5 Things I Wish I Knew About Playing Guitar Earlier

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ

I have been playing guitar for (gulp) about 20 years now. Unfortunately, time served does not equate to ability in this case, as I squandered much of that in a love-hate relationship with the instrument.

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ
Me, pretending to play guitar.

In the past few years I have come to realise that my approach to playing guitar has been pretty abysmal, and that much of what I did was purely out of habit rather than had any particular logic behind it. Once I started to question that stuff and got better, there were a bunch of things that I wish I had come around to sooner. Here are some of them:

1. Your pick matters

I have been using Landstrom Sharkfin plectrums for as long as I can remember. I don’t really know where I picked this up initially, but I am sure I gravitated towards them just because they looked cool. In any event, I’ve stuck with them because they feel comfortable, and have a few different angles that can change how you interact with the strings. However, in the past few years I have gone from using the ‘medium’ GP02 picks, right up to the GP107 ‘Super hard’ picks – which is a huge jump in thickness terms.

Landstrom sharkfin plectrums

The thing was – I tend to play pretty aggressively when strumming, and was always afraid that I would snap strings more easily with a hard plectrum, so went for an in-between option. What I didn’t really appreciate was that a flimsier pick makes it much more difficult to pick quickly and accurately. Switching to a harder pick almost instantly had a positive impact on my playing. Oh, and I haven’t broken any more strings than normal.

p.s. I went to the official Sharkfin site to do some research on the pick names for this blog, and came across this testimonial, explaining why they use harder plectrums: “I think it has something to do with masturbation. You’re hand isn’t as fast when you get older. The red one is extremely soft”. I have literally no idea why they chose to publish this. 

2. Cheap strings are a false economy

When I started playing, having to constantly replace strings was a nightmare as I never had any money. What I didn’t realise was that I would be replacing strings a lot less if I spent a few quid more on a half decent set, as opposed to the cheapest ones I could find. Now, I spend about £5-10 a set (rather than £2!), play even rougher, with a harder pick, and rarely snap strings.

Guitar Strings

3. You need to intonate

…and some guitars intonate better than others.

Intonation is the process where you adjust the strings to make sure they are in tune all the way along the neck. I vaguely knew about doing this, but never really bothered doing it as I assumed it was a huge job. In most cases, it’s actually relatively straightforward – and it makes a huge difference to the sound. No matter how well you play, it will sound crap if your guitar isn’t intonated properly – especially if you are playing further up the neck, or doing any kind of clever stuff like tapping. Ideally you should intonate every time you change your strings, and definitely before you record.

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In some ways I wish I had continued to live in ignorance, as now I am on an endless, impossible quest to get all of my guitars perfectly intonated, and whenever they are out it drives me crazy.

One other important thing I learned was that certain guitars simply will not intonate properly with different string gauges, or with alternative tunings. For example, I have always played with Light Top, Heavy Bottom (10-52) strings, because somebody told me a long time this was more balanced for heavier music – and I’ve never really deviated from that. However, I have a bunch of unusual guitars, and it turns out that many of them (especially the vintage ones) aren’t able to adjust adequately to compensate for the heavier gauges – so won’t intonate properly.

Similarly, I have a Danelectro Longhorn bass which I could never get to sound in tune, and wrote it off as a design flaw. However, I realised that this problem was partly the string gauge, and partly due to me tuning a half-step down by default. When I tuned to standard, and used a different gauge, the intonation improved dramatically.

Danelectro Longhorn
Danelectro Longhorn

TL;DR: Intonate your guitars. If you’re having problems, adjust the gauge of your strings, and/or figure out whether you actually need to be tuned a half step down.

4. Practice makes a difference (and music theory probably helps)

If only somebody had told me (!).

Even though I played regularly in a band, I wasn’t really writing, practicing, or learning anything new outside of that for a long time. Part of this was because as a teenager I didn’t really enjoy reading tabs or figuring out songs by other bands; I just wanted to come up with my own sounds and make songs with them. Equally, the prospect of studying music theory seemed incredibly dry, boring, and far too much like homework for my liking. I was firmly of the position that learning theory would just mean I ended up stuck in a box creatively anyway.

That renegade approach worked fine for a while… but when I hit a natural plateau and my ideas dried up, I simply just didn’t play guitar any more. Doing so felt like a chore, rather than something that I enjoyed, and that’s the way it stayed, for a long time.

