“Liina shares her journey as a guitarist/composer, her initial (and current!) preference for PRS Guitars, love for Olafur Arnalds’ compositions, and how useful tempo can be during a first-aid course.”
Leigh Lim: Thanks for agreeing to share a bit about yourself Liina. Looking at the videos you have on YouTube, at the moment it is geared towards music. What are your plans for the next videos you’re going to upload?
Liina Vokk: You’re very welcome! Thank you for your interest! I really appreciate that.
As I’m focusing on writing new music, I think it will be some of my own compositions and I really would like to make music videos for them as well. But I will definitely take requests on songs, that would be a great challenge.
LL: Can you give me a quick summary in terms of how you got to where you are with your playing?
LV: I started out by playing some Pop and Latin songs to accompany my singing. I did it all by listening and playing what I heard. In the beginning I didn’t have any kind of system – every song I learned was a whole new universe. Later I learned about the chords and scales which make up a system and it made songs much easier to remember.
LL: If you were to put together a ‘learning plan’ or practice pack for someone who has never played before, so they could have the capacity to play at your level and skill. What would it look like?
LV: Hm… it’s quite hard to put together some universal plan, because everyone is different and what works for some, might not work for others. Therefore I’d really suggest a good teacher, but first and most importantly – listen, listen, listen! There’s no better learning material than the music itself.
Listen and try to produce the same sound. If one’s really interested in becoming to know the guitar, then I’d suggest this book “A Modern Method for Guitar” by Willliam Leavitt. It really covers a LOT, from the very beginning to advanced level of guitar playing.
As for the whole journey, I’d just say if you feel that it’s your path, then go for it and be willing to sacrifice. There’s hell of a lot work, but every second you put in, pays off when you’re finally able to play the music and share it with the world.
LL: What’s part of your guitar arsenal at the moment?
LV: I play PRS Custom 22 Semi-Hollow and all the details on the guitar are original. For a long time I used D’Addario Chromes but recently switched to D’Addario EXP 9s. The picks I use are self-made, usually from plastic cards but also from wood (Juniper).
LL: Was there a specific reason you switched from Chromes to EXP 9s?
LV: Yes, I wanted to try a bit brighter tone and also more flexibility in melodies (bending for example). I am happy with the sound they produce.
LL: And why Juniper?
LV: Besides the fact that Juniper wood does not break easily and has very strong and nice aroma, it’s a bit spiritual thing too I guess. The island where I grew up is mostly covered with junipers and a lot of souvenirs are made from it. I thought why not make guitar picks too.
LL: Is there something specific about PRS guitars and the specific one you have (PRS Custom 22 Semi-Hollow) that drew you to it?
LV: At first sight, the looks of PRS Guitars were the thing that got my attention 😀 It made me [look] deeper into what’s beyond the hot design and curious how they would sound like and they sound even better than they look! I was looking for warm tone and a bit acoustic-like, airy sound and I think the semi-hollow model was the best option to suit my needs. Another criteria I had was that the guitar must be light weight, because I myself am pretty light weight as well 😀
LL: Interesting point about guitar weight! Would you say your guitar weighs as much as an acoustic?
LV: I wish someone made electrics that light! It’s a bit heavier though, but somewhere about 3 kg.
LL: Did it take awhile for you to settle on the kind that you like?
LV: Not really. I trust my intuition about these things, it hasn’t let me down yet 🙂 It’s important to have an idea of how one wants their instrument to sound like. Otherwise you could try different gear forever and still be unsatisfied.
LL: What sound did you have in mind? (you mentioned that “It’s important to have an idea of how one wants their instrument to sound like”) And does your PRS tick all those boxes?
LV: As mentioned above, I think my PRS together with my effects has all I look for in a guitar sound – a lot of air, rather warm sound, little delayed. I’m pretty much of a nature-person and coming form a small island, surrounded by the sea and the winds, I just feel it’s my sound 🙂
LL: What effects are you using at the moment?
LV: At the moment I use Hardwire Delay DL-8 and Boss Equalizer GE-7 when playing live gigs.
LL: How about adjustments (headstock/bridge/nut), did you have anything done? Or did the PRS feel great as soon as you picked it up?
LV: PRS original parts feel just right, I have only adjusted the height of the bridge and strings.
LL: Did you have help (a guitar tech)? Or did you do the adjustments yourself?
