Let’s face it, we all want to have a professional studio in our backyard filled with all the best gear. This is not possible for even the most successful musicians out there. For the indie musician, this dream is even farther off than we can imagine. That shouldn’t stop you from creating music, however. You need to think of ways to use the stuff you already have around you to create the music you love.
USE THINGS IN NEW WAYS
There will be times when you want to grab your credit card and order that piece of gear that costs more than your car in order to get the sound you want. This is the perfect opportunity to think of a new way to use things you already own. Just think of all the instruments people use that were common household items. A washboard, some spoons, or tying a wire around two nails on a piece of wood (diddley bow) are all examples of homegrown instruments. Can you tap or blow on a beer bottle to get sounds that are usable for your next project? Can you do something different with your guitar in order to make it sound like the guitar you want, but don’t have access to?
I recently watched a tutorial on how Van Halen recorded their first album. They had access to a great studio full of great gear. So I thought it was odd that they used a Shure SM57 for the kick drum. This microphone is not ideal for kick drum, but they created an unique sound that worked great for that album. Speaking of Van Halen, they also used a bunch of cars honking their horns on their first album. It is something that once you hear it, you know it is Van Halen.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers used a trash can to record percussion on the song “Breaking the Girl.” This makes the bridge in that song sound huge and might not even realize your listening to something most people just put their trash in. My band Mojo Radio used things like a beer bottle, an old AM radio, and a log on our recordings. It gave our songs sounds that set it apart from every other band out there. Check out Tom Morello and the things he does for great examples as well. He has a minimal pedalboard and uses basically one guitar, but has a universe of sounds. All of this creative use of everyday stuff turns into truly unique sounds.
The Foo Fighters recorded backing vocals over a phone for the song “Everlong” because Louise Post of Veruca Salt was in Chicago at the time when they were in the Studio in California. So they put a microphone on the old phone handset and recorded the vocals via the landline. That was how they solved a problem using the technology of the time.
Take the time to really learn how your gear works
This step is crucial! This also might take some time away from the fun part of making music. It is totally worth the time. There are many times when a piece of gear just doesn’t meet our expectations when we use it. The common thought process leads us to think that gear is junk and we need to go out and buy something better. I would bet that if you brought in an expert on that piece of gear, you would hear a huge improvement in sound quality. The only difference is the user’s knowledge. Grab the manual and spend some time going through it. Give yourself some experiments to do using that one piece of gear to see what it really can do. Turn all the knobs and try all the inputs/outputs. You might discover that what you have is really a good piece of gear after all.
Once you learn how to use your gear properly, take the time to see what your gear sounds like when you use it the wrong way. Some of the best sounds have come from people using gear in a way that the engineers never designed it for. Distortion is something every guitar uses as part of their sound pallet. Distorted sounds are something that originally were considered a bad thing. Early amps were made to stay clean unless you turned them up TOO loud. Then somebody turned it up past that limit and discovered it was cool. Feedback is another one of these things. Then Jimi Hendrix made feedback musical. Now it is all over the place in popular music.
I can’t tell you how many times that I have seen musicians complain about gear when it is perfectly capable of doing the job. You could give that piece of gear to somebody else who knows how it works better and all of a sudden it sounds amazing.
Great players make things sound awesome
You can give the lowest price instrument to the best players and they will make them sound pretty darn good. There is a lot to be said about the skill of the musician. Jack White and Dan Auerbach have made a career out of playing some of the cheapest guitars produced. The original Silvertone and Airline guitars were super budget friendly models that no professional would ever dare play back in the day. Now they are a fashionable choice. Great players can take these hunks of plastic and make beautiful music out of them. You can find plenty of examples of great players playing through whatever gear at the time and it always sounds like them. You could give me Eric Clapton’s setup and I wouldn’t sound anything like him.
A new piece DOES NOT make you a better player. Only practice does that and that costs no money to do. You will find those sounds you heard in your head coming out more and more with practice. This is probably your best bang for the buck, so keep developing your craft.
learn your history
I love watching videos about the making of things. Especially the making of albums that I love. I love seeing what the producers did, what gear was used, and how they used it. I really love watching videos about how old records were made. The old stuff was really made using limited gear. The Beatles made a lot of albums using only 4 tracks and a few basic pieces of gear. Those albums still sound great.
Knowing how little the previous generation had should inspire your creative process. We have access to more powerful and less expensive stuff than ever before. So what you have should not be your creative block. Build your skills on the shoulders of those who came before us. Use their knowledge to help push you forward. Then keep pushing.
Some documentaries that I recommend watching are Tom Dowd The Language of Music, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, Funky Monks, and Sound City. I would also check out the book How Music Works by David Byrne of the Talking Heads. These will give you a ton of history of how and why the greats of recording did what they did. You will have a few moments that will blow your mind. It will most likely cause your brain to think in new ways and you might even invent something new because of it.
Don’t limit yourself
The big thing you should take away from this post is that you are sometimes the barrier to your creativity. Don’t let yourself be that limit. When you run into a wall, find a way to get around it. Better yet, find a way to drive right through that wall. Learn your gear inside and out. Practice your craft and be the be best artist you can be. Give yourself reasons to experiment and most of all, HAVE FUN!
Let me know what things you do with everyday things to make music. Leave a comment below.
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