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The Complete Guide to Recording Electric Guitar

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One of the biggest fundamentals of getting great guitar tone is having a taste for great guitar tone. It would be hard to cook something in the French culinary style if you’ve never had French food. Yet, I see a lot of guitarists and engineers approach recording guitar this way.

At the heart of any great tone is great ears. Tools like microphones and amps can help sculpt your tone, but if you haven’t acquired a taste for fine tone, how will you know when you’ve arrived?

It’s not simply a matter of placing a mic in position and pressing record. Great guitar tone is often the culmination of many elements.

Listening to Music

You will need to develop some strong listening and associative skills. This can be an area where some musicians get defensive. Let’s just get it out of the way now. I’m not suggesting anyone sound like someone else. However, if you’re into a specific style, it’s good to know where it comes from. We all come from somewhere. Be ok with that. Embrace it and then expand upon it.

This happens all the time in cooking. Classic dishes are transformed into something more modern. Even though it has been transformed, there is a history there.

Explore the sounds you love. Recently, I’ve been going down a Cornell Dupree rabbit hole.

I’m not only listening to a lot of songs he played on, but I’m also researching how his guitar parts were recorded. This may be hard as one moves further back in time. Sometimes, we need to make guesstimates based on what studio they recorded at and the time period. This becomes especially difficult with tracking session musicians’ sounds, unless they recorded in the same studio all the time.

There are a few generalizations based on the time period. It’s unlikely in the late 60’s and early 70’s that more than one mic was used on an electric guitar amp. It’s also likely there is guitar bleed into other mics.

Capturing that sound is going to be a little tricky. Although there is no room mic, there is an illusion of the room mic on some recordings.

Sidechaining Room Reverb

To recreate this, you could sidechain a room reverb to the drums. As the drums hit, you hear less of the guitar room sound. As the drums are quiet, you hear more guitar room sound.

You don’t just have to do this with a room reverb like the UAD Ocean Way plugin. You could put a real room mic up in your studio and sidechain that mic. Guitar bleed tended to be the most prominent in the drum overheads in these recordings.

This method of recording with bleed (everyone in the same room) is quite different than how Metallica cut Master of Puppets. We’re not hearing guitar bleed in the drum mics.

The guitars on Master of Puppets are very clear and not washy. Flemming Rasmussen used three mics on each of James Hetfield’s Marshall cabs. These sessions were well documented. A little research on the web can get you a wealth of information on this classic record.

There are different game plans for different styles of music. Your approach has to be different based on the session and your musical preference.

Decoding Guitar Sounds

We also have to consider some of the other elements that make up a guitar sound. And there are a lot of variances in each of these configurations.

For instance, a lot of people think Andy Summers was using a chorus on a lot of Police songs. He was using a chorus at times via a Roland Jazz Chorus or later on with the CE-3. But earlier on he was using a Electro Harmonix Electric Mistress Flanger.

Yes, a flanger! Most people associate a flanger with Heart’s Barracuda or Unchained from Van Halen, but, it can create a chorus-like effect as well. Even though a flanger can have a chorus-like character, they aren’t exactly the same. They each have a slightly different personality and it’s worth experimenting to hear the differences. The Cure was another band that often created chorus effects using a flanger.

Are we splitting hairs? Maybe. But, it’s not fair to say it doesn’t matter. Your tone is the sum of all its parts. This is the mindset you have to get into. Yes, there are some broad strokes you will make. But in reality, it’s more about the culmination of smaller tweaks.

Changing Gear in Time

Often throughout an artist’s career, they change rigs. When researching an artist’s rig, be aware to investigate the correct time period.

This doesn’t just include guitar pedals, amps and effects. Make sure to research the recording chain as well. It’s worth noting that some of the Police’s biggest hits were recorded on an SSL console. That’s a very specific flavor and one that a vintage REDD pre isn’t going to give you.

Same goes with compressors. For a real 60’s flavor, I often turn to a Fairchild compressor. This has a period correct flavor that a DBX 160 doesn’t.

Guitar Amps on Sessions

Let’s talk The Beatles for a moment. Not only did their guitars change from their early records to their later records, but the amps did as well.

In the early 60’s they were known for their Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars paired with Vox amps. But as they entered into the Rubber Soul period, they started using other guitars like Fender Stratocasters and Gibson SG’s. By Let It Be, they were folding other amps into the mix as well. Silverface Twin Reverbs can be seen in view in the Let It Be film.

So saying something as broad as “The Beatles’ tone” can be a little confusing. Are we talking “Taxman” tone? “Something” tone? “I Saw Her Standing There” tone?

It’s going to require some good detective work to find the recipes to those tones. Some sounds have been more carefully documented. Others are still bit of a mystery.

