What do you need from a practice amplifier?

June 2020

This is an update of a blog post that I originally put up in 2014.

The following post runs the rule over different types of guitar practice amplifier, and looks at some of the many features useful in your practice routine.

At the bottom of this blog entry there is a list of amps by type, with links to the manufacturers' websites. Just Google the name of the amp to get many independent reviews on these products.

So.... Practice amps.. they're intended to help us practice aren't they?  Let's face it, there is a huge amount of music gear for us guitarists to acquire, some of it meeting our needs, some of it falling well short, some of it keeping its treasures buried deep in the technical manual that came with it, never to be discovered.  So, it's worth pausing a moment and considering what do we actually need?  Does the stuff that we think (or we are told) we need, actually serve its purpose? And very importantly, how easy is it to use?


CUBE-GX Guitar Amps with iOS Connectivity - Roland U.S. Blog
Roland produce an ever popular range of small amps


'What amp should I buy?' Is a question I get asked a lot from electric guitar students. If you're a beginning guitarist or an experienced player looking at making the most of your practice time there are some great features that some modern amps have built in that are helpful to your practice routine.

Some of these have extra 'fun' features, like DSP effects (Digital Signal Processing - i.e. chorus, flanging, phasers, delay etc) that are more likely to help you keep your fingers on the frets, but can also be distracting rather than being useful in your practice sessions... and you end up spending more time messing around to get specific sounds than practicing that new set of chords or scales..

Some of the advertising, even in reviews, dwell on the quality of the multitude of amp types, overdrive tones, the speaker simulators, DSP effects, the analogue quality of many digitally produced sounds (modelling amps) and the 'this famous person plays this same brand' factors.

While some of these features are amusing it's important to consider what existed before the practice amp? Well let's see; records, a metronome, your guitar and your ears..! Ok, I'm being facetious but those basic things will still cover 90% of what you need to practice on your instrument, and not one of them includes the word amplifier!

There are a pretty wide range of practice amps available with a variety of prices and functions. So generally what kind of things would be useful in a practice amplifier:

 - simplicity
 - small size/portability
 - headphone socket for quiet practice
 - a decent clean tone
 - a decent overdrive sound
 - straightforward EQ controls
 - a good quality authentic sounding reverb
 - connections - inputs and outputs: main in, headphone socket, auxiliary input etc.
 - good speaker quality at low/modest volume
 
                                          Fender Amp Mustang I V2 Combo: Amazon.co.uk: Musical Instruments

Practice aids (these are the really useful features so long as they are easily accessible on the amp)

  - Phrase looper: loopers allow you to play a phrase (e.g a riff or chords) and practice scales, arpeggios, improvisation etc., over it.  Basically it is form of short, direct recording. The looper should have an auto-quantise feature so any slight timing slips that you make are automatically corrected on playback.

  - Built in tuner: a very common feature these days, and essential to be at concert pitch (i.e. A = 440hz) when playing along to backing tracks, recordings etc. Still some practice amps do not have built in tuners.

  - Metronome and/or drum machine: A simple click to keep you in time, to help perfect your speed and phrasing, is really useful when you are learning. Drum track loops also help you to learn to sync with the drum parts in a variety of styles.

  - Auxiliary input: 1/8" socket for play along device (phone, mp3 player, tablet etc). Note a number of amplifiers are now adding the option to connect by bluetooth instead of/as well as a 1/8" socket.

  - Speed variation: ability to slow down tracks while keeping the music at the original pitch. These are great practice tools for working out and playing along with original song recordings. Unusual in practice amps, but are often available separately as a smartphone app but still need to be played through something so it can be heard, usually the practice amp's auxiliary input, and in some cases through Bluetooth.

  - Centre cancel: cancels the sound of the main instrument or voice being played on any recording, you can then use your instrument/voice in its place. These are sometimes available as linked smartphone or tablet apps, and are very useful to practice getting your guitar parts correct.

  - Headphone out socket: so you can practice quietly, without disturbing other folks in your house. Most of us hate to be overheard practising anyway, makes us self conscious and takes away some of the magic of when we finally perform it to the same listeners! In any case listening to someone practise their scales can be a form of torture...

