Monday, August 21, 2006

Great Guitar Sounds

A great electric guitar sound is a matter of personal esthetics, and, like all beauty, it is in the eyes (or, in this case, the ears) of the beholder. Getting a guitar sound for recording purposes always must be the result of a close partnership between the player, the producer and the recording engineer. A good producer should have a solid concept of what he wants to hear, and the foresight to have hired a player that has not only the talent, but the proper equipment, physical as well as mental, to bring to life the concept in his head. My favorite recording engineers as far as documenting guitar sounds to media, be it analog tape or in the digital realm, are the ones who understand the concept of simplicity. They tend to take the shortest path from the players fingers to the studio monitors. And the best sounding players usually stick to what they do best, plug a guitar they know into an amp they know, and play.

Electric guitars are really very simple. The complications arise when a musician tries to be all things with a minimum of equipment. I love the ability to simulate five hundred guitar sounds with a single rack space piece of gear. But a real room with a real tube amp is just, well, it’s just more fun, goddammit! And if we’re not having fun, what’s the point anyway?

Some time ago, I was working with a guitarist on his solo record, I’ll call him Sam. Sam was probably the best pure blues/rock player I had ever been in the same room with. Not the most famous, although he had done some notable things in the past, but clearly a most exciting and masterful soloist. And his rhythm playing was equally as jaw-dropping. We were struggling with his gear and just couldn’t quite get what he wanted. Sam was playing a stunning piece of quilted maple furniture that was fitted with the latest in electronic innovations and was plugged into his own amp, a modern channel-switching hybrid. You could, with the push of a button, instantly get one of a half-dozen sounds…non of which were usable. I asked Sam what the rotary switch on his guitar did, and when he couldn’t come up with a coherent answer, I thought I should ask the ultimate question. “Sam” I asked, “what sound are you looking for on this song?” He answered that he was going for a vintage fat Stratocaster rhythm tone. I told Sam to take thirty minutes, and I would see if I could help out.

While Sam took a break, I put a set of .013 through .056 nickel-wound strings on my own Strat (in a future blog, I’ll discuss how to get a guitar to stay in tune with a quick string change) and aimed a Shure SM57 into the speaker cone of a beat-up tweed deluxe that lived in the studio. I put the pick-up selector on the neck position and taped it, turned all the knobs on the amp to five, and called Sam into the room.

Sam stepped up to the plate, took a few swings and told me that this was the sound that he had been looking for all week. I guess I must be some sort of magician. Let’s see. Sam wanted a sound that was, in the early 60s, the only rhythm sound available to most guitarists, a fender guitar, strung with what was standard at that time, played through a fender amp with the simplest mic in the studio hanging in front of it. No magic here. I would have had a much harder time trying to figure out how to make something sound as cheesy as his high-tech rig. The engineer opened the mic, brought up the fader, said “fuck yeah” and rolled tape.

You see, an engineer is only as good as what he has to work with. There are not enough knobs, effects, bells or whistles in the studio to make a crap rig, or a crap player sound good. A good engineer will take the time to actually listen to the amp and use his ear to find that spot where the mic will hear the amp best. But if the sound is not there to begin with, there is no way it will get to tape.

Now some players will think that I’m nuts to put set of .013s on a vintage Strat. They’ll talk about issues like tension and neck adjustments, but what they are really concerned with is playability. BABIES! The fact is that old guitar records sound big and fat because old guitars came with big, fat strings on them. You can’t baby a guitar. If the neck can’t take a healthy set of strings, then what makes you think that it will sound worth a damn with slinkys? Yeah, sure, I would string a guitar with lighter strings for playability purposes. But man, if you’ve never chunked out some power chords on a Les Paul with .013s through a nice simple Marshall or strummed full, open chords on an ES345 through an AC30…well, you should try it and see if playability is really such a big issue.

It’s all about the sound. And a great sound is worth a few callouses. So my advise for the day is, keep it simple, don’t be a crybaby and TURN IT UP!

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