David Gilmour’s tones have been very carefully documented. Gilmourish.com documents not only what gear David was using during a period of time, but they also have the settings. Word is that these came from the Floyd family and that his settings have been carefully documented for years. What a treasure.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll sound exactly like Gilmour. Yes, there is truth in the fact that fingers account for more of your tone than you would like.

Even with a site like Gilmourish.com that document his guitar choice, pedal settings and amp settings, they don’t provide all the recording specs.

Guitar Recording Technique

You could, in theory, get the same guitar, pedal and amp that Jimi Hendrix used on a particular song, but it won’t sound the same. This is because the ribbon mic that was used, its placement from the amp, the tube compressor and EQ applied at the board all color the tone.

You’re hearing all these elements combine to make a glorious sound. Running a vintage Strat into Marshall Plexi and putting a SM57 close on the cab into an SSL and compressing with a Distressor isn’t going to get you the same flavor.  It doesn’t mean it will sound bad, it will just be different.

I know it seems like I keep driving this point. However, it seems to be the thing that gets overlooked the most. Every element counts!

There is a whole world out there. You don’t need to learn everything about every album ever recorded. Start with a few of your favorite records. It’s not a race. Take some time to really digest the tones.

Decisions on Recording Guitar

When recording electric guitar, there appears to be a split in control over the development of guitar tone. In one corner, we have the guitarist. In the other, we have the recording engineer/producer.

I mention it this way because on some sessions it can feel like a spar between two personalities. In a lot of sessions, I’ve seen guitarists get territorial over their tone. I’ve also seen engineers use a “set it and forget it” approach, then jump on their iPhone.

As you could imagine, neither of these approaches are very helpful to the outcome which is to make great music. Both sides have to work in tandem for the best results.

You have to take care at every stage. A bull-headed attitude isn’t going to allow you easy access to your dream tone. A rushed approach just because you want to get to the playing isn’t going to capture the performance.

Which Guitar to Choose on a Session

When I’m searching for a great guitar tone, I find it’s important to start at the source. The very first element in our signal chain is the guitar.

Not all guitars sound the same. You may be trying to solve problems later that can’t be fixed simply because of your guitar choice.

Fender and Gibson guitars aren’t really interchangeable. They have very unique identities. You don’t want to pick one just because of the color or because it’s your newest addition.

Think hard about what each guitar brings to the table. What is its sonic DNA? I may choose a Gibson ES-335 for some sessions because of its ability to blend the volume of its two humbuckers. That’s something that I can’t do on a single-coil guitar.

Guitars are instruments. But they’re also tools. You wouldn’t pick a hammer to do a screwdriver’s job, would you? Well, there’s a chance I might. But I don’t know squat about fixing things around the apartment. Luckily, I do know about guitar tone.

Which Cable to Use on Guitar Recordings

There has been a lot of debate over the years over whether guitar cables influence the tone of your guitar or not. I’ve done experiments, and in my opinion they definitely have an influence over your tone. Length is the most obvious point to look at when deciphering the effect of cable on your tone. A 20 foot cable is going to sound different than a 10 foot cable even when using the same brand.

But it actually gets much deeper than that. I find that different brands of 10 foot cables have a very different sound. I’ve taken time to distinguish the cables that I find make the best impression on my tone. Some cables, you’ll notice, make your sound more bright or more dull.

One is not better than the other, it’s a matter of preference. But it is important to understand that these variances exist.

When I was younger, it was more of a gamble when I bought a cable. I didn’t understand the technical differences. I did notice that I liked the sound of some cables more than others.

Through research and experimentation, I’ve found cable brands that I prefer. Vovox makes some of my favorite cables — as does Asterope.

I know that at first glance some of you will be thrown off with the price of a great cable. There is a pushback from some that say there isn’t a difference. It’s fine if the difference doesn’t matter to some, but there definitely is a difference.

Unlike Monster cable, Asterope and Vovox are not overpriced or overrated. This seems like such a small detail to geek out over, right? I’ve been on sessions and gigs where a cable has literally made the difference.

Don’t neglect the cabling on your pedalboard either. Poor pedalboard cabling can suck the vibe right out of your tone in a major way. My favorite are Disaster Area Patch Cables.

Using a Pedalboard on Recording Sessions

One trend I’m seeing in new or younger guitar players is the reliance on using pedals for the base of their tone. I’m a big fan of pedals. It’s no secret if you follow me on Instagram. However, I tend to approach pedals as an accompaniment to my tone rather than the foundation of my tone.

You might be asking, what’s the difference? I’ve seen a lot of guitar players not even check the tone of the guitar amp before plugging in a pedalboard. I feel there is a fundamental flaw with this approach.

