How to record electric guitars: 25 top tips
These days, there are more ways than ever to capture the sound of your electric guitar. John Pickford shares 25 top recording tips in our bluffer’s guide…
1) The basic sound
Electric guitars are capable of producing a multitude of different sounds, ranging from the purest cleans right through to saturated distortion and feedback. Many factors influence the final recorded sound; the type of guitar and amp, and any stompbox or rack-mounted effects used will shape the initial tone. The choice of microphone(s) and mic’ing techniques, too, along with any studio processing, will also contribute to the end result. Your playing style is also crucial; experiment by playing with fingers or a variety of plectrum gauges until you get the right attack. While most guitarists play with a pick, coins can also be used to produce interesting harmonic overtones – just ask Brian May or Billy Gibbons.
2) Choosing the guitar
While the combination of guitar, amp, effects and technique all play a crucial role in achieving the desired tone, it’s important to choose the right guitar for the job in the first place. There’s a reason why Stratocasters, Teles, Les Pauls and ES-335s have featured on so many classic recordings over the years; it’s because they are as reliable as they are versatile. That said, don’t be afraid to try guitars fitted with more esoteric pickups, such as Gold Foils, for a less generic sound. P-90s are another great studio weapon; less dense than humbuckers, they can provide plenty of rhythm raunch without crowding the mix.
3) Amplifier types
The amplifier you choose to use will have a huge impact on the sound. Valve amps are still king for most players, but they can often be impractical in home recording scenarios. Though we’d all love to mic up a cranked Marshall Plexi every time a classic-rock sound is required, these days software and hardware modelling is so good that the results are almost indistinguishable from the ‘real thing’ in a finished mix. Though pricey, the Kemper Profiling Amp and Fractal Audio Axe-Fx produce seriously realistic results, while almost as impressive are software solutions such as IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube and Guitar Rig from Native Instruments. If you are recording on a Mac or iPad using GarageBand, don’t discount the built-in amp and pedal simulations either.
4) Amplifier size
The size and power rating of the amp, as well as the size and type of the speakers within the cabinet, will have a significant impact on the recorded sound. Obviously, huge stacks will produce a very different sound from small combos. That said, many recording engineers have found that a small, low-powered amp cranked right up can sound more exciting than a big powerhouse. Even cheap transistor amps with tiny speakers can sound great in the right context. Don’t be precious and don’t rule anything out; it’s all about the end result!
Before deciding on how to go about mic’ing the amp, listen to the sound in the room. If the guitar is being recorded as part of a rhythm track in the same room as drums and other instruments, the only option may be to use a close-mic’ing technique, unless you don’t mind dealing with the other instruments bleeding into the guitar track. Recording guitars in isolation, as an overdub, presents more options for ambient room mic’ing. Experiment with mic positioning to achieve the right amount of room sound and the desired bass and treble response. Distance-mic’ing in a very live-sounding room can create an appealing slapback echo-type sound, while close mic’ing gives you absolute flexibility in the mix.
6) Basic mic’ing
For many engineers, a simple one-mic technique gives them all the recorded electric guitar sound they need. Dynamic types, such as the ubiquitous Shure SM57, are ideal for capturing loud sounds, as they can handle high SPLs. For a more accurate representation of the amplifier as the human ear hears it in the room, a condenser or ribbon mic can be employed, although care must be taken not to damage the mic with very loud signals. Pointing the mic at the centre of the speaker cone produces the brightest sound, with the sound becoming increasingly warm the further off-centre it’s placed. It’s common to position the mic quite close to the speaker grille, unless a degree of room sound is desired. A good starting point is to place the mic just off-centre, at a distance of between two and six inches.
Additional mics can be used to capture different tones from the amp and/or some ambient room sound. When recording open-backed cabinets, great results can be obtained by using a second mic at the rear of the cab. When this technique is employed, it’s wise to invert the phase on one of the channels. To create a sound that’s larger than life, try recording a part with close and distant mics and pan the two channels, then repeat the process, panning the channels in the opposite direction. Two close mics pointing at different parts of the speaker – one dead-centre and the other towards the far edge – will pick up the full range of the speaker’s tone.