LV: I am very grateful for my guitar teachers and fellow guitarists who have explained how to do these adjustments, so I was able to do those myself.
LL: During a gig, do you keep some notes as a guide?
LV: It depends. I always prefer to play without any notes whenever possible. The most important thing during a gig is to be very relaxed. I know that the music is all there – in my head and in my fingers – I just need to keep my muscles relaxed to let them be guided by the music in my head.
LL: What is your warm-up / practice routine like?
LV: I always start my day playing the acoustic – some chord Arpeggios, Etudes (I love Bach) and then some Standards or Latin tunes. On the electric I do some Chromatic exercises, different rhythm patterns and end up my warm-up with improvisation on a scale I’m currently working on. That’s the basic routine, about an hour long, that I try to pull off every day. After that I rehearse for any on-going project as long as it takes.
LL: Description of your playing style?
LV: I like to keep it very simple, even minimalistic. To me, most of the music happens between two notes. I also love to use delay and reverb effects for the same reason – it creates some kind of space or environment where all separate notes become one idea.
LL: What’s next for your playing? Are you working on something specific at the moment to spice up your playing?
LV: I’m working on my own compositions at the moment, trying to find the right sounds and energies to them. As for spicing up my playing, I’ve been listening to a lot of Santana’s music lately – such strong melodies and the clarity of sound. That’s the idea where I strive for.
LL: What would your advice be for a guitarist confused about the array of choices?
LV: I’d say the first thing to do is to define your perfect sound, whether you want to sound like some of your guitar heroes or something abstract like “I want to sound like the wind”. Then make yourself familiar with as many choices as possible (find information, try, explore). And when it feels good, it’s good. There should be no effort in playing your instrument, it should come as natural as singing.
LL: Would you say you have a long reach with your fingers? (With guitar, usually what stops other people from attempting to learn — or improve, is the struggle with complicated chords. Would you say you have a bit of an advantage? or did you struggle with getting past it too?)
LV: Luckily, God has gifted me with rather long fingers, but it doesn’t mean I can take complicated chords with no practice. Actually, it’s not your fingers that play the chord, it’s the whole hand, starting from elbow, and one should pay serious attention to overall playing posture and especially to the position of the wrist.
I’d say start with simple chords and get some guidance from a teacher to avoid health problems with hands. In the end it’s really all about how you play it, not what you play. Sometimes less is more.
LL: Do you have a Guitar Maintenance and Storage routine?
LV: I don’t have a specific maintenance routine for my gear. I clean my guitar when it’s dirty and get stuff fixed when needed but it’s really very random. I like to keep my things compact so it will be easy and fast to just grab my guitar when I want to play.
LL: Is there something specific that you wanted to learn (a song or technique) that you struggled with?
LV: In the beginning I struggled quite a lot with getting my rhythms tight. I really worked hard with 16ths and all the funky stuff and at some point it seemed impossible. But I kept (and still keep) going because I don’t want any barriers to my playing – I just took things slowly and tried not to beat myself up about it much.
Now I can say I’m pretty confident about rhythmic stuff. Sometimes you need to look at things from a new perspective. Most of the struggles come from the way of thinking, not from the technique.
LL: Your Guitar Lick video — is that from a gig? (Did you upload it because it’s your favorite lick?)
LV: I was just jamming one day and came up with this one that I liked. I didn’t want it to get lost in the depths of my computer’s hard drive, so I decided to upload it. Hopefully it’ll become a full song one day 🙂
LL: Can you share more about the creation of the video of “It’s Going To Be Alright“?
LV: This video is made with a small Canon camera and it was shot on a ferry going from Muhu island in Estonia (where I live) to [the] mainland.
The music has a funny story actually. It was made for a first aid training course to practice doing heart massage in rhythm, so it had to be in this specific tempo. Later I found this video I had shot earlier and thought they’d work well together. I used Logic Pro X for the composition.
LL: What an apt title for music in a first aid training course. Has the song been used in a first aid related video as well?
LV: Haha, yeah, that would be interesting to see 😀 I wish they had filmed the course, but I’m afraid they didn’t. At least I haven’t seen it.
LL: With your recording equipment, what are the current specs you use?
LV: When recording at home, I use M-audio Fast Track Pro where I can just plug in the guitar and play. In the studio I like to use additional microphones near strings for more acoustic sound, but the main signal is going through DI-box to the preamp.
