in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂

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