A Word About Vacuum Tubes In Guitar Amplifiers

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What’s happening. Today I want to talk a bit about tubes in tube based amplifiers. We’ll save the solid state vs tube amp choice topic for another post, but today, I’ll let you know what I know about tubes.

I have been using tube amps for a long time because I like the way they sound and react to my playing. For my live rig and recording I always go to the main tube driven set-ups.

Now, we have two main type of tubes. (1) Pre-amp tubes and (2) Power-amp tubes. And, sometimes you have tubes used as a (3) Phase inverter tubes. Those are also smaller tubes (actually same tubes and size as pre-amp tubes), but are used as last in line in your pre-amp section before going into the power-amp. The pre-amp tubes are ones that are much smaller in size compared to the power tubes. Both tubes glow in the dark when warmed up in that beautiful warm, amber light.

Most popular Pre-amp tube for metal players is 12AX7. It’s a model name and many companies make them such as Mesa/Boogie, Groove Tubes, etc. There are other tube models such as 12AT7 and the only difference between them all is the amount of gain you get. 12AX7 are hot. Their distortion rating is 100. I like those. 12AT7 are rated at 60. Less hot, but might work fantastic for a blues sound. There is also a Pre-amp tube named ECC83, but guess what? It is exactly the same tube as 12AX7, just named differently for an European market. In some on my pre-amps I have 12AX7s and one has an ECC83, but they are exactly the same tube. If my Marshall pre-amp has the original tubes and the amp was made in England, then yep – it probably has the ECC83 in there.

Power tubes are the bigger ones that also glow nicely in the dark. Usually it is that big glassy tube you see when you look in the back of the amp. You tube amp at least has 2 of them. More on that shortly. Several options exist there such as EL34, 6L6, KT88. For Metal, EL34s work perfect. It’s my favorite tube. It’s punchy and warm.

You usually have 2 power tubes per 50 Watts of power, so if you have a 50 Watt amp, you’ll have 2 tubes. If you have a 100 Watt amp you would have 4. Some guys who have 100 Watt amps remove the two tubes and make them 50 Watters. Cool trick that works fine, you just have to know which tubes to remove.

What is my favorite brand of tubes? So, far I have been familiar with 3 brands: Groove Tubes, Mesa/Boogie and Russian made Svietlana. They are all excellent. There are others from Electro Harmonix, Slovenia. Eastern block is famous for making tubes because so much stuff used to run on them before Western digital revolution showed up there. I remember as a kid growing up in Poland I would turn on our TV and we’d have to wait until it warmed up. We were essentially waiting until the tubes warmed up just like with tube guitar amps. By the way, guitar players take notice – if you take off the stand-by switch off too soon on your tube head you are asking a lot of the tubes. Don’t do that, let them warm up first. So, to finish the TV story, if the TV broke, the repair man usually showed up with a bunch of vacuum tubes. I actually suspect the Eastern block makes most of the tubes for the world since they still have the old technology on hand left over.

I have 4 Svietlanas in one of my power amps and they are very warm and rich. Nice. Mesa/Boogie tubes are excellent and realiable. Pricey though, but they sound great. One thing that Mesa does is “match” tubes together in a package of 2. This is important. I’m not sure what other comapnies do, although I suspect they do this as well. Having tubes matched in pairs saves you from having you amp having to be biased.

Replacing tubes in your amp is something most can do themselves. You remove any retainer ring for a pre-amp tube and they go out. Power tubes simply pull out and pop-in. Works good. I never had an issue replacing tubes, although I do not do that task too often. I run tubes for a long time until they start sounding bad or I think something is off with them. Life span depends on how much time the tube worked for and how loud/hot you run your amps. I run my power amp hot in order to get a well defined sound, so I am sure it’s not the best for the poor tubes. Sometimes the tube starts glowing red (instead of amber) and it can be a sign it’s getting old. But, I have used tubes for years without anything happening to them. It might sound like it’s a lot to think off, but in reality it is really not. I never think about the tubes after they get installed.

And, of course, I have to tell you to always have spare fuses for your amp when playing live, they do pop on rare occasion.

Most Frustrating Gripe From My Adult Guitar Students

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For the most part, I really enjoy teaching guitar to students across the world. And, some of my most fun and longest standing students are adult guys who have been playing for a while, but really need the guitar playing outlet to let go of stress, or they use our lessons to just simply get better.

