Tone Talk with Karen Culi

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Photo by Maeva Komenan

Growing up in the suburbs outside of Washington D.C., and being from Oxon Hill, Maryland, there was always an abundance of great, cultural and progressive music around me. Ive always had an interest with music, but when I was five, If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say a police officer. Music often helped me when I was in a jam, so I decided to become a rock star.

Not sure how I got to that point in my life, but perhaps it was from my elementary school teachers going over genres such as doo-wop, pop, and swing — discussing great songs and the artist who wrote or performed them — artists ranging from Duke Ellington to Whitney Houston. To me, a performance is great only when the music is just as important. Without one or the other, the show can’t go on. By the time I was eight, I was enrolled in piano lessons after getting an electric keyboard. It was arranged for me to get lessons from a man John McDaniel. Every Saturday morning, he and his fiesty pomeranian would greet me on the way in. He had a studio — nside sat two grand pianos and two organs for his students. There was always a slight smell of cigarettes in the air. I remember those days like they were yesterday.

I was 11 years old, going on 12, when my family and I went out of town to visit my great uncle. There was an acoustic nylon guitar sitting in the living room, and I walked over to pick it up. My dad saw me and showed me the bare minimum when it came to guitars on the spot — everything from strumming and finger placements to produce a note. By the end of that summer, I had quit piano because I wanted to play guitar. I was HOOKED! I ended up buying a moded electric from a middle school friend. I got a few lessons from friends but eventually taught myself. I found it easier.

When I turned 12, I went to the “Warped Tour” that took place at Jiffy Lube Live in Virginia — the venue used to be called The Verizon Post Pavillion. Bands like Hawthorne Heights, My Chemical Romance, and Fall Out Boy rocked the main stages and, of course, my heart. These were the types of bands that influenced me and led me to joining my first group. However, It was short-lived because I was kicked out for being too serious. I’m a perfectionist, and I know that can bother some people. I like to take my time in order to put out the best product I can. With this new goal in hand, I ended forming my own band. I learned from female artists like Karen Carpenter and Meg & Dia, and because of them, they’ve inspired me to be known for more than just my singing. My hopes are that people can see the passion I put behind my playing the guitar as well as my singing and songwriting.

I was introduced to heavy metal and alternative by a girl named Nylisha — the music was great, and we became best friends after she gave me a mixed CD with songs from the Queen of the Damned soundtrack. I wanted to rock.

I recently released a single called “Secrets,” and I believe this showcases that aforementioned passion. It was one of my more difficult projects for various reasons. Writing and recording it was overwhelming, to say the least. Making a dope record was the goal.

This song was produced by Austin Bello. He’s a guitarist from Forever the Sickest Kids, who is also featured in this track. I am grateful for his help in creating “Secrets.”

I’m set to release more singles in the near future, and I’d like to invite everyone here to buckle up and join me for what’s sure to be a heck of a ride! Thank you!

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Tone goes hand in hand with pitch and quality but is defined by the character of sounds, whether harmonically or melodically played. It is that grit and distortion, that clean but dirty crunch, as well as atmospheric-heavy, resonating ambiance.

Over the years, my tone has gone from acoustic folk to dirty blues and crunchy, punchy guitars. I love distortion, but not too much, so it won’t overpower the songs.

What are your favorite tonewoods?
Rosewood and maple.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I am currently using a 2014 Fender Stratocaster USA John Mayer Artist series as well as a vintage 1987 Image Groovemachine designed by Peter MAX Baranet and built under the direction of Roman Rist.

As far as amps go, I have a Marshall MG100HDFX half stack, as well as an unknown custom 1988 studio amp head that was made in California.

My pedals consist of a Line6 PODHD500X as my main arsenal.

I am currently using the best gear (for my budget) that I can get for live performances so that I can focus on giving a great show.

What about strings?
I love Ernie Ball Slinkys as well as Fender Bullets and D’Addario Phosphor Bronze strings.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I prefer to record guitar parts separately by section, focusing on timing and tone of the guitar and bass parts during takes.

I go back and forth between different hand positions and picking techniques while keeping the strum patterns consistent for each song.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
Practice. Practice a ton with and without the guitar. Practice what inspired me to first write songs, as well as practicing different techniques to be a better performer. Presets for gear help tremendously. Breathing exercises, with just the songs in your head (and maybe a metronome) as well as exercising helps. Tuning up between songs is a lifesaver.

What does your practice consist of?
My practice consists of stretches, followed by warming up with some power chords and blues runs. After a few minutes, I practice my intonation with each finger, as well as picking techniques so that I won’t miss a note. From there, I run through a setlist of my songs, with headphones and the pause button on standby so that I can take my time to perfect each part.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to pick up the guitar and play?
B.B. King — “Whole Lotta’ Love”

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Don’t let anyone, even yourself, stop you from doing what you’re passionate about. The doors are opening slowly, so don’t rush to your claim to fame. Take your time and study. Think about what you can tolerate for the rest of your life (subject matter in songs especially). Would you be able to perform this song you released for the rest of your life? Also, live with no regrets, instead see things as lessons and having a purpose.

Learn more about Karen Culi at her website HERE and follow her on Instagram at @KarenCuli

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