Up-Grading Your Guitar Or The Never Ending Search For A Better, Often More Expensive Instrument

Today, I will talk a little about upgrading your guitar. I received an e-mail from my student Ed and I thought it would be best to answer it here since many of us might find the info helpful or at least interesting.

The e-mail contained a few great questions. To answer them I will use the example of a Jackson, not only because I know these guitars best, but also this is a brand Ed was asking about in the e-mail.

1. Are USA made Jacksons better made than, let say, ones made in Indonesia? Is it true that the quality of instruments overseas is now better than before?

MM: So, I have never received a guitar that was made in the USA (for that matter a USA model Jackson) that was poor in quality. The factory looks over each model that I get and makes sure it is right before they ship it to me. Every single time I open the case, the guitar plays fantastic. One thing that is interesting is that Jackson does not make a ton of these USA guitars at all and the supply is limited. They don’t want to sit on a bunch of unbought guitars. Each one is well balanced, meaning they feel just right and it does not tilt from left to right when you have it on a strap. Overall, I must say the USA made Jacksons are really an amazing sounding guitar. I play them because I like them, that is pretty much it.

Now, with that said, when I got cautious about taking my USA made Jacksons overseas one time for a tour, Jackson sent me a “Professional” model. I was surprised how well it plays and it sounds very good. So, if this is an indication how they make them overseas now, than yes, the quality has improved a lot. These Professional models are made in Indonesia as well. Another student of mine, wanted one and he is super picky about the guitars being mint and perfect. I saw the 3 Jackson Professionals that Sweetwater Music sent him and they were all excellent. He kept sending them back b/c he kept finding tiny specks and faults, but I wouldn’t even worry about it – they were all good. And, they sell well for under a $1000.

2. Is upgrading to a USA model worth it for a non-professional?

Well, it is hard to say depending on what you are looking for. Can an intermediate player enjoy a $1000 guitar? You bet. If you have achieved something that you want to reward yourself for and you can – go for it, life is short. The only thing I believe is that, if you at all can, don’t get a super low line cheap guitar because they are hard to play, most don’t stay in tune and it is easy to get discouraged. So, I keep talking about that $1000 Professional Jackson because to me it is a cool happy medium of a well made guitar that is not uber expensive. But, if USA Randy Rhoads is what you really want, and you know it deep inside, then, I definitely would not discourage anyone. They are the ultimate monster instruments that withstand anything you throw at them.

With all of the above, new gear is fun and always will be. New gear high fades fast though and you already know that the lasting change in your playing is learning something new and sticking with it. Nicer gear, better effects or amps is like the icing on the cake of who you are as a player. It is certainly important and of value, but it must be used in conjunction with practicing and committment to getting better on the guitar.

Above all, lots of awesome guitars out there. One of my favorite guitars to pick-up and jam is my $649 Ibanez RG750 (Original 80’s) and sometimes I even noodle around on a Charvel that I stole (not literally, though) at a Guitar Center sale for $99. They all work and are fun.

Of course, my ultimate concert and recording guitar that I love is the USA made Randy Rhoads. I play them stock.

The only thing I ever do over time is to replace some Floyd Rose pieces with titanium parts and a bigger block (in the cavity behind the pickups where the springs attach to) for longer sustain. I have done this to 2 of my guitars so far and the rest of my RRs are completely stock.

Exercising Agressive Patience

What is aggressive patience?

Let’s apply this to getting better on your instrument. In short, this unofficial term means staying focused while chipping away at the stone and not expecting the returns on your work to happen overnight.

Let’s face it, as humans, we are pretty impatient. We want everything today. But, this is not a way to approach getting better on your instrument or anything else.

Be patient while constantly chiseling away at practice, new techniques or whatever else. It takes belief and faith in that things will eventually happen, which is also a great thing to have in your arsenal. It’s the compounded work over the months (or, even years depending on what you are trying to do) that eventually brings success.

When you are too close to it – it is hard to gauge progress. If you think think this happened differently to Steve Vai, Zakk or Dimebag you are mistaken.

Keep going. \m/ \m/

Distorted Reality – A Few Pointers On Using Overdrive And Distortion Pedals

Today, I want to talk about Overdrives and Distortion pedals because I feel some players are still confused about this a little bit.

I guess I’ll start to say that I never used a Distortion pedal in its true sense of the word. In order to get a good use out of a distortion pedal, you would have to play through a clean amp as the pedal adds just that – lots of distortion.

