How I Didn’t Learn to Play Guitar

In 1989 I got a book that was just strumming easy chords to famous songs. It was frustrating because they weren’t necessarily in the right key and so I couldn’t play along with the records. But I persevered. Went don’t a few dead ends – such as spending months fingering the open E chord the wrong way.

I had an Epiphone superstrat. But no amp for the first couple of years. I plugged the guitar into my boombox and if I wanted distortion just turned it up. I knew nothing and that probably slowed down my learning.

But things got better when I bought a Led Zeppelin tab book. It was mostly inaccurate, but it got me started on lead and riffs. But the big change was when I realised that I could play the notes from Black Dog in any order I wanted and they worked over the same notes. I’d discovered the pentatonic scale. So improv began.

I started buying American guitar mags that had tabs to songs in. And I bought tab books I had no chance of being able to play. But I’d enjoy muddling through playing along to Satriani’s Extremist album despite not being able to play the widdly bits. Though funnily enough it was often the riffs I loved more than the widdling anyway. By the time I started uni in 93 I would spend weeks pouring over tab books and could (back then, no chance now) play most of Maiden’s Fear of the Dark album.

The main thing for me though was right from the start I was more interesting in writing my own songs rather than play someone elses. Even now my repertoire of other artists’ material is very low. I would have been a better guitarist if I’d had lessons, but less fun for me I think. I enjoyed the journey, I wasn’t looking for some destination. I would do stuff like use two boomboxes to record my own songs with sound on sound – dubbing my live playing into it – adding drums from a cheap keyboard. I enjoyed the muddling through, the experimenting.

The Best Worst Guitar

Epiphone 435i – a 1980s superstrat. HSS, with locking trem. I didn’t know anything about guitars. But I decided I wanted to play electric guitar. Mainly to fit in with some new friends at sixth form. But unlike any other hobby I picked up in my youth – this was one I stuck with.

I didn’t know what kind of guitar to buy. I just ordered one out of a neighbour’s Littlewoods catalogue. They sent the wrong one – a bass. Then sent the right one. But it was wrong too. Instead of the even cheaper guitar in the catalogue I received the Epiphone 435i that wasn’t even listed.

I had no idea what a locking trem was. Managed to break a few strings trying to tune with the locking nuts tightened. But this cheap HSS guitar with its skinny neck was the only electric guitar I had for nearly 20 years. Learned my first notes on it. Played it a lot live at university. In my late teens and early twenties I must have played for hours every day. I was never any good, but that didn’t matter. I loved that guitar.

It was also special because it was a gift from my mother, who would pass away two years after buying it for me. She encouraged me and listened when I learned something new. Telling me I sounded great, even though I knew I didn’t. At her funeral a friend of my mother’s told me mum used to stand quietly outside my bedroom and listen to me play. She’d told this friend I was really good.

When I met my first wife and we were getting a flat together I brought the guitar down to London and left it with her until I moved. It was the most precious thing I owned. She understood why I left it with her until I moved down. It was a statement of where my heart lay, of how important she was to me.

Within a year of our marriage my wife was dead, at just 35. After my wife died I didn’t think I’d play guitar again. I don’t think I ever wanted to play guitar again.

Until I met my second wife. She encouraged me to play again. We even formed a band for a wedding gig. And I started to practice again. My poor Epiphone 435i, now nearly 20 years old and played to death, wasn’t in great shape by now. The frets were worn flat. I’d filled the straplock holes with matches and glue more times than I could remember. And one day while practicing for the gig the whole locking trem disintegrating, the main metal weight sheering off the rest. And of course it would be a weird size and hard to replace.

My wife bought me a new guitar to do the gig. I still have a few pieces of that Epiphone. Not the whole guitar, but some bits. After a very hard life it pretty much fell apart.

It was guitar given to me by my late mother, held and cherished by my first wife who was taken tragically young, and was played again thanks to the love of the woman who picked up the pieces.

It was a shit guitar. It was the very best guitar.

Ending the Guitar Tone Obsession

Do we guitarists obsess too much about tone? I’ve realised I certainly do. If I look back to the first 15 or so years of playing the instrument tone was the last thing I thought about. The gear I had was just what I can afford and I did the best I could with it. But thanks to the internet we can now all learn about the gear we don’t have, and how the gear we do have isn’t any good, despite it being perfectly fine beforehand.

I’ve owned plenty of guitar amps but only two during the first 20 years as a musician. This is partly because I went a long time between uni and a decade and a half later not playing live and mostly recording via a computer. The other reason being I didn’t see the need for a different amp. Only in recent times – perhaps with various forums and others to blame – that I’ve bought and sold so much gear.

My first amp when I was 17 was really my Philips boombox, a friend had showed me how you could get a cable from Tandy that would go from my guitar to the line-in connections of the stereo. If you turned it up loud it distorted too. Though my family weren’t too impressed with that as I stumbled through Whole Lotta Love.

Within a year I had a small Squier solid state combo. This was supposed to be a small practice amp but it had two volume settings – off and too loud. But I then bought a bigger amp from a mate of mine who’d gigged it around his six form. It was a Hohner Marlin 50C. It was a solid state combo with two channels (or at least a clean and drive setting), chorus and reverb. I knew nothing about hear back then so I never did use the effects loop – wasn’t sure what it did – though it would have been very handy at the time. And never realised I could have bought a very cheap footswitch to help me switch between clean and dirt – I used to run back to the amp and press a little button, same for the chorus and reverb. But I still have very fond memories of the amp.

