How to Record Great Guitar Tracks for Beginners
The jangly guitars on Tom Petty’s Damn The Torpedoes, the bombastic ear searing riffs of Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin II, and the swagger and boozy mess of Keith Richards’ rhythm genius on Exile on Main Street. These are guitar tracks we all know and love. We appreciate how they fit the songs and the image of the music they inhabit.
Of course, as with any recording, the feel of those track relies heavily on the player; they might not be as memorable if they were played by anyone else, but I do want to share a few ways to improve your guitar tracking sessions, even if you’re not recording Keith Richards.
Grab a Guitar
It all begins with the player and the guitar. Getting your player setup and comfortable with their environment and headphone mix can help your takes get better from the start. After that, audition the guitar you’d like to try for the part. Too often, people track guitar parts for multiple songs with the same guitar. This can work, and while there aren’t any rules, it doesn’t hurt to try some new things to expand our sonic palettes.
Borrow a friend’s guitar if you only have one. Switch through your pickups, change strings, use dead strings, mess with the tone knobs. Sometimes a tone you might not like by itself is the tone that fits the mix the best. On the other hand, just because your guitar sounds huge doesn’t mean its going to make the mix sound huge.
Now that you have the guitar you want for the part, let’s start messing with the amplifier. If you have multiple amps, begin auditioning them with the guitar and trying different combos. Working with different volumes and EQ settings can really make your guitar tracks pop. Tracking one part with one setting and changing it up for other parts is how you really start to create a cool stereo image or tone blend. Borrow a friend’s amp for recording sessions too, to expand your sonic palette.
Remember: Jimmy Page recorded with really small wattage amps and got really big sounds by experimenting with mic placements. Size doesn’t always matter.
Obviously you can record guitars straight up with no effects at all. If you have a ridiculous amount of stompboxes like I do, you can experiment with different sounds. Try adding a bit of tremolo or slapback delay to really create some movement in your parts and make your guitar track sound more mixed.
If you've tracked a main riff and decided you want to double it, it can be really cool to change guitars and add a fuzz pedal for the double. Try different effects in different chain and combinations. Involve band members and producers, and really have fun with it. This is your chance to experiment before it goes to final mixing and mastering, so throw whatever you can think of at the wall, and see what sticks.
Mic it Up
Once you have the guitar, amp selection, and effects chain, it’s time to mic it all up. Close miking is the most common positioning used in guitar tracking. If I use a close miking technique on a track, I like to change up placement for other tracks to create space in the mix. Move your mic away from the cab and capture some room tone. This can be a great trick that not many producers do today, because it’s not the fastest or easiest way. Having one closeup mic guitar track and then doubling with a different tone, guitar, amp, and mic placement can really create a wide stereo image.
Sometimes right up against the grill, off-axis from the speaker, could be exactly what you’re looking for. Other times, it might be a room mic at waist height, 6 feet away in the middle of the room. Try different things to achieve different results and, again, just experiment to see what works for you.
With all the buzz about microphones and amps, the truth is, sometimes you just gotta plug a DI into a microphone preamp and crank it to get a really cool fuzz sound (DI guitar into two 1176 compressors is how Jimmy Page did the guitar tone for “Black Dog”).
You simply plug your guitar into a microphone preamp via the hi-z input, or use a DI to knock it down to Lo-Z, and plug the output into the input of your favorite mic preamp. Preferably the mic preamp should have a gain knob and a trim or output control, so you can crank the gain and adjust the output to get a dirtier sound and avoid blowing up your tape or clipping your interface. You can try different guitars and effects for wild tones, and even try different preamps!
You might think this sounds like it would take too long, but if you want good guitar tracks, this is all part of it. You might be able to use any amp with any guitar and mic combo and get a great sound, but 80% of the time, you’re trying to work within a dense mix and finding the right combinations and harmonious sounds and tones can take a dense sounding mix to a complete one.
Some of this might also seem like common sense to a more experienced recordist, but I can’t tell you how many times I have had amazing guitar players bring me stuff to mix, and all the guitar sounds are the same. I always ask them how they recorded it, and the answer is generally one technique, one amp, one guitar. Many of our favorite songs weren’t recorded that way; some were, sure, but not many of them. The fun — and challenging — thing about recording is that there aren’t any rules. Mix and match amps, guitars effects, and DI takes. Try everything, go down the rabbit hole of experimenting with guitar tones, and see what sticks. You might surprise yourself.