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3 Simple Answers to Some Big Guitar Questions

Peter Hodgson

One of the things that’s great about learning the guitar is that it’s as much an oral medium as an aural one. You can learn a lot from listening to other players, but sometimes you need to actually ask “Uh, what’s going on there?” to figure something out. So this month I thought we’d look at a few of those things that maybe bugged me a little when I was first figuring out what’s what. Some of these might seem obvious, especially to experienced players, but for some players all it takes is one “Oh! That’s how they do it!” moment to unlock a whole new facet of their playing. So I hope this is able to answer a few questions for you.

Why Can I Get Pinch Harmonics On Some Guitars But Not Others?

Pinch harmonics are freaking fun. Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Billy Gibbons - they’ve all used this technique to add some excitement and energy to their solos and melodies. The basic idea is that you pick the string and then immediately - like, within a few milliseconds - strike the string with the fleshy part of your thumb to sound an artificial harmonic. These harmonics only occur at certain points along the string, so it stands to reason that you might miss the occasional squealer in the heat of battle. But some guitars just don’t seem to want to give them up. So what’s the deal? Well a lot of the time, the issue is not your playing but your setup. You may need to dial in a little neck relief with your truss rod with a slight forward bow, otherwise the strings can sort of rattle against the frets and instantly muffle any harmonic you might have sounded. You might also need to raise the action just a little bit for the same reason. But another thing that can screw up your harmonic adventures is the magnetic field of your pickups: if they’re too high, they’ll interfere with the free vibration of the string, and this is a great way to suck all the life out of your harmonics. You’ll also notice that if a pickup is too high you might notice a weird ‘wob-wob-wob’ overtone to some of your notes. Back those suckers off and you’ll get more sustain, more tone and more harmonics. And you can always make up for any little gain reduction by turning up the gain at your amp or with a pedal.

How Can I Make My Distorted Live Tone Bigger?

This one’s easy: turn down the distortion! When you pile on the gain at home, it can sound pretty badass. But once you add drums, bass, vocals, keys and what-have-you, all your pick attack can be masked and your guitar tone can turn into a bed of fizz rather than the savage screaming hellfest that you want it to be. If you back the gain off by about a third you’ll find that you should still have more or less the same tonality but with more punch up-front and more dynamic range all around. It also forces you to be more consistent with your picking technique.

Here’s a test: fire up some recording software, dial up a super high-gain sound in an amp sim like AmpliTube 3 or something similar and record some speedy riffage. Then switch to a clean tone for playback. Chances are good that if you’re not used to playing with a clean tone you’ll notice that your dynamics are all over the place, because a lot of us let distortion take care of smoothing everything out. But these days when a lot of guitarists use reamping, it helps to make sure your picking is nice and even from the very beginning so that if you happen to reap a guitar track through a different amp that responds much more interactively to your picking dynamics, it’s gonna sound ‘right.’ You can also greatly increase the power of your live tone by turning up your mids - or at least not scooping them out. That’s where a lot of the guitar’s ‘voice’ lives, and while it might sound great to ditch the mids at home, it’s not a great way to be heard live.

How Can I Make My Vibrato More Consistent?

Vibrato is one of the most expressive techniques a guitarist can have, but it’s also one of the easiest to screw up from the very beginning, and then carry forward as a bad habit throughout your playing career.

Bad vibrato can sound nervous and fidgety, or simply out-of-tune and seasick. Good vibrato is either totally even, or follows a nice steady arc (for instance, starting shallow and gradually, evenly increasing to wide, or vice versa). But here’s the thing: vibrato is simply bending and releasing the string, and there’s a mathematical principal behind the movement of the string verses how far the pitch will bend.

How does this relate to instantly fixing your vibrato? Easy: simply watch your vibrato in a mirror. When it looks like you’re vibrato-ing evenly, it sounds like you’re vibrato-ing evenly. And you’ll quickly notice that if you push the string too far during one of the mini bend-and-releases that make up your vibrato, it just sounds wrong. Seriously, practicing in front of a mirror can be one of the greatest things you can do for your playing because it instantly shows you if your posture is inhibiting your playing, or if your alternate picking is inconsistent, if your vibrato sucks, if your bends aren’t smooth - there are so many ways it can help you.

What about you? Have you discovered any ‘should be obvious but isn’t’ tricks to improve your playing? Share them with us on our Facebook wall.

Photo Credit: Anne Erickson

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