Mar 06

Guitar Playing and Learning Tools

I really enjoy playing guitar, and while there was a time when I was in college that I played primary in bands or nascent bands, the majority of my guitar playing is by and for myself.

To make that fun in a rock music context, you need a combination of being able to get better, so you feel like you are getting somewhere, and some way of playing along with other instruments.

So over the last 20 years of enjoying the guitar, I’ve collected a set of tools that really work for me, and I thought I’d share!

The first is Line6’s GuitarPort Online. They came up with the genius idea of combining a killer headphone amp, downloadable lessons, and downloadable guitar-less tracks of popular songs.

GuitarPort Online Logo

Their other killer feature is that the software works with both their simple GuitarPort interface (less than $100), all the way up to their flagship DT-50 modeling amplifiers (>$1400). So you can grow from bedroom noodler to stage performer, and keep your practice and learning tools consistent. The GearBox software also functions as a deep editor for your guitar tones, so you can twist all sorts of virtual amplifier and stompbox knobs onscreen, rather than struggling with tiny little menus on the device.

The main downside is that it requires a monthly subscription (~$10/mo depending on how far in advance that you pay). It’s comprable to what people pay for online games like World of Warcraft, but you get to learn and play along to your favorite songs instead. 🙂 The bummer is that if you cancel you subscription, you can’t even play the songs you already downloaded.

The “play along” aspect is what keeps it fresh – you get a settings file that sets up the sound of your guitar to sound like the guitar from the track (whether lead or rhythm), as well as guitar tablature (sheet music), and backing tracks both with and without the guitar included.

When I first started using GuitarPort Online with my POD, I found that they had Van Halen’s “Panama” as one of the available tracks. I’d had my favorite guitar teacher show me how to play it back in the 90’s, but I could never quite get all the rhythms right, and although I knew the basics of how to play it, I never felt like I was getting better at it.

As my friends and family can attest, I played the holy snot out of the GuitarPort version of that track for years. Every time getting a little better – tighter rhythm, better articulation on the solos and riffs. It was a relaxing to be EVH in my basement for 20 minutes (OK, an hour) at the end of a hard day. 🙂

And then they took it away.  I upgraded to a POD X3 Live, and when I did so, I lost access to that track – apparently GuitarPort had lost the license, and it was encrypted to my old device which I had sold on Craiglist. The track was no longer available for download. I was so angry I dropped the service for about 6 months, and went back to traditional book-and-mp3 methods of learning…but I missed that joy you feel playing along to a great track…so I eventually went crawling back.

In the end, my family is probably very glad I’ve had to branch out and am now playing songs by Living Colour, Pat Benatar, Boston, Heart, Scorpions and the Offspring, rather than that same VH song over and over, but I miss it.  Come on Line6, I’m sure you can work something out with Warner!

Overall I love GuitarPort, and use it regularly, I just wish they’d expand their library more often – it seems like not a lot of new stuff is coming in.

The difference between how quickly I learned the parts of Panama that I hadn’t learned from my teacher (like the solos), and how long it took me to learn the easy parts from my teacher was night and day. I easily learned 10x faster, and didn’t plateau like I did with just hand-written tab and the record. GuitarPort really helped me learn the track, by helping me both learn and practice it.

As the years went by though, I found a hole in my practice/play regime, and that was being able to play improvised solos really well.  Other than a few songs, I preferred to do my own solos rather than imperfectly mocking the great players, but I got stuck in pentatonic ruts that I couldn’t get out of.

That’s where our next tool, the Fretlight, comes in:

Fretlight Black Guitar
Fretlight Guitar

The Fretlight is a guitar that has a little LED (light) under each intersection between string and fret. So everywhere you could put your left hand on the guitar, there is a light. In every other way, it’s just like any other nice electric guitar.

It connects via USB to your computer, and software there enables you to set the lights up to display just about anything you could imagine. Scales, modes, chords, in any key, and any place on the guitar.

If you aren’t near a computer, it’s no big deal, the USB is only needed to run the fretboard lights. You can play it at a gig without a computer, and no one would ever know it was a Fretlight – the lights are invisible unless they are on.

The Fretlight Song and Lesson player will even light up songs in real time (or slowed down time) for you to follow along with, although in practice I found this to be a little tricky to do long-term.  It’s great for getting a feel for where the song is played, but since the lights are under your fingers, it’s hard to follow along perfectly.

But the Fretlight Improviser is genius. It plays semi-cheesy MIDI backing tracks for you endlessly. Unlike practicing with a song, it’s like having a band that never gets tired of playing the same chord progression over and over while you work out your perfect solo.

But more importantly, it shows you a scale or mode to go along with that progression, lit up all over the fretboard. Every wanted to play a solo in the Mixolydian mode just like the shredders from the 80’s? You can dig out your Guitar Grimoire and start memorizing dots, or you can light it up and start playing.