LL: How important is it to have a DI-box in your set-up?
LV: It is very useful when recording in a studio, as you can play through it instead of amp and therefore have more cleaner signal to modify later in a program. Of course, one can use it together with amp too, it’s just my own preference at the moment.
LL: Before putting your original music up on YouTube, what things did you do first?
LV: With those songs that I’ve uploaded I haven’t done anything complicated, just write some tags and a brief description.
LL: Are there artists that you absolutely dig, and are surprised that others haven’t heard of?
LV: From guitar players I really dig Baden Powell who I discovered this year, that’s a shame I haven’t heard of him earlier. My absolute favorite composer at the moment is Olafur Arnalds who, besides his own albums, has also written great music for films. I often wonder that many people haven’t heard about him. He has very unique style and the music he writes is absolutely beautiful.
LL: Did you first come across Olafur Arnalds because of a film that you like (Olafur did the score)?
LV: Actually, I think I found [Undan Hulu (The Cello Song)] first which wasn’t even from a film. I even played it at live with a pianist and myself playing cello part with e-bow. Unfortunately there’s no video of it.
* Leigh’s Note: You can watch a performance of ‘Undan Hulu (The Cello Song)’ by Ólafur Arnalds and Paul Grennan here.
LL: Any plans of playing the song live again? (and maybe recording it)
LV: I haven’t had a chance for a gig like that again (together with pianist), but when something comes up, then that’s definitely an option 🙂 Such a beautiful song.
LL: Are there songs/albums that you cannot get enough of? (or ones that you listened to multiple times)
LV: As mentioned above, Olafur Arnalds’ – Living Room Songs is one of these albums I could listen to forever. And Joao Gilberto of course, his albums have the most hits on my playlist.
LL: What are your favorite sites at the moment?
LV: I recently started to use more twitter, so it’s my favorite at the moment 🙂
LL: Would you be willing to share your Twitter handle? (What do you think of Twitter so far?)
LV: Sure! Everybody can follow me at @liinavokk.
Twitter is great! I have found so many talented people over there who share their music and art.
LL: How about SoundCloud, do you still go on it much? (There is a link on your YouTube Page)
LV: Yes, I use SoundCloud too. Mostly for more chaotic things, like when I get an idea and then record it with most nearby recording device. I like to get my ideas online as soon as possible to minimize the gap between me as a musician and the listener.
LL: Are there websites that you like to visit just because you like the design?
LV: I like Richard Branson’s blog a lot for its design. Nice and vivid.
LL: Website that you would go to when you need cheering up?
LL: 9gag! Really!? Would you also go to the site when you are stuck with a musical idea? (Maybe check out something like: ‘Cute cat just wants a kiss‘?)
LV: Pictures of cute cats always work 😀 When I’m stuck on a musical idea, I like to take a walk in the nature. It opens up the mind.
LL: Would you be open to collaborating with other artists? Specific people you wouldn’t mind reaching out and getting in touch with you either over the web or invite you to play a gig or two?
LV: I’d be very interested in collaborating with other artists whether over the web or live. I’m opened to all kinds of new connections over the world.
LL: Are you interested in technology? (Like internet security, tech linked to your artistic medium)
LV: As an electric guitar player and composer I do have interest in sound technology, from guitar effects to music production. The technology in general is getting more and more into being a natural part of our lives, no matter what area of life.
I take it as it is, not worrying about internet security and similar stuff, I just acknowledge the fact that everything we do these days is public to some degree. Just be the person that you are, no hiding, no faking. Being honest to yourself and to others is important.
LL: With your videos, are you looking to upload the same kind in the future? Or are you looking to do different things?
LV: I plan to continue with uploading my favorite licks to Youtube. I’d definitely do things like Pat Metheny’s Map Of The World on requests and there will also be something from live gigs in the future.
* Liina Vokk is a guitarist based in Tallinn. You can find her videos here and can reach her through the form below.
Source Material and Notes: The material posted is based on correspondence (May & June 2014) between Liina and Leigh. Subsequent additions and corrections will be added when available. Content has been edited for length, and the posting of the draft version of the Q&A has been approved by the interviewee.
Leigh Lim is a musician based at Sydney. You can find a sample of her music here. To reach out to Leigh, you can do so via this form or a direct message through YouTube. (Curious to find out if she’s your kind of person? You can check out her tweets and personal entries.)
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