Since I use an amp that has an overdrive built in already (as I am sure all of you guys do as well), I choose to go with an Overdrive. What separates an Overdrive from the Distirtion pedal, is that the Overdrive gives your sound that little extra, that sweet boost needed for chunky tight rhythms and signing leads without throwing a ton and ton of gain on your amp. It works differently from a Distortion pedal. You can think of it as a milder version of a Distortion, although this is not exactly it, either.

If I plugged in a Distortion pedal in front of my head, the sound would be way overdriven and saturated. Not a good thing.

Here is how I use the Overdive to get a good sound and I’m pretty sure that most pro players do something in the ballpark.

When I play through a Marshall head (or, any high gain head or a combo) that already has a decent amount of gain, I leave the gain on the head at just about anywhere between 7 and 8.5. I don’t make the head work 100%.

In front of it, I run an Overdrive pedal which is always a Maxon OD-9. (Maxon OD-9 is closely associated with an Ibanez Tube Screamer, so if you are familiar with that pedal, then you might know what I’m referring to) But, any good Overdrive works depending on your taste. In the past, I also used the classic yellow Boss SuperOverdrive and Maxon OD808 which is very similar to the OD-9, but with less bass and more straight cut.

On the Maxon Overdrive, I keep the Gain/Overdrive just at around 10:30/11:00 O-Clock, Tone straight up at 12 and the Level pretty much just like the tone at 10:30/11. No matter what I’m using amp wise, this Overdrive setting works just as good. If the amp’s gain is weak, I might crank up the gain on the pedal.

So, amp’s gain not full tilt and you use the Overdrive to warm up/hot rod the sound. As you can see, I do not make any component work full tilt, which I think helps keep things in check.

See how it works for you. Of course, there can be variations of this depending on amps, guitars, style, etc., but this is pretty sure-fire way to get a cool sound.

In case anyone wants to know how my pedalboard looks like, it is also very simple.

Guitar goes into my pedals in this order:

1. Boss TU-2 Tuner

2. Dunlop Q95 Wah (This Wah is automatically turned on when you step on it. As soon as you take your foot off – it automatically switches off. I like that, because sometimes I don’t have time to worry about clicking it On/Off. It also has a button for 4db boost which is great for solos)

3. Maxon OD-9 Overdrive

4. Some sort of Chorus (Often a Maxon, or a simple Boss Super Chorus). Sometimes I bypass this step all together.

5.Boss NS-2 Noise Supressor, but if my rig is quiet, I even bypass that.

Any delay runs through the effects loop in the head. For the delay, I use a simple Boss Digital Delay stomp box. Many people are suprised when they hear me say that, but that Boss Delay pedal sounds good to me and I just leave it alone.

This is all fairly simple, to the point approach and I always think that the less stuff I got going on, the better the result.

How To Be A Better Guitar Player

How To Be A Better Guitar Player …

This must be one of the most common questions I get asked.

But, in general terms, my answer is always true and simple. Invest in your learning. Invest in your abilities. Attend classes, workshops, take lessons and don’t be afraid to hang with players that are further along than you are.

Don’t spend all of your money on gear to “improve”. This is a cheap way out and never works. This reminds of the golf guys who spend double for a ball that goes 5% further. These small percentages only matter after you have put in the time, when it makes sense to spend for that little extra.

Remember: new gear gets old fast – new material on the guitar stays with you for a long time. Ask yourself – how committed am I to really get better? And, do my current actions and routines support that? You already know the answer, I suspect. And, practice.

Can You Learn How To Play The Guitar Via You Tube?

I hear quiet a bit of chatter about guitarists learning things by watching instructional videos on You Tube. Let’s face it – You Tube is full of amazing information and many guitar instructors strut their stuff all over the net. Heck, even my “Metal For Life” instructional videos have been seen by close to 4 million people.

It can be fun watching a snippet of a new guitar idea and then taking it even further or taking the challenge of learning something new note per note.

There is one ceveat. That is a lack of a bigger plan and constructive feedback.

It is hard to get amazing on the guitar by jumping from one video to another.

A student is unaware of what he or she doesn’t yet know. This is not always the case, but often is. Students will also spend a lot more time watching videos on the things they like and less on videos that focus on their weaknesses.

So, although it is certainly helpful and indeed possible to get very good on your instrument by watching You Tube lessons – you can speed up the process quiet a bit by studying with an experienced teacher who can present you with a program or a plan to help you build all aspects of your playing.

A good teacher will also give you extremely valuable feedback on your playing. It is sometimes very difficult to be objective about your playing simply because you are too inside of it. It is hard to step back, be honest and hear yourself with a “different” set of ears. This is what great teachers are for.