One of the most common complaints from them is the amount of time that it takes to master things on the guitar. And, of course I know how long it takes to learn to play the instrument properly. I have been playing for decades and still discover, go over, relearn things all the time.

Guitar playing is an never ending trip that you simply get better at along the way. You never really arrive. Ask any accomplished player and most will tell you what else they haven’t gotten down, yet.

So, I always remind everyone that guitar is a difficult instrument to play well. They all are. I think what happens is that adults have done a lot of stuff in their life, achieved a lot of things (a lot of my students are successful professionals), and they feel their life experience should allow them to learn the instrument quickly by now. But, that is not how it works. This sometimes leads to frustration, but to me it’s the entry price you play. If this might be you, remember that everyone feels the same way. This is important to remember.

Guitar playing levels people together. No matter how many records you sold, what you did in your professional life or how successful you are in your other walks of life – it squares us all off with one simple request. It asks us to play and let the music do that talking, right now, today.

Approaching Great Guitar Solos

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I get often asked about how to approach constructing guitar solos. Well, there is a little madness to that, too. To me a guitar solo is like a little song within a song. And, a good solo is one that you simply can’t erase/replace from the song itself; the song would not be complete. Most of the guitar solos we love are just that. Too many to mention, but you know the ones that are a must.

When I write a solo, I want its energy to be consistent within the song that it originates from. It must be related. It depends on what is needed. Sometimes, it can be a short burst of notes, an effect, a melodic line or a big thematic bulldozer with many parts within.

Often I start playing (recording) my solos and I don’t really write them out. This is because I want the solo to bounce off the energy of the song. When I hear a nice part in the solo that I improvise, I usually break it down and work on it a bit. Anything that is catchy I want it to be super memorable. I also want my solos to be a good structured thought and I don’t want my licks to be disjointed and sound too punched in. It must be a listenable story in its own right.

Eddie Van Halen always said that the best solos are one takes. Well, we wish we were so lucky. But, hey, sometimes it happens.

Some players prefer to write stuff out in advance and it certainly can work as well. I heard Vito Bratta wrote out his solos in advance and Vito’s solos are so melodic and well structured that it would be immensly hard to improvise them on the spot.

Since we work in the digital age and you can go back and erase as many times as you want, I play some crazy stuff when I track solos. Some of the things I play miss the mark completely, but I await for that thing I would never play if I played it safe. I’m willing to play something 50 times just to get a few perfect notes. I have noticed some of the greatest artist take chances like that.

When it’s bad – you erase it. When it’s good – it’s like no one else. This is where you want to be to have super high end stuff. Nothing great comes without taking a chance. It is also important to know that writing great guitar solos gets better with practice. Anything you concentrate on and work on gets better. The more solos you write, the better and more professional they sound. Keep going.

How To Get Through Difficult Tasks

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Today, a bit of a cool lesson/tip/hack on getting through stuff that might be difficult or you just don’t want to deal with. Let’s face it, the world we live in is challenging. This leads us in having to do a lot of crap that we simply don’t feel like doing. These can be small items – like broken house/car/music gear item to practicing/writing a song all the way to real serious shit.

On a podcast “Metal Motivation” (now called University Of Baddasery Podcast) hosted by my bros C.J. Ortiz – The Metal Motivator and Pat MacNamara there was a gentleman being interviewed that had extreme health issues. Like, I might not be here tomorrow extreme. So, extreme, that sometimes he had to set a goal of making it through the next 5 minutes, next 10 minutes – however long he needed to get through. This technique allowed him to come out on the other side and has taught me a big lesson as well.

The lesson is that when I got to do stuff I don’t want to do or stuff that is freaking diffucult, I break it down into very small compartments of time or small direct tasks. Today, I was going to a meeting that I dreaded and I said to myself to just concentrate on driving to the location first. I made a point not to think of the meeting itself, or the place inside once I get there, because I did not want to paint a story of what iffs. My goal was just to get there. Once I did arrive, I said to myself that all you have to do it to find the location and tell the people that I am there. I said to myself – just do that. Do that little task, get this done only.

We usually can survive anything as long as we concentrate on surviving next 5 minutes or til the end of today. There is a saying that says you can survive anything one day at a time. This technique helps you stay in the moment on what is important right “now” and not in 2 hours or later today. I’ll have to say this is a fantastic way of going about.

