Tag Archives: Music

Top 10 Reader-Favorite Books

Vegetable Garden Planting Guide

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Western Swing Guitar Style

Western Swing Guitar StyleHave you ever wanted to learn Western swing? Here’s a superb introduction to the unique chord progressions of this toe-tapping sound, geared toward the rhythm guitarist.

Western Swing Guitar Style by Joe Carr offers an excellent step-by-step approach, taking the time to teach you the principles and music theory you need to be able to create your own arrangements. Right from the start, you will see how to build a great Western swing chord progression by learning how to take “Sally Goodin'” from a basic A-D-A-E-A progression to a full-fledged arrangement with a bass line and some beautiful diminished chords.

But that’s just the beginning! All types of embellishments and chord substitutions are taught, along with general guidelines for how to achieve that perfect Western swing sound every time. Along the way, you will mostly be working with real chord progressions rather than exercises, bringing life to your practice time.

A purchase of Western Swing Guitar Style will also give you access to free audio downloads of the chord progressions, with and without a full band, so that you can listen and play along for a well-rounded understanding. (Check the first page of the book for download instructions.)

For the absolute beginner to Western swing, this book is a must!

The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones

The Beginner's Guide to MicrophonesAre you a musician shopping for that first microphone to get your home studio off to a good start? Before you spend any money on a mic, spend just a couple of dollars on some great information—The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones by Brendan Krueger.

This book is exactly what it claims to be. It is not an encyclopedia, nor is it geared toward seasoned professionals. It is a handbook for the absolute beginner. But, considering the valuable information you receive for the price, The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones is truly impressive!

The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones starts right at the beginning with a lesson in vocabulary. You will learn the parts of a microphone, the meaning of acronyms such as DAW, and all about frequency response, among other topcis.

After a discussion of microphone shape, the guide gets down into the characteristics and uses of four common mic types:

  • Dynamic.
  • Condenser.
  • Shotgun.
  • Ribbon.

But different microphones can also have different polar patterns, and these patterns all get due treatment in this guide. Once you have finished reading the book you will understand polar patterns from unidirectional to cardioid and everything in between.

The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones wraps up with a discussion on microphone placement, which should give you some ideas to experiment with once you have made your microphone purchase.

Again, this is not a comprehensive reference, but a beginner’s guide. You could probably find most of this information online for free. However, given the price of the book, the experience backing up the research, and the quality of the presentation, The Beginner’s Guide to Microphones is an excellent value and a great way to sift through the options in a short amount of time.

Highly recommended for all beginning home producers!

Choosing a Flat Pick for Guitar or Mandolin

Choosing a Flat Pick for Guitar or MandolinGetting into guitar or mandolin picking? One of the first things you will need (besides your instrument) is a good collection of picks.

It’s never a bad idea to start out with an assortment—over time some picks will definitely come to the forefront as favorites. Furthermore, until you have a handle on basic flatpicking technique, your playing will be more of a limiting factor than your pick.

But once you have implemented good picking technique in your playing, you may want to expand your pick collection to create a sound that is uniquely your own.

So what do you look for in a good pick?


Shape does affect sound to some degree, but the main reason that shape is important is that it affects how easy the pick is to hold and maneuver.

The standard pick shape, sometimes known as the 351, is a triangle with rounded corners. All other picks are essentially variations on this design. Therefore, it is a good idea for beginners to become acquainted with this shape right from the start. You can’t go wrong with the balanced playability and precision of the 351.

One of the most common variations on the 351 is a sharpened tip. The pointed tip enhances playing speed and precision, making dazzlingly complex lead lines easier to play. Note that balance is necessary here—a point that is too sharp becomes too awkward to use.

Similar to the sharpened tip is the true triangle. This pick is sometimes used by bluegrass guitarists who play both rhythm and lead and thus need both a good hold and a precise tip. Triangular picks are typically larger than other picks to give the guitarist more surface area to hang onto. They also have the advantage of having three identical playing surfaces, so the pick can be rotated as it wears out.

A deviation from the standard rounded triangle is the round pick. Round picks allow for a fuller, thicker sound. This is superb for mandolin use due to its big, rich sound, although it may be a little muddy on the guitar.