At some point I got fed up not really knowing what I was doing, and forced myself to at least pick up the guitar regularly. I looked into learning some scales, and to try and play some lead parts from bands like the Smashing Pumpkins that always seemed impossibly difficult before. After a few false starts, it didn’t take long before I noticed a vast improvement over a fairly short space of time. Once I sat down and consciously made an effort to understand what I was playing, or stuck with tricky songs until I got them right, it was as if a lot of things clicked into place at once. It was as if my muscle memory machinations synched up with this new knowledge of the neck, and I was no longer as afraid of picking, or that if I improvised I would hit a duff note.

Stephen Blythe Closet Organ
Live in Scarborough. Photo by Steven Jeffels

Now, I deliberately try and develop different styles of playing that I would never normally bother with (tapping, shredding, etc) – using a metronome to keep me on the straight and narrow. Even if I never really get to a decent level with these specific skills, I now actually enjoy playing guitar – and miss it if when I can’t. Weird.

When it comes to theory, one thing in particular that I found incredibly useful was to learn how the Circle of Fifths works. This provides a quick and easy way to understand different notes in a scale, what keys work with which, etc. Somebody had told me to do this a long time ago and I never bothered, but when I actually took the time to sit and make sense of it, it was mind blowing – like a secret key had unlocked all this musical theory that I thought was impossible to grasp before. I even got a Circle of Fifths watch to remind me how it works…

Circle of Fifths Watch

So long story short: Practice every day, even just for 10 minutes. Play other folk’s songs, and learn some theory. Rather than kill off your creativity, it will expand it.

5. Don’t stick with the same kind of pickups

When I was younger, I would slap a humbucker in any guitar I got my hands on. Why? Well, because they were louder (duh), but also because I used cheap crappy strings that snapped all the time, and I had to have a similar output so when I was switching guitars live there wouldn’t be a huge difference in sound. I even had two USA Fender Strats that were exactly the same for this reason. I’m not sure why it never occurred to me that I should just buy better strings rather than another guitar, but still.

shergoldmeteor
Shergold Meteor with big chunky pickups

What I realised when I started to collect more guitars was actually that the diversity of sound was an asset, rather than something I should aim to flatten out. Instead of getting the same kind of tones from every guitar, having the choice between P90s, single coils, vintage pickups, humbuckers, etc means that I can be much more creative when recording – like adding in a silky, round additional guitar part to complement things more than an additional brash humbucking lead would.

commodoreguitar
A 1970s Matsumoku Commodore guitar with low output vintage pickups.

TL;DR: Embrace sonic diversity. Don’t try make everything sound the same.

2020 Update

It’s been a while since my last update, and while I haven’t been making a pile of chipmusic, I’ve been busy with a bunch of other projects. Here’s what’s going on:

ease and desist

I’ve been working on a new ‘ease and desist’ album. The tracks are much more commercial than anything else I’ve ever done, and have ended up as a mixture of different styles – primarily taking from the electronica and hip hop worlds – and with some collaborations on there. To accompany the tracks, I’ve created some videos, which are now up on the new Cow Tongue Taco YouTube channel.

Hog Wyld

The artist formerly known as… What started as a one-off project between me and my pal Lee has now grown arms and legs and become a fully fledged band. We have taken the tracks from the initial EP and reimagined them, writing a bunch of new songs and playing a pile of gigs as a three-piece – joined by Al Roney on drums.

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We have successfully crowdfunded our debut album, which we are set to release before the end of summer on vinyl LP. Watch this space… and listen to some of the demos below:

Closet Organ

Closet Organ are still going strong, and over the past year embarked on not one, but two mini tours of the UK – piling into a van and playing to a bunch of weird and wonderful villages.

As well as that, we recorded and released three separate sets of music, including ‘Smells Like Lynx Africa / Fat & Die (an Autobiography)‘ double A Side, ‘Fuck the Home Office’ single, and ‘Bambi Riot / Ginger Blonde Bombshell’ double A side.

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Wyld Organ Studio

After years of playing in horrible rehearsal places with broken equipment, a bunch of us finally bit the bullet and got our own dedicated space to jam, record, and generally hang out in.

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Being able to go in and crank up guitars and have decent recordings is both a luxury and also now almost a necessity that I don’t think I could go back to anything else.

