Some days, it just isn’t happening. Every note sounds like it’s dead-on-arrival. You have no sustain, no tone and your confidence is wilting away to nothing. We all have days like that. So here are some ways to ”cheat” and get yourself back in the game.
Reverb & Delay
Think you’re a super-shredder? Trying playing through a totally dry amp sometime and you’ll discover all sorts of pops, cracks and wheezes in your playing. The electric guitar is a messy instrument and the more we amplify it and turn up the gain, the more we hear the artifacts of our playing. Open strings, string-squeek, flubbed picking, unwanted harmonics are just a few of the things we’re trying to control every time we pick up the guitar.
Sometimes it’s just too much to listen too. Some days you just can’t get anything to come out sounding clean. On those days, I reach for a little reverb or a little delay. Both have the same effect of “mushing” your sound a bit. It hides a lot of those little mistakes and helps you gloss over them. For the audience, it can smooth out the performance. For the player, it can give you a little boost of confidence and make you feel like you’re playing better than you would sound with a totally dry signal.
Be warned though, these two tools are very powerful and very addictive. Some players can’t live without their reverb and delay. For some, it’s such an integral part of their style, it would be unfair to deprive them of it (like The Edge). But for most of us, we could probably stand to spend a little time without the reverb and delay.
Still, on those days when it just isn't quite coming together, a little reverb or delay could be just what the doctor ordered to boost your confidence.
Compression, Gain & Distortion
When I was in high-school, there was a local character that always hung out at the local guitar store that my friends and I referred to as "slobbering-Metallica-guy". He was a straight-up metal-head shredder type who would always grab the pointiest B.C. Rich off the wall, plug into the closest Crate he could find, jack the gain up and shred away.
After about five minutes of this the owner would stop by and switch him to the clean channel. Then he’d get a big smirk on his face and say, ”now play it clean”. Suddenly the smooth flowing metal lines sounded like a Model T engine trying to start with no oil in crankcase.
Now the old-timers will tell you that all distortion and gain are crutches for metal players. I’m not sure I buy that. To me, playing high-gain is simply different than playing with a clean tone. I don’t think you can take a jazz guy, jack his gain up and not have it sound like a mess without some adjustment to his playing technique.
That said, a little boost in gain can give you little bit of a safety net. It glues single notes together a little better and you get more sustain. You don't have to pick or fret as hard which makes it a little easier for your fingers to move around more quickly.
Compression is closely related to gain and distortion, but it’s more subtle. If you're not familiar with a compressor, it’s a device that prevents signals from getting too loud. You set a threshold on a compressor and any volume that hits that threshold gets squashed down. When you do this, you can turn the overall volume of the signal up since you won’t have these peaks crashing through. The net result is that it allows you to bring the quiet notes up.
For a guitar this means that notes that might be a little quieter (maybe you're going country clean) will get evened-out with the louder notes. Country players rely heavily on compressors for fast single-note stuff and a real clean setting. It lets them play with a lighter touch while not having to rely on gain and distortion.
In fact, compression is just one of the many artifacts of a distorted guitar signal. So another way to think of compression is using just that one aspect of a distorted tone.
The ol’ Napkin Trick (Recording only)
This is a fun one that I used recently when recording a guitar solo for a friend’s band. I had this nutty tapping bit that I couldn’t quite play totally clean without getting a little open-string ring along the way. I would have eventually nailed it with enough practice, but I was trying to maintain the quick-and-dirty spirit of the project and didn’t want to over-rehearse it.
So I cheated by tying a cloth napkin around the 1st fret just enough to mute the open strings, but not so tightly that it caused a note to be fretted. I still tried to play the tapping bit as cleanly as I could but, because I knew that the napkin would be my last line of defense, I could really dig into the solo without worrying about open strings. The net result was a much more aggressive and flowing solo.
You probably can’t pull this one off on-stage—unless it’s really dark or you want your guitar to look like a hostage—but it’s a great recording trick.
The Ultimate Cheat: Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
OK, I don’t think this is actually fair to characterize hammer-ons and pull-offs as “cheating”. I only put it here in the spirit of good humor. What hammer-ons and pull-offs will let you do is play faster in legato style than you probably can if you’re picking every note. I don’t consider this a “cheat” because a legato sound is a perfectly fine tone. In some cases it may be the sound you prefer to a more percussive picked sound. It all depends on context and personal taste.
But, in the heat of battle, you might need a little wiggle-room to nail that fast lick when your picking hand just isn’t up to snuff. Don’t hesitate to reach for a quick burst of legato to get you over the hump.
For bonus cheater-points, you can mix hammer-ons and pull-offs with open strings. The freboard-tapping-sounding lick from AC/DC's “Thunderstruck” is a grade-A example of this “cheat”:
In truth, none of these are cheating. Cheating implies that there’s a right way and wrong way to do it. Frankly, I don’t buy that. There’s only what works and what doesn’t work. If you need to cheat, you do what you have to.
Performance of any sort is deeply tied into our current mental state. Who can say why some days you sound better than others? That is the mystery of the craft. But on the days when it just isn’t working, it’s easy to lose confidence and want to give altogether. Hopefully these little tricks will help you muddle through, and possibly even re-ignite the spark.