There’s nothing wrong with a basic plastic pick. It’s probably where every instrumentalist will want to start. Note that there are many types of synthetic materials available, and each will have slightly different tonal characteristics. Your options range from bright, flexible nylon to an extra-stiff material known as ultem. One of the most popular synthetic materials is celluloid due to its long tradition of smoothness and warmth. Every company seems to have at least one unique formulation, so be sure to read plenty of reviews before purchasing.

The traditional tortoiseshell pick was banned in the 1970s as the sea turtle species used to make them became endangered. However, they are manufactured for the black market. If you discover a tortoiseshell pick for sale online, make sure that it is a vintage item—antique picks are still around due to their great durability. There is an authentic farm-raised slider turtle shell pick that is sold as a legal substitute. Because, however, the slider turtle has a rough shell, playing with a turtle shell pick will produce a scratchy noise and feel.

Another tortoiseshell substitute is buffalo horn. While this provides a classic sound and smooth feel very much like the genuine tortoiseshell, buffalo horn is brittle and prone to splintering. Buffalo bones are sometimes used to make picks, as well, but they have a very rough surface. Some people think they sound harsh, while others appreciate their volume capabilities. It’s all a matter of preference.

Wooden picks vary considerably by species, but on the whole they are warm-sounding and easy to grip. Most wood picks retain a full range of harmonics, although some can sound muddy. Rosewood and maple are soft and flexible. On the other end of the spectrum, Osage orange is extremely stiff but rather scratchy, while lignum vitae is incredibly dense but smooth. Note that harder wooden picks can cause damage to guitar strings.

And then there is stone. Very few musicians will want to deal with playing with (let alone finding) a stone pick. But some mandolinists swear by the heavy weight, good grip, firm tone, and rich harmonics of picks made from a variety of natural materials ranging form marble to jade. Electric guitarists may also enjoy the aggressive sound. For acoustic guitar, however, a stone pick is too inflexible and harsh-sounding to provide a pleasant experience.

Or how about rubber? Rubber picks are a new concept in guitar playing. They are generally considered to produce a tone similar to fingerstyle playing—soft, but warm and clear.

Metal is another option, primarily used because it looks cool. It produces a crisp, bright sound and is very easy to handle, making it superb for lead guitar. Just keep in mind that it will tear up your strings rather quickly. Materials used for metal picks range from softer, warmer brass to durable stainless steel. (And, yes, if you are caught without a pick, you can play with a quarter from your wallet; just keep in mind that the standard quarter was not minted with smooth attack in mind and will subsequently produce a grating sound.)


Gauge is a measure of the thickness, and hence the flexibility, of the pick. Gauge is arguably the most important factor to consider when buying a pick, as two picks made of the same materials but manufactured with different gauges will sound markedly different.

Light picks are generally recommended for beginning rhythm guitarists only. In practice, it is probably better just to avoid them altogether due to their brittleness and thin, unpleasant sound. Also, light picks can inadvertently foster bad technique because of their too-forgiving flexibility. Beginners will do well to start with medium-gauge picks.

Medium picks are good general-purpose guitar picks. This is where beginners on both the guitar and the mandolin should start, and it is where many guitarists will be content to stay. A medium-gauge pick is particularly recommended for rhythm guitarists to avoid overwhelming the other instruments. For other instrumentalists who find the stiff, chunky feel of heavy picks overwhelming, the medium pick is also an excellent choice.

Heavy picks are stiff and hard to handle, but they produce a solid tone that many will love. Their precision helps players add dynamics to their solos. The mandolin really shines when played with a heavy pick. Lead guitarists looking to beef up their sound will appreciate the heavier gauge, as well.

Extra-heavy picks are also available (check out the Dunlop Big Stubby). These can really pull some sweet tone out of your instrument, but at the expense of some crispness. Furthermore, their stiff feel offers great precision for those who get used to it, but by others has been compared to playing guitar with a 2×4. It’s a tradeoff. Be careful when buying a really heavy pick, as playability is a limiting factor. Make sure your new pick has a good grip and a nice smooth playing edge to make the transition as easy as possible.


A grip is a nice touch, but not strictly necessary in most cases. If you are having problems holding your pick, all you need to do is scratch some texture into it with a nail file.

