Thinking Theory: The BB King Blues Box
All right, we’ve had our fun. We’ve had a good nine weeks of talking pedals, and guitars, and which amp we think helps us sound like that lost B-side Radiohead recording from the early 90’s best. But the powers that be have told me that enough is enough, theory must be taught. We don’t want a generation of all gear and no idea now do we? (It rhymes caus its true)
So what are we going be looking at today? Well I thought I’d go easy on ya and not dive straight into anything too intense so we can shake of those easy gear chat hats and get our much more serious and committed theory hats on. So naturally we’re doing Blues. Why? Because you can apply pretty much any scale at its most basic form to Blues, and its format demands a degree of taste. You aimlessly wail over a Blues people are going to know, and we can’t have that. So we’re going to be taking influence from one of the most simple, yet timeless players: BB King.
Music Theory For Guitar
Lets ignore the fact that BB had a voice that could melt an igloo in conditions that only existed back before we began killing our planet (shots fired) what BB brought to the world of guitar playing was something all guitarists should endorse and implement into their playing; restraint. He had so much restraint and simplicity in his playing that you can pretty much play 85% of his licks in one tiny little box on the pentatonic scale, known as the BB Blues box.
So where is that box Dan I hear you cry? Well calm down I’m about to show you obviously. Take a look:
This, is position three of the major pentatonic scale (or position four of the minor pentatonic) depicted by my dope drawing. Marvel before its beauty. The only problem with this picture is that it just kinda looks like a bunch of notes with no direction or vibe whatsoever. But things are not always as they appear:
Boom. Did that just blow your mind? Suddenly there’s a whole breadth of colour in this scale, both musically and literally. What I’ve done is alter one note of the scale, and then pick out pretty much the only five notes you’ll need to get your BB king on. Lets talk actual theory to make this a bit clearer.
Essentially what you’re doing by highlighting these five notes is picking out the 6th, 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th notes of the scale you’re playing in. In the key of C, that would be A, C, D, F, and G. Or Green, Yellow, Blue, Red, Yellow on the chart.
You’re reading that and probably saying ‘That just sounds like random notes of the scale Dan’, but lets consider this over a blues in C (Chords 1, 4, 5, or C, F, G). If you think about it, you’ve basically got your root and fifth of chord 1 (C and G) and of chord 4 (F and C) AND of chord 5 (G and D). You can also consider F to be the 7th of your chord 5, or your A to be the 6th of Chord 1, and so on.
The trick with playing is this blues box, and soloing in general, is picking your moments. Try just playing the 1 and 5 of each chord over the changes of a blues, and you’ll begin to hear that you’re suddenly playing some pretty tasty licks without even really doing anything. Once you’re more confident, start experimenting with other notes. Bend your 2nd up to the 3rd over chord 4 and you’ve got the 3rd of that chord, or the most classic BB sounding lick, 6th to the 1st.
Tasteful soloing is all about finding your own licks, but being aware of the chords you’re playing over. Less is always more in this case. It will take some time to get confident playing with, but remember; BB always took his time! Explore you Blues Guitar playing with Guitar Lessons London
Happy shredding! By Dan Tredgold
When it comes to picking on the guitar, there are a wide variety of techniques at our disposal to achieve the effect we’re looking for. Certain picking techniques suit specific genres and others can be applied pretty much across the board. It can be easy to get caught up learning the actual notes and phrases that we forget how crucial our picking is to playing them. Discovering new picking techniques can really open new doors in terms of what you are capable of playing and will improve the co-ordination between your picking and fret hand. So read on to find out about some of these techniques, how to use them and where you can expect to find them!
Alternate picking is probably the most commonly used of all the techniques, so a good place to start if you’re finding out for the first time. As the name suggests, it requires using the pick to strike the string in an ‘up, down, up, down’ fashion. When you get proficient at alternate picking it can be used to achieve great speed and accuracy. It lends itself to pretty much every style of playing due to its simple and effective nature, but gets notoriety from its ability to produce lightening fast scale runs and shredding solos in metal and rock genres. It’s bread and butter for any budding shred head.