Another way of creating a huge sound is to split the signal from the guitar – most easily achieved via a stompbox with stereo outputs – and send it to two or more amps. All sorts of combinations of sound can be achieved, especially when panning techniques are employed. Of course, each amp can also be multi-mic’d if desired, and some truly three-dimensional results can be obtained. Different effects can be applied to the various amps, while using combinations of clean and dirty amp sounds can be really effective for delivering overdrive with definition, or grit and sparkle simultaneously.
9.) DI boxes
Traditionally, the vast majority of professional engineers prefer to record electric guitars through a mic’d up amplifier, rather than use a DI (direct injection) box, even though specialist guitar DI units are readily available. That said, there are many pracitcal reasons to split the signal from the guitar and use a DI box in conjunction with an amp. If you find out later that the recorded amp sound doesn’t work in the mix, or you wish you hadn’t committed a particular effect ‘to tape’, the pure guitar sound can be re-amped and subsequently reprocessed without the need to discard a great take. You can route the DI’d signal through a modelling plug-in and blend that with the mic’d amp sound, too.
10) Amp positioning
Small amps can benefit from being placed on a stand, rather than the floor, as reflections from the floor can muddy the sound. A stool or something similar will do if a stand isn’t available. For the same reason, when using larger stacks or combos with several speakers, try mic’ing one that’s furthest from the floor. Placing an amp against a wall will increase the bottom-end response, and placing it in a corner will emphasise the low end further still. A mellow tone can be achieved by pointing the amp into the corner and mic’ing from behind.
11) Player positioning
In many studios, the guitarist can play in the control room while the amp is mic’d up in the live room. It feels less natural at first, but this way, you can more accurately monitor how your guitar sits in the mix through the studio monitors while you track. Some players prefer to be in the same room as their amp for reasons of feel and response, but if you are using a hollowbody or pickups that are succeptible to microphony, separating the guitar and amp can help. Of course, if feedback is desirable, you are better off in the room with the amp.
12) String mic’ing
Setting up a mic to record the natural acoustic sound of the guitar strings can add percussive character when blended with the amp sound, especially if you are capturing old-school archtop sounds. For best results, the guitar needs to be isolated from the amp to prevent excessive bleed. This technique gives a good front-end attack to the sound and plenty of definition. A small condenser is the best mic for the job, and it’s worth using a high-pass filter as well.
Before recording commences, make sure that all of your equipment is in good shape and not producing crackles, hums and buzzes. If you are having problems, they can often be dealt with by using noise-filtering units such as gates and expanders. These are best used before post-recording effects – compression and reverb, for example – are applied, as a compressor will emphasise noise, while a gate might chop off the natural tail of the reverb.
14) Strings and cables
Just as it’s important that the guitar, amp and effects are performing to spec, make sure that all cables are functioning properly (it’s uncanny how many times a lead that was working fine yesterday suddenly develops a fault just before a take). It’s a good idea to ensure that spares are available. That goes for strings, too – valuable recording time can be lost just because a string has broken and no one has a spare. Some engineers will try to insist you use brand new strings when recording, but don’t be bullied into it if you prefer the warmer sound of a played-in set; that applies especially to bass, as new bass strings can introduce undesirable harmonic content into the sound.
15) Pickup position
Many guitarists with instruments that have more than one pickup spend most of their time on the bridge unit. Using a variety of pickup positions when recording will thin or fatten the sound as required, but also help free up space when it comes to the mixing stage. Think of a recorded mix as a layer cake; too much density in one frequency range will cause a headache for the mixing engineer.
16) Go active
Active pickups feature a preamp to boost the signal before it’s sent to the guitar amp, and therefore require power – usually from a nine-volt battery. The benefits of using active pickups are that they have a much higher output than passive types, and better noise-rejection than humbuckers.
17) Guitar EQ
Although electric guitar sounds vary dramatically, they are all essentially midrange instruments with little or no extreme high- and low-end information. With the tone controls on the amp and the guitar itself, recorded electric guitar sounds often need little in the way of EQ if the desired tone was produced at the recording stage. However, if the sound needs a bit more bite, try boosting the upper mids somewhere between 2.5 and 5kHz. For added warmth, a little boost around the 250Hz range should thicken the sound, while muddiness is often dealt with by cutting a few dBs at around the 200Hz mark.
