. It got me wondering about the Les Paul – and I realized that for a long time, I’d been thinking that it didn’t sound like a Les Paul should. What I’d been hearing – and wanted to hear – was the sound of vintage Les Pauls, not the more modern, compressed sound of the Burstbuckers fitted as standard. Sure, it sounded great, but…
Then there was Peter Green. As always, Peter Green.
If Stevie Ray is everything I ever wished/hoped I could do on a Stratocaster, then Peter Green is everything I ever wished/hoped I could do on a Les Paul. And, of course, he’s famous for his out-of-phase tone – which is actually the result of a physical change to the neck pickup
[moving magnets, etc.]
and I began to wonder whether I should make the mod to my Les Paul…
But, as I was watching vids of Green, Michael Bloomfield, Clapton, Gary Moore, and many, many others – and reading about vintage Les Pauls – for some reason I keyed in on the ‘zebra’ pickup covers on my Les Paul, and how I really would prefer nickel covers
[and to add the scratch plate, which I hadn't to this point]
both for the natural aging and, well, just because I preferred them…
All of which got me thinking:
- Vintage sound
- Coil splits
- Flexibility of switching
and I knew I was going to be doing some surgery.
[thanks, Seymour Duncan User Forum!]
and thinking about the coil splits I get on the Reflex
[particularly the outer coils of both, which is essentially the telecaster middle setting]
I came across the Seymour Duncan Triple Shots – which, in a nutshell, enable each humbucker to be split either way, or wired together in series/parallel, all by way of a couple of little switches in the pickup mounting. So I ordered those and held back on making any mods until they got here.
Which they did yesterday lunchtime.
[fast forward past an intense afternoon of furious soldering]
It’s done. And it sounds AMAZING. Basically, I now have any combination of any coil from the two humbuckers, with the blend position being able to be series/parallel (neck tone push-pull)
and/or out-of-phase (bridge tone push-pull)
[a very, very odd tone - Peter Green - yet SO good for blues]
It’s so flexible, a tweaker’s delight
[If I count right, there are 64 combinations in total?]
It can hit a lot of tones from strats and teles, even coming close to Rickenbacker and Gretsch hollow bodies – all that while still, those Seymour Duncan ’59s – my Les Paul sounds like a Les Paul does in my head.
I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it until I’m in the ground – I am profoundly lucky and thankful to be able to play such beautiful instruments – I think I’ll be playing this one at a gig in the very near future; go on, ask me what it can do!
Here she is as of this morning…
[And remember, you don't get to call me a geek]
… I’m just having a self-indulgent moment.
I’ve been thinking about self-indulgence a lot recently.
I’ve been thinking about self-indulgence a LOT recently.
[see what I did there?]
Now that I’m several years into a new shape of life, where I commit to both my business AND my multiple artistic pursuits. I am living a very self-indulgent life; sometimes it works for me, other times it’s less positive
[though, even on its worst days, still much better than a majority of my time in the corporate world]
Just recently, I’ve been involved with an artist who is truly self-indulgent, and who seems to have a blind spot as to others’ reactions.
The one thing I have NOT done is to chastise the artist as being self-indulgent.
Being a Brit
[quick, head to a national stereotypes reference source, we'll be here when you get done]
who was drawn to the stage at a very young age, I’ve always suffered from the perception, both my own and others, that I may be being self-indulgent. I describe it as having a very fine-tuned radar; what some over here would call a bullshit meter.
I grew up in a family that tended to welcome, or at least tolerate, my outbursts of creativity and performance, so didn’t really develop the early scar tissue of rejection that blocks so many people from breaking through to their own potential.
I moved blissfully through my formative years, just putting ideas, stories and songs out into the world, rejoicing when they were welcomed, shrugging when they weren’t, and never taking too much too seriously.
As I moved into my independent self – through teenage years, and on into adulthood – more voices began to whisper
[often, in the corporate world, under the guise of well-intentioned 'feedback']
that I might want to
tone it down
or that I might be going
a little too far
or that I should
give someone else some room
But here’s the thing, I’d been collaborating on creative work since I was a little kid – I’d been in plays with casts of 30, 40 people, I’d played music with bands and orchestras – I knew about give and take. I had developed collaborative muscle.
I knew that self-indulgence balances other-indulgence.
And I knew that these were the voices of people suffering from their own world-view, and that they were transferring their self-concerns onto me.
Be more like me, and then I won’t be so lonely.
How sad that is.
As is the fact that the me of fifteen years ago would likely have interpreted it as
Stop being so much like you, because you threaten me.
Which is not the same thing.
It took a long time and much reconditioning to be able to step behind their eyes and see myself as they see me. I listened a lot.
Bottom line, no matter what I do, I’m going to be viewed as being self-indulgent. And my perceived self-indulgence will be viewed as a BAD thing.
With every best will in the world, and as politely as I’m able:
Self-indulgence is a critical component of self-awareness which, in turn, is a critical pre-cursor to self-actualization. Which is the only healthy route to other-actualization.
I know this. I feel this. I am this.
Art IS self-indulgence.
[though taste is a different thing altogether]
Yet still, those voices lurk when I stretch into my art. They lurk when I fail to connect with a member of my audience
[who talks through my set so loud I can't hear the PA and monitors]
Stop being so self-indulgent, Vincent!
And, as I’ve
[taken my voice back, taken my fingers back, taken my words back, taken my stories back, taken my heart and soul back]
felt them emerge, I’ve forced myself to let them be, and forced myself not to give them power.
