The Great Hunt
Stare down at your board. How much money have you got wrapped up in those pedals? How much time have you invested into them? How much trial and error, hours online researching, miles driven to shops, things traded and compromises made have there been? Why does it matter that your sound is just so, when you could plug into anything and play the same parts? In this episode of Machine Bites, I’m going to talk about the thought process that goes into making sound, and how fundamental that is to our experience not just as players, but as people.
The first time I heard a guitar was Eddie Cochrane playing ‘C’mon Everybody’ – a woody, slapback ‘thocking’ sound that was both soft and definite, curtailed by a simple riff and almost abrupt in its phrasing. In my teens I heard Robert Johnson’s potent, eruptive slide and fingerstyle, hard and pained even in his slower passages. I heard the stately, wry cheek from Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, James Dean Bradfield’s urgent wrestle, and Tom Verlaine’s reedy clouds. As an adult, it was Keith Rowe and his tabletop experimentalism, Django Reinhart’s slick, explosive melody and the unchained aggression of Greg Ginn that made me want to keep going. All these aspects distilled in my interpretation of them, forming my sound in the process.
You are the same. Shards of Johnny Marr, John Petrucci, Joe Bonamassa, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Batten, Nile Rodgers – whomever you’ve listened to are droplets in the swirling, confounding bucket that is the sound you want to make. Even the most ordinary of strummed chords takes inspiration from somewhere; the voicings chosen at first for ease become emblematic of the feeling and melody you’re trying to convey. Your pedals are no different. Someone somewhere is trying to get D. Boon’s icepick treble, Steve Albini’s disintegration or Annie Clark’s twitching strut, and all of them are looking at how to achieve that with their signal path.
This is a tough mountain to climb. No matter how much you love SRV or Sarah Longfield, you are not them. Your physical nature isn’t theirs, and your internal monologue isn’t the same. When we write or play, that’s what the world hears. Music is fundamentally a conduit for expression, of the individual self, irrespective of whether or not it’s corporate background music or the most free-form jazz exploration. What you put across is a curious mash of choice, impulse and situation. A great textural improviser might be useless at the blues, even though both are fundamentally guitarists.
There’s a lot of reasons why we get into particular effects. Sometimes we talk ourselves into them, determined to love a totally impractical sound because it’ll make us stand out. We love sounds because someone else uses them, or because they’re perfect in the confines of a record that sounds nothing like the music that we make. Talking yourself into sounds because of cost, celebrity use, or how cool the pedal looks on your board is as normal as convincing yourself your last string change was much more recent than it was.
It’s natural for our pedals to change over time as our tastes develop, but something more internal goes along with that. There’s an honesty that’s hard to cultivate on purpose that goes with interest in equipment. As we get older, the scope of the gear we want to own becomes more refined, and we find ourselves swapping things out less and less. Other things become the focus, like the clean sound, working with volume, using more compression and less gain, or bonding with the guitar more. There’s an attitudinal change that goes along with that – refining and, more importantly, being at peace with the sort of player that you’ve become.
Playing It Straight
I’ve met thousands of musicians in my lifetime, and an overwhelming majority of them have defined their playing by a handful of genres. There’s a temptation to say we play a bit of everything, but everything is a lot. The reality is more nuanced than that – we’ve ‘heard’ a lot of everything, and that’s sent us down a path. The myriad roads become distilled into a broad highway, and the journey becomes less intense, but more enjoyable.
This is something that we take for granted. Very few players openly admit that they’re happy with the level that they’ve reached, and that the desire to go further from a technical standpoint isn’t their driving force. There’s a feeling in the back of our minds that we need to be striving for technical mastery or defiantly rejecting it. We measure our beginner selves against players we idolise who’ve been playing for decades in a specific field, slavishly refining their abilities and performing frustrating take after frustrating take. The sounds that they get have come from years of following the same process, subconsciously trying to understand what they’re really trying to say instead of what they’re supposed to say.
When you’re looking to make music, the single most important thing is to be honest with yourself. There’s no wrong approach, but the satisfaction that you’ll get from listening to yourself and where you want to go is truly boundless. Stare down at your board. Think about the possibility of what lies in front of you. Take a risk and live.
John Tron Davidson is a writer, journalist, guitar sage and owner of Heavy Repping! the only site on the internet about The Plectroverse.