If you know who Jason Becker is, then you will know what sweep picking is. If you don’t, go listen to ‘Altitudes’ and hear it in all its glory. To sweep pick is to strike the strings in a raking motion, playing each one in a fluid movement, like a strum but slightly slower and more controlled. This is usually accompanied by an arpeggio played on the fret hand outlining a chord shape, but releasing each note as it is played resulting in the notes sounding individually and yes… it is as difficult as it sounds. Sweep picking is widely recognised as an advanced technique and is usually mastered by those willing to sit in front of a metronome for hours on end, but once perfected it can sound incredibly impressive and is definitely worth the patience.
Learning how to finger-pick is a must for all guitarists. You simply can’t achieve the effect of playing multiple notes across different registers as easily with a plectrum. Learning to use all your fingers independently to pick the strings can take a while to master as it requires a lot of accuracy and dexterity, but is essential to playing certain styles of music, especially if you’re a fan of folk or country. Many people associate finger-picking with acoustic guitar but it can be highly effective on the electric too. Many famous Jazz guitarists use finger-picking as it works well for vamping chords and being able to separate tones accurately, which would ultimately be more difficult with a plectrum alone.
Hybrid picking is the combination of using a plectrum and the remaining three fingers on your picking hand at the same time. Again, another advanced technique, but when used effectively allows you to play patterns not possible with the pick alone. The general idea is to use the plectrum to play lines within the middle strings while the remaining three fingers can pick notes on the strings above, allowing you to play notes on different strings in quick succession. This is a really popular technique in country and blues styles, think of it as the benefits of finger-picking with the added clout of the pick.
Exactly what it says on the tin. Using exclusively downward strokes in your picking pattern. The downward motion really adds some beef to the resonance of the string and can add a driving momentum to your riffs. Rock and roll features a lot of this technique as it creates a more aggressive sound and often requires more attitude than accuracy. This technique can be made
even more effective when combined with some of the other techniques mentioned in this article as it creates a contrast in the timbre of the guitar.
The word tremolo is one to be familiar with in the guitar world, it pops up in all sorts of places: effects pedals, amps, guitar hardware and of course… picking. In its literal terms, it is defined as a shaking or vibrating sound achieved from repeating the same note or two notes in rapid succession. At its core, it’s a development of alternate picking, just using it on the same string at even but incredibly fast intervals. The result is a tremulous flurry of notes rolling one after the other which can give a really cool effect. Although it is one of the more obscure and less frequently used techniques, you can find it in a surprising amount of genres, from Rock and Metal to Country, Flamenco and even Banjo playing.
Muted Picking (a.k.a Palm Muting)
If you’ve been playing guitar for a little while now you will have more than likely come across palm muting. Even if you’re a beginner you will have definitely heard it somewhere. A well used technique in any guitarists arsenal, palm muting is a techniques that produces a very different sound from the guitar. It is achieved by resting the underside of the picking hand on the strings, thus dampening the resonance of the strings when you pick them. Rest on them too much and you will completely choke the notes, too little and you will probably get a nasty resonance with your notes, but get it just right and you can produce crunchy power chords and funky lead lines. The dampening of the string gives the notes a short sharp quality, which when combined with normally picked notes can add a whole new dimension to your playing and gives you more options when creating lines. Again, this is another cross genre technique and features heavily in Pop Rock, Punk to Funk and Jazz.
The real beauty with these picking techniques comes when you combine them into your playing and use them together. Each technique can create different moods and tones from the guitar so using them carefully can make your playing sound more varied and interesting. So have a practice through each technique and find the ones you really like and could see yourself using regularly. Listen to examples and start including them in your own playing. Picking is paramount to becoming an awesome guitarist. I was once told by an old tutor “a guitarist is only as good as his picking. If your picking sucks, your playing sucks” and I’m inclined to agree.
