5 Tips for the Apartment Guitarist

When you live in an apartment, chances are you don't have a spacious home studio with isolation booths, amp rooms, close and distant microphone set-ups, and massive consoles with gargantuan monitors. For many of us, our one or two bedroom apartment only has a closet or small office carved out for our gear. Guitar players find it especially difficult to play and create music at home and not be sent a warning letter from the management.

I am a life-long guitar player. I finance my gear addiction by working for a property management and development company that specializes in apartment communities. I know the joy and horror of the sound emanating from both sides of the walls, as well as the pain of posting a sound violation on a tenant's door.

Here are five crucial tips to make playing in your apartment possible without calls from the manager’s office or your neighbor pounding on your wall.

Be Honest About Your Volume

Straight to the truth: anything louder than a TV is unacceptable. Traditional tube amps are out. Even a one-watt tube amp like the Blackstar HT-1 is just too loud to properly use in your apartment. Many of us think five watts is low enough, but even the lowly Fender Champ 600 will melt paint and shake the windows before it sounds like "Layla."

The best alternative that sounds and feels like a real amp is the Yamaha THR. The THR (THR5 and THR10 models) is one of the only amps designed to sound good at low "living room" volume, and features a range of models and effects to keep you inspired. I have used this amp since its release in two different apartment communities and never had a complaint. Most importantly, it sounds great.

Electric Guitars are Your Best Roommate

Volume is not your friend, but your electric guitar is. Your favorite acoustic can anger the neighbors just as much as a distorted electric when strummed hard. For quick jamming at home, semi-hollow guitars and Stratocasters work great; you can really dig in and not worry about waking anyone up. Semi-hollow guitars (like the Danelectro Convertible or Epiphone Riviera) give you electric guitar playability and feel, while producing enough volume to keep you happy. Playing your electric unplugged has the added benefit of letting the true tone ring out, giving new insight to what you have to work with when thinking about pickups.

Spend More on Headphones Now ( and Less on Moving Later)

A good set of headphones can save you from having long conversations with the manager. The headphones designed for listening to your iPod are not suited for listing to your guitar (Dr. Dre is no Hendrix). Bigger is better when it comes to monitoring your sound, so over the ear, studio-style headphones are best. The more transparent your headphones are, the better the sound quality will be. This is especially important when playing through amp models and using pedals. I use AKG K44 headphones, which work great. Many newer small tube amps now feature headphone outputs. The Blackstar HT-1 and Yamaha THR10 headphone-outs not only sound great, but also react like the amps would normally.

Noise is Lurking in the Walls, Learn to Deal With It

Plug your tube amp in, and turn it on without plugging your guitar in. In an apartment you will hear your idling amp make buzz-saw squeals, fuzzed out highs, and bowel-rumbling lows when you're not even playing! The typical apartment building has countless electrical wires, pipes, light fixtures, gas lines, and appliance motors “insulated” behind just an inch or less of drywall. These all make noise that will leach their way into your amp regardless of the quality of your cables and noiselessness of your pickups. You must own a noise gate such as the Boss NS-2 or other similar pedal. These devices will have a minimal effect on your tone, and will save your sanity when playing in the electrical vortex buzz-hum-crackle box that is the common apartment building.

Know Your Space and Make the Most of It

Finally, a non-sound related tip. Your guitars are your treasure -- give them a good home. Never hang a guitar on a wall, as you are only a cheap sheet of drywall away from heartbreak if you didn't safely drill into a stud. Apartment windows are notoriously drafty and leak cold air and moisture. External walls (walls that are directly opposite the outside of the building) in apartments can wildly fluctuate in temperature and moisture. Keep your guitars in cases and in stands away from windows and on interior walls (shared walls between rooms). This will keep temperature and humidity fluctuations to a minimum, and your guitars will require fewer set-ups when seasons change.

Lastly, an important note: buy renter’s insurance. Your property owner is not liable if water leaks, your roof collapses, or theft damages your guitar. Better to have the insurance company buy you a new Les Paul than to cry over a soggy or missing one.

Playing at home will always have tradeoffs, but home is where most of us practice, run through ideas, and record. Being an apartment guitarist will have its challenges, but remembering these tips can ensure that only your spouse will be bothered while the management leaves you in peace.

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