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.

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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

Awake Elsewhere

I’ve gone from feeling fairly unproductive, to wrapping up a lot of different things all at once, which is nice.

The other night I decided to spend some time with the Monome grid controller, as I hadn’t quite gelled with it yet. It turned out pretty well, so I recorded a video:

I took the live recording and mastered it a bit, and have uploaded it to SoundCloud:

More to come.

The Workout Ruse

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Hello.

January has been a bit less productive in terms of finished tracks than I had expected or would have liked, but I’ve still been doing a fair bit. I’ve re-organised and upgraded the studio so that I have far more simultaneous inputs for recording, and better access to my hardware effects, which is good. Just a matter of the final bit of cabling and it’ll be good to go.

Anyway, here’s a new track, that may or may not be on the next Cup Fungus album:

2016.

With the death of what seemed like a disproportionate amount of highly admired famous people, and a number of disappointing political outcomes, it’s probably fair to say that many people will be glad to see the back of this year, and the ‘curse of 2016’.

Without commenting much on any of that, I’m going to take a look back on the past 12 months from my own perspective. Musically, 2016 has been a great year; a year of re-awakening after a four to five year drought. I’ve built up my home studio, getting back into electronics and falling down the Eurorack hole; written, recorded, and released 3 solo studio albums, plus one EP; properly reformed my band Closet Organ and released our first ever full length album on vinyl; started up my DIY label Cow Tongue Taco Records; and played my first ever live gigs as unexpected bowtie – first in Osaka, and then in Glasgow.

It can be too easy to forget what you’ve managed to achieve over a 12 month period, so I think it’s good to look back and reflect a bit. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • January 2016 – Started recording music again, and released the ‘really something‘ EP.
  • March 2016 – Released my first full length album since 2012 – ‘drouth‘. Also set up noisepedals.com, which now has over 1,000 followers on Instagram.
  • May 2016 – Set up my DIY cassette label, Cow Tongue Taco Records.
  • July 2016  – Released the ‘bonkers and disturbing electro’ album ‘defame the dead‘ under the alternative moniker cup fungus.
  • August 2016 – Released ‘drouth (reprise)‘, with guest vocals from some awesome fellow musicians.
  • September 2016 – Closet Organ release ‘5318008’ on vinyl, cassette, and digital download.
  • October 2016 – Closet Organ album launch party, and played my first ever live gig as unexpected bowtie, at the Space Station in Osaka, Japan.
  • November 2016  – Released the fifth full length unexpected bowtie album – ‘Tokyo‘.
  • December 2016 – Played my first ever Glasgow gig as unexpected bowtie, and finally signed up for an unexpected bowtie Instagram account.

Not to mention upping my video game with a new camera. Here’s a sample from the other night:

Of course, there’s not much use in simply looking back and neglecting what you want to aim for in the future. Aside from writing and recording as much music as I can, I have some specific things I want to make happen:

  • Release an unexpected bowtie album composed entirely on a pocket calculator.
  • Listen to more music than I did in 2016.
  • Release a new Cup Fungus album.
  • Play more gigs as unexpected bowtie, both at home and abroad – with the possibility of a mini tour.
  • Look into a Closet Organ tour.
  • Release a bunch of different artists on the Cow Tongue Taco label.
  • Produce a lot more video content for YouTube.

Let’s see how 2017 goes. Happy New Year.

Thoughts on Eurorack

The whole reason I ended up getting into the world of electronics was in a never ending quest to find new and different sounds that I could incorporate into my music. Based on that, it was probably inevitable that I would turn to the black hole of the modular synth – in Eurorack format.

I’ve been building up my collection over the past few months, and thought it was time I shared some of my thoughts on the medium. So here goes: my notes on Eurorack.

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It never ends: The well documented curse of the Eurorack comprises both its greatest asset, and its deepest problem. The awesome thing is that you can build up a system that does exactly what you want it do. If a particular module isn’t getting much use, you can switch it out and trade or buy something that performs the exact function you do want. The problem is that pulling together the perfect synth is a never ending task, and there is always more that you can imagine adding on to do extra things.

The problem of rows: This leads on from the above. Let’s say you have a 6u, two row system, and you’ve limited yourself to that size. Now let’s say that you have a great setup, but you realise that to really make your patches sing, you need another envelope generator, or VCO. Just one. The problem is that there is no cost effective way to just get and power that single module; you may as well just get another whole row, but then you have a whole row to fill, and it’s inevitable that you will.

It’s bloody expensive: Whilst the range of modules on offer is awesome, the financial outlay is substantial, even for small systems. You can get full featured synths for the cost of a couple of modules that only perform single functions each, which is something I can’t dwell on for too long, or I’ll cry.

If you want to get an idea of the problem of expanding setups, check out the pictures below. Before, then after.

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Now for some positive things…

Modulate all the things: With Eurorack, you get an amazing level of control over the different elements of your synthesiser. If you want to vary the volume of a certain element, or the kind of filter, or… anything else really, you can do so in seemingly endless ways by taking the output of different modules and using them as controllers. So for example, you can automate filter sweeps with an envelope triggered by the 4th step in a sequence, or whatever else. Trying to make all of those changes by hand on a traditional synth would be a nightmare, and opens up lots of possibilities.

The community is great: The online modular synth community is great. People will go out of their way to help you, and the whole thing is rooted in the open source ethos, and a DIY spirit.

So many modules: Okay, I’ve kind of mentioned this already, but the number of different modules that you can get that do interesting things is crazy. One of the things I like in particular is that there are all sorts of unusual sequencers that change up the way you approach things, which you would never be able to find on a stand-alone instrument.

Composing is FUN: Tweaking all of the different parameters is a source of endless amusement, and it’s great fun exploring the possibilities for an hour, only for it all to suddenly come together and produce the most amazing sounds. The tactile nature of the Eurorack really feels great, and like a naturally evolving creative process.

I find myself writing a whole lot more music, but with a different approach. Instead of finishing everything that I record, I now end up with a lot more in the way of loops, that I dig through later to find those that stand the test of time on a fresh listen. This is partly because finding ways to develop melodies on the Eurorack that don’t just repeat variations of the same sequence is a real challenge. That said though, it’s a refreshing change from writing full tracks on the Game Boy. It definitely won’t replace it, but it’s good to have a different outlet.

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I still need to work out how the Eurorack could possibly be incorporated in a live environment, as changing patches over between tracks seems like an impossible task at this point, and not able to replicate sounds consistently enough. I really hope that I can manage it at some point though, as taking the rig with all of its lights to perform with would be amazing. 

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Thanks to Lee and Grace for the pictures.

 

 

wolf sanctuary

This week hasn’t been the easiest. This track felt like an appropriate reflection.

Recorded with some Commodore 64 SID chips, a bunch of Eurorack, drones, some guitar, and far too many effects pedals.

Osaka Gig and New Track

unexpected bowtie live Osaka poster

I’m going to be in Japan in the next couple of weeks, and have confirmed my first live outing as unexpected bowtie, at Space Station in Osaka, which is apparently in the ‘Top 30 Recommended Sights of Japan as Chosen by Foreign Visitors‘. The set will be stripped down to a single Game Boy only, given that we are travelling, so should be something a little different. If you happen to be in the area, it’d be awesome to see you there!

chiptune - portable rig

To mark the occasion, I’ve written a new track that’s up now on Soundcloud. Composition wise, it’s just a single Game Boy, with a tiny little added bit of Commodore 64, and extra drums. Enjoy!