5 Pedals or Less: How to sound like Sonic Youth
Its funny what being branded a loser in high school has done for some of the most iconic Alt music in the game today, and the same can be said for pretty music all awkwardly cool music in existence too.
You don’t belong, you form a band because you think ‘hey they already hate me anyway so what’s the worst that can happen?’ and then you go on to write music that connects with every other person who felt like they didn’t belong too and become a superstar.
Now I don’t know for sure that the guys in Sonic Youth were branded losers in high school. Nor do I know basically anything about them other than their music. But hey, sometimes you just get a feeling.
What I do know is how to use pedals to sound like them. And fortunately that’s all I’m getting paid to do so I’m just gonna shut up and get on with it.
Before I get into pedals though, I need to mention some pre pedal gear you’ll need to do this right:
- Some kind of Fender amp. Ideally a Princeton, but anything with that classic jangle sound will do.
- A guitar with fender voiced Humbuckers, and if you can make it something Alt-y like a Jazzmaster so you look like a kool dude
Pedal 1: Boss CH-1 Super Chorus (£70)
Starting from the cleans and working up here. Sonic Youth like nearly every Alt band ever really liked using chorus, and why not? It sounds dope and when used properly doesn’t have to be a cheesy 80’s vibe (although I love that vibe so don’t you dare say bad word about it so help me god).
Thing is, in order to get the right chorus sound you need it to be on the budget side of the price point scale, but with enough sculpt-ability to get the right sound. Boom. CH-1. I’ve said it before I don’t wanna say it again, just buy it. Don’t be stupid.
Pedal 2: BOSS 59’ Bassman Pedal (£79-£114)
Ok, so couple things you need to consider when looking at the Sonic Youth drive sound. They tended to crank old amps to get a natural drive sound, then have another guitar with some kind of fuzz on it to get this marriage of old and new style gain. I don’t recommend cranking your fender amp up for gain, because like them, you’ll go deaf. What you can do however is buy pedals that recreate amp style gain like the BOSS 59’.
I chose this one purely because it’s the only one I’ve owned in this style of pedal and it works great. They’re quite hard to buy new these days but there are tons on Ebay. I know that’s a pain for some people but its not that hard to pick one up and all the other pedals coming out that do this type of thing either suck or cost £200 so you do the math.
Pedal 3: EHX Op-Amp Muff (£75)
Finishing off the drive section with, of course, a fuzz. Sonic Youth would sound a whole lot less angst-y without some good ole fuzz. Virtually every Alt band of note used the Op- Amp big muff in the 90’s (Smashing Pumpkins being the most noted) because of its stupidly high gain wall of fuzz sound. This reissue does a near perfect job and its small and £75. Sometimes it’s best to know a good thing when you see it and not mess with it.
Pedal 4: Way Huge Echo-Puss (£140)
Nearly there now. The flip side of Sonic Youth’s massive guitar sounds is their more delicate, almost ambient instrumentals that are scattered across their discography. So in order to do that you’ll need a delay, and ideally an analogue one.
I feel like the Echo-Puss always gets overlooked in the conversation of best analogue delays. To say that it’s a semi clone of the Memory man and the deluxe reissue by EHX costs £190 to its £140 (and sounds better IMO) it baffles me so few know or use it. But anyway I’m getting off the point, it’s a great sounding delay, the modulation on it is peng (trendy kid words) and it’ll do anything from lush delays, to ambient delays, to fuzzy distorted soundscapes. You really can’t go wrong with this one.
Amplifiers: What do all the controls do?
Amplifiers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some have a variety of whizzes and bangs to play with on your quest for the perfect tone, others are fairly straight forward and opt to include a limited amount of features, instead relying on the tone from the speakers and electronics. So for beginner guitarists it can often be a confusing experience and full of terminology that isn’t familiar. In this article I’m going to put some of these features into a little bit of context for you by explaining what they are, what they do and how to get the best out of them!
