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Reflections on playing guitar after a prolonged break

Long time readers of my blog may remember a post I wrote back in 2013 titled ‘Guitar Pedals. I WANT SOME PEDALS’. Coincidentally this has recently been reposted by a plugin I have that retweets older posts, good timing.

Over the past 4 months I’ve been playing guitar again which made me think of that very old post.  I liberated a guitar from the loft after way too long without playing it.  It’s a 90s Yamaha superstrat.  It’s the first ‘proper’ guitar I bought after I started working so I guess that would have been around 1992.  I changed the pickup to a Dimarzio Fred – at the time I was massively into Joe Satriani.  I sold the guitar when I went all acoustic but bought it back again a few years later, I couldn’t resist because it plays so well.  It was immaculate when I sold it but when I got it back it had a fair number of dings and a massive scrape to the paintwork.  I sold it through my guitar teacher and it came back via the same route, it’s definitely the same one because I had to make new mounting holes in the pickup cover.  It had been bagged in the loft but was still very dusty so in a bit of a sorry state really.  After a fairly quick clean it was good enough to play.

The first thing that struck me was that the guitar was pretty much still in tune which shouldn’t have been a surprise because it has a Floyd Rose locking trem (Yamaha RM Pro II to be precise) which is great because you never a guitar will be when it has been stored for so long.  On the flip side I really need to restring it and it’s a bit more involved with this type of trem so I keep putting it off.

The second thing that struck me – and very hard – was that my fingers didn’t work like they used to.  At all.  I’ve never been a shredder nor could I master fancy stuff like sweep picking but even fairly simple chords and chord changes were proving a significant challenge.

There was something else that was a bit of a blocker to playing again.  My amp is a Seymour Duncan 35w tube amp.  Seymour Duncan made amps I hear you ask yourself?  Well yes they did and not many people know that.  I think the period that Seymour Duncan made amps was quite short back in the 1990s, there’s not much information on them.  They didn’t always get great reviews but I’ve always loved the sound of it even though it is loud.   Very loud, far too loud for a practice amp for home use and very heavy to carry around the house too.  So at this point I really wanted a smaller amp and of course some pedals to play through it.

I had a very limited budget so the good news for me was that practice amps can be picked up relatively cheaply.  I wasn’t particularly bothered about getting an expensive or named brand but was well aware that cheap amps can sound pretty crap, not to put too fine a point on it.  I thought I’d secured a Vox Valvetronic which solved two problems at once because it is a modelling amp with effects but unfortunately the seller apparently forgot that he’d also sold it on ebay so I missed out on that one.

Being fairly impatient, I started looking for pedals instead which brings me back to the opening of this post.  Pedals used to be fairly expensive when I originally started playing and things haven’t changed much – they’re more expensive now if anything.  I thought I’d need distortion and delay to get started but even used pedals were looking out of budget.

Although pedals are generally expensive, there are cheaper options.  Brands like Donner, Joyo, Sonicake, Caline and Mooer offer much cheaper options and are generally well made pedals, often being clones of popular devices.   Behringer pedals sound very good too and offer probably the best value for money.  The drawbacks with Behringer are plastic construction rather than metal and I understand the sockets are mounted directly to the circuit board so although they may not stand up to being thrown around if you’re gigging, for home use this isn’t likely to be an issue.

There is another option – DIY.  I have looked into this and saved a number of potential projects, mainly fuzz and distortion effects.  Some circuits are surprisingly simple,I’ve seen a woolly mammoth for example that has 13 components and 4 pots.  My electronics knowledge is sufficient to understand wiring components and switches and I can just about solder to an acceptable level.  For the prototype it may well be easier to use a breadboard so that no soldering is involved, this could even be mounted in the pedal. This option is a lot cheaper but could still work out at around £20, some components are not cheap. What has really put me off is the enclosure.  I’m not sure that I can get it to look very professional i.e. holes aligned and a good looking finish.  For my own use this isn’t really an issue but I still want it to look presentable at least.  Following a retweet of that 2013 post, I’ve had some very helpful tips and advice from @KrustPunkHippie so the enclosure part of the process doesn’t look quite as daunting. 