The future…

Right now, thinking about the future seems a bit strange, as none of us really knows what the next few days will bring never mind the next few months. However, once (or if) we emerge from the Coronavirus lockdown, we have big plans. Hog Wyld need to record our album and plan a tour. Closet Organ are in the middle of writing a bunch of new material… but for now it looks like I’ll be confined to my home studio, so that could bring a return to electronica for the time being. More updates to follow. Maybe.

 

Hog Wild EP

Back in November, Lee came to stay with me for a week or so while he was looking for a new flat. We decided to make the most of the time by collaborating on a new side project.

In between making food, walking the dog, and working from home, we took turns writing and recording parts of what turned out to be a five track EP. Lee focussed on the drums, guitar, and bass, while I added the vocals and electronic parts. Both of us helped shape the structure and feel of the tracks, and Lee did some kind of production wizardry to make it all sound fantastic.

Gear wise we had a pretty simple setup, despite what the pictures below suggest. Lee had a basic audio interface for the instruments, I used a cheapy Behringer condenser mic for the vocals, and the synthy parts were almost all based on a single Eurorack voice (utilising a C64 SID chip).  Listening back, it’s pretty crazy to think that the songs can sound so huge when they were literally all recorded between my kitchen and living room.

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One of the coolest bits about the project for me was the collaborative part though. It’s easy to get stuck when you are working alone. Here though, whenever we hit a block, we would just pass what we had on to the other person. More often that not, they would hear the potential in what we thought sounded crap, which helped push the process along. A healthy way to produce, and truly collaborative rather than combative.

Here is the result:

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Artwork by the fantastic Ghostvoices / Jake Brown.

You can download the EP for free over on the Cow Tongue Taco Records label page. It will be available to stream on Spotify etc from the end of the month, and there will also be a limited cassette tape version available too.

https://cowtonguetacorecords.bandcamp.com/album/hog-wild

cup fungus – inter alia LP

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For over a year I’ve been working on a new album, plagued by writer’s block and lack of inspiration. However, the time has come where I can unleash it into the wild.

‘Inter alia’ is a ten track album under the cup fungus moniker which retains the darker electronica edge found in previous releases – without being quite as ‘bonkers and disturbing’. Overall, it feels a bit less frantic, and a bit more considered.

inter alia cassette tapes

The album is available both digitally (on Bandcamp/Spotify/etc), and on cassette tape from my label Cow Tongue Taco Records. Downloads are free from there, but anybody who chooses to pay from will get an extra bonus track.

Artwork is by the fantastic Jake Brown aka Ghost Voices.

ease and desist EP

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Today I released a six track, digital only, self-titled EP under the moniker ‘ease and desist’. It’s far more chilled out and heavily sample based than anything else I’ve done before, so probably fits into the ‘samplewave’ genre that I definitely didn’t just make up. You can have a listen/download over on Bandcamp.

 

Artwork comes from the fantastic Jake Brown.

2018 Update

unexpected bowtie studio

unexpected bowtie studio

I feel like I’ve been a bit quiet online lately – partly because my last release was back in August of 2017. Before that, I had been on a bit of a consistent streak, so 7 months feels like an age in comparison. I have been plugging away since the gig in January though, and thought I’d note down some things I’ve been plugging away at.

  • Cow Tongue Taco: I’ve deliberately slowed down the pace of releases on my DIY cassette tape label this year, to focus on promoting the existing artists. That said, we have one upcoming from donotrunwithpixels, and recently put out the digital only ‘The Radio-Friendly Noises of Sandbite‘ for free.
  • Live Shows: Working to confirm another live appearance in Glasgow for June. Watch this space.
  • Studio: I’ve spent a lot of time sorting out the chaos that was my cupboard studio, to get it to a place where I can easily sit down and make music, rather than fighting to find the right cables. Organisation can be helpful at times.
  • DJ Sets: I’ve dipped my toe into the world of DJing – to add another feather to my bow. Or something. I inflicted my music taste in a debut set at the Cathouse a couple of weeks ago. You can find the playlist here. It’s an interesting contrast to playing live, or producing music.
  • Music: I’ve been writing new music every week. Rather than concentrating on getting albums together for release, I am taking the approach of writing as much as possible, and seeing what tracks naturally float to the top. A slower process, but hopefully a bit more rewarding in the long run.