The Gear-Wise Musician, Part 1 – It’s Child’s Play!

child play

Kids. You gotta love their imaginations.

So many worlds and creatures and exotic situations in their minds… all set free like Noah’s Ark busting open, and a kaleidoscope of life stampeding ‘cross their interior movie screens.

So free in their simple enjoyment and focus on the moment. Very Zen, in a way.

No outrageous story is wrong. No bizarre combination of toys is forbidden. Few rules inhibit their exploratory path. And through it… their insights shape their intelligence… and their future.

As we strive to be a “gear-wise musician” and continue our quest for recording and music mastery, I believe we can benefit from a child’s approach. And, as we’ll see, there’s something innate in a kid that leads to ultimate proficiency… IF… we don’t smother it.

Kill the Cat

kids curious eyes

If you happened to read the latest articles this year in April’s edition of the “Pediatric Research” journal (and, I mean, who doesn’t?!), you might have seen the findings concerning the one surprising trait that seems to help all kids succeed in school, and then in life, no matter what their socioeconomic background. It is, simply, CURIOUSITY.

Those that have it, do well. Those that don’t, struggle.

Part of a child’s focus when they play is fueled by this exact trait. Because so much is brand new to them, they don’t know what will happen when they put that waffle you gave them for breakfast underneath mommy and daddy’s bed sheets. That’s part of the magic – it’s a whole new world of uncertain but epic adventure!

Trouble is, as we get older we forget and leave behind this entrancing power-pack called curiosity. We’ve been there, done that. We know exactly what will happen when we turn that knob, engage this plug-in… It’s all cut and dried now, dude.

kid with hands of colors

Too bad. ‘Cause if we maintain our level of curiosity in our music and recording, we can continue to break new ground in our artistry, and shrug off “maintaining” success and instead search for the elusive “next step” in our potential artistic evolution.

Luckily, there are some things we can continually do to make sure this dynamic and influential force never dissipates from our recipe for success. What it really comes down to… is, in some ways, not growing up.

Life’s Short – GO PLAY!!

The most important way to become a Jedi Master of your audio universe is to simply spend time with your equipment playing for no reason except enjoyment. Outside of a job, play your instruments. Play with the outboard gear. Get your hands, fingers, lips… heck, any appropriate body part on that gear. Go for both quantity AND quality time.

Kids playing with instruments

In other words, as I like to say, go “date your gear“. Spend easy, non-demanding time with the lucky lady, asking her questions by turning, pushing and changing her controls, and seeing what answers she gives you.

You’ll probably be going out again soon with a smile. 😉

Ask yourself: when was the last time you sat down with your instruments, or your recording gear, and just practiced or fiddled around with NO GOAL WHATSOEVER? Probably been a while, right? It’s this “on the treadmill” approach to studio use that often keeps us from cool discoveries; we’re too busy to just examine and “try stuff” – we’ve got a deadline to meet!

skater girl

All that’s part of modern life, I get it. But making it a priority to sit and play, with no agenda or job attached, is needful if we’re going to keep things fresh in our music, and in our mood.

Remember when you first started to play music? It was great, right? Back, as Jeff Lynne says on his most recent album, “…when there waaaaas, nooooo money!” Getting back to that simple enjoyment and curiosity about what you can achieve with each piece of music gear is what will keep you journeying to fresh, inspiring places in your methodology and your output.

The reason this approach works so well is because each piece of music equipment is unique. And how you interact with it is going to be unique. So the only way to really plumb the depths of possibility in each piece is to explore. Investigate. Tinker.



Slow Down; You’re Movin’ Too Fast…

Have you ever noticed that kids aren’t rushed to play?? They’re oblivious to the clock. They are just wholly engrossed in where their imagination is leading them.

kids outdoor jumpin

I’ve found, in the same way, that one great way to gain insight into your gear and open up new sound frontiers, is to maintain the time mindset of a child. That is, don’t consider it at all!

Now I know that we’ve got work to do, and that projects have deadlines that we need to meet. I’m not endorsing, by any means, not being responsible. I’m merely pointing out that we must find time in our hectic lifestyles to, at least once in a while, play in our studio when we’re not in a hurry.