Note: All of the above things are only really useful if you know how to access and use them. But many are also available in other forms, separate from the amp, and can be bought as separate units, e.g. loopers, centre cancel, drum loops, slow downers, metronome etc., some of these features are available as apps on your smart phone or tablet.. (watch our for a separate blog article on smart phone apps coming up on this very subject).

OK so you may be considering using a bigger practice amp that can also cover dual duty for band rehearsals or small gigs:


Desirable but not essential: (these features are sometimes available on practice amps)

 - Powered by mains and batteries - batteries are great for playing outside, on the street, in a field etc..

 - Recording output direct to a computer or tablet or smart phone, or memory card.

 - Foot-switchable channels - great if your amp is loud enough to compete with a live drummer..

 - Loud enough for rehearsal/small gigs as well as practice as above. See my note below on how to make your practice amp louder..

 - Line out for recording, that also doubles as line out for slaving another (bigger) amp, or feeding a line direct to a PA mixing board, could be useful if your amp is good enough/loud enough for small gigs.

 - Mic / line input for sing-along or another instrument, think restaurant's and coffee bars.

 - Full range speaker and flat band power stage, so acts as a reasonable sounding MP3 player as well as a guitar amp, a jack of all trades.. there are some out there.


                                             
Orange Crush Mini 3-Watt Guitar Combo Amp | PMT Online
** Note - to make your practice amp louder, do the following:
 - Put it up on a chair. Or tilt it upwards slightly... OK it's not really louder but everyone can hear it better!

 - Add a clean boost pedal, such as a Boss Graphic EQ, TC Spark Booster, Mooer Audio Pure Boost or similar, in front of the amp, and adjust the level as required.


Less useful: Most practice amps have these and the advertising spiel and non-independent reviews often make much of them... to be honest they are the icing on the cake, it's pretty rare that only a certain, very specific, type of sound will do, especially when you are practicing.

  - A plethora of amp types that sound roughly the same but with varying amounts of cleanness or drive/distortion

  - A wide selection of modulation affects: flanger/phaser/chorus/delay/touch wah etc (one effect of decent quality is enough!)

So, having identified what we might need lets have a look at some of the gear out there:

Well established small combo amps with varying amounts of practice aids/features:


Hifi - doubles as a mini PA, or sound system:


Small, house friendly, desktop size stuff.....

  • Yamaha THR 10 (&5) - nice looking, good range of sounds.
  • Roland JS-10 - lots of practice features, read the manual to get the best out of it.
  • Roland Cube Lite - nice looking practice amp, good features, includes iOS dock.

Direct from your guitar to headphones, or computer, or through your phone!
(i.e. tiny! No speakers, just a headphone socket, great for quiet practice and very portable)

  • Tascam GB-10 -  mini practicing device. Range of features.
  • iRig - plugs directly from guitar to your phone to headphones/mini speaker.
  • Vox Amplug - plug from guitar to headphones or mini speaker.
  • Apogee Jam - interface to use with your smart phone/computer.
  • Boss BR80 - mini recording studio, with practice features.

                            amPlug 2 - Vox Amps

Personal favourites:
 - Vox Mini5 Rhythm - small, loud (5w), great sound, separate mic input, onboard drum loops, 1/8 inch auxiliary input, 'phones output, mains or battery powered. Suitable for busking, practice, small gigs. 

 - Roland Cube 40XL - great sounds, loud (40w), good modulation FX, built in looper, 4 channels, 1/8 inch auxiliary input, 'phones output. Suitable for small to medium size gigs too. Only available second hand (been superceded by the 40GX model, which doesn't have a looper). Check eBay etc.

Useful online review of mini guitar amps here from Guitar Brain: 
The 13 Best Mini Portable Guitar Amps

Finally.... a guitarists' health and wallet warning: GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) is often used as a substitute for practicing, i.e. buying equipment in the hope it will make up for a shortfall in playing technique, or worse in the vague hope that getting new stuff will improve you as a player!

The Covid-19 Effect...

Hi all, as with everyone else, Corona Virus is having a direct effect on my work, both gigs and teaching.

As a result many of the listings on my blog posts below this one will have changed.  I'll post out again as and when things get back to normal. In the meantime stay safe and well. 👍

Dave


Gig dates Feb - March

Upcoming gigs with the Green Chain Quartet and Morrison - Bold (Mo-Bo) Duo during February and March.

