Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Precious Little Help


One thing I've noticed as I crawled my way from being a horrible guitarist to being an unremarkable one is how little actual supporting material there is for players whose tastes run to music outside of the commercial mainstream in America -- in my case this means progressive folk, death, doom and black metal. Any aspiring guitarist can find plenty of Metallica, GnR, heck...even Children of Bodom tabs and videos and Dave Mustaine has his own app to help teach you Megadeth songs. But the rule seems to be that you have to be attached to one of the big Guitar companies to make it into a guitar mag with any consistency. In the case of the guys mentioned above that means tabs and vids brought to you by ESP, Gibson and Dean. The closest you are going to get to anything underground is probably Opeth, and even there you have Akerfeldt and Akesson endorsed by PRS. Slip down the endorsements list too far and you might as well not exist. Which is too bad, because there are so many awesome bands whose music I'd love to have some decent help learning. Sure, there are some GPro tabs on the usual sites for bands like Enslaved or Paradise Lost, but I lost faith in those pretty soon after downloading a bunch and finding that the people who tabbed them out may be better guitarists than I am, but they all seem to have crappy ears that are unable to distinguish anything other than major, minor, and power chords. Diminished? Fuhgedaboudit. You will not find any nuance in an amateur GPro tab, and if you do, it's probably wrong. Go a bit farther into the underground -- Amorphis or Agalloch, for example -- and you won't even find crappy amateur tabs. Which is too bad, mind, because they both have complex and beautiful music to learn and play. It seems, however, that the people who have deciphered the songs are all too busy playing them to write any of it down for us slow kids. It's not just tabs, though. I love to wank around with Garage Band loops running through my Line 6 Guitar Port so that I have drum and bass to play over. Which is fine so long as you are looking for either funky and danceable or worldbeat and you want it in 4/4. Some of the loops are labeled as classic rock, but we aren't talking Zep or even the Who. The closest they come to straight up rock are the 'edgy modern' loops that have a sort of Incubus feel to them. And there is nothing even remotely metal to be found in the standard library that ships with the basic version included in iLife. If you want metal you will need to either pay for a dedicated software library of metal grooves or download one of the free samples that contains mostly flashy, real instrument loops rather than a basic double bass pattern with crash cymbal for the kick done on the software instrument so that you can tweak it or add to it to make it your own. It's one of the ironies of the digital age. Technology does give ordinary people the tools to make their own music sound professional, but the only music you can make easily sounds like the same commercial stuff that you can already hear anywhere else. Making something outside that safe range takes just as much work as it ever did.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

No BS Buying Advice For New Rock Guitarists

Things the store won't tell you:

Do not buy a guitar with your eyes. You have to buy a guitar with your hands and your ears. Hands and ears are the things that matter for playing music. The guitar will need to feel good in your hands and will have to sound good to your ear. You can do all that with your eyes closed.

So what goes away when you close your eyes? Looks and brand are the two biggest things. I'm not saying that those things should not matter at all, just that they are way overrated in the scheme of things. The body and headstock shape will have more effect on how you play from the way they feel than they will from how they look. Pointy guitars may look mean, but they also can be really uncomfortable to play. Particular brands may be known for quality but every guitar is a little different in material and feel and how the parts go together. If every guitar is different, then every guitar could be great or could suck. You won't know until you pick it up and play it.

When you are playing it, pay attention to how it sounds and feels, but even more than this make sure that you get a tuner and tune the guitar as well as you can and then play notes all over the neck and see how well those notes stay in tune. Check especially to see how close the tuning at the 12th fret is to the tuning on the open string. If they are off you need to find out if the place you are buying the guitar does free setup with every purchase and if they will set it up before you buy it. If the guitar goes out of tune as you move around the neck then there is either a problem with the setup or there was a mistake made when the neck or bridge were put on. Any of these things can be a problem. Buy the guitar within your budget that plays best. You will care less about the looks over time and fall in love with how it plays.