Master Volume or Volume
You would assume that this one would be self-explanatory, however there are some exceptions where one could run into confusion. In a nutshell, the Master Volume controls the overall loudness of the amp. It sits at the end of all the other components in your chain and raises them all together thus not affecting the components individually. Sometimes you may have a Master Volume control and two Volume controls, which usually means that your amp has two channels (the ability to switch between two sounds, for example, clean vs distortion). In this instance the Master Volume controls the output of the overall amp and the other two Volume controls adjust the loudness of the individual channels, allowing you to have one channel a different volume than the other.
Gain (a.k.a Drive)
This a good opportunity to quash a common misconception. Gain is not the same as Volume!
It actually controls how hard you are driving your amp and alters the tone of the guitar. The more gain you apply, the more distorted and dirty the sound will be. This can sound like it is making the guitar louder, which is where the misunderstanding comes from, but it’s actually just sending more of the electrical signal through your amplifier, which drives a more powerful sound through the speaker causing the sound to distort. So you can crank your gain up high but keep your amp really quiet by keeping the Master Volume low.
Equaliser or EQ (Bass/Middle/Treble)
If you have owned a stereo in your time, you may have come across Equalisers before and when it comes to guitar amps there isn’t a whole lot of difference. The most common of Equalisers on a guitar amp is called a 3-band EQ and consists of Bass/Middle/Treble (sometimes Low/Mid/High). These controls alter the frequencies that are produced from the amp across the spectrum of your sound. The bass controls how many low and deep frequencies come through, the higher you have the bass control, the more bass your sound has and vice versa. The Treble control works in the same way but adjusts the higher pitched frequencies, again the higher you have the Treble control the more high frequencies you’ll hear in your tone. And finally… the Middle control (as you’ve probably guessed by now) affects everything in between. On some bigger and more complicated amps you may even have a 5-band EQ, but this just means you have more points across the frequency spectrum to manipulate allowing you to be more detailed in your Equalisation choices. The best thing to do is experiment with the Equaliser, push it to its extremes so you can hear the differences and work back to find the tone that best suits your playing.
Not every amplifier has a presence control, so it’s function isn’t common knowledge. In simple terms, it’s an extension of the Equaliser and adds upper-mid to high frequencies to your tone. The reason for doing so is that it boosts the guitar through the mix of other instruments, in theory making your sound more present to the audience, hence the name. This can be a really useful tool if you’re lucky enough to have one on your amp and can really make the difference in having a guitar tone that stands out. If you don’t have one don’t fear, use your existing EQ to boost your mid and high frequency a little more than usual, this can produce a similar effect.
Reverb (or reverberation) is an added ambience created by the environment of where the sound was created and occurs due to lots of small reflections bouncing around said environment in fast succession. In guitar amps you will usually have one of two types of reverbs: an analog or a digital one. Analog reverbs usually have a physical spring or metal plates built into the amplifier that conduct the electrical signal sent from the guitar and react by vibrating, simulating the reverb effect. Digital reverb is an emulation of this effect through computer simulation. Both methods can create some really interesting sounds and many guitarists usually swear by one or the other. Although I think we can all agree that any kind of reverb can really improve your guitar tone.
Delay is found mainly on modern amps. It’s a digital effect that consists of a storage medium that records the signal that goes into the amp and plays it back repeatedly, creating the effect of a decaying echo. You can manipulate the speed of the repetitions using the tempo control which is often accompanied with a ‘tap’ button which allows you to set the speed of the delay to the music you’re playing. Other parameters that you are able to alter are the depth (sometimes displayed as Dry/Wet: like 1 to 10 where dry means no effect at all and wet being saturated) which alters how much of the effect is on your tone. Feedback is how long the delay lasts for and how many repetitions you can hear. You can create some really unique sounds using delays and can create some fantastic detail into your riffs.