Event - Prince of Greenwich, Royal Hill, Greenwich 
- Sunday February 23rd evening

Charity Event - for Maudsley Hospital 
- Saturday 29 February evening
Location: The Ivy House, Stuart Road, Nunhead, London SE15
GCQ at ParksFest 2019

Charity Run/Walk Event - for Moorfields Eye Hospital 
- Sunday March 8th from 12.30pm 
Location: County Hall (The London Eye) 

L’Arte Della Pizza 
- Saturday March 21st from 7pm. 
Location: Charlton House in Charlton, Hornfair Rd, Charlton London SE7 8RE
Book, it gets busy!  Phone: 07956 808373
Info/menu etc: https://www.instagram.com/artedellapizzauk/  



More dates coming up at L’Arte Della Pizza

I've two more gigs coming up at L’Arte Della Pizza in the wonderful and ancient Charlton House in Charlton, near Blackheath with the excellent Green Chain Quartet on the following Saturdays from 7pm. 

- Saturday February 15th

- Saturday March 21st 

Remember to book, it gets busy!  Phone: 07956 808373

Info/menu etc: https://www.instagram.com/artedellapizzauk/  

Address: L’Arte Della Pizza, Charlton House, Charlton Rd, London SE7 8RE (entrance on Hornfair Rd)  




New 2020 Winter-Spring Jazz Course

Want to learn to play jazz?  If you've been playing guitar for a year or so already and have built up the basics of playing the instrument playing blues, rock, classical or country it's not as hard as you might think. In fact a lot of what you already know can easily be adapted to play jazz on the guitar.

'Learn to play jazz by learning tunes and their chords'


Together we'll sit down and tailor-make a 12 week course for you, to move you from where you are in your playing now, to where you'd like to be in 3 months time.

The 12 week course will contain between 6 and 8 tunes to learn, each one negotiated between us to work out which tunes will suit you best to develop your playing style. Each week you'll study your tunes, work through the chord changes, the melody, the rhythm and your approaches for improvisation for best results. Some will be simple, others more challenging, all of them fun to play!

The tunes selected will include those played regularly at jam sessions, i.e. jazz standards, blues, ballads, latin, bebop heads etc. At the end of the 12 weeks you'll know the 'heads' and the 'changes' to your chosen tunes, along with different 'comping' styles, and a range of strategies for improvising on them.

The pathway include a free 1 hour introductory lesson to evaluate your starting points including technique, aural and musical understanding, so we can hit the ground running the day you start your first proper lesson.

'includes a free 1 hour introductory lesson'


Intro Lesson - assessment of your current technique, level of understanding and preferred learning styles. Discussions on what targets we set, likely practice regime, useful text books/reference sources.

The course will typically fall into 3 broad areas:

Foundations - Weeks 1 - 4: typically this will include: getting your ears in gear and fingers moving efficiently around the fretboard, so you play what you want to, not what your fingers are limited to. Chords and progressions, triads, scales and modes, arpeggios, double string studies, fingerings, note names, aural studies, and rhythmic and timing foundations, that apply to the tunes you have selected to work on. In short, building the musical scaffold that makes improvising possible. This stage also includes visualisation and memory techniques.

'Tap into your inner musical ear'



Moving on Weeks 5 - 8: Putting all the above information and resources into your playing. Phrasing, fretboard mapping; getting a clear and simple understanding of how things really work everywhere on your fretboard. How to find the notes you want to hear in your playing and how to apply these to different jazz situations. Exercises and drills that are fun and you can put instantly into your playing. Building on your rhythm and timing skills. Hearing exercises - tap into the 'musical ear you didn't know you had' to make huge leaps in your playing. All of this while working on your next set of tunes.

Consolidating - Weeks 9 - 12: Building vocabulary. Turning scales, triads and arpeggios into licks and phrases. Common licks used with different chord changes, how to adapt licks to fit lots of playing situations. Filling out between phrases as part of your comping style. More on rhythm - swing, bebop, hard bop, cool, funk and latin styles. Get in the groove with other time signatures - 3/4, 6/8, 6/4, 12/8, 5/4. Apply all of this to your final set of chosen tunes.

