Friday 8 May 2009

Play plugged in

I did some more work on my home made battery powered amp last night, and did some test plays.  Apart from a resonant frequency rattle in it (will fix another night) it was quite faithfully reproducing the guitar signal, resonably flat frequency response, good power output - but you know, I immediately felt dissapointed.  After playing a few songs, playing with the reverb effects and the EQ on the guitar, I came to a conclusion that I have known for a long time but finally admitted to myself:  I'm not good at playing plugged in.

About 99% of my time I play unplugged.  Over, say, the past 30 years, my fingers and ears have learnt what I need to do to get the unplugged sound I want.  How hard to pluck the bass, where to position relative to the soundhole for a tone, that sort of thing.  Sure it varies from guitar to guitar but very quickly you can adjust your playing to suit the sound you are chasing.

I've always wanted, or hoped, that if you had a good guitar with a good pickup then the plugged in amplified sound would be exactly what your ears are hearing, just louder.  Well it's not, and you know, I don't think it could ever be.  Maybe if you had an external microphone with the same frequency response as your ear, located near your ear, piped into an amplifier that was completely faithful to the signal (ie flat frequency response), maybe then it would sound the same, but amplified.

Last night I decided I should stop fighting, and start learning.  Given that the amp you are using has a mostly flat frequency response, so not boomy in the bass, or too much gain in the middle - well even if it is - you should be able to compensate firstly with some signal processing and secondly with your playing.

What I found first was that with my reverb effects at any setting, on or off, I couldn't get the sound I wanted to hear.  Secondly, playing with the graphic equaliser on the guitar (bass, treble and adjustable frequency midrange) I couldn't get the sound that I wanted either.

Frustrated I played some different songs, suddenly I played a song on a setting that didn't sound so bad.  I started varying my playing to enhance the sound further - playing very delicately, where normally I am quite forceful and rough.  I found a sound I was happy with.  Smiling, I moved to another song and you know what, couldn't stand the sound again.  Experimented with different playing, still no good.  Tweaked the EQ, tweaked the a bit better.

I came to the conclusion that I don't know my instrument when plugged in; everytime I have recorded a song I always edit afterwards in software to compensate back to the sound I want.  I need to learn how to get a live sound from the guitar frequency response adjustments, with reverb settings (to make up for the lack of the natural room response) but importantly my playing style.

See, the electric guys don't have this problem, they are always plugged in, and invariably going through some effects.  The sound is what they learn from the word go.  Us acoustic guys don't get that inbuilt training.

I haven't spent enough of my guitar life playing plugged in.  It is time I remedied that.



  1. Do I have to read another excuse why your are not starting playing public?
    Come one, you are a great guitarist!! =)

    Every great guitarist never reaches his live level he wants to, thats why hes so great.

    Do it.


  2. Well said, Constantin!

    Look at Naudo, I wouldn't call that a great sound, at least the one that you get to hear in the videos (I don't know how it sounds live), but how fascinating! Just because he is a genius.
    Are you a genius? Well, may be you are not, but you are good, most of your potential live audience (in that park you are going to settle) will only care about being able to hear the notes, recognize and hum along with the tunes you are playing.

  3. Yep, you are both right, I need to make the leap and just get out there; only then can my standard start to improve.

    Naudo's sound on the videos is pretty poor because it is only recorded by a camera microphone, but when I mentally filter that out I can see he pays a lot of attention to get a good sound. I am quite sure that a good guitarist can really be let down by a bad sound, but that's only to other guitarists/musicians, as you say Roman, a casual listener is mostly interested in recognising the notes ;)

    Thanks fellas!