It was the amp I was stood on playing Purple’s Black Night at full volume in our halls of residence one night for a sing along with friends when the porter gave me a bollocking. It was an extra seat in my uni room. It also occasionally served as a table for my kettle and coffee stuff. I used it a lot live at uni – including quite regularly at the Christian Union (don’t ask – I’m trying to forget them) where teaming up with a noisy drummer of like mind we completely Van Halened it all up contrary to the leadership’s wishes. It’s the amp that I used my forgotten school electronics skills on to replace knackered pots. And sadly it’s the amp that was falling apart when I threw it away when I was in my early thirties and moving down to that London from Manchester.

So not a classic amp in any terms. But I remember it doing the job, back then I was more interested in playing and impressing girls than “tone”. I don’t think I ever even thought about “tone” back then. My guitar gear amounted to an Epiphone 435i superstrat, Korg G3, Jim Dunlop Wah and the Marlin 50C. And that was all the gear I had for a decade. And it did the job.

Since then my gear list of shame has grown long. I’ve bought and sold all kinds of kit, partly because I like new toys, partly because I was chasing a tone that existed only in my head. Even with the right gear I would obsess over the settings endlessly. The temptation to fiddle is always there – especially with digital modelling devices. How many of us can say we’ve played through a POD for an hour without tinkering with the sound?

Well I’ve had enough of all that. Enough of seeing the vacuum tube as the holy grail. Enough of caring what other people thought of the gear I had, rather than what I thought. I’ve just spent an hour playing guitar. I had my POD HD500 running into the power amp return of my Laney Ironheart head. With the POD set to Stack Power Amp I selected the Plexi model, didn’t touch gain or EQ at all, added a reverb and then just spent an hour jamming. I didn’t even switch off the cab or mic modelling, I just played. I didn’t second guess what other people might have set it to.

By the end of the hour I thought it sounded amazing. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But what I didn’t do was worry about it. I just played with what I had. And the honest truth is I’ve not enjoyed playing guitar so much in ages.

Blackstar Unveils Revolutionary Marketing BS

British advertising bullshitter and sometime amplification manufacturer Blackstar has unveiled its latest state of the art marketing nonsense. The company describes its latest verbal slight of hand and customer misdirection as revolutionary.

“We were a technological innovator with our introduction of the phrase ‘Pure Valve’ in our mostly transistor-based technology in recent years,” said Blackstar CEO Bob Scraggs. “However our world class engineers have been hard at work delivering more powerful state of the art bullshit that’s sure to be a big hit with clueless customers and puny editorial lapdogs such as Guitarist Magazine.”

“Today Blackstar is proud to unveil our latest product phrase ‘True Valve Power’ which we will believe will fool even more customers than ever before. With ‘True Valve Power’ we’re extending our previous abilities of not having many valves in our valve products to now having no valves in them instead. Raising our ‘no actual valves’ to ‘valve based marketing bullshit’ ratio to 100 percent. I believe Blackstar is the first amplifier manufacturer to completely remove valves from over-hyped valve related products. This will enable us to continue to charge British-built prices for a range of Korean-made tat.”

‘True Valve Power’ marketing bullshit will be available as an expensive range of literature and badges this summer, and will be bundled with a free modelling amplifier that’s almost as good a Line 6 Spider for three times the money. The presence of any valves has yet to be announced. Full press release follows.

FRANKFURT MUSIKMESSE 2012 PRESS RELEASE: Blackstar is proud to announce the launch of its groundbreaking new ID Series of innovative programmable amplifiers. In the five years since its launch, Blackstar has led the way in the innovation of guitar amplification. The ID Series represents the culmination of more than seven years technical research and development. These amps have an intuitive control set like a traditional amp, but have the versatility of programmability. The unique controls allow guitarists to custom design their own sound, store it and then have the confidence that the amp will perform in a live environment. Blackstar’s patent-applied-for True Valve Power offers six distinctly different power valve responses – EL84, 6V6, EL34, KT66, 6L6, KT88. When engaged it delivers the response, dynamics, sag and break-up characteristics of a valve amp and uniquely delivers the same acoustic power output as an equivalent valve power amp.

This means that for the first time ever, in an affordable series of amplifiers, these products deliver live without compromise – True Valve Power means ‘Loud as Valve’. The Voice control has six different channels – Clean Warm, Clean Bright, Crunch, Super Crunch, OD 1, OD 2. When used together with Blackstar’s patented ISF control you can get the exact tone you’re thinking of. The effects section delivers studio quality modulation, delay and reverb effects simultaneously that you can store with your sound. Deep editing and storing of patches is simple using the supplied Blackstar GUI software. Patches can be shared, uploaded and downloaded via the online community. The USB connector also allows you to record your amp directly to your computer. An emulated output, MP3/line input and midi footswitching complete the package. By using the unique Voice control, the patented ISF and patent-applied-for True Valve Power, these amplifiers allow unparalleled flexibility and ease of use, enabling you to in effect, design the sound in your head and deliver it live as ‘Loud as Valve.’ Individuality is power!

Blackstar ID Series specifications: Programmable combos and heads True Valve Power – LOUD as Valve Voice – select from 6 classic channels (EL84, 6V6, EL34, KT66, 6L6,KT88) 3 band EQ with patented ISF 128 user storable patches USB connectivity – easily edit and record GUI software supplied for deep editing Built-in tuner Footcontroller Revolutionary tone