A rough guide to making your playing, writing and recording on a Weissenborn sound better.
By Aron Radford
Advice and beginners tips from yours truly (Aron Radford @ www.aronradford.com) about playing, songwriting and recording on a Weissenborn.
I’m no teacher and I’ve never studied music in any way (including lessons) and I’m not saying this is the only way of doing things (far from it) but it’s my way and it’s worked for me so far and is an ethos I strive to incorporate into my playing. So here’s what I’ve learned along my journey so far from absolute beginner to recording artist. While running ‘The Weissenborn Information Exchange’ on Facebook and the new website I have taken part in hundreds of conversations and correspondence with many many noted Weissenborn players. From my own observations and advice directly given to me I have formed an opinion on what makes for great Weissenborn music. I hope my experiences and observations can help someone in some small way and in many ways I wish I had read this when I first started playing Weissenborn. So forgive me for sounding presumptuous or condescending and in some cases preaching to the converted but I honestly feel this may be of benefit to some people out there and that’s what TWiE is all about, information sharing.
‘Tuning’- Always always always check you are in tune, you’d be surprised how easy it is to slip out of tune (especially the bottom fat “D” string) so check regularly and get in the habit of doing so, you’d be amazed how easy it is to play or record a piece of music only to find later you were ever so slightly out of tune.
‘Strings’ – Change your strings regularly. Strings dull very quickly and this can transform the sound of your guitar and a recording. New strings give it extra shine and zing, so keep an eye on them and change if your going to record or if they’ve been on for a while already.
‘Shimmer’ – Make the tone bar heard. An obvious statement maybe but steel on steel is what slide playing on the Weissenborn is fundamentally all about and what makes it’s different from normal guitar playing so emphasis it’s unique characteristics and go out of your way to incorporate it in your playing and especially your recording. Thomas Oliver calls it ‘Shimmer’ I sometimes call it shuffling. It differs slightly from vibrato which is more controlled and requires less lateral movement. Shimmer or shuffling is a more pronounced effect that involves more side ways movement of the bar on strings, it adds, interest, atmosphere and mood to your playing.
‘Vibrato’ – Use it! Never underestimate how vibrato can transform a notes timbre. Get into the habit to use vibrato when ever you can, don’t over use it but make it heard throughout your playing as it’s a fundamental part of Weissenborn slide playing and often gets forgotten while in the heat of playing and when you’re first starting out and concentrating on the playing the right notes in the right order. Be careful to know the difference between playing vibrato into a note sharply as playing past the fret (flatly) flattens the note and is less desirable in the main. Slide into a note, hit your imaginary marker and rock (or roll) the bar rapidly making sure not to creep over the fret marker when you do so. We all have different style of vibrato some pivot the bar only and some rock their whole hand side to side to make a kind of wobble motion, some physically move the bar ever so slightly with only with just there fingers to create the same effect. Experiment and find a technique that suits you best and feels comfortable.
‘Dynamics’ – This will transform your playing trust me. Play hard then soft, fast then slow, mix it up, think of it like a river which has lazy slow bends and then faster straighter sections sometimes with a small rapid section of white water thrown in for good measure. No one wants to hear a steady mono paced piece of music, it just doesn’t sound interesting to the majority of people. Ebb and flow the pace play some notes harder, some softer. Your music will sound more interesting and dynamic. Also be aware that playing over the sound hole, near to the bridge and up on the neck sound markedly different to each other so use that to your advantage and mix it up you’d be surprised how this adds a huge amount of dynamics and sonic variation to your playing. This I learned from listening to Knut Hem who is a wonderful exponent of this.
‘Technique’ – Learn good form and technique. Slide into a note accurately and hit your mark, don’t be lazy and say “that will do”, play with a straight bar in relation to the fret makers at all times, play the notes cleanly and clearly. Make sure the bar has even pressure over all the strings you are barring and especially the last string farthest away from you as that’s the one that often gets dulled due to bad inconstant pressure. Play a strum evenly throughout its motion make sure the last note is heard the same as the first (sometime this is not what you’re after but learn to do it right before you start switching it up). Bad form habits are hard to lose so be mindful right from the off. John Wilde is insanely good at ‘good form’ and that’s something I always see and hear in his playing and something that makes me try harder.
‘Sustain’ – Let the sustain ring loud and true. Try and play around a ringing string if practically possible. Let notes ring as long as they can. When one note is dying let another spring into life and vice versa. Be mindful of a notes lifespan it’s decay can be just as important as it’s attack. Alternate finger picking patterns helps create a wall of sound that fills the composition out with multiple notes ringing and decaying simultaneously. Ed Gerhard is the king of this philosophy and execution.
‘Themes’ – Construct your music to have structure and repeating themes and melodies that come and go in waves and have different variants of these melodies and themes. Try and incorporate a minor key passage to compliment the major key melodies. Improvs are great but don’t offer structure. Structure sits comfortably with every listener as we are programmed from an early age to pick out a chorus or melody from any song, your music shouldn’t be any different if you want that ‘stay-ability’ factor.
‘Intros’ – Use them, make an intro interesting and deliberately different from the rest of the tune. Intros are fun because they don’t have to follow any rules at all, be creative and experiment, some of my favourite parts of songs are often the odd ball intros.