Your commitment - Does that sound like a lot to cover in 12 weeks? Well it is! You will need to be sure you have a reasonable amount of practice time available each week to cover everything as we go through the course.

'Get a clear, simple understanding of how music really works'


To book your free introductory lesson, use the contact form to the right of this page, or email me at dave@davebold.com. Fees for the course are the same as my standard rates; info on the Lessons page.

The influence of improvisation on the brain!

Making stuff up, is the art of improvising. In music this happens when we let go and enter the world of our subconscious ... And in some cases it's no different to the verbal skills of having a conversation or making up a story, it's just that the story is told in sound.

But what happens in our brains to allow this subconscious flow of music to occur?  The following outlines some recent research articles on the subject:

What Happens when we improvise?

From the Washington Post: Instant Art: How does a freestyle rapper rhyme without rehearsal? How does a jazz improviser shape an instant solo? How do improv comedians wing it under pressure? 
Listening, interacting, responding all come into
play when we improvise in music

https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/lifestyle/science-behind-improv-performance/

What's the difference between improvising and non-improvising musicians?

A research article posted on Futurity.org on what happens to our brains during the process of improvising.  Do children who learn music by ear get the same benefits as children who learn to read musical notation, or even those who learn to improvise?

https://www.futurity.org/musical-improvisation-jazz-brains-2216752/

Can improvising improve my brain?!

This last article from Psychology Today concludes that there are 3 main benefits of musical training:

- Enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight.

- Early training, before the age of seven, has been shown to have the greatest impact, affecting the brain's anatomy as an adult.

- Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the brain.

The article ends by pointing the reader to a number other pieces of research that have been done on the subject.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/play-your-way-sane/201910/how-improvisation-changes-the-brain



Start your 2020 revolution, with a resolution

Hello fellow musicians! New Year is here again... and bringing with it another year laced with potential.  2020... full of promise, expectation and ... New Year Resolutions. 

If you're learning an instrument, be resolved. Start your 2020 revolution, with a resolution. 

The best type of New Year resolution (if it's going to get results) is the type that sticks... and they usually stick when we apply a routine to whatever we are trying to get done. So if you're practicing an instrument, sort out what your goals are, the practice you need to do to get there; and most importantly, apply a routine.

In short:
1 - Identify your Goal.
2 - Work out what you need to do to achieve it, including the amount of Time you need to invest and the Date you want to complete this by.
3 - Apply your Routine.
Learning to playing an instrument takes time and routine

Most people are pretty good at working out the first stages and lousy at sticking to the routine needed to achieve their goal. This is especially true of people learning an instrument.

The secret, if there is one, is to build the routine into your daily and weekly activity. 

Set aside the time you need, diarise it, set reminders and treat it like anything else that's important, after all it's your goal. Achieve it and it really is like winning something!

So for example:

Goal - learn 5 new pieces
How - with help of guitar teacher and daily practice
Time - 1/2 hour per day
Date - end of the month
Routine - Practice at the start of every day. Set clock to wake 30 minutes earlier.

Of course, if you're a musician, resolution also means the music has come to a close, the tension released, the work is done, the music has been resolved, completed.

And for some of us, especially after a busy Christmas period, where we've been winding up to the holiday period, it's a time to take a break, recharge the batteries, reflect and plan for the year ahead, identify new targets, set new goals, work out a plan ...

Whatever your goals are, I hope you have a good crack at achieving them. Happy New Year.  :-)



Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

To all the students, clients, venues, musicians that I've worked this year, thank you for all your support in 2019, looking forward to making more music with you all again in 2020!  

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. 


New guitar for Christmas? Get started with a free lesson!

This has been popular for the last couple of years, so the same offer is going out again this year :-)

I meet a lot people who say "Ah, the guitar: I bought one but couldn't get started on it..." Well the short answer is they probably would have, if they'd had a few pointers on how to get started; i.e. what to practice in those early stages so they could make good progress, how to get over those new beginners' 'humps' and how to start sounding musical as soon as possible.

So, if you're getting new guitar (or bass, or ukelule, or banjo!) for Christmas... Get started with a free lesson from me! 

