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Losing Sight of Sound

It’s been a little over a year since I started playing guitar again. It’s been quite an effort, albeit a very enjoyable one. I’ve re-learned how to play, and I’ve learned lots of new things to play in the process. I’m pleased with my progress, though there is always room for improvement. But, despite all that I have achieved in this time, something has always been missing — something which was stopping me from getting full benefit of playing guitar again — and I’ve only just worked out what it is: it’s how the guitar sounds.

The Noisewarp, Mk. I
Ping-pong cassette and Noisewarp (mk. I): featuring Booster, Swell, Sustain, Overdrive, Fuzz, Phaser, Wah/Volume pedal, and tape echo.

In the 80s, I was very much into tinkering with music gear. I had a soldering iron, and wasn’t afraid to use it. I read practical magazines about electronic music, which gave me plenty of ideas for experimentation. I modified the electronics in my guitar, made effects boxes, and built a demo recording set-up. When I had consolidated all the best bits, and got tired of wiring it all up at rehearsals, I made an all-in-one unit, called the Noisewarp.

Live at Darwen AFC

Any shortcomings in my electric guitar were more than made up for in the sonic box of tricks I had created. You’d rarely hear the guitar played clean. More often than not, two or three effects would be running at any time. Experimenting with a large palette of delicious sounds proved to be an inspiration for writing and recording music. The act of discovery was a catalyst for creativity. And the more gadgets I collected, the more ideas they generated.

1970s JHS Guitar Combo
A 50W JHS combo, like the one I lost in the 80s (stolen, I think).

Years later, when the equipment had become neglected, I sold or scrapped Noisewarp’s various failing components. As I’d lost my guitar combo some years earlier, I had to play unplugged, or through the stereo. Eventually, I bought a second hand multi-effects box with the basic pedals. But it didn’t sound great, and it didn’t get used very much.

Boss BE5 Multi-effects
Boss analogue multi-effects pedal, with compressor, noise gate, chorus, overdrive and echo.

When I was making electronic music, I bought a combo for gigging: a Roland KC-350. It’s billed as a keyboard amp, and, at 120W, powerful enough for a full ensemble of weird and wonderful sounds from a computer DAW and midi controllers.

Roland KC-350 keyboard combo
Roland KC-350 120W ‘keyboard’ amp combo.

In the years to come, I tried to jump start my guitar playing with new guitars and gadgets. I swapped my basic effects box for a super-duper digital box. While there were a lot of new sounds to play with, they didn’t seem to inspire any experimentation.

Boss ME-70 multi-effects box
Boss ME-70 digital multi-effects processor, with effects too numerous to list.

In 2019, the penny finally dropped about amps. By accident, I read about the Rec Out / Phones socket on the Boss ME-70 effects box. I learned that it was designed to recreate the sound of a guitar cab, and that this modified sound was duplicated on the output jack. Suddenly, the sterile fizzing sound was gone, and it sounded like it was supposed to all along.

I traded the ME-70 in for the updated ME-80, offering better quality digital sound, even more effects, and enabling settings to be refined in a computer. But, I was still struggling to get really good tones from my gear. It was all a bit hit-and-miss.

Boss ME-80 Multi-effects
Boss ME-80 digital multi-effects processor, a more refined, sophisticated and ergonomically superior successor to the ME-70.

I read a couple of interesting articles by sound engineers on getting the best from your amplification, before thinking of swapping it for something else. The articles planted the seed that it was possible to make dramatic improvements to the character and quality of your sound by thoughtful use of your amp’s tone controls.

Then I compared a premium valve combo with the corresponding simulation (using the Boss FX through the Roland). The valve combo easily won, sounding clean, warm, smooth, and full of character. I attempted to recreate the tone of the valve combo using the EQ on the Roland and the Boss combo emulator. Half an hour later, I was there. In a blind A/B comparison, the Boss/Roland might have even sounded slightly better. The improvement was striking.

So, there is a massive difference between different types of combo and amplifier/cabinet, which dramatically changes the character of the sound. And it seems that we can’t take EQ for granted. We need to learn how to analyse our tone, listen to how EQ affects the sound, and not be afraid to experiment. We may actually find that we already have really good gear, if only we knew how to set it up well.