When possible, that’s how we should explore our gear – NOT in a session. NOT for a specific goal, or scheduled recording. Just in leisurely, childlike R&D, when you don’t have to be anywhere for few hours. That’s when curiosity can really lead you places!

kids splashing water

Rushing through the time you spend with your gear only means you’ll miss the good stuff: the unexpected surprises. The unforeseen coalescences. Unpredictable discoveries made possible by slow, focused attention to, and appreciation of, little details.

Do you want to be the master of your equipment? Do you wish to be skilled at all the pertinent methods and features available to you in the music industry and on your equipment?? Then stay curious in a NON-RUSHED environment.

I Know, But I Don’t Know

wacky face kid

The next really helpful approach to instruments or pieces of outboard gear is to bring childlike creativity & faux ignorance to the mix.

What does that mean?? Well, I know, and you know, that YOU KNOW already how to use these things. You’ve used them many times before.

Music-loving toddler

But pretend you don’t. Yup, that’s right; pretend you’re a kid with no former knowledge of this piece, no idea of what “the rules” are.

Turn knobs, push sliders, strum, strike or push things like you’ve never used them before… and see what happens. Go extreme. “But you should never push the threshold so high – it’ll make the signal stutter!” Yea, it will. And maaaaaybe, that might be a cool effect for the song you’re working on right now.

But you won’t know if you don’t try things that are “wrong”. Remember the robotic vocal effect from Antares Auto-Tune made famous by Cher’s tune “Believe”?? That song didn’t become hugely famous because someone played by the rules. It was their playfulness and willingness to try what was “not the way it should be used” that put their creativity on the map around the world.

When was the last time you used an instrument in the “wrong way”?? It just might be time to do just that!

This & That

The third way I find exciting & fresh sounds in my studio is to link up new combinations of gear, just like kids do when they tire of the same ol’ sets of toys, and deliberately substitute other totally unrelated objects into the equation.

We bought my son a German castle with knights and kings, peasants and even a dragon when he was a toddler. I’d often go down to find maaaaany other creatures in this company: Star Wars figurines; shoe horns; alphabet blocks; his talking “Shrek”; bundled socks…

kids barrel of monkeys

It’s just like what we did as children: igniting grand outdoor adventures with our G.I. Joes, Darth Vaders, miniature tanks, tie-down strings, bathtub sharks and LOTS and LOTS of firecrackers!

Well, at least… that’s what I DID. LOL

kids little toy animals

Or playing the game of “Mousetrap”, but not with the mouse it came with, but rather with plastic animals, orange Cheetos Puffs, live bugs from outside, stones from the lake vacation last week, or those other socks on the floor, or…

You get the picture. And kids get it too – life’s fun when there are no rules!

So… ever tried putting a distortion pedal on a cello signal? A flanger effect on the snare? Playing a bass track through a pocket guitar amp??

One of my favorite sounds on my upcoming album is a guitar solo I did using a combo I’d never heard of, but came from just trying different pieces of gear in a long, weird signal chain…

Children with guitars

I started by finding a strange, almost mosquito-sounding amp patch on my guitar processor.

Then, I plugged in my wah pedal.

Next, I engaged my Ebow for sustaining, dynamic wash of meandering notes.

Finally, I slapped a delay on the whole shebang, and in the end… I’d created a magic, expressive guitar solo unlike any I’ve ever played or even heard before. To this day, it’s one of my most signature sounds in my sonic landscape.

When was the last time you tried a wacky combination?? A dysfunctional duo?? A misfit mashup??!

I think it’s time, don’t you? 😉

One o’ These Things… is Not Like the Other!

kid playing a game

Finally, a great ploy for tricking your mind into genius discoveries is to this: don’t use parts of your gear that you normally would always use.

Ever see a kid playing a board game without all the parts? “Well, that won’t work!” some would say.

But it does. It just works in an unconventional way, not in the prescribed manner. Instead, it forces the mind to come up with new fixes, new workarounds, new possibilities not formerly laid out for us.

Hmmm. That sounds like what high school and college tries to train us to do… and kids are doing it already before they’ve even entered school!