Even with guitar. When I want to write a song, I chisel out task for the next 30 minutes for me to go downstairs, turn-on your amps, tune up the guitar and open up a new Pro Tools session. That’s all. Let me complete that first, I say. Truth is once I am done, I want to do more. So, I come up with a task that for the next 30 minutes I will record my riffs down to a click track. I am not looking for a complete song, or even to be incredibly impressed. I just want to get my ideas down. If that is all I did today, then I completed the 2 tasks I had for my songwriting part of my day. Sure is more than getting all freaked out with how a new song is going to come out and how will I get this “project” done. This is how to get this stuff done!

And, don’t forget to talk to yourself! Pretend you are giving advice to someone you care about. I talk to myself internally or sometimes audibly if I need to drive home a point. Sometimes it’s the only intelligent thing you hear all day!

Do You Need A Guitar Teacher At All?

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Today, I want to share some new thoughts. Do guitarists need teachers at all? In short – answer is No. But, this path, if someone wants to be a bad ass is really difficult one to get right.

At different points we need guitar instructors (or, coaches as I call myself), to help us through some parts. In my life, I learned more from hanging around better players than me and also ones that played slightly different styles than from my formal guitar teachers.

My main core of playing was learned from Metal Method mail-order lessons. Then I joined a High School jazz band. In the jazz band we used to take the bus in order to travel to other schools or competitions and I really, really loved taking a trip somewhere to play music. This planned the bug. In Berklee, I was friends with players who played since they were 6 years old sometimes and they often blew me away ability wise. They were extremely technically proficient and talented. However, sometimes too much talent can work against you … often times, doing stuff that is all of the sudden super hard and challenging is not understandable to someone who breezed through everything.

Me? I had to put in the time every damn time. Sure, some stuff comes easier for me, but there were many times someone’s advice helped me along a lot.
I think guitar teachers save you time, so you don’t get stuck making the same mistake for a year. They can steer you away from getting there in the first place. Sometimes, you need someone to nudge you along with good info. Even Tiger Woods has a performance coach. When we are too much on the inside of our playing we can’t be objective.

Players can get really good on their own, but it takes a lot of self awareness, intuition and looking afar at your own playing. There are a lot of skills involved and getting a good teacher is a huge help. I see many pro players get together backstage and learn from each other. Metal drummers have a great little community all of their own. I constantly hear drummers share skills and ideas.
No one learns guitar “really” on their own, because if you did far away from everyone somewhere in the mountains, you would have your own way of tuning the guitar and playing chords, etc. You Tube, friends, teachers – it is all a part of what allows you to get better. Guitar teacher (a good one, that is) is just the most direct, communicable way of getting info and advice so you can get better.

Food for thought.

The Seperator Between A Great Guitarist & A Frustrated One

Here are some thoughts to consider. One thing I found out by examining the best guitarists that I know is that they all seem to love learning things on the guitar. They love the entire process of playing, learning things, getting better. They find joy in playing at whatever level they are at right now, while knowing that there is some room for improvement.

Many players I know get impatient with learning and they often are asking why it’s taking so long for them to get a part down, or they anxiously wait until they get to a goal.

The process itself to the goal is built on and filled with frustration. You do that for a couple of years – and, guitar playing sucks. That is not the way to approach it.

So, ask yourself whether you are intrigued by playing and do you really enjoy having the guitar in your hands, do you like the whole guitar universe … but, not only when it comes to gear. Buying gear is too easy. For gear, you give money and get a positive boost for a few days. This is why new gear gets old fast and something learned that’s new on the guitar stays with you forever.

I think you need to accept the fact that you will never “arrive” and will always be a student of the guitar. A much better student as years go by, mind you. Well, if you put in the work. Those are important ideas to keep in mind for you. Do you like the process and love the guitar, or do we want to get to a goal, so we can get something else from it?

Guitar Pick-Ups – Magnetic Properties

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Today, let’s talk a bit about guitar pick-ups and the magnets in the pick-up itself. Honestly, for years, I never dug into the “making of” a guitar pick-up. I knew that I liked passive pick-ups probably because in the beginning most guitars were sold with them already. I, just like everyone else, looked at pick-up names and which guitarists used what. I tried to emulate their tone. Over time I found that I really do prefer passive picks-ups above anything else out there.

But, of course, there is a lot more to a guitar pick-up and how it’s made.
Let’s take a look at the magnets, how they sound & what difference do they made.

Ok, here it goes.

