Some Must-Have Guitar Gear

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With each new beginner guitar pupil I meet, I find myself recommended certain must-have bits of gear – things I think make a guitarist’s life that little bit easier.  Over the years I’ve found myself trying all sorts of different gadgets and gizmos, designed to improve our playing and make gigs run like clockwork.

Here are my top 4 recommendations for the guitarists toolbag – tech and gear I wouldn’t do without.  It’s useful not only for guitarists, but for friends and family of guitarists who might be looking for great gift ideas for their budding Hendrix!

So, up first, Tuners:

1. Clip-on Tuners

tuner
Photo courtesy of photobucket.com/albums/bb103/resonatorrat

Clip-on tuners are a great invention.  Small enough to fit in your gig bag, and powerful enough to quickly pick up chromatic tunings through the vibrations of your guitar. There’s now a dizzying array of these on offer – just look at the range available from Rich Tone Music here…

http://www.richtonemusic.co.uk/guitar_accessories/tuners/

I’ve found Snark clip-ons work for me – they have a bright, clear display, decent battery life, and seem really sensitive.  Now costing only around £10-£12 they’re really good value.

They’re available in most local music shops and through online music shops (not Amazon though, eh)

https://www.gak.co.uk/en/snark-qtsn5-clip-on-tuner/53856?gclid=Cj0KEQiAl4TGBRDhgvmikdHPsdABEiQAtBcc8HEiebpg0Eiz7cqq5f8Ydj71vlkUuiIKBAOiKw-FEnMaApvJ8P8HAQ

2. Tuning Apps

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Photo Courtesy of joyofandroid.com

If, like me, you often can’t remember why you just walked up the stairs, or where the cup of tea you just made disappeared to, you might also, like me, struggle to remember where your recently purchased clip-on tuner ended up clipped-on.

But, you always have your smart phone on you, right?

So, it’s lucky then that plucky I.T. entrepreneurs have flooded the Android and IOS App market with tons of free tuning apps.  I like the recently pimped up TUNA tuning app.

There’s a more in-depth review of it here, but it’s a really easy-to-use app which can auto detect the note you’re playing (through your phone/tablet microphone so not ideal in noisy gig environments – hence the clip-on tuner’s use)  It has an interesting and intuitive seismograph-esque display to help you tune up or down, and it gives you a little congratulatory beep when you get the note in tune.  It’s got something of the computer game about it.

Thanks to the graphic display of the headstock and large note names, it’s great for beginners just getting to grips with learning the open strings, which tuning peg are which, and which way to turn it and the ‘AARGH I’M GOING TO PULL MY HAIR OUT’ sort of feeling when tuning. With this app you’ll be breezing through your tuning in no time.

(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that I always encourage guitarists to tune their guitar EVERY TIME they pick it up, even if they think it’s in tune, or it was only tuned ten minutes ago.  I am convinced there are impish little creatures who sneak around when our backs are turned to fiddle with tuning pegs – sometimes even when we’re playing.)

The app also has some fun learning games, and a very good Metronome. If you’re still not convinced, see this Youtube review here…

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m50mdPmdznE&w=560&h=315]

More advanced players might find it a little toy-like, and opt for more streamlined apps such as Cleartune, or the retro vintage valve vibes of Chromatic Guitar Tuner.  There’s loads to choose from.  Like I said, developers developed the heck out of tuning apps!

Here’s a good article listing some of the top Android apps out there to help you decide:

http://www.androidauthority.com/best-guitar-tuner-apps-for-android-615004/

3. String Winder

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Essential to avoid getting R.S.I’s, and not to mention extreme boredom, when changing your strings. Because you’re a good pupil, and practicing an awful lot every day, you’ll no doubt need to change your strings at least once a month, right?  So, save yourself hours over the course of a year (I’ve done the maths, this is a fact) by using one of these nifty gadgets to quickly un and re-wind your string tension.

You can pick these up for one or two pounds in your local music shop, or if you’re feeling flush, get one of these winders with in-built wire cutter, for removing excess string

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http://www.gear4music.com/Guitar-and-Bass/Planet-Waves-Guitar-Pro-Winder-String-Winder-Cutter/DPW

(see my previous article on string changes for more on the dangers of string-finger-skewerings!)

https://littlesheffieldguitar.com/2015/01/23/strung-out-the-strain-of-steel-string-changes/

 

 

4. Guitar Leg Rest

prod18_gitano

For Classical Guitarists, the issue of ‘to footstool or not to footstool‘ is a very personal one. I’ve seen bar room brawls break out, fingernails flying, rasguedo backhanders and G String garrotings all over the suggestion that guitar rests are for cheats.