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (Photo: Steven Toole)

Peter Gabriel did some great “leaving out” on his third solo album (the one referred to as “Melt“).

What did he leave out?? Well, he decided right from the get-go that the drum tracks would include NO CYMBALS! All the drummers had to play that way, without a single cymbal on the kit. Even Phil Collins, who played on a few tracks.

The sound of that record is unique to the point of being legendary. So totally different. Mesmerizing, and most don’t know why.

It’s because of what he didn’t let you hear.

Sometimes leaving OUT things can be the next, hot “IN” thing. So be a trail-blazer, by contracting your parameters rather than expanding them. That’s the way to start letting your “legend” out!

“Bedtime, ‘Bekah.”

When a day’s ledger has at last been fully spread out before us, on the table of our time, what have we done with it? Have we made the most of each second?

Sleeping girl with headphones

Not by rushing, mind you; not by cramming in too much… but rather by really, deliberately living each moment and focusing on the possibilities each breath provides? That’s what kids do, and when they crawl into bed, they take with them a day in which they’ve really lived!

We don’t have to follow Buddha to know that quality & quantity time spent “playing” with our music gear will always lead to new insights and better mastery of our craft. Dashing & scrambling sometimes is needful, but rarely does it produce serendipitous surprises of fresh method and head-turning sounds. For that, we need slow, attentive interest and a “No Distraction” zone. Call it… your “toy box”.

kid playing piano

I hope you’ll join me in giving yourself the gift of play in your recording environment. When you uncover new, unconventional settings, combinations and, ultimately, state-of-the-art music using this method, you’ll have that grinning kid within you to thank.

And don’t forget to leave us a Comment telling us all about it. Sharing our audio journey is what Seriousgas is all about, and we always are enriched to hear from you.

So, let’s do it. Let’s answer Cat Steven’s question of the 70s, “Where Do The Children Play?”, by simply saying…

… in the studio, of course.

Now, go… make… sounds!


kid with tongue out

16 Replies to “The Gear-Wise Musician, Part 1 – It’s Child’s Play!”

  1. Wow! Well, ya know… if I can make anyone feel THAT good about life any day… I have truly succeeded!!! lol

    Thanks for visiting, Chris. 😉

  2. The most genius music of our histories has come from human brains and ears that just… loved… to play.

    What happened to the organ you had?? Did it break down?? I had an expensive keyboard that did that once, and the company no longer had parts to fix it, so I had to toss it. Crying shame, that.

    Well, keep at it and have fun. Go put two chords together that you’ve NEVER, EVER played before today.

    Then come back and lemme know how it felt!  😉

  3. About two nights ago I went to bed early, Leo, just so I could lay there, and through quality headphones, listen to Joni Mitchell’s “Turbulent Indigo” record from beginning to end. 

    What can I say? I still believe in the ALBUM in these days of “hot streaming singles”.

    Do you find that the music of video games you used to play has an emotional reaction with you? Sounds like an article I should write… !   lol

    I’m with you on the music/exercise thing. When I run half-marathons I have a playlist all ready with songs that match the pace I want to run at any given leg of the race. It REALLY helps!!

  4. I often go into my studio, Renton, and put two things together that usually don’t go together. Just to see what interesting new sounds can be carved out of the curiosity.

    Peter Gabriel is a master of this. I talked in THIS ARTICLE about one bit of creative recording that still blows my mind whenever I hear it on his album…

  5. Teaj,

    This is a very interesting article. I followed most of it and agree with the curiosity aspect. I’m not a musician, exactly, though I have a keyboard. I would prefer to have a full organ with two octaves of pedals. I had one a few years ago and really enjoyed experimenting different sounds with the pedals. As you said, Go Play. That’s what I did and no one could hear me playing. I simply enjoyed playing.

  6. Nice writing Teaj. I agree with in overall. Even for me there are a lot of moments when I need to close every connection with the reality and listen some music. I don’t know how could be the life without music. Even during the gym time music is very crucial, as it fuels the body with emotions and energy. But time to time, I have a look to memories, the time that used to play videogames. What a time. Thank u for taking me back to retrospective. Good luck.

