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By Jon Chappell
Having the right guitar accessories can do everything from help you play better, to sound more interesting, to survive a live performance meltdown. But what exactly constitutes the "right" set of accessories? Well, you've come to the right place to ask that question.
Following is my list of essential pieces of gear no guitar player should be without, otherwise known as Stuff Guitarists Need Besides a Guitar. And if you’re in gift-giving mode, consider that if your intended already has one of the following items, he or she could certainly use two. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if each guitar had its own capo and tuner that could reside right in the case of the instrument it was ideally suited for? You could put the ornate, exhibitionistic Kyser in the Martin case (because capoing is de rigueur for acoustic guitar), while the subtler Shubb goes the Tele case for when you want to do your Albert Collins thing, but you don’t want to broadcast that you’re using a “cheater.” But even if you’re just doing a reality check for your own kit bag, read on for my must-have accessories that every recording guitarist should own, and the supporting reasons for them.
Everyone has to tune sometime, sometimes surreptitiously, so as not to disturb other activities (stage patter, etc.). There are many time-sensitive sessions where you can’t even make noise, much less find a break in the action to tune, so you need to have an electronic tuner placed inline with your guitar, effects and amp, so that you can check your tuning periodically. Tuning visually, when you get the hang of it, can actually be faster than tuning by ear, and is definitely more reliable when ear fatigue sets in.
An electronic tuner (see Fig. 1) can also aid you in alternate tunings within the same piece of music, or within a quick segue that would normally prohibit a retune. You could, for example, play one passage in standard tuning, rest for eight bars, come back in drop D tuning, rest again, and again re-enter in standard tuning for the next passage. All multi-effects processors mute the output when you enter their onboard tuning mode, which is a great convenience, especially in the sometimes tense goings-on of the recording studio.
Fig. 1: An electronic tuner is essential for playing in perfect tune in the studio.
A capo is a device that clamps around the strings and underside of your neck, pulling the strings to the fretboard at a given fret—like a permanent 1st-finger barre (see Fig. 2). This allows you to transpose the guitar chords from the actual “concert” (true or absolute) key you’re actually in. For example, if you want to play D chord you can either play it as an open-position D, or capo the 2nd fret and play a C chord, which will sound as D. This might seem arbitrary until you consider what happens if the required chord is Ab major. Here, you can either barre the 4th fret as an F-type chord, or you can capo the first fret and play an open-position G chord. If it’s supposed to sound like a ringy, open-string, fingerpicked part, it’s better to pop on the capo and play it in “G” than to grip an Ab barre chord. Capoes can save your life when people decide to switch keys up or down a half step, which often happens when playing and recording with vocalists.
Fig. 2. A capo clamps over the strings at different frets, allowing you to transpose easily.
There’s an important musical reason for using a capo, too. By playing a part in “C” that’s really in D (to take our previous example) you also end up playing C licks instead of D licks. Each open-position key on the guitar has idiomatic properties to it. For example, some people find it easier to play acoustic blues in E than in G. So if they encounter a song in F or G that’s supposed to have a swampy, Delta feel to it, they’ll probably slap on a capo at the first or third frets, respectively, and play out of an E position.
But capoes can work for adding “color” parts too. Say you’ve just recorded a song on acoustic guitar using A, D, and E7 chords, all in first position. The producer likes the full-bodied sound of the part, but thinks the overall mix lacks some sparkle and high-end activity in the accompaniment. This is a perfect opportunity to put on the capo at the 9th fret and play the open chord-forms C, F, and G7, which will come out sounding as A, D, and E7—the original chords in the rhythm part. The difference is, these capoed chords are played way up the neck with higher notes. What’s more, the capo gives them an open-string quality. If you’re the one who laid down the original part, you can usually play the new one exactly in rhythm, which can sound more like a “doubled” guitar than two different guitars playing at once. Suddenly your double-tracked guitar sounds more like a 12-string, but with an expanded range. This situation would work well for a Nashville-tuned guitar, which would yield a similar effect.
There are a variety of objects that can be fashioned into a slide, from the medicine-bottle type (Duane Allman used a Coricidin bottle) to a length of brass pipe to a wine-bottle neck to an actual nickel-chrome machined slide for a pedal or lap steel (see Fig. 3). Which one is right for you is largely a matter of individual taste and comfort (as is the decision to play the guitar itself on your lap or upright in the normal guitar-playing position), but a well-versed recording guitarist should have some slide facility in several styles. Facility means not only having a clean, noise-free and in-tune technique, but also being able to play idiomatically, i.e., knowing some licks. Slide players play both in open tunings (G and D, and their relative transpositions A and E, being the most popular) as well as standard tuning.
Fig. 3: A variety of slides.
An E-bow is a nifty little device that fits in your right hand and uses a battery-powered magnet to excite the string directly under it, without making contact (see Fig. 4). What you can do then is play the guitar as you do normally in the left hand, substituting the E-bow placement for right-hand picking. This produces attack-less notes, emulating the sound of a bowed string instrument, like the violin, viola, or cello. Because the E-bow has to magnetically oscillate (vibrate) the string into producing a pitch, the response is not as immediate as if you’d picked it, so it’s generally better on slower, more lyrical melodic passages. It doesn’t take that much technique to master an E-bow, and it can contribute a completely different flavor to a guitar part, especially as an overdub.
Fig. 4: An E-Bow can add a violin-like texture to your parts.
I once interviewed Eric Johnson for an article on his guitar technique. As we chatted casually, he picked up his Strat and began to play, stopping almost instantly because it had developed a slight buzz on the 3rd string. In a matter of mere seconds, he reached into his case, pulled out a truss-rod wrench, administered a couple of cranks, and eliminated the buzz—without ever breaking his conversational stride.