But for those using extra-heavy picks, a built-in grip is a must. Grip designs vary by manufacturer, ranging from grooves to raised letters to powdered coatings. The best way to determine what works for you is to experiment with several picks.

Personal Preference

And, finally, there are all those esoteric things that make playing so fun. Be sure to factor in color and pattern when pick shopping—you won’t regret it in the long run.

Helpful Resource

Pick PunchPick Punch
Want to customize your picks? Here’s another way to experiment. Read our full review.

7 Guitar String Care Tips

7 Guitar String Care TipsIf you play your guitar often, you will find that your strings wear out quickly. Is there a way to extend their life so that you don’t have to replace them quite so often?

Yes! Allow us to share a few tips for keeping your strings clean and at their best for as long as possible (Hint: These tips work great for mandolin, banjo, and Dobro, too!)

  1. Wash your hands before you play. Even if you haven’t been doing anything particularly dirty, your fingers still have oil and extraneous debris on the tips. Washing your hands immediately before playing will cut down on the deposits that you leave on the strings. Just make sure you dry your hands thoroughly before you pick up your guitar.
  2. Avoid tuning your guitar strings to a sharper pitch than they were designed for. Stretching reduces the elasticity of the strings, which in turn reduces their tonal quality. While guitar strings must be stretched to be useful, stretching them too far shortens their lifespan and may even lead to breakage.
  3. Wipe your strings down with a soft cloth after playing. You may also want to wipe your strings between every few songs if you tend to sweat profusely. For best results, wipe off each string individually. This helps remove excess finger oil.
  4. Store your guitar in a low-humidity environment. You may have already known that humidity warps the wood of your guitar. Humidity will also cause your strings to rust. Protect your strings by storing your guitar (and your unused string sets) in a hard-shell case in a room with a relatively stable temperature and a humidity between 40% and 60%. A humidity between 45% to 55% is even better.
  5. Clean your strings with string cleaner/lubricant from time to time. The cleaner will remove oil and debris buildup from the strings and extend their life.
  6. Keep spare string sets sealed until use. Most string manufacturers seal their strings in special plastic packaging to keep them from oxidizing due to contact with the air. If your new set of strings comes in sealed packaging, keep them there until you are ready to change your guitar strings. If you happen to buy a string or set of strings that is not sealed, seal them yourself in a Ziploc bag, preferably with a pack of silica gel.
  7. Clean your fretboard every time you change your strings. Removing dust and grime from your fretboard will prevent your new strings from premature damage and decay. Special fretboard conditioners are manufactured for this purpose and have the added benefit of protecting your fretboard wood from drying out and cracking.

String care is actually quite simple! With a little attention to guitar and string storage, plus developing the good habits of cleaning your hands and guitar on a routine basis, your strings will stay shiny and rich-sounding as long as possible.

Choosing Studio Headphones

Choosing Studio HeadphonesHeadphones are a critical addition to any home recording studio. They come in handy for instant feedback as you record, and they are also useful for mixing.

It is important to purchase headphones specifically designed for studio use in this application. Consumer headphones are generally tweaked to ensure an enjoyable listening experience—in other words, you are not listening to the raw sound. Studio headphones are more transparent, letting you hear exactly what is going on in the audio, whether that is good or bad.

You can purchase studio headphones without breaking the bank. However, it is important not to cheap out and waste money on a pair of headphones that sounds distorted, acts up with age, or feels like wearing a vice on your head.

Here are some factors to consider when shopping for the right set of studio headphones.


Sound Quality

For recording and mixing, a flat response is a must. Detailed sound is also essential. What you want to avoid is any type of “sweetening.” Good studio headphones may, frankly, sound terrible to you at first because you are probably used to consumer headphones that have been optimized to make everything sound good.

To make sure you get accurate studio headphones, try these two tests:

  • Read online reviews.
  • Listen to a few songs that you are intimately familiar with through the studio headphones. If they are any good, you should be able to detect details and nuances (good, bad, or indifferent) that you have never heard before.

Make sure noise will not be an issue with your headphones. A shielded cable will help. Also make sure the cable is no longer than necessary for your application, as longer cables are more prone to noise issues.