I sit on the fence nowadays.  Sometimes, I love the connection I feel with the guitar and the ground when I’m slightly hunched over it, left foot planted on a footstool.  When I bought my first Gitano guitar rest about five years ago though, I loved it.  When I play corporate gigs, plucking away for one or two hours at a time, it really helps avoid leg and back strain.  Now I’m in my *cough* late thirties, after over twenty five years of guitar practice, I’m afraid sciatica has come a-knocking.  This means I need to take regular breaks from practice to roll around on the floor red-faced, stretching and contorting myself to find relief.  I’ve also started doing yoga, but then I do live in Meersbrook, so that’s standard behaviour.

A guitar leg rest helps you achieve a more balanced posture when playing, with both legs planted symmetrically on the ground and your back more or less straight.  After reading up on the Alexander technique and Madeline Bruser’s tome ‘The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Makig Music from the Heart’ (recommended), I’m sure this relaxed and balanced posture makes for better playing.

The Gitano rest is simple, unobtrusive, comfortable, and folds away so you can keep it on your guitar even when in the case.  Available from the wonderful Spanish Guitar Centre in Nottingham.

http://www.spanishguitar.com/Product/14/107/Gitano-Guitar-Support_GITANO/

 

That’s it for now – when I think of some more, I’ll follow this up with another article. Thanks for reading, and happy playing.

Case Studies in Music

How do you feel today? Pretty good thanks!case study

n

1. the act or an instance of analysing one or more particular cases or case histories with a view to making generalisations

One of my favourite ways to learn from music is through the analysis and contextualising of songs.  Rather than taking the approach of learning a song just for the sake of playing it, I find great value in picking songs apart, drilling down, getting to the bare bones of what makes them what they are.  There’s so much joy to be had in playing music – but what if we could figure out what makes it work, what makes it, well, good.  From classical composers, who would copy out entire symphonies by their predecessors just to learn from them, to modern songwriters like Lennon and McCartney, who absorbed and reconstituted decades of diverse musical styles, musicians have always listened to, learned from, and to an extent, copied others.

I’ve been working with my pupil James on developing his all-round musicianship and musical knowledge, to try and help him progress to new levels as a musician. He’s already a very good player, with a well established technique – one of those players that you know would, if they have a mind to, really connect with the notes they’re playing and make a great sound on the guitar (isn’t that what it’s all about, technique?)  He’s keen to understand the theory behind the songs and techniques, so that he can compose his own songs more confidently.

The case study I looked at with James this week is a great example.  Gabrielle Aplin’s How Do You Feel Today is steeped in the influences which formed her – folk greats like Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and Nick Drake.  While she’s channelling these through the flowing, driving, fingerpicking of her Open G-tuned song, because she is singing, she’s made it her own.  You can’t deny the beauty of her singing and playing in this song:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYcpRzBWblg&w=560&h=315]

So, I set about pulling it apart, learning it, transcribing it (you can download my TAB of the Intro,Verse, Chorus here) and trying to tease out the key learning points to share in a lesson.  It combines most of my favourite things about playing the guitar – Travis Picking techniques, open tunings, using parallel chords up the neck to create melodic lines, and letting fretted and open notes over-ring, creating all manner of odd chords.  Playing in an open tuning is like taking a step back a couple of decades for me, unlearning all the shapes, pentatonics, scale boxes and patterns you quickly become reliant on as a guitarist.  You’re encouraged – forced – to have an ‘open’ (ta dum) mind towards the fingerboard.  “I’ll put my fingers there, it sounds nice, I’ll do that again.”  As James pointed out, as you’ve always got the chords notes of the open tuning to fall back on, you can’t really go wrong!

If you’d like to learn a song, but REALLY learn it, get in touch and make a suggestion.  As well as having a clear idea of good routes to progression, I’m also very happy to work with my pupils to choose alternative routes.  I don’t think there’s a single song or piece of music that wouldn’t have something valuable to learn.

Download the Tab for the song here: How Do You Feel Today – Gabrielle Aplin.
Technical notes about the song in tab form here: How Do You Feel Today – Tech Notes
An overview analysis of the song here: How Do you Feel today – GA – Overview

Strung out: The strain of steel-string changes

Without doubt, my least favourite chore to do is changing guitar strings.  I’m not sure why, but it rates right up there with vacuuming the stairs (terrifying) and dusting the ‘objet trouvé‘ (middle class woes).  Perhaps it’s to do with bad experiences of the past:  Frustratingly breaking strings mid tune-up, the top ‘E’ string nearly slicing open my eye in an explosively Dali-esque flash of snapped steel.  Or, the moment when you forget that the tip of a steel guitar string is perfectly designed to puncture the human finger, leaving me scampering off for a tetanus injection.

Whenever I do actually pluck up the guts to do it (roughly once a month, or weekly when I’m gigging lots) it’s rarely as bad as I think, and it’s a good chance to give the thing a nice clean, and brighten up the sound loads.