To take up this offer simply email me (dave@davebold.com) giving the name of the person receiving the guitar, I'll send you a personalised electronic copy of the flyer below. After that just contact me to arrange a time to come over. Job done. 

This could also be a major help if you're making a New Year's resolution to play a few songs on your new guitar by Easter; what a great start this would be! 

It also makes the best of your Christmas present and sorts out your fledgling guitarist's New Year resolution and, if your own resolution was to get them started on a musical instrument, that's two NY resolutions sorted in one hit!  Simple!


Know someone else who may be interested? Use the buttons ⇙ below to share. Thanks.

Upcoming GCQ Gigs.... with Pizza!

OK, more Green Chain Quartet gigs coming up at L’Arte Della Pizza in the wonderful and ancient Charlton House in Charlton, near Blackheath on the following Saturdays from 7pm. 

- Saturday Dec 21st

- Saturday January 18th

- Saturday February 15th

- Saturday March 21st 

Remember to book, it gets busy!  Phone: 07956 808373

Info/menu etc: https://www.instagram.com/artedellapizzauk/  

Address: L’Arte Della Pizza, Charlton House, Charlton Rd, London SE7 8RE (entrance on Hornfair Rd)  





How to choose and buy a guitar

December 2019
(New: updated links at bottom of the page)

How to choose a guitar
This is a question I get asked about a lot, especially around this time of year with Christmas looming. From beginning students right through to intermediate level, here's my answer... generally speaking:

You need to consider your budget, your size (or the size of the person you are buying it for), and the style of music you want to play with it. Short of time? Check the 'Three Golden Rules' towards the end of this blog post.

Firstly, what sort of guitars are available?

Acoustic guitars: there are two general types, nylon strung and steel strung, either type can be purely acoustic or may have a pickup fitted so the sound to be amplified.

Nylon strung: generally known as 'classical guitars'. Great for young beginners, or if you specifically want to play this style of music. The strings are generally softer and have lower tension than steel strings. They come in half, three quarter and full size; even full size they are not huge instruments, so fit most people. On full size classical guitars the necks and fretboard tend to be wide and flat and generally suit a bigger hand; adults with smaller hands should look out for guitars with narrower necks such as Faith range of guitars, also some nylon strung guitars are fitted with pickups/internal mic and frequently offered with slimline necks, e.g. Yamaha.

Steel strung: sometimes called 'folk' guitars, but they are used to play many styles of music. They are fitted with bronze wound steel strings and are similar to classical guitars in that they come in all shapes and sizes. Apart from the half, three quarter, and full size models there are names given to differently built acoustic guitars; here are some of them:

Parlour - small intended for indoor performance and practice, short scale and usually sweet sounding.
00 - the standard acoustic blues guitar, small body, but a distinct punchy midrange sound.
Jumbo - medium to large size guitar as the name suggests, big bass and clear highs.
Dreadnaught - large guitars with good loud projection, developed for use outdoors
Grand Auditorium - similar to a jumbo but a more pinched waist and quite deep sound, the original Grand Auditorium design was made by Taylor guitars.

Electric guitars: there are lots of different shapes, sizes, colours, makes and it can be confusing to choose your first electric guitar, but the same rules apply as for acoustics. They come in two types, solid and semi-acoustic, and in the usual range of sizes: half, three quarter and full size. Check to see what is most comfortable.

Travel guitars: Acoustic and electric travel guitars which are made small enough to fit as aeroplane hand luggage. As with all guitars prices and styles vary a lot. If you travel a lot, or just have room for something small, these may well be a good choice. Guitars to check: Acoustics: Washburn Rover, Martin Backpacker. Electrics: Steinberger, Hofner Shorty.

Three golden rules
1) Buy from a shop, not over the internet. Every guitar is different, even across the same model range, and cheaper guitars are often variable in build quality, components and the woods used.

2) Check the neck is straight (look down the strings from the tuning pegs end, the guitar neck should look straight in line with the strings); check the frets are comfortable for height and along the edges, and the action (the level of closeness the strings have to the fretboard) is low and the strings easy to press onto the fretboard.  All of these things can be fixed later but it costs money and time. Buying Tip: If there is a guitar you want, but things need doing to it, ask if the shop will sort these if you agree to buy it. Note: the better shops often offer a 'free setup' as part of the sale.