So, if I had to give some advice for best and fastest results – I’d recommend both. Learn all you can from You Tube and find a great guitar teacher that is truly interested in teaching you.

Dominating On The Guitar In The New Season

One thing I realized over the years is that there is no magic wand or anyone that will come out of your computer screen to make you better as a guitar player, songwriter or anything similar. In short – the greatest way to achieve progress is to define goals of what you would like to accomplish with your guitar playing and start chiseling away at them as the year progresses.

But, being general leads us nowhere as well. We must be specific. Not so specific that you will have every day planned out, but I recommend you thinking of 3 major things you want to do with your music or playing in the p-coming Fall, Winter or whatever season is coming up.

Your goals could look something like this:

1. Get way better at alternate picking

2. Write 8 really great songs

3. Play a show with my band or play live at least once (Open mic, workshops)

Or … maybe something like this:

1. Learn and nail the solo for “I Don’t Know” by OZZY note for note

2. Learn how to change strings on my guitar so they hardly ever go out of tune

3. Learn all the notes on my guitar across all the strings and on the entire fretboard

You can make them as challenging as you want depending on what you want to get done, how much time you have for playing guitar and so on. It is important to keep the big 3 in mind as the year goes on. Sure, you can get other things done, but you would be surprised how close you can get to accomplishing your goals if you keep an eye on them and work little at a time as the year goes on.

Getting the big 3 on paper first really helps. It keeps them in plain sight, gives you something to strive for and having three goals is much simpler to process than trying to get “great” by picking up your guitar, noodling and doing the same thing a week later.

Juice Me Up – Powering Guitar Effects Pedals Right

Today, I want to write about powering up your pedals and how I go about it.

Here’s the deal.

I love to power my pedals with a 9V battery. I’m not sure if it’s a superstitious thing or what, but the pedals sound nice and warm, tone wise, when I do that. It’s probably due to the fact when a battery de-charges a bit and run at less than 9V, you probably get a little warmer tone. Honestly, nothing to get crazy about. Just a little observation here.

When I run a couple of pedals for lessons or small workshops, I run them on a 9V. The batteries I like best are called Duracell ProCell and these batteries are for pro use. Don’t you love that that the consumer world gets marketed a completely different set of products than what the pros use? These ProCells are an industry standard for music, entertainment, broadcasting, medical use. This battery line last a long time and will not rapidly deplete on you. If you must have them, go on E-bay and you’ll find some sellers. They are equivalent of what Duracell sells as Coppertop to the public I heard.

The best bang for the buck on batteries are from Walgreens store brand. The store often has sales and their batteries are good. I sometimes wonder if there are just a couple battery manufacturers in the US and they just slap different labels on them. This happens with car oil and strings, believe it or not. Not D’addario as they have their own plant. Some other string manufacturers might as well but they are far and few in between.

In my real pedalboard where I run now a tuner, Maxon OD-9 Overdive, MXR Flanger, MXR Delay and Dunlop Q95 Wah I use a power supply brick. Several good ones on the market such as the one I have in the pic called Supa-Charger from BBE. I use that one in my studio to power up pedals. In my pedalboard I use a similar one, but from VooDoo Labs. You plug it into a regular outlet and you use several little cables to power up your pedals. No batteries needed and you always run on full power.

Playing live, I usually have a battery in the pedal anyways in case the power cable gets disconnected. That’s just a back-up move.

One smaller and very good way to power up the pedals is a Power-All system from Godlyke. It is a small unit and it comes with a ton of different plugs for your pedals including ones that are perfect for powering old-school pedals that only run on a 9V battery. It is very good and I often use this myself when I do not have enough batteries in stock.

Last but not least, I use a Multimeter tool to see how strong (well charged) my batteries are. This is good if you dig up a battery you don’t know how long it’s been sitting in your drawer, etc. This is a professional way to test the batteries before a show as well. Don’t use the tongue test – although we all do on occasion, lol. You can get one of these cool tools at Harbor Freight store for literally a few dollars. Good thing to have if you are a guitar player.

Last thought – I never run my Wah Wah pedal on a power supply – even if all of my other pedals use one. I always found that running a power supply to a Wah produces noise in the amp. I always run it on a battery. Good luck.

Recording Yourself To Get Better – Quick

I meet many guitar players (and musicians in general) who have been practicing for many years, but have yet to venture into recording themselves.

Through time I found that recording yourself is one of the greatest tools you can use to improve your playing. As the saying goes – The Recorder Never Lies. The recorder doesn’t bend the truth. It plays back exactly what you played.