Steel strung acoustic guitars are fiddly, almost as awkward as a classical guitar (more on that in the future) and it seems like you need at least one extra hand to get the job done.  Thank god for YouTube then, as there are lots of very helpful guitar experts, techs and luthiers who are willing to share their experience.  This video in particular taught me a few tricks which I now use, making the whole thing much easier and more effective….

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yULjWcYcrM&w=560&h=315]

Ok, so we might not all have an ELECTRIC STRING WINDER like that dude, but we should at least have some of the following tools…

  • 2015-01-23 10.49.50A nice soft cloth to give the guitar a once-over.
  • Some guitar polish (not essential, but it’s nice to give it a bit of a pamper)
  • Pliers/wire cutters, to trim the excess string off.
  • String winder – this is the one thing I would not do with out, they make the job loads easier!

2015-01-23 10.34.49There’s me showing off my camera’s ‘macro’ mode with this sultry close-up of my string winder.  They cost about £1-2 in most good music shops, and are a total godsend.  Not only do they make the job of turning the machine heads much easier, but they have a notch (the gap on the far left end of the winder in the picture) which helps pull out the string bridge pegs (at the other end).

Rather than take you through the whole process here, I’ll just mention some top tips I like to follow (most of which are in the above instruction video).

Firstly, like the guy in the video, it’s really best to have your guitar laying flat on a table, rather than trying to hold it as you’re changing the strings.  It may be obvious to most, but I’ve wasted loads of time in the past not following that advice, trying to wrestle with the guitar, the strings, and the winder.  Use a towel or blanket to cover the table or desk top and protect your guitar’s finish, and then you’ve got both hands free, and your instrument safe.

Next, when you’re getting the string to hold onto the machine head, you don’t need to tie it off.  Just give the string a kink around the ‘peg’, wrap it around once, then let the tension of the string grip to itself as you tighten it up.

I like to pull the string fully up…

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Then feed it back about an inch and a bit and tweak it until it kinks….

2015-01-23 10.37.13Then wrap once around.

That’s normally enough to keep the string in tune, and then you don’t have to mess around un-tying lots of string knots when you come to take them off for your next string change.

Trust me, you don’t want to be un-tying strings, it’s a thankless task which more often than not results in the above mentioned finger-skewering!

I like to trim off the excess strings as I go…helps with the O.C.D. and keeps them out of the way…2015-01-23 10.38.46When bringing the strings back up to tension and tuning them I use a clip-on tuner to make sure I don’t go too far, snapping a string.  I also like to take it slow…I imagine that whacking the guitar from zero to full tension in super-quick time isn’t going to do it any good.  Also when doing this I have a habit of backing away from the guitar, as I’m constantly paranoid that a string will break and slice something off.  This level of cowardliness is not an essential part of guitar maintenance, just something I’ve developed.

And I suppose that’s it.  It’s never actually as bad as I make it out to be, and it’s always worth it, when the guitar starts settling in to tune, and sounds great. Good luck!

January Sale

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We’re nice people here in Sheffield.  That’s why throughout January I’m offering 10% off guitar lessons here at Little Sheffield Guitar Studio.  For an hour’s lesson, you’ll pay just £18, for a 45 minute lesson, £15, and a 30 minute lesson will cost just £13.50.

“Pft”, you scoff, “10% of twenty quid is only £2 – what can I do with that?”

Well, I’ll tell you: you can get a lovely coffee downstairs at The Harland Cafe.  Or, if you’re in need of a bit of a culinary cuddle, the salted caramel chocolate brownie (yes, thats right – Salted Caramel + Chocolate, in a brownie) is one of the most ridiculously tasty things I’ve eaten.

You can probably get some sort of fun but bewildering camping gadget next door at Go Outdoors (just make sure you’ve got their ‘discount card’ first) or some rare and exotic groceries at the brilliant Ozmen Supermarket on London Road.

It’ll also get you a bus ticket, with change, or if you’re lucky enough to be a student, or young person, your bus both ways.  If, like me, you’ve got a habit of losing your plectrums almost instantly, you could get four or five replacements (my favourites are Jim Dunlop Tortex) from local music shops Wavelength Music, Richtone or Wizard Guitars.

Anyway, you see what I mean.  So, if you’re coming for lessons during January on either a pay-as-you-go basis, or with a block booking, you’ll be getting a little something back each time you come.  See you soon!

Learning the Guitar, like riding a bike?

You can’t move online for ‘top tens’, or ‘best ever’ lists.  Those, or ‘Top rules to be the bestest baddass’ guides to instant success.

I’m very much ‘down with this sort of thing’, particularly when it comes to learning the guitar.  It’s not easy, there’s no ‘quick fix’.  Learning any musical instrument, I think, takes good old-fashioned hard work, commitment, care and sensitivity.