If we start to get our sound by immediately plugging in our pedalboard, we’re not taking any time to get to know how the amp is reacting.

The guitar amplifier is a crucial part in developing great tone. Before I even start playing with pedals, I will experiment with a couple different amplifiers and twiddle their knobs. Once I find the right amp, I’ll add pedals to compliment the tone.

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In the same way with guitars, I want to understand the variance in every amplifier I own. I want to have a clear vision in my head of what each amplifier may sound like or how it will pair with a specific guitar.

As an example, personally, I don’t love the way that high-watt blackface Fenders pair with Gibson guitars. My opinion can change on this depending on the volume I’m able to play the amp at. I don’t find a blackface Twin Reverb on low volume with a humbucker-equipped Gibson to be flattering. This is relative to the style of music I play.

This, of course, is a personal preference. But it’s a preference that I have noted for myself. So when I’m working on a session, I’m aware of what I think the drawbacks are of that specific type of amplifier.

Personally, I find a Gibson guitar with humbuckers to match well with British style amps. This includes the Vox and Marshall circuits. This is a pretty classic sound we’ve all heard millions of times. Part of the reason for that is they just go so well together.

For more on guitar tone, you might like my Anatomy of Guitar Tone series.

Microphone Selection

There are a lot of combinations that can work on guitar amps. Some of my personal favorites are the Shure SM57, AEA A840 Sennheiser 421, Neumann U67, and Sennheiser E906 to name just a few.

I have choices from three of the families of microphones: Dynamic, Condenser and Ribbon. Each family has distinguishing qualities. Not only does the character change but the pickup pattern as well. Some mics are very directional and others allow more sound in from either the back (Figure-8) or all around (Omni).

Most ribbon mics are a Figure-8 pickup pattern. I happen to love this pattern. But, if bleed from other instruments is an issue, a figure-8 or Omnidirectional mic won’t be your best choice.

There are a few standards of microphones that have been used consistently throughout years by many recording engineers. But, this doesn’t mean that this is where we should always focus our attention. It doesn’t mean this will be the right microphone for the job.

You’ll find a lot of engineers argue back-and-forth about whether a Shure SM57 is the best microphone for a guitar cab. It’s hard to say if it’s the best, because we don’t always know what the circumstances will be.

Since situations change all the time, it’s hard to have one choice that is going to be appropriate for every application.

There’s going to be a recurring theme here: the idea of always knowing the sound of each tool you’re using. This guitar matches well with that amp, that matches well with this microphone, that matches well with this mic pre. You’re going to see relationships between certain signal chains and you should take note of them.

I often tend to favor ribbon mics for guitar cabinets for their round and more open sound. But as one would expect, an open sound is not always the appropriate choice for a song.

A Shure SM57 is more aggressive and tighter sounding to my ears. A Condenser mic like a U87 will give you the most detail and clarity.

It can never hurt to have a couple different microphone options for a guitar cab. You may want to mix a couple of them together or you may need to swap one out.

When I was younger musician/engineer, it felt a lot more random when I made choices in the recording studio. I read a lot of articles but I didn’t really understand the relationship to the style of music and choice of gear.

What’s appropriate for a metal track is not going to be appropriate for a motown track. This is one distinction that isn’t made enough.

The further you go back in time, the further they placed the microphone away from the guitar cabinet. This led to more air in the tone. The sound wasn’t as in your face and direct. That’s the sort of question you have to ask yourself when you’re about to record a guitar track. How in your face is the sound supposed to be?

Are you looking for an aggressive sound? Are you looking for more of a distant sound with more air?

Close miking an amp and then applying a room verb isn’t going to give you the same effect as placing the microphone further away from the cab. Although, in a pinch you could use something like the Ocean Way plugin from UAD that will allow you to reamp your guitar in a room.

How Many Mics to Use on a Guitar Cabinet

I often think there’s a rush to set up more than one microphone on a guitar amp. Things can get blurry really fast with phase issues when you start adding too many elements (mics) into the mix. Before we set up a secondary microphone, it’s really important to make sure that your fundamental tone is in good shape. The second microphone is going to embellish the sound of the first microphone and help capture a more multi-dimensional perspective of the amplifier. However, it’s not going to magically change the amp from sounding bad to good.

Turning a bad tone into a good tone is often dependent on several elements collaborating together. It’s rarely one detail. Changing one detail would be fine-tuning a good guitar tone.

This is where you have to have a full perspective of your whole signal chain.

With that said, I often use a combination of two mics. I like a AEA A840 Ribbon and a Shure SM57 combo on close-mic sessions.

Mic Placement

There are a few things you have to know about amp speakers before you go sticking a mic in its face. Start out by knowing its full name. Ask about its interests, hopes and dreams. Speakers are sensitive, people!

