The very first ever New Zealand Musician issue (with English drummer Simon Phillips on the cover!) was published back in September 1988 – which officially makes September 2018 the magazine’s 30th birthday anniversary! Can you believe that shit?
Now we probably should have marked this very significant achievement with a one-off NZ Musician September print issue, but we had a bit too much on our office plates to head down that road. Besides, printing requires lots of advertising to cover the costs, right? Instead, we hope you’ll join us in a slightly belated celebration by helping make NZM’s upcoming December/January 2019 print edition a 30-year milestone special.
Meantime, we do feel that we should remember that groundbreaking 1988 first issue and those involved in it. As the editorial by Alex Bold (sic) and David Hines noted: “We look forward to a long and enjoyable project aimed at giving all of us a musical voice…” Thirty years eh?! Not a bad outcome.
Aside from Simon Phillips the 20-page September 1988 issue included a ‘Fatter Strat Rewiring Project’ courtesy of Dave McGrath; Peavey VTM 120 guitar amp Atari 1040ST, Ensoniq EPS and Casio DAT reviews courtesy of David Hicks, Jacob Simonsen, John McCubbery and Joe Carter; and a remembrance of Ricky May by fellow drummer and longtime NZM writer Bruce Morley. We’ve settled on the probably-still-pertinent premiere Zen Guitar article by Wellington muso/retailer/luthier Dave Berry, another fantastic longtime NZM contributor, as our memorial.
Thanks all for 30 years of fond Kiwi music memories, successes and achievements.
Richard Thorne – Publisher
By Dave Berry
(First published in NZ Musician magazine, September 1988.)
ZEN – the Oxford Reference Dictionary describes Zen as a sect of Japanese Buddhism that teaches the attainment of enlightenment through meditation and intuition, rather than through the study of scriptures. However, I don’t intend that we should all break out the sushi and meditate our way to better playing technique – rather I shall be raising matters relating to the electric guitar that I feel deserve some scrutiny.
The opinions expressed in this column will be my own, so if anyone vehemently disagrees with what I have to say, please feel free to write in – I love a good discussion! This month, I think we will talk about Distortion.
The topic came to me in a blinding flash the other day, as I sat behind my desk listening to a young guitarist running through the first few bars of Stairway To Heaven on the latest mega-thrash-death-metal pedal. As the hornet-like tones pierced my consciousness, it occurred to me that, in the few short years since manufacturers got the sound right, distortion has become possibly the most used and abused effect in existence. It is the tomato sauce of guitar effects – slap it on everything! You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard A Forest by The Cure rendered at warp factor nine.
It has become such a crutch that many players seem to be unaware that there is any other way to play. So who cares, right? Certainly not the effect manufacturers such as Boss, who have, in all probability, sold at least one million distortion pedals worldwide in the last five years or so. What’s the problem then? We can, after all, finally buy in a box the sound that has both enticed and eluded guitarists for nearly three decades. The problem is this – I believe that many players today will not develop subtlety and feel on their instrument because they have come to rely on the sound of ‘the box’.
To investigate this further, we must first define what distortion for the guitarist really is. With some exceptions, the sound most players are after is a tube-type distortion. When an output tube in an amplifier is driven close to capacity, it starts to react less to the incoming signal. What you get is a form of compression, before the tube is driven to actual clipping, or distortion. This compression phase that the output tube goes through gives a very even and predictable transition into distortion, and enables the player to get different timbres from the amplifier, according to variations in playing techniques. This is largely what guitarists mean when they talk of a ‘tube sound’.
Transistors, on the other hand, do not go through a ‘compression’ stage before distortion – they react the same to input signals right up to their maximum output, and then distort sharply – not a highly desirable sound as they generate odd overtones rather than the even overtones of tubes. Having said this about transistors, I should point out that great strides have been made in the last few years in developing the sound and response of transistor amplifiers. The difference in performance now is very little, and transistor amplifiers offer a quite legitimate, and cheaper, alternative to their tube brethren.
