Tone Tips: Don’t Let New Gear Kill Your Creative Flow!
We live in a pretty special place with what's available to us as guitarists today. There seems to be a piece of gear that would work musically in ANY situation, and it's fun to experiment to see where riding the cultural wave of the tone "flavor-of-the-moment" will take you. And yes, trying another overdrive will give you a fun little hour of guitar playing. But with each new piece of musical gear comes a larger and larger time commitment to learn how to apply the new acquisition. From the simplest of effect pedals to the complex steps in learning recording editing software, you have to be able to invest time in yourself so you can get the very best results out of your musical gear. This can get frustrating when you're just looking to play more and more guitar. So, here are some of my ways to make sure you don't kill your creativity in the process!
Always Make the Most of What You Already Have:
First off, take it from me and limit yourself for a while to the gear you already own. I am a walking poster child for G.A.S. (gear acquisition syndrome) and have almost made it an art form when constantly buying and selling the latest and greatest guitar toys. It's way too easy to get caught up in the cycle, particularly once you embrace online shopping with your smartphone on sites like Reverb. Have one too many late-night cocktails and invariably you'll end up with an expensive piece of gear via UPS in a couple of days. YouTube demos and reviews on the forums like the Gearpage create a culture that lusts after the tones of each new gear purchase and makes it seem normal to be blowing away your month's salary on vintage Echoplexes at 2 am. Take a deep breath, relax, float downstream and look at what you already have. Limit yourself to getting the most out of what's already there. Need a pulsing sound over a track but don't have a Uni-Vibe? Try using your guitar's volume pot to create swell pulses from your guitar. Maybe play with your amplifier's tremolo speed to get a similar "feeling" effect. Sometimes getting a great sound can be trying to copy what you hear and failing miserably in the attempt. Try to maximize the power you have with the effects you already own.
I'll give you an example. My very first gigging pedalboard at 16 was quite literally a slab of remnant wood covered in duct tape so I wouldn't get splinters. On the board was a few mainstays of my time: a Dunlop 635 CryBaby wah, an Ibanez Tube Screamer, a Voodoo Labs Proctavia, and one of the old grey Dunlop Uni-Vibes with the separate foot controller. I knew that rig inside and out and could get the sounds I needed through the board regardless of backline amplifiers I had access to. Once my Uni-Vibe foot controller broke, so I took off my shoe and played the controls with my socked foot manually. Later I ended up buying a brand-new pair of boots just because the toe's sole seemed to be able to move pedal knobs with control from the floor. I felt pretty great that day just because my creativity got me through the gig, and I sounded great in the process! This was a spartan looking rig, with nothing fancy to be found, yet it got me through countless jams and gigs. I spent less time tweaking and more time making actual music just because the approach was so limiting.
Likewise, newer effects pedals have so many things built into them. They take forever to learn before you can even start using the presets to their potential creatively, let alone before you can start programming your own patches. Remember these kinds of effects cost time, which in the end just ends up costing you more money.
Separate Out Time for Learning New Gear, and Time Strictly for Playing:
The time for being creative is not when you are eyeballs deep into an instruction manual for that new pedal, rack effect, or amplifier you just bought. Take some time and strictly focus on the setup phase, no matter how long it takes. It's not very fun TRYING to play when you don't even know what's going on. I know it's hard to resist the temptation of immediately playing with your new toy, but the playing experience will be so much better once you know how to work the thing a bit! Learning effect switchers, adjustments on the fly, and gain staging for your rig should all be done AT home, NOT at the gig! Your band and audience will appreciate your performance more if you aren't scrolling through menus at gig time. Even infamous pedal lover and Rockstar guitarist "The Edge" from U2 pays someone to do that for him.
Likewise, this goes towards trying to create your next musical masterpiece with that new piece of gear. It's hard to stop the excited feeling of musical inspiration when it hits you. You have a fragment of a melody or a chord progression, and you'll run to your station to start working something up. You know once you begin to flesh it out it could be awesome… but "how do I get the delay time to match my tempo I hear in my head"? "How do I switch between multiple presets on the Source Audio Nemesis on the fly?" 'Can I save this texture for later?" Nothing kills your creativity faster than annoying process-oriented questions like this. I recommend trying to make your environment as conducive to creativity as possible by making every step of the process as easy as possible. Creativity doesn't like it when you're worried about other things and thinking too much. Using manuals like this is a mood killer. I would argue using manuals in just about any life situation is mood-killing as well!
Instead, like anything else, compartmentalize your time so you can be successful in all areas. Set some time away to practice, write songs, and just play. Then set some time away to learn manuals, practice technique, tweak tones and your rig in general.
Force Yourself to Be Creative within the Parameters of Your New Piece of Gear:
Lastly, after learning the ins and outs of that new piece of gear you just bought, try writing brand new music with only that piece of gear! It will undoubtedly feel very strange because you don't have THAT other favorite piece of gear, but It should help you answer a few questions about using this new effect on songs in the future. Questions like: "How much does this pedal color my original guitar sound?", "Does the effect change with volume, or my guitar's volume knob?", "What chord progressions/melody lines sound made for this particular effect?", "What does this pedal not allow me to do creatively?". Many great, iconic guitar riffs were directly inspired by the limits of what players were playing through.
Think of the humble wah-wah pedal. Such a simple thing, essentially a potentiometer and some resistors inside a foot controller, but it's influenced guitarists for generations. Guitarists like Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix found that the wah pedal was paramount in getting lines to cut through a band mix, and make riffs sound more vocal on songs like "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)". Other guitarists of the era, like Sly Stone or Isaac Hayes, used the same effect to create a funkier, syncopated rhythm-oriented sweep for driving along with funk songs like "Shaft" or "If You Want Me to Stay". The limits of the wah pedal informed all of these musicians to use the effect based on their personal creative choices, and the good news is that in the creative moment you hold the same creative power that these artists had when they felt limited by their effect usage.
Keep an open mind and you might find a way to use your new piece of gear in a way nobody has before!