Why a cable instead of wireless? Because wireless headphones receive a compressed signal. Compression inevitably alters the audio. It may even reduce amplitude. For studio purposes, always use wired headphones.



Earbuds and headphones that don’t entirely surround the ear are typically not used in studio applications. For this purpose, it is important to have headphones that are circumaural, or completely surrounding the ear, to block outside noise and allow you to fully hear the nuances of the audio.

Within the world of circumaural headphones, you will find three variations:

  • Closed back. This style allows for complete sound isolation and no bleed. It’s just you and the music with closed-back circumaural headphones, no matter how loud the room is. One warning—it’s also just you and the bass frequencies. If you aren’t used to having a lot of bass placed in close proximity to your ears, don’t get thrown off during the mixing process, and be aware that you may experience ear fatigue when using them for long periods of time. Close-back headphones are often used for recording rather than mixing.
  • Open back. Why would we consider open-back headphones, knowing that they will let in more background noise and allow headphone bleed to get into the recording? Because they frequently have a clearer, more natural sound, and this can be very advantageous for mixing. Also, open-back headphones subject the ears to less air pressure buildup, an important consideration if you will be mixing for extended periods of time. Open-back headphones are often used for mixing rather than recording.
  • Semi-open back. This type attempts to combine the best features of both styles. While it does allow some sound leakage, the isolation is much better than with open-back headphones. They usually have both good bass response and a realistic sound. Semi-open back headphones are commonly used for recording in situations where the microphones are unable to pick up any headphone noise.

Need the airy sound of open-back headphones, but can’t afford circumaural? On-ear (supra-aural) headphones may seem like a compromise, but their sound quality is usually not as good. You will have to spend a great deal of money to get professional recording-quality supra-aural headphones.



This criterion is not negotiable! If you are constantly battling your headphones, you will not be paying attention to the task at hand. Likewise, if you can’t wait to rip those things off your ears, you won’t be able to put in the time it takes to get a good mix.

To truly test the comfort of a pair of headphones, you need to wear them for at least 20 minutes straight. But what if that’s not an option before purchase? Here are a few tips:

  • Look for large ear cups when buying circumaural headphones, and small ear pieces when buying supra-aural headphones.
  • Make sure that the ear cups are padded with fabric or leather.
  • The more adjustable the better. An adjustable headband is a must, and rotating ear cups are strongly recommended.
  • Read reviews before making your final decision. Regardless of where you are planning on buying your headphones, head to the website of a good online music supplier and read what those with some experience have to say.


Other Factors

There are other things to consider when shopping for studio headphones:

  • Protective case.
  • Portable folding design.
  • Plug and adapter sizes.
  • Single- vs. double-sided cable.
  • Availability of replacement parts.

There are no hard-and-fast rules on most of these. Just make sure you get a pair that fits your needs and is compatible with the rest of your equipment.


The Final Criterion—Price

Of course, you will likely have to set an upper limit on the price tag. That’s just the way it goes.

So what is a good price to pay for headphones? Professional sets are generally expected to cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000. Good news—you likely don’t need to spend this much to get a good pair. You may be able to find a nice pair of headphones for as little as $100, but you will have to do plenty of research to make sure you are getting the quality you expect.

A few tips for lowering the cost without compromising on quality:

  • Look for a recording bundle that includes headphones from a reputable manufacturer. Buying the whole package at once usually allows you to save on the individual items.
  • Shop the big sales. (Did you check your favorite gear supplier on Black Friday or Cyber Monday?)
  • Compare the prices at different stores. For some products and on some days, Amazon is the way to go. On other occasions, you may actually get a better deal at a music company.

With just a little research and planning, you should be able to get quality studio headphones—without breaking the bank.

3 Guitar Exercises for Finger Independence

3 Guitar Exercises for Finger IndependencePlaying the guitar requires flexible fingers. Fortunately, left-hand agility is a skill that can be acquired and improved with practice. These tried-and-true exercises will help you sharpen that skill.

Note that you may not be as proficient in these exercises as you might like the first few times out. Always challenge yourself, but respect your physical limits at the same time. Finger fatigue is normal, but pain is not—if at any point in any exercise you feel pain, stop immediately! Your tolerance to these exercises will improve over time.

