As far as I’m concerned, here are the most important things (in order) about recording an electric guitar:
The song. A great guitar sound on a not-so-great song gets you nowhere.
The part. Sometimes the sound of that one simple chord or two simple notes is so amazing just because it is the most appropriate part—which has nothing to do with recording technique at all. Furthermore, there are those styles of music where the track has to be performed by someone super-talented and well-informed (via practicing) for the part to work.
The instrument, pickup and amp combination. When you get into the actual sound of the electric guitar... everything starts here. Make sure the intonation is set properly on the guitar so that it is in tune no matter where the guitarist plays on the neck. Single-coil pickups generally sound thinner and have more high and low end. Dual-coil pickups sound fatter and can be more midrangy. Amps are all over the place in terms of sound.
Right there is 90% of it and those items mark the difference between some dude’s basement recording and some other guy’s multi-platinum career! Now that the formalities are out of the way, here are a few practical ideas about electric guitar recording that you might not get from other sources.
• Use the nastiest, cheapest, oddest-sounding guitar you can get your hands on ... (funny-looking pickups, no-name brand, etc) ... and double or triple-track it. It can make for an interesting yet big sound. Just make sure it stays in tune.
• Remember that the idea is to get the desired sound to come out of the studio monitor speakers. Be honest about that process. If the cheapo guitar with the un-sexy amp gives you the appropriate sound, use it. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a guitarist come in with the name-brand “stadium stack” and once we get it all set up and place our mics, it winds up sounding terrible compared to a little 15-watt solid-state practice amp.
• The more overdrive and distortion you use, the thinner the sound. Always try to use the least amount of overdrive and distortion that your guitarist will allow. This is especially true when double-tracking or recording many different guitar parts ... if all of your guitar parts have tons of low end and high end, it can get out of control when you combine them.
- Ribbon microphones and vintage mic preamps with lots of “mojo” always seem to sound great on guitars. Coles, AEA, or Royer mics with Neve, Telefunken, or API. I know these are all “elitist” and expensive, but... wow.
- If possible, try not to overuse guitar “amp modeling” processors and plug-ins to replace a real amp and a real mic. The real stuff has a certain “air” to the sound which can be missing from the amp modeling units. Consider using such devices for the odd overdub part as a nice changeup. Actually, my favorite use for amp modeling units is to run other stuff through them like snare drums and vocals!
- If you aren’t happy with the sound of your guitar recording you can always re-amp the track, which means that you run the recorded guitar track back out to an actual guitar amp and re-record the amp to a new track. (This also works well with vocals and snare drums, by the way!)
- When using a guitar with a single-coil pickup (like a Strat pickup or a P-90) it can hum and buzz like crazy if you have a lot of overdrive set on the amp, and there really isn’t any way around this. Sometimes you can minimize this problem by moving the guitar (and associated guitarist) to different spots in the room—find the place where the hum is the least.
- To find the “sweet spot” of the guitar amp: plug the guitar in, gain the amp up, and let it hum. While monitoring the microphone with headphones on, move the mic around until you find the spot that sounds like the buzz has the most high end and leave the mic right there for the recording.
I’m right in the middle of mixing an album for Dave Liebman and Mike Stern. The session involved two guitar players—Vic Juris and Mike Stern. A few guitar-specific items from that session came up that are worth discussing here.
I’ve always been advised not to record delay-based signal processing during tracking and add it later (during mixing) so that the guitar effects can tweaked to perfection. Mike decided to allow me to add long delays and reverbs appropriate to the song tempos during mixing, but we wanted to make sure that his thick stereo processed guitar sound was intact before it hit the microphones (a pair of SM57s for his stereo guitar rig). Mike brought his old Yamaha SPX90 units set to pitch shift (slightly) each side of the stereo signal to create his large and spread-out stereo sound. Meanwhile, Vic made use of his Line 6 POD (and the floor pedal unit) to create a number of envelope, delay, and overdrive effects.
This has been a great example of two guitar players playing completely different parts using sounds that are complementary to each other. Mike has the sustained, snakey, wide stereo overdriven sounds, and Vic uses cleaner, more percussive sounds. We really didn’t spend any time moving them around and laboring over subtle differences in mic placement. When the players and parts are already great, it’s difficult to screw it up; get the mics close and point them in the right direction!
John Fishell teaches music recording and production at the University of Colorado, Denver. All photos were taken by John at the sessions.