The Magic Guitar


Vision without execution is Hallucination
Thomas Edison

Years ago I read a book called “This Is Your Brain on Music” where Daniel J. Levitin recounts a story of picking up Santana’s guitar, expecting it to have that magic signature sound. He cradled the guitar in his hands, began to strum some riffs and it sounded exactly like a stock Fender Stratocaster. No magic riffs, no scales appearing out of nowhere, no golden processing chain, and no instant inspiration – just a tool who’s sound is truly shaped by the hands and touch of a dedicated musician. Great tools help the process flow but they won’t replace hard work.

It’s easy to fall into this trap – if I only I had this fancy guitar, piano, or plugin. Tools are great but often provide diminishing returns. You have to love your tools, but they won’t write the song for you. Buying a Stradivarius won’t turn you into Bach. So how do you become a master of your craft? You work with deliberate intention. You embrace the wandering creative process, but then pull back to edit and clarify your vision. Let’s look at ten ways to work with intention to make better music.

1. Fall in love with the process

Let’s be honest – there are no shortcuts. You must do the work. None of my quick tips are shortcuts, but they do grease the friction of resistance. You need to fall in love with the process of creating art, not the outcome. Work with intention – acknowledge that the process exists, that roadblocks will occur, but work quickly with intention and focus.

2. Start with a single step

It’s easy to talk yourself out of making music, but all it takes is touching an instrument and playing a few notes to get started. It only takes flossing one tooth to do the rest and build a habit (apparently a habit is formed in one month). Turn that single step into momentum that builds a fixation. When building my Serum bank for Splice, the process became addictive – I didn’t want to stop creating presets. Create a healthy addiction for your craft.

3. Challenge the default state.

Stop playing the same riffs and chord progressions. Deliberately defy your muscle memory and play something uncomfortable – a difficult barre chord on guitar, or a strange scale on the piano. If it feels stale or nauseating playing something – stop immediately and challenge yourself to learn something new. You will never improve if you keep playing that same tired progression. You might have played guitar for 15 years, but have you actively challenged and grown every single year, rather than repeating familiar patterns?

4. Create learning lists.

Leonardo Da Vinci was obsessed with compiling lists of skills to learn. What do you want to master? Be deliberate, specific, and make your own list so you learn with intention. What micro skills will improve your craft? Sort your list by priorities.

5. Listen actively.

Don’t multi-task. Focus on the playback, giving all your attention to the music.

6. Build your workflows ahead of time.

Craft them with templates, macros, and good file organization. Good workflows aren’t made by accident – they are recipes built with an intended outcome. The time spent on a workflow is a force multiplier, but it’ll take time to sequence the steps. When creating my Splice sample library I needed to batch process 400+ samples and have a clear idea exactly what steps needed to be applied to each sample in Izotope Rx. What time consuming repetitive steps can you batch? For my pack I wanted to crop audio, normalize, remove DC offset, apply fades, apply dither, and create a file naming system. Not everything can be batched, but you should automate whenever possible. For the Serum macros I needed to be very deliberate – what would a useful macro do? For most of the presets I used macros for combine actions (one knob turn to control six changes), wet/dry balance, overall timbre of the wavetables, note division timing, and applying treatments like distortion.

7. Prep, wander, then edit.

Compartmentalize preparation and creative processes into two distinct areas, rather than continually switching between them, for better flow. Take care off all the left brain activities like patching together gear, tweaking templates, color coding cables, and maintenance like removing unused plugins, before beginning the creative process. After the creative process has cooled down, let the music rest – and then edit and troubleshoot. What’s working and what needs to be tweaked? Editing is a conscious process that needs to be managed carefully. Curate your work but don’t overthink it and go backwards!

8. Be deliberate with your melodies and chords

After you’ve gone through the creative stage, step back and make sure you’ve settled on a distinct melody and chord progression, rather than layering lots of ideas you’re unsure about. Lots of information can get buried in the mix and mask the sounds that need to stand out. Make sure your lead is melodically and rhythmically distinct and the layers work together rather than fighting for similar sonic space and placement on the grid. One useful technique is to create a MIDI key layer that uses clicks to represent the lead timing. This is handy for establishing the timing and to provide a guide for sidechaining effects (i.e. sidechaining reverb to a dry signal). For chords, it’s easy for slowly developing pads to overlap and blur. So – duplicate your MIDI progression, freeze, and flatten the audio to crop and shape the chord attack and decay so that your chord progressions are neatly stacked.

9. Be deliberate with your time.

Wandering is great for the creative process, but you need effective ways to optimize your time when you don’t have the luxury of 3 or 4 hour chunks needed for true flow states. I’ll often reserve the mundane tasks for when I have “loose change” time fractured by flight delays and lines. You can fritter your time away scrolling through social media or you can get organized. Pare down your plugin libraries, mark your favorite synth presets, clean up your Dropbox folders, or delete duplicate files. Find a focus, and get into that mode.

10. Focus on one tool at a time

Rather than buy three soft synths and dabble with them, dive in deeply. Embrace total immersion. Find a synth that speaks to you, and learn it inside out. Buy preset packs and dig into what shapes each sound. Read the actual manual (and stash it in the cloud while you’re at it).

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2 thoughts on “The Magic Guitar

  1. Hi, very informative !
    But can you precise what you mean by : “One useful technique is to create a MIDI key layer that uses clicks to represent the lead timing.” Sorry, I’m not a native English speaker.

    Thanks !

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