More of your sound comes from your fingers and your amp than comes from the pickups. You want decent pickups, but a guitar with adequate pickups will still sound good if you have a decent amp or, better yet, a good computer setup that gives you a wide number of virtual amps and effects to play with while you learn and figure out what sounds inspire you. You can worry about the perfect pickups once you have figured out what sort of player you are and get a second guitar that fits your personal style.

Non-electronic hardware is easy to replace, but it is also way more important than most salespeople will let on. Try to figure out how well the tuning keys stay in tune and look for guitars with better quality parts. Prioritize these over style. Staying in tune and sounding good is much cooler than looking good and sounding like crap.

Truth be told, the most important thing you can learn with your first guitar is how to make friends with the strings and fretboard. This is everything for a player. If you are comfortable playing and can make sounds that inspire you without cringing at how out of tune your guitar is you can really learn a lot with that first guitar and once you outgrow it you will know what things matter most to you as a player.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rock Band vs. Guitar Hero: And the Winner Is...?

C. - None of the Above

And it's not because the games sucked, either. Well, okay, Guitar Hero 5 got some mediocre reviews because of the usual reviewer foibles -- not enough new about it, some songs were boring, arenas were meh, etc. -- but what do you expect from so simple a concept this late in a franchise? And Rock Band 3 got really good reviews and added a ton of new stuff, so what gives?

The video game industry fell out of love with the games and pulled its support, that's what...along with a lot of fans, the music industry, and so forth.

Harmonix has pledged to soldier on in support of its game and its partners, but the sale and fade pulled by MTV Games means that all the media licensing for new content becomes much more difficult. In essence the music industry -- make that entertainment media as a whole -- has decided the games are not profitable enough to maintain their bloated egos, expectations, and overhead.

I figured this would happen sooner or later because, as I mused last time I wrote about the games, these games have never been about the music, they are about the fantasy of being a rock star. They are basically action RPGs for people who dream about platform boots, facepaint and pyro more than about swords and sorcery. It's a different fantasy about a different sort of magic axe. So trying to develop the games as a new form of content delivery for the entertainment industry Misses the Fucking Point. It was never about the songs.

The games themselves might linger on for a while longer and eke out a living. And even if they don't some group of enterprising geeks will package the whole dream -- hardware and software -- into a controller that plugs into whatever passes for a television in 10 -15 years and there will be a hip retro renaissance for the genre.

But for the immediate future it seems that these games have maxed out, overreached and blown up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

ReValver III.5 Demo Out

Haven't seen much about this anywhere yet.

I've given Peavey a lot of stick on this blog for their poor support of their software. (To be fair it looks like a lot of that has to do with how much involvement the development partner takes in the product that Peavey is distributing). Nevertheless, I do want to take a moment to acknowledge that ReValver III.5 finally came out on their website at Winter NAMM and that you can download a demo of it for evaluation while you are waiting to see if the old stock ever sells and the new version starts appearing on the shelves.

If you go back and check my three-part comparison review of the Revalver III demo you'll see that I disliked the interface for the speaker/mic combos and the overall dryness of the sounds. Since that review I got a little better at using the reverb and delay on ReValver and my overall assessment of the software went up accordingly. It still never usurped the place of Guitar Rig in my estimation or the combination of value and fun delivered by Pod Farm.

I haven't been playing guitar a lot in the last month, but I have played around with the ReValver III.5 update demo enough to say that it is much easier to navigate the cab/mic choices this time around and the amp sims seem to have fewer digital artifacts swimming in the mix. They've added a few new amps to the mix as well, but those additions are far less of a game changer than the changes made to look and feel. This is finally beginning to feel a little more user-friendly and a little less like trying to find a decent studio sound in a rathole studio full of old equipment -- but without the vibe and atmosphere of the real thing.

Hopefully they will take a more active role with this release because with decent support and marketing they could well do some damage to the competition both in the studio and as a direct-in option live. Still not sure I would take it over Guitar Rig, but the choice has gotten a lot harder.