Saturday, January 16, 2010

20 Life-Saving and Extremely Useful Guitar and Gear Tips!

To commemorate my 200th post, here are 20 useful, and on occasion, life-saving guitar and gear tips that have worked for me over the years.


  • Leave cables with solderless plugs for home or studio use.  I really like the tone of cables with solderless plugs.  They usually tend to be of high quality and sound really transparent.   But they're also most prone to a bad or loose connection that can be a nightmare to troubleshoot, especially if you have a huge pedalboard.


  • Use an aural exciter if you need to punch through the band without playing louder.  An aural exciter works by separating the different frequencies in a signal by milliseconds so that they reach the input source or amplifier at slightly different times.  This separation reduces muddying of frequencies resulting in better clarity.


  • If you've just bought a new multi effects pedal, don't bother tweaking the tone at home.  Once the rest of the band kicks in, it's going to sound totally different onstage.  Book a couple of hours rehearsal time with your band and tell your mates that the session is purely for you to tweak your sound 


  • Don't pay attention to the numbers on the knobs when tweaking your gear. Just keep twisting the knobs till the sound approximates what you hear in your head.  Then use the numbers as a reference to remember later.


  • When using an amp modelling pedal in a live situation, play through a clean solid state amp -- I love the Roland JC120 or JC160 solid-state amps for this application.  Tube amps impart too much of their own color to the sound.  A direct line into the PA also works well but you'll need a good soundman who can give you a good onstage monitor mix


  • Go stereo.  All the famous cats, from Steve Lukather to Pat Metheny to John Scofield do it.  Stereo creates a nice spread to the sound, and surprisingly lets you relax more as you play because you're not dealing with a sound that is emanating from a single, direct source.  And going stereo let's the bass player enjoy some of your juicy tones from his side of the stage too!  


  • A simple truss-rod adjustment can make a guitar play like butter.  Learn to do this yourself or shell out a few bills for a repairman or luthier.  My personal preference is for absolutely no neck relief.


  • If you're going to be leaving your guitar on a stand between sets, unplug that guitar cable and put it away from the instrument.  Guitar cables have a tendency to get caught in people's feet, unleashing that prized PRS Private Stock onto the floor.  The floor always wins.  If you play an expensive instrument, it belongs back in the case between sets, no matter how gorgeous it looks onstage on a stand.  'At first it's all ooh and ahh, and then there's running and screaming..'


  • If you have your guitar setup the way you like it but there is still some fretting out somewhere around the 17th to 20th frets you might want to check that the screws on that bolt-on neck are not torqued too tightly.  Overtightened screws tend to push against the fingerboard, causing a slight hump which can lead to fret buzz. This applies especially to fretless bass!  Thanks to my friend and bass virtuoso Serge Dionne for this tip!


  • A compressor is your best friend for clean tones.  It fattens the sound, increases perceived sustain and generally imparts a polished, studio-quality tone.  Add a smidgen of reverb and you're golden.


  • You can buff out ragged edges on a guitar pick by rubbing it against carpet!


  • Pickups set too close to the strings can cause a warbling, double-toned, 'out-of-tuneness' when playing above the 12th fret.  This is especially true of single-coil pickups.  Back the pickups off a little more and allow the strings to 'breathe' and vibrate through their full ellipse.  But back the pickups off too much and you'll lose some output.  Find a happy medium.


  • The neck pickup always sounds louder than the bridge pickup -- the neck pickup sees a far bigger vibrational movement of the string.  I like to set Stratocaster pickups or Les Paul pickups so that the relative volumes between each pickup are as equal as I can get it.  And this usually means setting the neck, and middle pickups (on a Strat) slightly lower than the bridge pickup. This will also help in alleviating the warbling and intonation problems I mentioned earlier.  


  • On nylon string guitars you can get away with changing the nylon treble strings once with every three or four changes of the metal wound bass strings.


  • If you go with stainless steel strings on an electric, you can leave the bass strings and get away with replacing only the top three treble strings two or three times before you have to replace the entire set.  Clean the bass strings between changes with isopropyl alcohol or even aftershave lotion!


  • Rosewood fretboards tend to dry out and need to be lightly oiled once every six months.  Just a smidgen of lemon oil does the trick.  I usually also take this opportunity to go over the fingerboard with a soft toothbrush, removing any gunk that has accumulated.  Moisturized rosewood has a nice luster and shows off the grain of the wood.  Dunlop makes some nice fingerboard conditioning products.


  • Maple fingerboards usually have some kind of hard finish over them and therefore do not need moisturizing.  Just the occasional cleaning with a coarse, damp rag -- with the strings off of course.


  • Clean volume, tone and wah wah potentiometers with a spritz of a good quality contact cleaner meant for electronics.  Servisol brand contact cleaner is probably the best.  Don't use WD40 as it has too much gunky industrial lubricant that will build up and spell trouble in the long run!    


  • Stewart-MacDonald produces radius gauges for measuring arcs between 7 1/4" and 20".  Repairman use these gauges and often adjust the bridge arc radius to match the fingerboard radius.  When I did get hold of one of these radius gauges I measured how I had set up the bridge saddles on my own guitars.  I found that I had consistently gone with a 12" arc radius, regardless of fingerboard radius, on all my guitars, purely by feel.  Just my preference, but you might want to experiment with the gauges yourself.  Dan Erlewine's 'How To Make Your Electric Guitar Play Great' includes free radius gauges in soft vinyl.  A must have!


  • With some bolt-on neck guitars you may find that the bridge saddles are as low as they can possibly go but that the action is still too high.  Shimming the neck in the neck pocket is your only option in these cases -- I've used strips cut out of business cards for this purpose in the past.  The added tilt to the neck angle automatically causes the strings to sit lower to the fretboard.  Fender's Micro-Tilt feature performs this adjustment admirably without having to add shims or even remove the neck. 
 So there we go.  Twenty of my most useful guitar and gear tips.  What are some of yours?

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