Speakers are the brightest in the center. As you move further away from the cone, the sound mellows out. I will spend a lot of time moving the placement of the mics. Small movements can create great change. This is another reason to start with one mic before you start multiplying your madness. Don’t just move the mic away from the cone. Experiment with placing the mic off-axis.

When you land a great position it’s time to consider if adding another mic will compliment the tone. The ribbon/SM57 combo is quite nice. They are both voiced differently. What one lacks, the other adds.

Each time you add another mic, you have to worry about phase. The sound will reach each mic at a slightly different time. This time will vary depending on the distance each mic is placed from the speaker.

Several mics out of phase can actually sound smaller than one mic. Whether you’re setting up another close mic or adding a distant mic, take time to flip the phase switch and evaluate. Moving a second mic in small increments makes a big difference with phase.

Preamp Selection for Recording Electric Guitar

There are so many mic pres that work great with guitar amps. Over the years, I’ve developed a somewhat committed relationship with a few.

I love API preamps. They’re fabulous on guitar! They pretty much rule on anything. The guitars on Appetite for Destruction were recorded on an API desk.

Helios preamps and channel strips are like magic on guitar amps. You know this sound from recordings by The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to name a few.

One of my other not as well known favorite mic pres are the Pendulum MDP tube pre. Sounds so good!

These are the three I reach for constantly. That doesn’t mean Neve pres aren’t great. They’re amazing. I just personally don’t always bond with them on electric guitar. You have to find what works for your sound.

Recording to Tape

My favorite guitar tones have been recorded to tape. It massages the sound. Of course not everyone can afford a real tape machine. Maintaining a tape machine isn’t easy either. There is a reason people do it though. Fortunately, there are some good options for us these days.

I don’t record a guitar track without putting the UAD Studer A800 plugin on. It makes things sound right. By right, I mean familiar. I would encourage you to explore tape emulation plugins. There are several companies that make them now. One advantage of using the plugins is you can turn the noise off, which is something that’s hard to contain on some old tape machines.

Before I had tape plugins I always felt like something was missing from my guitar tone.

Guitar Pedals on Recording Sessions

One mistake a lot of guitarists make with using pedals is gain staging. First off, the actual level or amount of signal that you’re pushing into an amplifier influences your tone. We have to be aware when putting devices in our signal chain as they can change our gain staging.

One mistake I feel like a lot of guitar players make is sending too little signal to the amp from an overdrive or distortion pedal. This is partly due to the illusion that happens when you turn on a gain pedal. On first impression, it seems like your signal is louder than it was when it was clean. This is often not the the case because your signal is simply getting compressed more, rather than louder. If you looked at a meter, in most cases you would find your ears are playing tricks on you.

The amplifier reacts differently depending on the amount of signal it receives. Amps rarely sound better when you hit them with less signal from a pedal. In fact, I often boost a few dB going into my amp either with a boost pedal like the Hudson Electronics Broadcast, Xotic EP Boost or a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo.

One thing to remember about boosting the front-end of an amp: hitting an amp with too much signal can make it “spongy”, especially if it has a tube rectifier in it. This can be cool, but it can also remove definition from your sound.

The Performance

Gear won’t fix performance issues. A great player can make mediocre gear sound amazing. A poor player can make great gear sound bad. Great gear makes one’s job easier. Players and engineers often have to wrestle with cheap gear. It’s why we use nice gear. It’s more refined. It’s often more flexible. It’s never to compensate for bad technique.

People often will trace a musical influence’s gear choice only to plug in and play something completely unrelated and become unsatisfied. For instance, if you spend some time trying to get the recipe to Steve Cropper’s tone, but you play like Steve Vai, it’s not going to translate.

Tones are tied to playing technique. Of course, this is not an exclusive relationship. It’s just something to keep in mind.

When someone says they want a Jimmy Page vibe, they don’t just mean a Les Paul into a Tonebender MKII into a Marshall Plexi. They also mean a certain attitude and selection of chord voicing or playing methods. Again, when people ask for this they don’t often intend for you to copy. They want you to add a general flavor.

Finer Details of Recording Electric Guitar

In this article, I’ve covered some of the basic topics of recording guitar. There is definitely a lot left to discuss about the finer details of acquiring great guitar tone. We didn’t even have time to get into guitar picks and their tone.

In my new course, Recording and Producing Electric Guitar with Mark Marshall, I dig even deeper into the specifics of getting great guitar tone. You’ll get to hear examples of different microphone placement and techniques. I’ll break down various types of effects and their variations. You’ll see my signal chains, my choices on various sessions, and follow the guitar signal all the way from guitar to recording to mixing in various contexts.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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