Q: Hey Mike, I know guys like Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, and one of my new favorite guitar players—Jared James Nichols, play without guitar picks. Do you think this influences their sound?
A: Simply put, yes, yes, and yes. The player is the largest factor in the tone of a rig (or a simple acoustic guitar). It is true that the sound of an electric guitar is part guitar, part amp, part pedals, and part settings. But in the end, it’s really all in the player’s hands.
Playing with a pic (or “plectrum” if you are really old or English), is probably the most common way today’s rock guitarists play. The pick is great for strumming and it is great for single note work. Proper pick technique can afford you some fast chops. Take a pic away from most shredder-style guitar players and they may still be fast, but they will want the pick back “now please.”
Mark Knopfler learned his style like all these other greats did— listening to the greats that came before him and adding his own signature. Money for Nothing! Fingerstyle with a cranked up and distorted amp, with a cocked wah. The sound is a brilliant new twist to an old trick. Even with that crazy distorted tone, each note pops right out, clear and clean.
Jared James Nichols and Jeff Beck are generations apart, but share an unorthodox style of “no pick” playing. Nichols classic rock influenced style was pioneered by pick players, not finger style or hybrid pickers. It’s hard for me to hear the lack of that little plastic triangle, a life line us pick users rely on. Nichols may feel awkward with a pick in his right hand, as he is a left handed guy, playing righty. The lack of pick in his “weak” hand might be just a matter of comfort. I can’t imagine trying to flip my guitar over, and start alternate picking with my left hand. The thought of it gives me a migraine. That’s my guess, unless he has a Carter picking style album I don’t know about.
Jeff Beck was not always a pick-less player. I’m sure that’s part of why his style is closer to a flat pick player. Beck’s playing is arguably instantly recognizable, and he has continued to grow and explore throughout his long career. He has a sound unlike any other, even when on occasion he does use a pick. Beck often uses two-finger double stops, thumb picks bass notes, and utilizes all the fingers on his right hand. He does not play like Travis or Atkins, but he does borrow elements of country style.
I’m told he doesn’t tune his guitar (unless it’s really, really out), but prefers to bend the strings into proper pitch. Beck uses his hand to stretch strings, handle the trem arm, and just about every finger is doing something. Beck doesn’t use a pick. He uses all 4 fingers and thumb as a pick. We, as mere mortal guitar players, don’t get to question or even fully understand a player like Jeff Beck. In the words of Wayne and Garth “We’re not worthy!”
Q: Hey Mike! I just got an awesome Peavey Classic 30 from the Sam Ash Used site. It sounds awesome but the wife says I can’t keep the kids up on school nights. How do I enjoy the beautiful cranked up overdrive tone of the amp I just bought without both me and the amp getting tossed onto the streets?
A: Easy fix, my friend. The days of needing an amp that fits the room are long over. One of the reasons the Fender Deluxe Reverb became such a classic (aside from its great tone) is its size. It was in, what I call, the “Goldilocks zone.” Not too big, not too small. At 22-watts it could be turned up loud enough to start cooking without blowing the roof off of a club.
That was the way it was. In 1974 the “Master Volume” came around. It’s like turning your amp all the way up and bleeding off the volume, not the sound. Your new Peavey Classic 30 has this feature. You want distortion at low volume? Go to the dirty channel and crank the “Pre” volume, turning the “Post” volume way down low. I just tested one out and it gets pretty low. That ought to do it, but you can also plug in a distortion box (or boost of any kind) and choke the volume down even lower, with the volume control on the stomp box. Even the cat will sleep through that.
One last resort…if it’s still too loud, I have a secret trick to share. You can disconnect the speaker, and plug a set of headphones (with a ¼ jack) into the “send” of the amp’s “send and return” feature. The amp was not designed to be used this way, but it will work. No sound will come from the amp.
Q: Mike a friend just gave me an older Gibson J200 that his mom had sitting around the house (lucky me). It sounds beautiful and I want to take it to my next gig. Should I just mic it up or should I consider installing a pickup?
A: Have the guitar looked at by a tech, especially if you say it’s older. Have a professional that is capable of estimating the guitars age and value before you make a move. Acoustic guitars are fragile, and need some TLC now and again, especially in dry or very humid climates. I don’t recommend altering a vintage guitar in any way. In that case, I’d probably use a mic on a vintage guitar. The down side is that a mic is hard to use for amplifying an acoustic guitar. If you move away from the mic, the sound will drop off. If you move too close, the volume may get too loud.
You can install a soundhole pickup, or a surface mounted pickup that attaches with a magnet (the Cling on). There is also the IK media system that clips to the soundhole, and has its own belt clip, pre amp for extra control. Those are all noninvasive solutions that will not alter your classic guitar.
If you want the best tone possible from a live performance and are not worried about altering a vintage classic, a transducer style pickup is a great solution. It is nearly undetectable visually, and works quite well with a PA system or a dedicated acoustic guitar amp. A professional tech should do the installation. Fishman’s Matrix system has been a leading acoustic pickup for over 20 years and now has a new generation. But again, before you make any moves, please have a certified tech look over such a fine instrument. Good luck and congratulations on your acquisition of the “King of the Flattops.”
Q: Mike I am all about the Blues and recently got into an argument with my friend about who is the best blues player of all time. Any dark horses you think need to be in this conversation?
A: The blues is a lot more than electric guitar solos. Let’s list a few standouts and include acoustic, harp players, and singers. Let’s take a look at some “dark horse” classics (some hidden in plain sight). Dark horses and the blues seem to go together like whiskey and poison. Just ask the first guy on our list.
- Robert Johnson
Everyone knows the tale of Robert Johnson. He is famous, infamous, and legendary. But how many have heard a song sung by Robert Johnson himself? Be honest. Cream’s “Crossroads” is stellar, but it’s not Robert Johnson. He recorded 29 songs (not counting outtakes). For chilling blues and mesmerizing guitar, listen to “32-20 Blues” and “When You Got a Good Friend.”
- Lead Belly
Guitar intertwined with a broken man’s voice. Forget the bluesy lyrics—the melody alone will have the blues crawling all over your soul. This is as blue as it gets. Try “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”
- Memphis Mini (Lizzy Douglas) and Joe McCoy
How about this for the blues? Mini (one hell of a guitar player) recorded “When the Levee Breaks” in the 1940s. You must hear the guitar work of Lizzy (aka Memphis Mini—not her husband, who is the singer) on this track.
- Little Walter
Little Walter was not a guitar player, but no Chicago electric blues band went without a harp player. Little Walter is one of the first to use a green bullet mic and an amp. Listen to “Last Night, I Lost the Best Friend I Ever Had” and “Boom, Boom, Out Go the Lights.”
- Jimmy Reed
Listen to Jimmy Reed on his Old Kraftsman Thin Twin guitar, with his soulful voice and absolutely icy harp on “Honest I do.”
- Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown
I think this may be the kind of dark horse firebrand you may have been asking about. I met the man face to face and saw him do it live—sitting two feet from me. He runs on electricity. He is an unsung hero, a “dark horse,” and a monster player. You may have heard the name, but have you heard a lick? Even if the answer is no, the answer is yes. Everyone took a little of Gatemouth with them. Please, do yourself a favor; listen to “Pressure cooker” and seek out his version of “Take the A Train,” re-covered live with Roy Clark (a bit of a dark horse himself).