3) Be wary of cheaper instruments made in China, quality control is variable and buying can be a bit of a lottery, especially if buying over the internet. Again buying in a shop will help sort these issues.

Note - Some people ask whether a solid top acoustic guitar is best... my response: try the guitar and see! Solid tops generally sound louder and project better. Laminated tops tend to be stronger, are less prone to warping and, to the player, usually sound just as good.

What makes are known to be good?
Generally as with most things you get what you pay for. Well designed and made guitars of any type will be at the more expensive end of the scale. Mid range and cheaper instruments can often be OK but, as with most products, they are built to a price point, i.e. they make them to the price they think the market (i.e: you 'the buyer') will think is reasonable, and to remain competitive with other manufacturers.

Many companies produce a wide range of instruments to cover the price ranges, usually with a subsidiary company or brand name making the cheaper instruments.

What about secondhand guitars?
They are seen everywhere from charity shop and pawn shop windows to ads on E-bay, Facebook Marketplace, Gum Tree. While they pop up all the time, the best time to look out for a bargain is September and January-February. They are usually a fair bit cheaper than new guitars, but often good enough and often not used very much; a worthwhile option for beginners and improvers alike. As above, use the 3 Golden Rules when buying.

Electrics
Fender and their subsidiary Squier
Gibson and their subsidiary Epiphone
Yamaha
Fret King
Vintage
Tokai
Godin
Ibanez
G&L - Fender guitars in all but name, and great quality.
Music Man
Washburn
Hofner

Acoustics
Add all the electric guitar companies above to the following list of acoustic guitar brands:

Martin - and their subsidiary Sigma
Guild
Taylor
Takamine
Crafter
Lag
Tanglewood
Simon & Patrick - subsidiary of Godin
Seagull - subsidiary of Godin

There are many other names used on guitars in the cheaper range, mostly they're made in China. Always apply the 3 golden rules above regardless of how much it costs, what the salesman says etc..

Prices, prices, prices..
Assuming you are buying a new guitar, not second hand.

                              Acoustics                   Electrics
Cheap               £80 - £200                 £90 - £200 (may include a practice amp)
Lower Mid       £200 - £400               £200 - £450
Upper mid        £400 - £700               £450 - £800
Expensive         £750 - £2000             £800 - £1800
2nd mortgage   £2500 - £5500+        £2500 - £7000+

Recommended shops
Any shop with a good selection of instruments and knowledgeable staff. Usually specialist guitar shops. Here are a few of my local personal favourites here in London (there are many others that may be good, I just have experience to these shops and like them):

Ivor Mairants - Rathbone Place WC1
Hobgoblin Music - Rathbone Place WC1
Macaris - Tottenham Court Road, and Denmark St WC1
Rose Morris - Denmark St WC1
Hanks - Denmark St WC1
Guitar Guitar - Epsom (largest guitar store in Europe)
Guitar Guitar - Camden
Yamaha London - Wardour street WC1
Tune Inn - St Mildreds Rd, Lee, SE London
Eric Lindsey Music - Catford SE London
Rock Bottom - London Rd, Croydon
Martin Phelps Music - South End, Croydon

Need more info? Check out the links from music shops below:
Guitar size: https://www.pmtonline.co.uk/blog/2010/10/14/what-guitar-size-should-i-buy/

General guide: https://www.dawsons.co.uk/guitar-buying-guide

Which electric guitar: https://www.andertons.co.uk/electric-guitar-buyers-guide

Beginner Guitar HQ - advice, tips and useful articles: https://beginnerguitarhq.com

Beginners overview: https://www.musicnotes.com/now/tips/guitar-buying-guide/

GCQ Gigs Coming Up...

I'm back at L’Arte Della Pizza, with the excellent Green Chain Quartet, in the wonderful and ancient Charlton House in Charlton, near Blackheath on the following Saturdays from 7pm. 

Saturday Oct 26th 

Saturday Dec 21st

Remember to book, it gets busy!  Phone: 07956 808373

Info/menu etc: https://www.instagram.com/artedellapizzauk/  

Address: L’Arte Della Pizza, Charlton House, Charlton Rd, London SE7 8RE (entrance on Hornfair Rd)