Use your ears

I'm noticing this trend and it drives me nuts. I really, really hate it. The trend is this: Someone comments, "Do you mind sharing what settings you're using on ________ pedal?" or, "Where do you have the drive set?" or, "Can you show a pic of your knobs?"

It's that act of commenting on an artist's Instagram or Youtube asking for individual settings to the amps and pedals that they're using. I hate it. I HATE IT.

In the guitar community, so much emphasis is placed on the value of your tools. Do you have this sound or that? Are you playing this type of guitar or that? We have pages and pages and pages of information across hundreds of websites and forums devoted just to our tools.

Yeah, some of it helps sharpen our use of a particular tool, but most of it's just advertising new tools to buy and outlining the capabilities of this tool over that tool—all the endless comparisons. Forget it. Here's a tool that so often gets left out: Your ears.

Your ears connect you to the world of music that's out there. Without your ears, your ability to send and receive musical messages to the world is severely limited: Your ears are a license to make and critique music.

With your ears, you've got everything you need to begin to evaluate music critically, and act on those evaluations. For instance, when I first heard Jonny Buckland's use of delay in a Coldplay song, I called it 'good' and began to work to mimic that sound. My ears led me to make the kind of music that I regard as good.

Your ears are the first tool you receive as a musician and are, by far, the most important tool to maintain and properly care for. When your ears fail, your experience with music also fails. An example of this is when you're at a loud concert and your ears are ringing.

In that setting, you aren't evaluating the music in its truest form, not when you've got that ringing in your ears. No, instead your evaluation of what's going on focuses on the band's performance or the production or the energy in the room. You're not having a listening experience when the music is deafening.

Knowing this, many bands put a lot more effort into their recorded music than they do into their live shows. You've heard the line, "She sounds better on CD than she does live" I'm sure. The artist knows that true listeners aren't listening as the sound is being piped to them at 120 decibels.

That's not to say live shows aren't awesome—I go to concerts all the time—but I seldom enjoy a live show for the same reasons that I might enjoy an album. My ears have to have some say when I'm evaluating music.

When I see someone asking an artist how to set up their DD-5 or what settings to use on an AC30, I immediately think, Man, just use your freakin' ears.

You're going to learn a lot more about that particular piece of gear by playing with the settings.

You're going to learn what 'Feedback' and 'Delay Time' mean and what all the modes do. You're going to learn that what you're hearing at the beginning of 'Ever Be' is Reverse delay, and you'll learn how to control it, rather than just knowing that 'Ever Be' starts on Mode 5 or Preset 006 or something.

When you listen critically to what the song is doing and you compare it to what your guitar pedal is doing, you'll begin to learn how to craft sounds like what you'd find on your favorite records. Use your ears! It's my answer to everything.

"Hey, how do you run your Morning Glory?" Use your ears!

"Hey, is that on the bridge pickup or neck?" Use your ears!

"Can you show me where to put my tremolo in the signal chain?" Use your ears!

"Are you going into channel 1 or channel 2?" USE YOUR FREAKIN' EARS.


Buy the thing, play with all the knobs, and use your ears.

Wanna sound like the Edge? Buy an AC30 and a Deluxe Memory Man, use your ears and play with all the knobs until you're getting what you think is the Edge's tone! Use your ears. Use them! Use your ears, man. Geez. Use your friggin' ears.

Here's another great thing that happens when you use your ears. Not only can you cop the tones that you like the most, you can also innovate on what other artists did before you.

Quick—open Spotify and listen to Muddy Waters. Now go listen to Jimi Hendrix. Now Eric Clapton. Now Stevie Ray Vaughn. Now listen to John Mayer. Notice how the guitar playing is pretty similar throughout—all impressive guitarists—but the tones changed dramatically?

Jimi innovated on Muddy, Eric innovated on Jimi, SRV innovated on Eric, John innovated on SRV. At each stage, the guitar tones get more hi-fi sounding, with more bite or more warmth, and at each stage the recording quality matches the innovations in recording during that era.

Now, what if all of those guys simply copied Muddy Waters' settings? Hey Muddy, how do you set your Fender amp? What do you run your Telecaster's volume at?

I think we'd get pretty tired of that same tone after 50 years of hearing it on every single blues record to come out. Use your ears to recreate your favorite sounds, use your ears to make your own sound. Use your ears. That's all.