Pro Tone Pedals came out with a contest last month that challenged guitar players to record their riffs using Pro Tone pedals and upload them to SoundCloud where Dennis and Co. would judge them. The winner would get a free pedal, the runner-up would get a tee-shirt, and everyone else received a hearty thank you in a tie for third place. So you were guaranteed to win something.
I had never entered a guitar contest before. My opinions on playing always fell on the “peace and love” side of things where music is individual expression and completely subjective and because of these two things, how can you have a contest? But Pro Tone never gives out free pedals and I wanted to jump on this opportunity since they make some of the best pedals out there. So I started laying out my riffs, writing, practicing, and recording. I worked my tail off, ultimately turning in 9 of the 29 submitted tracks. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:
#1: Competition is good.
Yes, music is subjective, and yes, music is individual expression, but competition doesn’t always mean you competing with someone else directly. The way I tackled it, I wanted to win and my best opportunity to win would come from putting forth the best product I could. The competition (not the competitors) made me really focus and actively try to do things I normally couldn’t. I tried to play faster, tighter, put more emphasis on timing and variety, to write more than just one or two-bar licks and actually try to write riffs that were interesting and worth listening to. If the competition hadn’t been there, the driving force behind getting better and pushing my quality of work wouldn’t have been nearly as strong. Yes, I probably would have been happy with my licks as they stood pre-competition, but not nearly as happy as I am now that I’ve fleshed them out a bit more.
#2: It’s frustrating.
Good lord, it is SO frustrating to record guitar. First you have to hunt down the tone that you want or at least want to build on. There’s a ton of mouse-clicking and knob-twisting and there’s always a fight going on in your mind between what is “good enough,” and “what you really want.” Even after you settle on your tone (or achieve tonal bliss and hit the right spots in your setup), other little things creep in to your consciousness. The hum that wasn’t there a second ago is now very prevalent in your headphones. You’re hungry now. You have to pee. Whatever. When you finally get everything where you want and you’re all settled down, there’s still the little matter of playing the riff. “Practice bears only fruit,” (as Scorpion from Mortal Kombat said) but that doesn’t mean that the first time you play your riff after hitting record will be the last time. I had such a hard time recording one of the riffs I wrote that I sat there playing it for hours, just running through it again and again until I missed a triplet and then starting all over. I didn’t want to turn in sub-par work, or work that I wouldn’t be proud of, so I held myself to doing my absolute best. Not THE best, but MY best. In the end I can spot some errors in my playing, but overall I’m pretty satisfied with the results.
#3: You’re better than you think.
While I had my above excuses why I never entered a guitar competition, the core truth of the matter is that I was unsure of my own playing ability. Scared. Nobody likes to be mocked or made to feel bad about anything, especially something they love. At least I don’t. You may be different. So to save myself all the grief of being the weakest player, I play alone a lot. I would listen to albums and think that there’s no WAY I could actually write something worth listening to or that people would like, or even jam with friends because my quality wasn’t nearly the same as the recording artists I listen to all the time. Of course this is a ridiculous line of thought. It would be like if a kid insisted on not playing basketball with his friends because he’s not as good RIGHT NOW as Larry Bird (or whoever you kids like nowadays). After submitting my tracks and listening to the others, though… I’m still not on the same level as some of the other players, But at least the ratio between my playing and theirs isn’t as gaping as it is with pros. It’s almost like we’re from the same world when it comes to playing, not like the pros who might as well be aliens. While I still feel a bit dominated, I do feel a lot better about my writing.
#4: Faces matter.
The Internet is an interesting thing that everyone knows is populated by trolls and undesirable people. We were all warned about before we logged in for the first time. The recordings I’ve done in the past have been good enough, but JUST good enough. I cared about the quality some of the time, but others I would completely say “that’s good enough,” and punch off. The recordings that I put effort into weren’t all that much better – I would just listen for a lack of mistakes and call it good. I wouldn’t focus on tone, or quality, just a lack of mistakes. But Dennis announced this contest on video and it’s DENNIS. Dennis has a name (Dennis) and he’s a real person (evidenced by the video), not an anonymous Internet troll. The people that he works with are real people, too. The fact that there were real people that were going to sit down and judge the riffs made the whole thing seem much more real and way more important to me. I had names and faces of real people who mattered, not a global sea of usernames. I wanted to impress these people, and that was a huge motivator.
#5: All the work pays off (even if you don’t win).
While writing more fleshed-out material is sometimes tricky, and getting your playing up to your personal best is a pain, and getting it all on tape is an exercise in frustration, it’s all worth it in the end. My writing has never been better, my playing has never been tighter, and the recordings are there as proof. I’m happier and more satisfied as a player. How can this not be worth it? Even if I didn’t win, I still consider myself a winner of sorts with these cool recordings. I mean, how could I not?
Update: I wanted to wait until after the winners were announced before publishing this post and they were announced last night. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t win, but at least I have nine better riffs to continue working on. Want to hear the winning tracks? If so, here you go:
Tied 2nd Place: https://soundcloud.com/smarek/pro-tone-pedals-winter-riff
And, if you would like to hear everyone else’s submissions, including my own, you can click HERE.
All photos courtesy of Pro Tone Pedals.