The following exercises are excellent for warming up prior to practice. However, any finger exercise routine that works for you is ideal.

#1—The Tennis Ball Stretch

This super-simple warm-up is probably the most effective of all the exercises listed in this post. If you are having any difficulty with hard stretches across the fretboard, the tennis ball stretch can work wonders.

Wrap your left hand around a tennis ball and squeeze just until you feel the ball give a little. Hold that pressure for 30 seconds. Important: Do not maintain the pressure for any longer than 30 seconds!

Repeat with the right hand, if desired. This stretch is good for right-hand flexibility and strength, too.

#2—Vertical Character Builders

Plant your middle, ring, and pinky fingers on the second, third, and fourth frets, respectively, of the third string. Imagine that they are firmly fixed there with roots that grow all the way to the back of the guitar neck, leaving only your index finger free to move. Keeping a brisk but steady rhythm, play the following:

  1. 5th string, 1st fret.
  2. 2nd string, 1st fret.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.
  4. 6th string, 1st fret.
  5. 1st string, 1st fret.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5.
  7. Repeat the entire sequence.

Feel free to play this slowly until you get the knack of the movement.

Now root your index finger and let your middle finger do the work, repeating the exercise on the second fret. Follow up with the ring finger on the third fret and the pinky finger on the fourth fret.

#3—Horizontal Character Builders

Root your index finger on the sixth string, first fret. Play a series of hammer-ons, using the first fret as the first note and using your middle finger to play the second note. Each time you play a hammer-on, keep your index finger rooted in the starting position and stretch one fret farther with your middle finger. Thus the first note will stay the same throughout the exercise, while the second note will change sequentially:

  1. 2nd fret the first time.
  2. 3rd fret the second time.
  3. 4th fret the third time.
  4. So on until you can’t stretch any farther.

Once you have reached your limit, use hammer-ons to walk your second finger back down the fretboard until you are again at the second fret. Re-root your index finger on the fifth string, first fret, and start again. Then go on to the fourth string, working up through all the strings of the guitar and back down to the sixth string again.

Repeat this exercise with the ring and then the pinky finger doing the work. Then try rooting the middle finger on the second fret and stretching with the ring and pinky fingers. Finally, plant the ring finger on the third fret and stretch with the pinky.

Always strive to play in rhythm with this and other exercises.

Helpful Resource

Gripmaster Finger Exerciser
Now you can improve your finger independence even when you don’t have your guitar in hand! This great little device will help you develop greater hand strength, as well.

5 Tips for Left-Hand Guitar Technique

5 Tips for Left-Hand Guitar TechniqueBrushing up on your guitar playing abilities? One area where you might want to put in some work is the left hand.

While the left hand is less influential on tone than the right, good left-hand technique is a must for clarity and precision. The left hand is the source of buzzing and incorrect notes.

So here are five simple tips for improving your left-hand technique:

  1. Stay relaxed. While the job of the left hand is to push the strings down all the way to the fretboard, it does not follow that you must have a grip like a vice. Tension and unnecessary pressure in the left hand will just wear you out. Strive for a loose, relaxed feeling in your left hand and fingers at all times.
  2. Play on your fingertips. Playing on the flat part of your fingers may cause a muffled, buzzy sound. It also practically ensures that your fingers will get in the way of each other. Keeping your fingers curled and playing on the tips allows for a clean sound.
  3. Play low on the frets. Every fret is bounded by two metal fret strips. No matter what note you are playing, you will want to place your fingertip just above the lower of the two fret strips, the one nearer to the body of the guitar. This results in the cleanest sound with the least effort.
  4. Keep your pinky finger close to the strings. If your pinky finger is aimlessly wiggling around at some distance from the fretboard, it is not terribly useful to you. Keep your pinky close at hand where it can be called into service at a moment’s notice. This involves playing with the palm of your hand parallel to the neck of the guitar rather than at an angle, but it also involves keeping the tip of the pinky low, just a fraction of an inch above the strings.
  5. Watch your thumb position. In classical guitar playing, the proper technique is to keep the thumb completely hidden behind the neck so that the fingers can easily reach up and over to the sixth string. With other styles of music, a compromise is typically in order, partly due to the slim necks of many acoustic steel-string guitars and partly due to the preference of some musicians for fretting bass notes with their thumbs. The ideal position will depend on the size of your hands and the width of your guitar neck. Bear in mind, however, that it should always be easy to fret the sixth string with your fingers with minimal rearranging of your hand position.