  7. Thanks, Jay! Motivating my fellow humans to positive places in life is of high importance to me, and this post is a reflection of my good wishes for all my fellow bi-pedal humanoids!  lol

    If you liked that post, I think you’ll dig THIS ONE too… that is, if you’ve ever seen music LIVE!  😉

  8. It like you say, kid are Newtons 3rd Law experts. Every day they just do stuff and see what the consequences are to see if it is acceptable or not. I think play time is so much more important than we realize. Play time is not just wasting time or keeping a child occupied, it is a positive experience that associates positive feeling with learning.

    This is how self confidence is built, something as simple as putting two Lego block together can show a child that they are capable and from those two block they can create castles or rockets etc.

    If we could all be encouraged to keep this curiosity and way of processing information, learning never becomes a chore, but instead an adventure unfolds. I think that children are capable of learning much faster than adults (obviously the brain plasticity helps) but the way they learn is also more effective.

    Experimenting with gear is a great way to bring back the joy to your music, as long as you love it!

  9. Another music teacher like myself! Welcome, Ryan!! You’ll also appreciate THIS POST then, that I shared with another musician earlier.

    Isn’t music a powerful force?! How certain frequencies can rouse us to joy, sorrow, fury, consideration, calm… it’s an amazement I can never get enough of.

    I like that your avatar is Snoopy – he’s one of the best piano players of ALL!!!!  😉

  10. I would say that a lot of people can use this post as a motivational speech. Just reading it is giving me goosebumps(true story). A lot of our creativity has been forgone or blown away by lives daily routines making us less creativity than we are suppose to be.

    Sometimes thinking to act the way a child would act can expose us to a world we never knew existed. I do love playing my guitar and mixing it up with unusual sounds. This can create amazing combinations that can be phenomenal. You my friend are a genius and your ideas are amazing. Keep up the good work.

  11. I teach piano to younger children and I can definitely attest to the importance of curiosity and imagination in music. The result of engaging in those primal instincts is creativity. When kids hear beautiful chord cadences it stirs their motivation to discover and create new sounds on the instrument. You also see this in great jazz musicians that take simple musical ideas and just have fun with it.

  12. As soon as I finish a HUUUUUUUGE post about the best acoustic guitar strings of the year, Sydney! It’s a ton of work since I’m recording EACH set so we can all hear the differences.

    But don’t worry – as the Terminator said… “I’ll be bahhhk!”  LOL

    In the meantime, have you read THIS POST I did last year?? It’s another look at how we can really enjoy this mysterious energy called ‘music’!

  13. I like a good three-fold combination of 1) reading up on given piece of gear or effect, 2) messing around with it when it’s not needed (playing!), and 3) actually bringing it in to use on a real session where a great final product is needful.

    That produces the expertise that makes one comfortable in the studio with all your gear!

    I’d like to hear that accordion, Chris!! Email me a .wav of it and I’ll send you a really WHACKED guitar solo sound I once created… !!    lol

  14. AWESOME post! I love that you said to date your gear, really spending time making music without any pressure. I love your breakdown of the child like mindset. Reading it brought me back to my childhood and how I used to play with toys and made me that much more excited to get to playing and making music! When is Part 2 coming out?

  15. That’s a great article mate, and I can relate to every angle on it. 

    You go out and buy a compressor, VST, 64 bit….why?

    Well because everyone tells you it’s good online. 

    Is it any good?

    Not really, it’s a compressor, and a free VST would probably do the same job as the presets you’ve been given…until you move away from the presets and start twiddling the knobs yourself. That’s where the difference in quality happens. 

    The same can be said for guitar effects, delays, de-essers, synths, that nasty Kontakt machine…you get the picture. The same can be said for every DAW you get (paid or…otherwise?) 🙂

    Two weekends ago we actually spent a whole sunday making a very accomplished accordion player play through the Amplitube VST. Not saying he was happy about it at first…but you should hear the end result and what it did to a simple acoustic track! 

    You don’t need to know what the buttons do – just press ’em.

  16. What a creative, all over the place, fun, never boring mind you have!! I loved reading this post! It made me so happy!!! I cannot wait to read more 🙂

    Thank you for making my day


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