‘Single note melodies’ – Never underestimate the power of a single line melody, a good melody can carry a composition, playing chords over and over can’t! Keeping things simple works if played well and with feeling and emotion. My good musician friend TJ Owusu told me this one day when I was being very self critical of my own playing and said creating a catchy melody is such an achievement in its self and is sometimes the hardest thing to write.
‘Practice, practice, practice’ – Practice is like an iceberg. People only see the tiny bit above the water line i.e. the finished product whether that be a recording or performance. What they don’t see is the huge mass of practice hours below the water line. They don’t see the dedication and perseverance you have given in pursuit of your goals and dreams. No one gets better without practice and lots of it, even the best players in the world practice daily still. Make it part of your daily routine, little and often or two hours straight whatever suits but make time for it. Don’t let other things get in the way, they have to fit around practice not the other way.
‘Ear Training’ – Ear training is such an important part of your development and it’s something that can’t really be taught it has to be earned and worked at. Listen to a small part of a Weissenborn recording then try and replicate it on your own guitar. Sooner or later you will be able to pick notes out and from that you can then second guess the notes around it as the rules of music dictate that there are only so many ways the progression can continue harmoniously. Watching YouTube videos is a great way to start ear training as you can see the persons hand positions and from that you can start to associate sounds with positions and vice versa. Try and transcribe a whole piece of music note by note and you will gain valuable insights into song construction and how licks and runs are used. Soon you will see themes and patterns and will be able to predict where they will go next. These skills are essential to your own writing development as you will have lots of knowledge in the memory banks to pull from. You are then on a circle of creativity and things will start to really progress.
‘Experiment’ – When you are practicing take time out to just experiment and explore new parts of the fret board that you feel you aren’t using as much in your playing. Try and have a pen and paper handy when you practice and get in the habit of noting interesting licks or new note combinations that you stumble upon. These notes are often a great resource when writing compositions and in a lot of cases are the catalyst for an entire song.
‘Loopers’ – Looper are great assets to a player both live and when practicing. Use your guitars body as a percussion instrument. Hit the looper play a simple rhythm on you guitar body with your thumbs, fingers or palm (or use a stomp box) hit the loop pedal and then simply play along to it. Add a chord progression over the top of that, then just noodle over the top and let the creativity flow. It’s amazing what new avenues this opens up to you. You can multi layer a song and fill it out dramatically. Just have fun to start with and see where it goes from there. Thomas Oliver’s new material like ‘Boy’ is a shining example of this technique.
‘Be expressive’ – “Play to express not to impress” a saying that the late and great Steinar Gregertsen lived by. Play with passion, emotion, tenderness and feeling. Create a mood and tone that encompasses your tune, whether it’s happy, somber, reflective, covey that feeling through your playing. To play a wrong note is understandable but to play without passion is inexcusable.
‘Recording’ – Always where possible record clean with no effects (and not from the amp) preferably with condenser microphones. Use a digital recorder or USB recording interface straight into the computer. Weissenborns always always always sound better with Reverb added in the mix, sometimes delay too. Use compression ONLY in mixing (and then only a little) and play around with the EQ to get a bright clear sound. When playing live I always always use a quality reverb pedal (Styrmon Blue Sky) and delay pedal. A good preamp (or DI) with various EQ parameters for adjusting the high, mids and lows is alway a good idea to sculpt your sound and tone. Lastly if funds permit use a PA system over an amp if you can as that way the amp doesn’t colour your pure sound in anyway and you eliminate a lot of hum and muddyness from your end signal. PA’s don’t colour your sound that you’ve tried so hard to sculpt they just amplify the signal cleanly and clearly, all the shaping of your sound is done by the Preamp EQ, reverb and delay prior to amplification.
‘Keep at it’ – Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t think you have to prove yourself to anyone. People will connect with your music in there own way in due course and they will do so because they hear something different in your music and playing style. Be different and don’t just strive to be a ‘note for note’ cover king, or to sound exactly like one player. You can’t please all the people all of the time so don’t try be, be yourself and stick to it what makes your music individual.
‘Share your music’ – Don’t be shy record yourself and share it with the world. It’s amazing how far just one positive comment can go for your esteem and then that has a positive effect on your playing and mindset. Don’t be worried about apathy towards your music keep going and keep putting it out there sooner or later you will get noticed. Set up social media pages to promote your music and just keep plugging away at it, don’t give up!
‘Perform live to an audience’ – Nothing makes you more focused on all of the above advice than playing live to an audience. Whether it be 10 people or a 1000 the tiny little errors and bad habits you normally make and overlook in practice have to be eliminated and practiced on even harder to elminate. It’s one of the scariest and simultaneously best experiences you will ever have performing your own music to a Iive audience. It makes you so sharp and self critical which can only lead to making you a better player in the long term. It’s the culmination of all the advice above in one concentrated burst of energy. When you get to this point you are on your own path and your future is yours to shape as you wish and i wish you all the best 🙂
Well there you have it, I hope some of you can take something away from all that and use it in your own playing, good luck and all the best in your endeavours