I kept looking at pedals and saw a Zoom G1on multi-fx pedal for £25. The thing with multi-fx units is they are always somewhat of a compromise.  They often offer superb value for money but the trade off is that the number of effects may be limited and more importantly there are often limits on the sequence of effects and the type of effects that you can use together.  Another trade off is that the effects don’t always sound as good as separate pedals and a big one for a lot of people is that you don’t get the visual feedback of settings that you get with pedals and it often takes a few button presses to change settings rather than a simple adjustment that pedals offer.  When I looked into these units, a quick search revealed that the G1on was launched in 2014 and is now discontinued but was supported with a firmware update in 2020.  It has 100 effects and you can use 5 simultaneously in any order.  The effects include dynamics and filters, overdrive/distortion, amp sims, modulation such as flangers and phasers, delays and reverbs.  You can also use headphones and it gets pretty good reviews.  So for me a total no-brainer.  I’m writing a full review in an upcoming post. 

Shortly after picking up the G1on, I saw a Vox pathfinder amp which looked ideal but when I got to the seller’s house it turned out it was a bass amp which wasn’t clear in the advert.  However, there was also a Line 6 Spider II.  I’m aware that Line 6 amps don’t have a great reputation but I thought it sounded ok and I thought the built in effects could prove useful too even though I’d just bought a multi-effects unit.  Initially I wasn’t really keen on the amp distortion sounds but after some adjustments it’s sounding ok although I primarily use the clean channel with the G1on. One thing I didn’t realise until a couple of weeks ago was that the amp has default settings for each channel that are applied when you turn it on – including effects.  I thought the amp was playing up because I would change settings and they weren’t applied the next time I turned the amp on or I would adjust something like the drive and there would be a bit of a weird volume dip because it was changing relative to the channel’s default setting rather than the position of the knob at the time.  Sometimes it helps to read the manual.  Easily sorted, now the clean channel is saved with my settings and no effects.

One of the biggest revelations is how useful a compressor effect is.  I’ve never used one for guitar before and I’m not sure why.   Although ‘compressor’ implies a squashing effect, it’s more of a levelling effect making quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter to even out dynamics and it also adds sustain.

I was trying not to get too obsessed with buying pedals but I thought a separate compressor  and distortion pedal would be useful so that I could use more modulation effects and delays / reverbs. The G1on doesn’t have true bypass so a separate distortion pedal would also allow me to switch distortion in and out.

I managed to find a distortion pedal on ebay for a tenner which was brilliant, I also picked up a Behringer compressor for a smidge under £20.  The compressors on the G1on are ok but the Behringer pedal sounds a lot better to me.

After a fairly short period of around 3 weeks of practicing I was feeling like I was starting to play again.  Chords were becoming easier to play, clean notes, no muffled strings and smooth chord  changes.  I was getting the hang of songs that I hadn’t played for ages and a couple of Youtube videos helped improve my picking technique.  This was mostly my picking hand position and ensuring that my picking arm is relaxed and not too stiff.

It was about this time that I was really pleased to have kept that box of guitar magazines, well ok, 3 and a bit boxes of guitar magazines.  It’s pretty amazing to think that some of these are 30 years old from the time when I started playing.  Back then I had no commitments and disposable income to buy 3 or 4 of these a month.  I would buy a guitar magazine with 4 or 5 songs and invariably wouldn’t know most of them.  But things were very different back then.  There wasn’t the internet like we know it nowadays, no Youtube, no streaming music services.  Although fairly popular, heavier rock music was not in the mainstream so you seldom heard it on the radio nor saw it on TV.  About the only outlet was ‘Raw Power’ which aired on ITV once a week at something like 2am so you had to set the video recorder.  And hope you didn’t miss the beginning or end which often happened.  If the songs from the magazines weren’t on the show there were 3 very good record shops and a few second hand record shops that I used to visit and if they weren’t in any of those that was that.  Fortunately, they often were and I got into loads of great music this way.