A very useful way of creating space for guitars in the final mix is to use tunable high-pass and low-pass filters to remove extreme frequencies that do nothing to enhance the guitar tone, but invade the space of other instruments that do perform in those areas. Generally speaking, it’s worth losing everything below 80Hz, although it’s not unusual to set the filter a good degree higher. Shaving off some high end may also be useful to help place the guitar in a specific area of the audio spectrum. Filter at the mixing stage, as the sound of the recording will often determine the optimum filtering points.
19) Multi-tracking guitars
Many recordings feature multiple guitar tracks playing simultaneously, but sometimes this can clutter up the mix. Another approach is to make each part sound distinctive by using different combinations of guitars, amps and effects. Panning the guitars to various areas of the stereo spectrum will create space for each part, while subtle use of ambient effects can create a sense of depth. EQ can be used to help guitars blend together. Try cutting certain frequencies from one guitar track and boosting those same frequencies in another.
Compressors are often applied to electric guitar tracks to bring out the guitar’s natural sustain, as well as even out the overall dynamic range. Lead guitar parts usually benefit from a degree of compression treatment, while heavily overdriven rhythm parts often require very little or none at all, as the distortion naturally provides its own type of dynamic control. In the case of unnatural sounds, such as electric guitar, compression becomes a highly subjective topic, so experimentation is key to achieving the desired effect. As a starting point, therefore, try medium-fast attack and release times – an extremely fast attack time will blunt the transient response of the note. Remember that electric guitars can be inherently noisy and compression will generally exaggerate any hums and buzzes.
21) Double tracking
To create a thicker rhythm guitar sound, overdub the same part one or more times. Depending on the desired effect, the overdub can be treated as one mono signal and mixed to the same stereo position, or panned left and right for a stereo double-tracked sound. Alternatively, treat the original track with an ADT (Artificial Double Tracking) effect. This can be done with a digital delay set to around 40 milliseconds. Again, the delayed signal can be panned or mixed as one with the original guitar track.
22) Stereo guitars
Aside from the stereo effect of doubling up the same part and panning it to opposite ends of the stereo spectrum, some guitarists use stereo rigs in conjunction with stereo effects. Traditionally, this involves using two amp cabinets, although single cabs that operate in stereo are available. To achieve a good, even stereo image, it’s best to mic each cab identically, ideally with the same type of mic. Invert the polarity of one of the channels to avoid any out-of-phase issues, and pan them hard left and right. Stereo effects such as reverb, delay and room ambience, can be added to mono guitar signals at the mixing stage.
23) Electro-acoustic guitars
Acoustic guitars that have been fitted with a pickup can be recorded using the same techniques as standard electric guitars when plugged into an amp. Interesting sounds can be created by mic’ing up an acoustic guitar and sending the sound through an amp. This can be done live – although you should be aware of feedback – or a previously recorded acoustic track can be re-amped and used exclusively, or mixed with the original acoustic track. You can get some really gnarly and original ‘electric’ sounds with creative use of overdriven acoustic guitar; it’s especially good for slide playing.
On entering a studio, some guitarists ask if they should leave off the effects they normally use and add them in later. Of course, this can be done; however, if the effects are integral to the desired sound and you are ‘playing’ the effect as much as you are the instrument – fuzzboxes, heavy spring reverb, long delays and so on – it might be difficult to create the right feel during the take without them. If there is uncertainty as to whether the effects are spot-on, split the signal to retain the option of reworking the sound during the mixing process.
25) Isolation and ISO boxes
Separation and spillage are always at the forefront of a recording engineer’s mind, although some more old-school producers are happy to ‘let it bleed’. Electric guitars, basses and drums are loud instruments that can bleed into each other’s mics when played in the same room.
Not everyone has the luxury of drum booths and separate rooms, but isolation boxes are great for isolating guitars during a rhythm track recording. They are also ideal for home recording, allowing a good volume level without disturbing neighbours. Isolation boxes are commercially available, but can be expensive; try making your own from wood and foam.