I found it quite refreshing to read this article, by Mark Sisson, online fitness and healthy-living guru, which gives a balanced view of approaches to exercise and sport…

The Ten Rules of Successful Exercise

I often find there are a lot of similarities between sporting and musical progression, and we musicians can learn a lot from sport science. The way we improve and develop in musical terms take a great deal of the same skills and attitudes as in sport. Both require physical training of some form, both require dedication and practise, and both are as much about taking a thoughtful approach to progression.

In his latest top ten Sisson sets out some very reasonable and achievable approaches which I think can be applied in a musical setting. I’ll set out his list here, and attempt to explain how I think it may work in a musical context:

 

  1. Do the thing you love

Rather than take the attitude that ‘if it’s not hurting, you’re not doing it hard enough’ Sisson takes the position that for your practice to be sustainable, you must enjoy it. Relentlessly practicing scales undoubtedly make great technical improvements, but how many of us, in our busy modern lives, can dedicate the time required. The alternative for so many is to give up, because they can’t face the work. Rather than kill yourself, how about approaching (to use a sporting term) the ‘long game’. Isn’t it better to play something you love playing?

 

  1. Get a workout buddie

Apparently, studies show that working with other people increases the benefits of your activity, makes it feel easier, and is motivating. Taking opportunities to make music, or just have a bit of a strum, with others, will have many benefits.

 

  1. Work out Outside

Ok, so I’m not claiming you need to go al-fresco with your guitar, especially this time of year, but the sentiment is still of interest. Rather than confining ourselves to dour and clinical places of work, make sure you’re enjoying the environment you’re working in. It goes back to point one – the more we enjoy our study, the more we’re likely to do it.

 

  1. Incorporate play

Mess around, mix things up. Rather than just playing set technical studies, pieces and scales, be creative. I like to use improvisation and chance in lesson activities, to explore the possibilities of the unscripted. As soon as you know a few chords and techniques on the guitar, you’re ready to play, and to write. By incorporating variety into your learning of a skill, you’re always awake to new experiences and possibilities.

 

  1. Make your workouts meaningful and purpose-driven

This is one of the points which are more difficult to make tangible in this context. I would argue though, that simply enjoying the act of playing an instrument, and of making music, is meaningful and purposeful enough.

 

  1. Find Flow

This is an area which interests me, despite it’s potentially happy-clappy pseudo-spiritual connotations. How do we make our practise effortless, almost Zen. Do we need to? I know from experience and study, that we’re at our best functioning state when we’re in a relaxed, contented, even place. Get in that ‘zone’ people go on about, but in a different way. Remove distractions, and aim for an almost meditative state when playing. This may feel a bit ‘serious’ at first, but everyone, from beginning strummers to concert twiddlers, should consider their practise important enough that you treat it with care.

 

  1. Savour how it makes you feel

If you’ve found your ‘flow’, drink it up. Enjoy the unique buzz you get when you’re creating your very own sounds and timbres. Another modern phrase, being ‘in the moment’ is relevant here. This is the instant feedback you deserve for dedicating your time and care to making progress.  Enjoy it as much as you can!

 

  1. Release your attachment to the outcome

This I think this is really refreshing, and so good to hear from an athlete and sportsman. It really is the taking part that counts, not the winning. By allowing yourself to just be playing for the sake of it, you’re allowing yourself space and time to enjoy it for what it is. This can create a positive loop too, which allows you to get more ‘flow’ (because you’re not riddled with anxiety about achieving a goal) and allows you to ‘savour’ your playing more. So what if I can’t play Asturias perfectly, I probably never will, but I’ll enjoy playing what I can, and the more I enjoy playing, the more I’ll play it, and the more perfect it will get!

 

  1. Decide if you’re training or exercising

It seems strange to have to define what you’re doing, but these two words imply quite different things about your motivation and reason for coming to your instrument. I have friends who only ever go for a run when they have a big organised race to work towards, and they call it ‘training’. It sounds serious and important. I run all the time, I love exercising, but I’ve not done a fun run or organised race since I was in school. If I train, I’m training for the sake of just getting a bit better.  So, are you practicing, or playing?

 

  1. Try something new

Similar to point four, this suggests mixing your activities up to keep things interesting, and making your development more ‘all round’. As a guitar teacher, I’m very much interested in making learning and progression holistic. Classical guitarists, as well as being able to sight-read, should be able to learn by ear. I think as well as being able to read a chord from standard notation, being able to name chords and shapes in the way a modern guitarist can, is important. All the things I’ve mentioned above – creativity, composition, improvisation, all lend us a new take on our instrument. The easiest way for a musician to try something new of course, is to have a go at other styles and genres. A blues piece on Classical guitar, a fingerpicking piece for an electric guitarist, each divergence will give the fingers and brain something new to incorporate, and have a huge benefit to all-round ability and motivation.

What do you think?  Are there things that we musicians can learn from ‘exercise thinkers’ like our Mark?