Listening back to your performances and being able to hear yourself “on tape” is extremely important. It is important because you can hear the things that you like or dislike about your playing. As a matter of fact, you can’t come as close as you can to mastering your instrument unless you master the art of recording.

Hearing yourself back can be a tough exercise. Your flaws come back at you and stare you in the face. But, what a great chance to know exactly what you need to work on! Think of this as if you are looking into a mirror before you go out. Why do we do this? Simply, so we can some clues of what works or doesn’t.

Side note: Ladies, metal guys have it easy. Pretty much any black T-shirt matches black jeans. Thank you very much. 🙂

Are you getting my point?

My playing took another turn all together when I started to record myself. I started with cheap 4-track, moved onto a better 4-track like the one pictured, then an 8-track, a better 8-track and eventually into a studio quality computer based Pro-Tools system. I wore these things out. Working with an outside ear such as a producer also elevated your game. Objective opinions can be great.

Lastly, recording yourself will help you know how much you’ve improved on the guitar since it is hard to judge your progress from day to day. You can even use the tool of recording to tape your band rehearsals. Then, bypass the need to argue as everyone will hear the part they are not together on. Good luck!

Are You Ever Too Old To Learn An Instrument?

Just a few thoughts below as I often get asked if someone is too old to learn how to play a guitar, etc. In short – your age has nothing to do with it. Unless you are so old that you have no strength left in your arms, if you are thinking about learning how to play, or getting back into playing, I must say – Go For It.

The only real disadvantage that you might have when trying to learn how to play is that adults are usually much busier than their younger counterparts due to families, work, overtime, etc. They often have much less time available to devote to practice. It’s simple and in most cases true.

However, I must also mention that it is very easy to chisel out 45 minutes a day by saying bye, bye to facebook for the night or skipping the evening news. There many time vultures prying on your time.

The advantage is that by now you have learned to how to ‘learn’ by getting through school and various life experiences, which can actually make applying new material easier.

Unfortunately, you can’t cram playing an instrument like we did before tests in school, so constant repetition through practice is what you need to do in order to get results.

I started to play the guitar late (age 15/16) in comparison to some of my guitar playing friends who started at 9. My friends were much better than me, played songs and some were already in bands while I was just trying to perfect a power chord. However, later in High School as their focus drifted to parting and going out, I made up the difference and quickly surpassed them. I also remember reading an interview with Jeff Hanneman of Slayer where he stated that he did not start to play the guitar until he was 18 and that motivated me.

I also tell younger players to ‘put their time in’ when practicing. Due to travel, and running a business side of things, many professional musicians do not get to practice as much as they did when they were much younger. Think of practicing like putting money into a piggy bank. There will be a time when you will need to pull out some of that practice at a later date while continuing with your instrument.

Many people ask me how much to play and it always goes back to the goal. If someone wants to play good enough to play metal songs and simple solos or even jam one time a week with buddies – then 45min to and hour a day for 3-4 months should get them very close to the goal. I have taught 100s of guitar students in person and I have never met one person whose fingers were too short, too stubby or just not meant to play guitar. And, that’s the truth.

When’s The Right Time To Change Guitar Strings?

Many guitar students have a very valid question as to when is the right time to change their strings. The answer depends on a personal as well as a technical aspect – so let’s check it out.

A new set of strings provides a nice bright tone, improved intonation, less string breakage and the ability to stay in tune better.

Many players, including myself, prefer a slightly worn in sound of the string. This does not mean that the strings on my guitar are a year old, but I like the way they feel after a couple days of playing. The strings then feel less tense and the tone rounds off a bit meaning it is less bright. This is a personal preference and not true to all guitar players. Some touring guitarists prefer to change strings every night. I like to play 2 shows on a new set of strings before changing to a fresh set. On the guitars that I use for daily practice it is not uncommon that I don’t change strings for a very long time and I mean months. This is what I refer to as a personal preference.

Now, let’s take a look at a few other things.

If your guitar no longer stays in tune, the strings sound dead or break easily – these are another dead giveaways it is time to change strings. It is hard to tell how many playing hours a new set lasts for. It depends on the amount you sweat while playing and if you take care to extend the life of your strings while they were on your guitar.

Another great way to tell if it might be time to change strings is to run your right hand index finger under the string up and down the fretboard. If you can feel the fret markings (ie: very faint indentations) under the string, this should tell you that you might be ready for a new set.

If you are curious as to how to extend the life of your strings – simply wipe them down after each time your play. You can use simple guitar polish on a flannel, cotton or microfiber cloth. Remember to wipe underneath the string as well as this is where a lot of the dirt hides.