Ultimately, I’ve always found the best way to understand how each of these components work is to sit and play with them. Experiment with different settings and listen in detail to what is happening to the sound of your guitar, learn what sounds terrible and don’t be scared to make some noise! It could be argued that the amplifier is the most important component in any guitar chain (apart from you of course) because it’s responsible for projecting the sound. So having a good understanding of how to use it is only going to make you sound even better.
Guilty Pleasures: a Brief History of Chorus
Chorus. Is there a more polarizing word in the guitar pedal world? Maybe Ring Mod, but even then that’s a heavy seventy-thirty split against it. Its warm, warble-y, and often- cheesy sound has cringed and excited players alike for decades since its flagship introduction in the 1970’s.
Love it or hate it, you cannot deny the impact its had on music over the years. It basically defined the 80’s alongside gated reverbs, backcombed hair, and those horrible electronic drums that looked like someone cut the tops off some kind of Damien Hurst inspired bin set.
But what is chorus? Why do we use it? And what about it draws as many players in as it does turn them away.
Before we can decide on that, we first must learn about its origins. Where it came from and how it came to be one of the must fundamental effects in modern music.
You can argue that the earliest form of chorus came through in the 1930’s with the Hammond organ. Hammond organs have wheels and pull knobs that can add or remove extensions to the chords being played (3rds, 4ths, 6ths, etc.). They also had the ability to detune the notes being played to give you a fuller, more frequency dominating sound, i.e. chorus! But it wasn’t until the 1970’s that chorus started showing up on the guitarist’s radar.
Roland released two amplifiers in 1975, the JC-60, and the JC-120. More commonly known these days as the Roland Jazz chorus amps, which have a huge cult following amongst the alt guitar players of this world. But originally they were marketed as keyboard amps, providing built in chorus that could relieve the weight of having that tech built into your actual keyboard alongside a shimmering clean signal, seems strange to think about that now doesn’t it!
Anyway it wasn’t long before Roland noticed the influx of guitar players who were using the JC amps and decided to bring some of that tech into the pedal world. Bring on the Boss CE-1, a clunky, heavy, steel box that provided the exact same chorus sound found in the JC-120. Sales were slow initially, due to its high retail price, but saw rapid growth once guitarists saw the potential of its stereo out function. Which allowed guitar players to run two amps at the same time creating previously unheard atmospheric sounds.
With Roland focusing their Boss division on the pursuit of more compact pedals, it wasn’t long before the CE-1 saw its successor. In 1977, Boss released the CE-2, arguably THE most famous chorus pedal in the world. The CE-2 had all the same functionality, minus the stereo outs, and the vibrato, and was used on countless records and guitar and keyboard sounds for the following decade and a half.
History of Chorus Pedals
Since its hay day, decade dominating stint in the 80’s, chorus has taken more of a backseat role in the effect world, finding purpose in more subtle pop applications on synths, or helping Metal and Alternative bands give their riffs and solos more of an edge. Still, there is no denying its contribution to music. But now we know its history, what is chorus?
Put simply, chorus is a modulation effect. Meaning that it affects the pitch and frequency of your guitar tone, rather than volume, gain, delay, or space surrounding your tone. It works by doubling your signal, then taking the double of your signal and modulating the pitch up and down at a chosen rate. This gives your guitar a fuller sound because your signal is not only doubled, but is also moving in and out of tune with itself. Don’t ask me why that makes it fuller, lets just say that there’s something about playing an instrument alongside the same thing but slightly out of tune with itself that makes stuff sound bigger. Its science, make your peace with it. What’s important is the result of this effect; modulated sonic magic. Chorus allows you to get anything
from lush 80’s pop magic, to gritty 90’s Sonic Youth/Cure era Alt-Rock and Indie, all the way to straight up weird.