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Staircase Theory

I still remember what it was like to learn guitar in my teens, back in the late 70s. It was bloody hard work. I recently read that Fender had done some research, and worked out that 45% of their guitars were sold to beginners, and that 90% of those beginners gave up within a year.

That’s pretty shocking news to me, but understandable. Even now I’m playing again, it often feels like learning the guitar is like climbing a mountain. But it was always this way, and I’m sure it always will be. But, it’s not all bad news…

Keith's first guitar, a spanish-style acoustic

Back in the 70s, I would spend hours with a guitar, trying desperately to persuade my fingers to do what was shown in my library books about songs and chords. They would tangle and fall over each other, miss the frets, snag the strings and usually arrive late. It was very frustrating.

After a few months of banging my head against a wall, I found that things had suddenly become easier overnight. My hands obeyed my commands. It was like I’d been given a new body, better at playing the guitar. But, a few weeks later, it was back to climbing the mountain, and I forgot all about that strange day when everything got easier. Until…

Keith playing the Kasuga at home

…another few months later, it happened again. This wasn’t just a one-off thing. It appeared that learning guitar was more like climbing a big staircase than a mountain. I would struggle for weeks to absorb new techniques and songs. Then, after a protracted period of struggle, it would all fall into place very quickly.

There must be a very good reason for this phenomenon, but I’ve never heard an explanation. Maybe it’s something to do with muscle memory. It certainly still happens to me, 40 years after starting. And this time around, the gains were greater: the stuff I learned when I was young was still there, and just needed a bit of exercise. I was back to where I was when I stopped playing (comparatively) very quickly.

So, now I’m back on the horse, I’m also back to climbing the big staircase. That first step was a easy one. I wonder what the next one will bring.

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2019 Favourites

I used to pride myself in keeping up to date with contemporary music, but in recent years, this has proven harder to manage. I guess I’m not in regular contact with as many fanatics as I used to be. So, in a way, it’s a special treat when I come across a really good album to obsess over for a few weeks. In 2019, I managed three:

The Silver Globe (2014), Jane Weaver

The Silver Globe (2014) by Jane Weaver

I’m kicking myself for not paying closer attention to Jane Weaver. I remember reading Piccadilly Records’ 2014 recommendations and seeing a great write-up on this album. I mustn’t have followed it up properly. Fortunately, an old friend mentioned her early this year in the same breath as Broadcast and Stereolab, and I remembered to look.

This album shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s a weird mix of psychedelic space rock, folk, motorik krautrock and pop. I even recognised a purloined Hawkwind sample in one song. The melodies are very catchy and the repetitive driving rhythms are hypnotic. Love it. The Amber Light quick follow-up is very good too, though some of it is just a re-hash of this album.

Heartbreak (2019), Unloved

Heartbreak (2019) by Unloved

I really enjoyed Unloved’s first album (Guilty of Love), so I was pleased to learn that the follow-up was out this year. I first discovered their music through the TV crime thriller Killing Eve. When I googled “Unloved” and discovered that DJ/soundtrack guru David Holmes was involved, I was in for the ride.

At first, I was disappointed in this album, as it’s not as brash, catchy and immediate as their first. But after a few plays, each track introduces itself to you, and you realise that there’s quite a lot going on under the surface. And, despite it having a real 60s Phil Spector vibe going on, it’s amazingly modern and sophisticated. I got to see Unloved live this year too. Highly recommended.

Three Friends (1972), Gentle Giant

Three Friends (1972) by Gentle Giant

As a big Progressive Rock fan in my teens, I listened to all sorts of weird and wonderful nonsense, from Amon Düül II to Zappa, via Genesis, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes and Van Der Graaf Generator. At the time, I bought a Gentle Giant album (The Missing Piece), but it was awful, and I forgot all about them. Reading about them again recently, I decided to try some earlier albums of theirs.

I’m very glad I did. Their most popular album Octopus (1972) is great, but the preceding two albums are even better, to my ears, especially Three Friends (also 1972). The first track is a mind-blowing combination of virtuosic playing, time signature and key changes, poly-rhythms, with rock music colliding with choral music. And it does all this without sounding contrived or pretentious. The rest of the album jumps about from one experiment to the next, with plenty of soul and sweat thrown into the mix too. Why did I leave it so long?