– Alnico II: Nice full low end, more prominent mids and sweet top end.
– Alnico III: Clear, warm lows, full mids and softer high end.
– Alnico IV: Tighter bass response than Alnico II, even mid-range, bright.
– Alnico V: Bright and glassy top, cutting mid-range, tight bass. For example, my favorite pick-up is a Seymour Duncan SH4, also known as the Jeff Beck (JB4) pick-up. You guessed it – it has Alnico V magnet. The glassy top is great for leads as it reminds me of DiMarzio PAF-Pros that I like a lot as well. I used PAF-Pros when I played Ibanez a long while back. My SH-4s have a really nice glassy, buttery top end for lead notes, which suits my playing and what I’m trying to do with my guitar. SH-4 also brings to the table 2 other things that I look in the guitar pick-up: Tight, warm bass and tight, exaggerated harmonicaly rich mid section.
– Alnico VIII: Tight low end, smooth treble.
– Ceramic: Bright and edgy with enhanced upper-mids, agressive harmonics, punchy low end. Favorite of players such as Alexi Laiho.

The only thing to keep in mind is that some of these descriptions such as “softer” or “cutting” are a little subjective. But, the above guide is a pretty handy thing to know when shopping for a pick-up.

See what pick-ups are in your guitar and what magnets they have. Look them up on a website, see if the above descriptions make sense. It’s a great way to know your instrument better.

What I Learned From Knowing Great Musicians

Often times I get a parent who asks me how much their son or daughter should practice in order to get really good on the guitar. And, I have to be honest, as soon as I hear how much and how long I already know that someone is sizing up their effort.

This way of thinking makes sense on the surface, but it’s an improper way of looking at it.

Guitar is an animal. We never really master it completely. And, the guitarists I know that became very proficient at it play CONSTANTLY, or at least have spent a big part of their life playing CONSTANTLY. Yep, that’s the secret.

It almost takes an obsession of sort to just LOVE the entire process of playing the instrument.

This is why I see young players get good extremely fast and that is because they are able to put in a lot of time playing. They go to school, eat and play guitar. That certainly was me, too.

But, with enough time with the instrument in your hands and keeping your focus on the guitar, everyone can achieve a good level of proficiency. This is absolutely true. I see it happen all the time!

99% of my students want to get good and simply enjoy playing the guitar in order for them to play their favorite songs, write and/or record their own songs, be able to jam with friends, a band and just get closer to the music they love – metal.

So, I say go for it … play as much as you want!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
– Aristotle

Piggy Bank & Your Guitar

One idea, or rather analogy, that helped me as a practicing musician over the years was one of a piggy bank. But, not one you put money in, but one that holds the currency of guitar practice.

Whenever I practice guitar I imagine depositing practice currency into the piggy bank. When you practice a lot, you deposit a lot of currency into it.

You see, once you start gigging a lot, playing professionally even, you will be doing a lot of travelling to gigs or shows. If not travelling, you’ll be doing other tasks that will allow you to do music.

When you are not able to practice, you can imagine yourself taking out some of the practice currency. This sounds imaginary, but being a musician works very much like that.

When flying to other continents and generally being in a band, you sometimes spend more time at the airports or vans than with the guitar in your hand. This is why its important to have the practice curency in the bank because you will need to draw on it. But, in order for it to carry you, it must be there first. Thinking in above terms can also be a very motivating factor to play your instrument more.

It’s a simple idea, but one that has helped me in the past as much as it helps me today.

The Hidden Secret Of A Metronome

What Is The True Hidden Secret Of A Metronome?

The metronome conversation comes up often with my students and I always do mention to them that I have used the metronome myself a lot – especially in my major woodshedding/college days.

But, I have to say that I think many guitarists think of a metronome not in full light. What I mean by that is that most think of a metronome as a speed building tool. And, yes it can be that, too. But, it is actually something even more important.

The real secret of the metronome is that it also a SLOOOW Down tool! Yep, the strength of it is not what most associate metronomes with.

How it works.

If I have a guitar phrase that I know I can perform more cleanly and in time, I can take my metronome and choose a click tempo that is where I sort of play the lick. I get this in a ballpark. Then, I slow it down considerably and I make sure that I understand where every note lays. This way there are no surprises whatsoever when I play my lick up to tempo. I burn in the notes slow, feeling that slow tempo, working through all my finger position changes, going over and over while getting to understand what I am playing 100% percent. This is how you play anything lightning fast with conviction because you can also play it slow perfectly. Playing something slower than you are comfortable with prepares you for faster takes later.

Remember: Slow To Smooth, Smooth To Fast.

So, just remember this lesson because it’s a good one.