This shows what an intimate knowledge of your instrument can bring. You can not only play it, but also make adjustments and minor repairs to it too—often on the fly. These repairs can be as simple as fixing fret buzzes and intonation problems, which can happen as a result of an environmental change or some other event’s causing a misalignment of your guitar. To obviate the negative effects quickly and accurately, you must know the mechanical elements of your guitar and be facile in dealing with them.
If you have a floating bridge system with a locking nut, make sure the corresponding hex drivers (Allen wrenches) are within reach should a string break. A small Phillips-head screwdriver is usually what’s required to raise and lower pickups if they ever get too far from or close to the strings. Pliers and wire cutters can accomplish in seconds what might take an unaided human hand minutes to complete. A peg winder will bring a string up to pitch from total slack much quicker than winding the machine head by hand. Peg winders also have a built-in notch in the tuning-head cup that allows you to pop stubborn acoustic-guitar bridge pins. A socket wrench enables you to tighten or even remove the output-jack nut, should you ever develop a problem down there.
While it's not that hard to assemble the tools you need to do minor repairs and adjustments, a company called CruzTOOLS has already done the hard work for you with their GrooveTech Guitar Player Tech Kit (Fig. 5; there's also a version for bass).
Fig. 5: The CruzTOOLS GrooveTech Guitar Player Tech Kit includes metric and inch hex keys, thickness gauge, ruler, capo, cutters, string winder, 6-in-1 screwdriver, LED flashlight, and ball end truss rod wrenches. It’s also very handy to have around when setting up a guitar.
Depending on the guitar and rig you have, you should develop a miniature toolkit that includes extra fuses, alligator clips (for making temporary electrical connections), spare batteries, and even extra tubes for your amp, so that you can problem-solve virtually any situation within your technical abilities.
Seems obvious, right? But there is a way to be smart about something as simple as extra strings. For example, don’t just pack one extra set. Keep three Gs, Bs and high Es, because these break more than the lower, wound strings. It’s not uncommon to break the same string twice in one session, especially if you’re doing multiple takes on some outrageous bent-note passage.
Take an inventory of what kind and how many you use in your setup and have a complete replacement set. Upon insertion of any new battery, I stick white masking tape on it and write the date. Come to think of it, pack the tape and the marker in your bag, too. Masking tape can be used to reduce rattle on a trapeze tailpiece or Dobro cone.
If you want a higher-tech solution for testing batteries, Keith McMillen Instruments' Batt-O-Meter (Fig. 6).This not only reads the voltage, but gives an estimate of remaining capacity, Even better, with most effects and active pickups, you don't even need to remove the battery just plug into the jack that switches the battery on and off.
Fig. 6: The Batt-O-Meter lets you check most effects batteries by simply plugging in to the effect .
The cable part is easy: Have at least one long and two short in reserve. Don’t wait for total failure before substituting the cord, either. Intermittent crackles can kill a take just as dead as a totally non-working cable, so at the first hint of trouble, swap for a new one, and work on the problem after the session. Adapters are items many guitarists don’t pack, but they can be the “crescent wrench” that saves the day. In a pro studio, you probably don’t have to worry about scaring up, say a direct box, but in a demo studio, if you bring your own, you’ll be self-sufficient, should you decide to go direct and there’s not a spare D.I. around.
Music electronics is a surprisingly simple, intuitive affair if you can locate the source of the problem; sometimes a cursory look will reveal the defect—a broken solder joint, a loose wire, a dirty contact. Alligator clips will hold two contacts together, but if you have the time, drop a glob of solder onto the connections.
These items costs about $12 and $20 respectively, and earn their keep the first time they diagnose a bad or reverse-wired cable (see Fig. 7). Learn how to use the volt-ohm meter with respect to your equipment; i.e., know what power supplies you have and what the appropriate settings are on the meter. You can impress your friends with your “gearhead geek” aptitude.
Fig. 7. A cable tester (left) and a volt-ohm or multi-meter can help make electrical troubleshooting a breeze.
Any new environment—even a studio—can have unpredictable wiring schemes that could cause havoc with your gear, and especially to your amp. Your amp’s first line of defense is its fuse. If the house current is weird, the fuse will blow. Having replacements is your responsibility, just like having extra strings. If you blow subsequent fuses, alert the engineer and asked that your amp be moved to a different circuit.
This is the musician’s baking soda—an all-purpose utility product that cures a multitude of maladies. You can use it to fix everything from a rattling tailpiece to a broken mic clip. Even the roll itself is handy: you can use it to tilt your combo amp up for better monitoring.
It doesn’t have to be dark to use a flashlight. Shadows and small sizes pose as much a problem for diagnosing an electrical problem as the complete absence of light. If you’re trying to locate a bad connection inside a volume pedal, you may not see the broken bit of solder that’s causing it because it’s behind a shadow. You can hold a penlight between your teeth as you reach into the back of your amp to fix a broken speaker lead.
I can’t tell you the times I’ve scrambled to find these two mundane items. You can take notes, dash out substitute chord changes, and even pass notes to the other session musicians where conversation is discouraged or impractical (see Fig. 8). Write your cheat notes on a separate piece of paper, not on the chart, so that you can take your scrawlings with you, and no one will ever see “Hit the E chord when the big fat trumpet player gets ready for his entrance.”
Fig. 8. Sometimes plain old pencil and paper will be the life-saving "gadget" that saves the day .
Jon Chappell is a guitarist and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children, and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).
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