Now, as there are fewer players with tube amplifiers these days, and even fewer places where you can wind them up enough to get ‘that sound’, most of us rely on a pedal, or circuit within an amplifier, to get variable distortion sounds. As these devices have enormous amounts of distortion available, there is a perfectly natural tendency to use more than is really necessary. The more distorted a sound becomes, the less influence the player has upon that sound. Variations and nuances of style become squeezed out, and as a very light pick attack is all that is required to make a note sound, the player is discouraged from whacking his or her strings, and becomes subservient to the sound of the effect. I have seen numerous people who are almost incapable of playing without full-on distortion – totally boring, I’m afraid.
Some time back, after a year or so of hearing the local gunslingers ripping through Van Halen’s Eruption, (usually with distortion pedals set to melting point), I went and listened to the original recording and was surprised at how relatively clean Edward Van Halen’s guitar sound really is.
Well, what’s the point at issue here? I feel, for one thing, that guitarists should practice more without amplification and effects. Playing un-amplified electric guitar is hard work, but good for the soul! A player who is confident and accomplished at playing ‘raw’ will really whine when the tricks are added. Useless distortion – go on, turn that knob down a bit, and turn the output level up to compensate for the loss in gain. This will increase the available range of dynamics – ideally, you should be able to cover everything between a whisper and a roar just by varying your right-hand attack. If you need to sound aggressive, you should be aggressive with your instrument. Turning your distortion to 11 and strumming your guitar with a wet bus ticket is not being aggressive – it is a cop-out!
I am not advocating ultimate thrash as a technique here – aggression should always be balanced with control. Using less distortion will, of course, bring about a loss of sustain, which must be replaced somehow. The simplest way is to play loud, but in situations where this is not practical, the onus is on the left hand to wring as much as possible out of the note. This is where practising sans application has its benefits – learn to sustain naturally and you won’t need as much distortion. Natural sustain as a technique warrants a column by itself and will be covered in depth in the near future.
Let’s go further and look at a couple of hypothetical circumstances. You have a non-master volume tube amplifier with no built-in distortion. You can’t run it hard enough to get it to distort, but at reasonable levels, you can get a bit of edge to the sound. Run the amp at this level and for solos, or heavy chords, use a distortion pedal set so that it is not pushed further into distortion by the pedal’s high output level should sound great, provided you play with commitment.
Potentially, this gives you the following combinations: pedal Off, guitar volume lower for super clean playing; pedal Off, guitar volume higher for clean sounds with an edge; pedal On, guitar volume lower for crunch rhythm; pedal On, guitar volume higher for howling screaming noises! What I am driving at here is that by using a few simple combinations, you should be able to cover a wide range of timbres.
Scenario number two. You have a transistor amplifier with built-in distortion and are trying to get a non-very-distorted tone at lower volumes. If you turn the distortion down, the sound just wimps out, and you lose body and sustain. At low levels, you can fake a tube sound by using a little compression from a pedal in combination with the amps own distortion. A careful balance of the two effects, in moderation, coupled with some physical commitment from the player should sound fairly great, and the standard of sound offered by the popular brands these days is superb, but the more you lean on them, the less you will develop feel and subtlety in your playing.
This does not apply only to distortion – it is merely a more obvious thing to highlight. Look to your hands – if they are not cutting it, no device in the world will ever make you a good player.
A quick fireside story from Uncle Dave. Years ago, a band I was in was double-billed with another. The lead guitarist in this band habitually used a Watkins Tape Echo unit – he used it all the time, in every song they played. And he used heaps of it! Halfway through the set, the tape broke, killing his echo on the spot. He had no spare and was so completely lost without his sonic soup that he stopped playing and sat out the rest of the set. He could not handle playing straight. It’s true, children, I was there! Remember now, beat that guitar and hear it sing – don’t wimp out behind a wall of tricks.