At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself ‘Alright Dan, you’ve convinced me. Chorus sounds awesome and I want one of my very own right now. But I don’t know where to begin because I’m a complete gear noob!’
Well fear not gear noobs, once again I’ve compiled y’all a list of my three picks that will cater to any guitar players needs. Pro or no, steep or cheap, there’s a chorus pedal in here for you. So lets just all shut up so I can get on with this yeah?
Dan’s pick – Tone City Angel Wing (£40)
It’s actually such a shock for me that it’s taken me this long to mention a pedal by Tone City in these articles. They have an incredibly extensive range of really solid sounding pedals, most of them are super pedal-board friendly, and above all else, they’re like forty quid!
What?! That’s right, forty pounds for a great sounding chorus pedal. Your entry into lush 80’s sounding guitar magic could cost you as little as forty pounds if you so choose. It comes with a super simple three knob configuration; level, rate, and depth, and provides lush chorus sounds. Is it the best chorus I’ve ever heard? No. But it’s bloody good for forty pounds. If you’re on the fence about whether you think chorus is awesome or cheesy, and need to own one to make a final decision on that. Then the Tone City Angel Wing is for you.
Dan’s Pick – Boss Super Chorus CH-1 (£71)
It was unlikely that we were going to do a list of best choruses without having Boss pedal in there was it? So lets talk about the CH-1.
Not as well known as its predecessor the CE-2, the CH-1 first came on the scene in the 1989 as the successor to the CE series, adding EQ controls, stereo outputs, and a less criticized knob layout. Sadly, this pedal has been stood in the shadow cast by the CE-2 pretty much since its birth, despite
being used on countless records. Well guess what? Original CE-2s cost about two hundred-plus pounds; the Waza Craft CE-2s cost about two hundred-ish pounds, what does the standard CH-1 cost? £71. So you do the math.
People always say that the CE-2 is the sound of the 80’s, and in fairness it was used all the time during that decade. But for me personally I’ve never used a CE-2 and gotten that classic cheesy 80’s chorus sound that I’m looking, or managed to get that 90’s Cure/Sonic Youth chorus sound that I love either. Whereas the CH-1, it comes with ease. It’s simple, sounds awesome, and costs half the price of the coveted CE-2. Even the original analogue circuit CH-1’s cost less than any of the CE-2s. If you’re wanting classic boss chorus, classic 80’s chorus, or even just a good chorus for a decent amount of money. The Boss CH-1 is THE chorus pedal. Don’t believe the hype; believe me, a random guy on the Internet.
Dan’s Pick – Walrus Audio Julia (£179)
Thought it was wise to pick a chorus that wasn’t the CE-2 for my big money pedal, seeing as I just spent two hundred words convincing you to not believe the hype surrounding it. To clear things up, the CE-2 is a fantastic chorus, it’s got a great sound, but it’s also spoken about all the time and there are millions of articles praising it so why add to that? What I’ve chosen for you is the Walrus Audio Julia, which falls in the boutique pedal category in so many ways, all of them awesome.
I don’t know about anyone else, but when people say modern chorus sound I used to think of cheesier, more 80’s sounding chorus, until now. The Julia is what all modern choruses should be aiming to sound like. It provides warm, organic sounding choruses, lush vibratos, and anywhere in between with its unique knob layout and functionality. It kind of makes me think of what kind of soundscapes fish would hear underwater, which is fitting because its name derives from mysterious sounds heard at the depths of the ocean. Will it give you an accurate chorus sound for the
Purple Rain tone? I don’t know, probably not if I’m being honest. But then why should it. Boss pretty much have a monopoly on the classic 80’s chorus sound with their endless array of chorus models, and they were there first so why compete? What the Julia can do is broaden your sonic horizons and make you re-evaluate what chorus is, and what kind of tones you can get out of it. If you’re looking to invest big money into a chorus that is unlike its stereotypical predecessors, the Julia is everything you’ve been looking for and more.