Using Effects to Improve Your Technique
By Chris Loeffler |
By Chris Loeffler
We buy guitar effects to enhance, sculpt, or even entirely mangle our guitar tone. They are tone boxes made for audio pleasure. That said, the way effects work often is intrinsically tied to the assumptions of how an instrument is played. Because of this, many effects can be used as tools to make you a better player when incorporated into your practice routine. Let’s explore a couple of ways we can use these tone devices as essential practice partners.
Improve Your Touch
Take David Gilmour and your average, capable player and have them switch rigs. Who’s going to get the closest to the “Glimour” studio tone… the “average” player using Gilmour’s setup or Gilmour using a Squire into an entry-level Fender tube amp? It can’t be emphasized enough how much your touch is your sound. As you master music theory and the mechanics of your instrument, it’s easy to pick up playing habits (good or bad) you aren’t even aware of. Practicing your “touch” is easy to forget while practicing scales and chords, but here are two surefire ways to keep touch sensitivity a part of your practice regimen by using effects devices you already own. Humbuckers work, but you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck using single coil, passive pickups for these exercise.
A favorite practice technique I discovered a few years ago involves using an envelope filter (in my case, the Subdecay Prometheus) to provide over-the-top audio feedback of my playing. The basic function of an envelope-controlled effect is controllign the sweep of an effect based on the attack, decay, sustain, and release characteristics of your playing… the harder you dig in on a string, the more the effect opens up. With the right settings, you can dial in an envelope-controlled devise (in this case, an envelope filter or, as it is commonly misnamed, autowah) to a setting where the envelope doesn’t open when the strings are gently plucked but opens up wildly when you pick aggressively.
Depending on the sensitivity of the envelope (most good envelope-controlled effects can be highly tailored), your notes will either sit beneath the filter and be unanimated at your lightest playing or percolate with a round, wah-like zip when the strings are heavily struck. If you have the option, a down sweep is ideal for practicing a lighter touch and an upsweep is best when the focus is on digging in. In either case, by the end of your first practice I guarantee you will have a whole new appreciatoion for dynamics and an awareness of how nuanced (or heavy handed!) you are. Not only will this benefit your playing holistically, but your mastery of envelope-filtered effects will skyrocket.
Take Your Attack into Overdrive
The envelope filter exercise above is a great way for “in your face” feedback for your touch and attack, but the flub of the envelope can be distracting for those looking to practice technique and theory at the same time. This is where a good gain effect comes in to play (if you don’t have one yet… you’re doing it wrong!). Regardless of the device, the best overdrive/distortion/fuzz effects for this exercise are uncompressed and minimally EQed. The traditional, seasick green overdrives guitar players use work, but the compression and midrange focus tend to make them stiffer and less dynamically transparent. A good, vintage gain fuzz pedal is an excellent place to start.
Match the output volume of the effect to your bypassed signal into a clean(ish) amp and dial the gain knob until it is at its lowest setting where it still sounds like the effect should in your head. Note that in a live setting most players will crank the gain beyond this point… in this case, less is more. Once you’ve achieved your desired distortion level, strum softly. Really softly. At this point, make any adjustments to the gain level of the pedal (don’t forget the potential in dialing back the volume on your guitar a touch) until the tone is lively but clean when the strings are lightly strummed. Now dig in! Most dynamic, responsive gain effects will produce a clean, hot signal when lightly strummed that can turn into a wall of sound when the strings take a beating without ever changing the settings on the effect. Obviously, a good tube amp on the verge of breakup will sound even more glorious, but the volume produced can be overwhelming on many amps. Practice transitions between soft, arpeggiated sections and aggressive power chords and you will find an entire world of tones in between.
You've Got the Right Touch
The above are just examples of ways you can mindfully incorporate developing and improving your tone into a regular practice routine. These are skills that (hopefully) most players acquire once they have enough familiarity with their instrument that they are focused on how they sound rather than if they're playing the right note... but as the old saying goes; practice makes perfect.