As I get older, I’m spreading my mind across more and more things to memorize. So, rather than remembering the details of esoteric computer languages, I remember general patterns, and then use books and the internet to look up the details when I need them. The Fretlight is like that. You still have to know how to play the guitar, but you can use Fretlight to show you the details of chords, scales and modes.

When I was first looking at the Fretlight in the 80’s, it was self-contained – there was a switch on the front to let you pick what scale to light up. As such, it was limited to how many patterns they could put into the guitar. By being able to connect it to software in a computer, the range of things you can show on the Fretboard is limitless – with the AxMaster software, you can pick individual lights to show in any pattern you want – make up your own stuff!

Between the two tools it’s funny how many pieces of software I end up running at the same time on my computer while I play guitar – GearBox to control my POD, Fretlight Improviser to control the Fretlight, REAPER to record it all.

If this all sounds computer-heavy it is – but when I was in college, I’d get a book or magazine of guitar tab, put it out in front of me, and memorize away. Then I’d either play along with the record (quietly, so I could hear myself over the track), or beg my friends to learn the other instruments. Then the inevitable “I’m not playing that” would begin.

The computer combined with these two tools is helping me enjoy my guitar time, since I don’t have hours to sit in front of tab books memorizing any more, and convincing my friends to even pick up their instruments is harder than ever

Mar 01

Studio Acoustic Treatment

When I first started podcasting, we were recoding up in our kitchen, which is a pretty large, open space.

However, since we use condenser-type microphones (which are very sensitive) we were picking up the neighbors’ dogs barking, lawns being mowed, kids jumping on trampolines, and so on.

Even once I learned to turn the gain way way down, and then normalize the audio later in REAPER, we would still get comments from listeners wondering why their neighbors were mowing their lawns at 2AM while they were listening to our show.

So we moved recording down to the basement, and froze with the furnace turned off so we didn’t have to hear the thunder of it running on all our recordings.

In the summer of 2009, I spent the summer finishing half of our basement into two bedrooms, one of which was to be the new recording studio.

It was quite a project, and I just kept thinking “It will be so nice to record in here once it’s well-lit and quiet and warm!”

So I cried a little when the first time we recorded in the new space it sounded like I was recording inside a submarine, and not in a cool Beatles way.  Worse than the lawnmower!

No matter how low I turned down the gain, it was still super-reverby.

For vocals in a song, that can be a good thing (Weird Al famously recorded “Another One Rides the Bus” in a college bathroom), but for spoken word where clarity is king, it was disaster.

So we recorded out in the unfinished part of the basement while I tried to figure out what to do.

First, I tried building panels using the Auralex foam that you can buy at most music shops. actually sells it by the square, so I bought about 15 of them and tried to use them in various ways to reduce the echo.

They didn’t help.  Made it worse in many ways.  I think that foam may be good for soundproofing, but it was utterly ineffective for me in reducing reflections (echo) in a 10’x12′ room.  I’ve seen people cover every surface in a room with the stuff, and they seem to be happy, but that wasn’t an option, as I didn’t want to record in a closet and couldn’t afford $3k worth of squares and nothing else in the room.

I noticed that many products marketed at reducing reflections for vocals were made of something else, which looked more like burlap membrane rather than foam.  Products like the Reflexion filter, which aren’t cheap, but actually (based on reviews) work.

However, that would mean talking into a black wall (assuming both hosts had one), and for podcasts, it works a lot better if there is eye contact for people in the room.

Not to mention that you’d have to buy more of them if you ever wanted to record more than two people, and you get “best results” if you put one both in front of, and behind the speaker.

I was starting to despair that I’d spend a good amount of time and money to build a warm cozy space to record in, only to never be able to use it. Perhaps that’s why musicians tend to do their best work when living in vans down by the river?

Anyway, I researched and researched, and eventually found RealTraps.

Same sort of membrane material as the Reflexion filter, but in steel-framed panels that you can place about a larger room, and then move about as you need.

But they are expensive. Even with the newly-available “BareTraps“, which are $125 each, enough to completely cover my room would be well over $2k.  But they seemed like the best option, so I went for it, and ordered a pair of the bass-frequency absorbing ones for the corners, and the “High Frequency” ones for the rest of the walls.

They work. I won’t lie, there is still echo in that room. I’ve just ordered four more to cover the other two corners and the backs of the doors, but even with the ones I have in there, which do NOT cover every surface, the reflections are so reduced that it actually feels a little weird to be in the room some times because it’s so quiet.

I have standard acoustic tiles in the ceiling right now, and a hardwood floor, neither of which is really helping the situation. So a large rug is next.

RealTraps makes ceiling tiles that I may eventually use to swap out the standard ones that I have, although I also might try just hanging more Baretraps from the ceiling…

Anyway, things are sounding better every day in the Rock Lab (as I’ve christened it), and I encourage you to try real membrane-based traps rather than just MORE FOAM!