[which is a hard, hard thing for me to do]
Yes, I’m being self-indulgent – and I’ll be the judge of when it’s too much, because your response will let me know.
Which is nothing to do with you.
And everything to do with me.
First, an admission – I have, for a good chunk of my life, suffered under an addiction that I found hard to control. Yes, my friends, until fairly recently, I suffered from GAS. No, it’s not that sort of GAS
[though my good lady wife and kids may disagree with that assertion]
but instead Gear-Acquisition-Syndrome.
GAS affects many people, but particularly in the musical field, where the search of nebulous TONE often equates to “I need to buy something to bring me closer to what I hear in my head”.
Yes, I have had GAS, but I am pleased to say that I’ve been clean
[well, of major binges at least]
for most of the last couple of years.
A couple of years where I have been PLAYING the gear I have, and exploring possibilities. I’ve been feeling, and experiencing, more and more that tone is in the fingers of the player, and only enhanced/yielded through the gear.
And then, yesterday, I had one of my AHA moments
[actually, a multiple AHA day]
I was visiting with my friends at Spindrift Guitars in New London – a great shop, with drool-worthy gear – and we were discussing the finer points of the six-string beauties on the wall, including a recently-arrived handful of Stol handmade electrics.
Now, I have a great stable of guitars
[I've been lucky enough to be able to work hard and invest in some great instruments]
but I’ve never really thought about having a custom-built instrument for myself. And even now, I don’t really think it would fit my self-concept as a guitarist.
We were discussing this and John said something along the lines of “Well, they’d shape the neck to fit your hand, just as you wanted it.” To which my immediate response was, “I’d just give them my Reflex and ask them to duplicate that profile.”
I caught myself in the moment, heard what I’d just said, and squirreled it away alongside other observations about me and that particular guitar.
You see, when I first bought my Music Man Reflex
[Gold-top, as in this picture, now discontinued as a finish, making me feel I have quite a unique instrument]
I found myself at odd times in the studio, playing other guitars, with my gold beauty on the stand, and always putting down whatever I was playing
[and these are NICE guitars, remember]
to pick up the Reflex, which I would then continue to play for hours. It was more than a month of this happening regularly before I noticed the pattern of behavior. I began to hear little things in my other guitars that I didn’t on the Reflex – notes where the intonation was off, for example; wolf-tones where the Reflex was smooth throughout the spectrum. In the past couple of years I’ve done a major set-up on every guitar I own – which already played very well – to bring them to the standard of playability and tone I get from the Reflex.
So, last night, I was at practice for my lead guitar gig, and had swapped out the pedals on my board a little to accommodate a new pedal
[I did say no MAJOR binges, remember]
[fantastic pedal, btw]
Halfway through the practice, I’m grinning from ear to ear, enjoying all the nuances of what I’m playing, how it’s sounding, and the interplay of fingers, guitar, pedals and amp – for the first time ever, I felt like I was really using every aspect of the guitar to fine tune the sound and it was WORKING! The whole signal chain in flow.
This payback for investment of time, money and care – what glorious sonic fun. Halfway through the practice, I catch myself thinking “this IS my perfect guitar”.
Which is a wonderful thing to feel.
ps: GEEK ALERT! if you’re interested in signal paths, here’s what I was playing last night:
1) Vince Tuckwood (soul, heart, mind, body)
1a) Fingers and Dunlop 1.35mm Tortex sharp-point picks
My picks of 20+ years – thick and heavy, giving me full flexibility from bashing to teasing. Also good substitute for a missing screwdriver.
2) Music Man Reflex Gold-top
3) Boss Tuner
4) Fulltone GT-500 – Mixed Drive
Distortion channel – high-gain, with a mid-boost – heading into Marshall territory through the Budda.
Overdrive channel – slight treble boosted drive, to give articulated crunch – AC30 Top-boost like through the Budda.
Set for boost to feed distortion to build a REALLY creamy lead tone.
5) MXR Phase 90 – Phaser
Doesn’t get much simpler than this pedal but it does EVERYTHING I need to do with it – and I can dial in the rate/depth with my foot thanks to the single knob.
6) T-Rex Replica – Analogue Delay
Generally used for specific delay on certain songs, most of time off – I tend to play with minimal delay/reverb.
7) Xotic EP Booster
Nothing much to say about this pedal except it takes the tone you’ve got and makes it louder without changing it so much – I’ve been used to using overdrives (with dirt) to get my lead sound, so the EP booster has been an eye-opener for me.
8) Budda Verbmaster 18W
Finally, my beautiful ‘vintage’ Verbmaster – last night on the low-gain/clean channel with: Gain, 12 o’clock – Treble 1 o’clock – Bass 11 o’clock – Reverb, 8 o’clock, sand setting – basically a lovely clean tone just on the edge of break-up when I hit the guitar hard, but with enough headroom to take the pedals without saturating too early. Enough treble to make good use of both volume and tone pots on the guitar without losing articulation.
9) THD Hotplate 8 Ohm
Now, there are going to be purists who say that an attenuator has no place in a discussion of tone. I understand that POV, however the Verbmaster is a LOUD amp and, given that it doesn’t have a master volume, the Hotplate is must have to be able to get the amp pushing its tubes/valves hard enough. Last night I opened the attentuator up wider than normal (it was at the -8DB setting with neither Bright nor Deep switches activated) which allowed me to ride the volume control and really get into picking dynamics – which I already did – but with that extra headroom, the effect was so much more immediate.