While it is always best to build good technical habits early on, all is not lost if you have developed some sloppy tendencies. Here’s a good practice routine for improving your technique:

  1. Choose one technical aspect to work on at a time.
  2. Practice your chosen technical challenge on simple scales, playing very slowly so that you hit every note correctly and with the proper technique the first time. Use a metronome for this step.
  3. Once you can play a scale smoothly and with the correct technique at a slow tempo, gradually speed up the tempo a few beats per minute. Take the time to master proper technique at the new tempo before speeding up some more.
  4. Start implementing your new technical skill into your repertoire, playing your songs as slowly as you need to at first to get it right.
  5. Gradually speed up your songs until you are playing at performance tempo with consistently correct technique.
  6. Choose a new technique to practice and start the process over.

Have fun!

Pros and Cons of USB Microphones for Home Recording

Pros and Cons of USB Microphones for Recording MusicAre you interested in recording at home? It can be done, but it requires some special equipment.

The most obvious first purchase is a microphone. A good microphone can be dauntingly expensive. A USB microphone promises an easy way to get started at less cost—or does it? Let’s find out.


  • Low cost. A USB microphone is typically quite affordable. Furthermore, no digital audio interface (DAI) is required to connect it to a computer, further cutting down on the expense.
  • Simplicity. Plug the mic into the USB port on your computer. Done.
  • Portability. USB microphones are powered by the computer, eliminating the need for a phantom power source. This cuts down on the amount of gear you have to haul around when you are recording. The mic, the stand, the cable, and the computer are all you need.


  • Doubtful economy. A cheap USB microphone will yield unsatisfactory results, guaranteed. The price of a truly good one will typically buy a decent XLR microphone and an audio interface. If you buy cheap to begin with, you will soon spend more on a replacement. Be careful to read plenty of reviews to avoid the cheap trap!
  • One at a time. You can typically only record with one USB microphone at a time and get good results. A digital audio interface allows for recording multiple instruments at once with multiple inputs; even the most basic interface will typically allow for recording both one XLR signal and one high-Z signal (for plugging in electric guitars).
  • Latency. Most (but not all) USB microphones have latency problems. In other words, there is a delay between the time the sound enters the mic and the time it exits your headphones. Most audio interfaces are designed with low latency in mind.
  • Reduced sound quality. USB microphones tend to sample at bare-minimum rates (many are designed for podcasting), resulting in a considerably less professional-sounding recording. And this does not even take into consideration the all-too-common cheap inner workings that add noise to the mix (pun intended). A little more cash outlay can get you a quality digital audio interface that is specifically built for high sampling rates and top-notch sound.
  • Reduced control. The USB microphone will do whatever it is built to do, end of story. Little room for adjustment here. Hooking a microphone up to some type of audio interface opens up new options, depending on the interface. The interface adds an extra element of control over input levels and mixing.


The bottom line is that a USB mic may appear at first glance to be an attractive choice for a beginner’s home studio—after all, it’s so cheap! However, there is typically a reason for this. Cheap parts equals cheap sound.

If you are going to the trouble to do your own recording, you will want to record high-quality sound. Yes, it is possible to achieve this objective without breaking the bank. Spend the money it takes to obtain quality equipment—just don’t purchase unnecessary features.

You will want to start out with an XLR microphone and a digital audio interface for best recording results. Note, however, that cheap versions of both of these items exist—these inferior products have absolutely no advantage over a good USB mic. Research carefully to find the best bang for your buck. You may need to sacrifice a few inputs and gizmos to maximize quality without breaking the bank.

Home recording is not an inexpensive hobby. To do it well requires investment. Don’t throw your money away buying cheap!

Helpful Resource

The Beginner's Guide to MicrophonesA Beginner’s Guide to Microphones
Want to know more about microphone options and their best applications? This little eBook has the answers. Read our full review.