These days of course you would simply stream it or look on Youtube and that’s exactly what I’m doing for a number of songs that I don’t know as I look through these old magazines.

I’ve tried to fit in half an hour practice a day which has tailed off somewhat but I’m still playing and practicing when I can.  What’s most surprising to me is that I’m now able to play some songs that have always eluded me.  I wonder in part if this is because I’ve been able to watch Youtube videos which has made them much easier to pick up than from a magazine.

I started looking at other pedals, trying not to get too carried away.  I thought about getting a fuzz pedal but also looked at loopers, expression pedals, wah wahs and some reverbs.  The G1on is very good but I wanted some bigger reverbs, a lo-fi reverb and possibly some ‘exotic’ delays.   I picked up a Donner triple looper that was about half price and I had my eye on a Sonicake sonic ambience pedal on ebay which combines reverb and delay but just lost out when it went a smidge over £25.

At this point I saw that it was possible to add effects to the G1on from certain other Zoom units and some of the effects available were exactly the sort of reverbs that I was looking for.  I thought that if I could get another one for the same sort of price I would have a massive amount of potential for the same price as one pedal.  One option didn’t work out but a second one did and it’s the G1xon model which is principally the same but has an expression / wah wah pedal.  I also got it for £25 which was a much better option than a single pedal for me because it meant that I could use it as an expression pedal, wah wah and I’ve since added a number of new delays, reverbs, modulation effects and fuzz/distortion to both units so I don’t need anything else.

It’s easy to see how gear can become an obsession.  There’s always a guitar or a pedal that you think you need or will help you play and sound better.  But the thing to ask is do you really need them?  Most of the time you probably don’t. That’s what I really like about the Zoom G1on and G1Xon.  They are such excellent value, especially if you’re patient and find one for the sort of price I did, it’s less than half what you’d pay for a single used Boss pedal for example and gives so much more flexibility.  If you want a particular type of sound you can always get specific pedals later on if you need them.

It’s not just gear though, It’s also very easy to get sucked into a Youtube rabbit hole.  There’s so many tutorials, how to play, why you’re doing it wrong, mistakes you’re making and so on.  You could easily spend a lot of time watching and not doing any playing or practising,  I’ve been quite regimented and a bit lucky that I have readily found a handful of accounts that have provided what I need. 

As I’m writing this I’m hoping that it doesn’t come across as more about the pedals than the guitar playing because this hasn’t been the case.  Yes I’ve enjoyed looking around at pedals and effects that are on the market but you do need to be patient to get good deals.  These are secondary to the enjoyment that I’ve got from getting back into playing again, I’ve missed it.  Maybe not the sore fingers and occasionally sounding terrible but I’ve rediscovered lots of great music that I had forgotten about and have started to learn songs that I always struggled with.  I’ve been playing a bit of everything from The Wallflowers, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, The Replacements to AC/DC and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Maybe I’m getting on better because I’m not trying to play these exactly note for note and I’m learning them in sections so there’s still a way to go before I can play some of them all the way through but it feels like good progress.  I’ve also experimented with open tunings and am currently really into dropped D tuning.  Technique changes have enhanced my playing. I’m listening to bands that I somehow missed the first time around and I’m finding lots of great new songs.  Some songs are definitely more of a challenge than others but I’m finding that with sustained practice I usually start to get the hang of them but not always, I do keep trying though.  I also seem to be hearing songs differently, maybe I’ve got better at listening.  I think the next thing is creating a ‘playlist’ of complete songs I can play from memory and also refreshing modes and scales and improvising with them to make more use of the looper pedal.  It’s also useful to think about how to keep improving, for example I’m looking at improving solo speed and technique, not to become a shredder as such but a bit more speed for soloing would be really useful.

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