How to Record Electric Guitar, Part 1

Stratocaster guitarThere are several schools of thought on the best way to record electric guitars and each one has good and bad aspects to it. Well, not really. Some are totally awesome, some methods suck big time, while others are somewhere in the middle.

To some extent, the style of music you’re recording, and the space you’re recording in, will influence how you choose to capture the guitar sound. But regardless, there are a few key things you have to get right. Here’s my take on the first 3:

 

The Guitar

This may sound obvious, but a crappy guitar (or a guitar that’s not set up well) is probably going to sound crappy. What do I mean by “crappy”? Well, let’s see.

Intonation is a big issue. Use a tuner. I have my tuner plugged into the signal chain at all times so i can always check, between takes or even during a song. Your intonation absolutely MUST be spot on.

Make sure you put on new strings, and stretch them out for awhile before you record so they don’t go out of tune.

Next, make sure the neck (truss rod) is properly adjusted and the bridge saddles are set to provide accurate pitch all the way up the neck. If you don’t know how to do this yourself, then take it to a Luthier (guitar tech dude) and have him or her set it up for you. It makes a huge difference and YES, it’s that important.

Tone is another issue. I don’t mean the tone from the guitar amp or the FX pedals & stomp boxes. I don’t mean the tone after it’s been processed, EQ’d, mixed, and mastered. I mean the dry, unadulterated tone directly from the guitar.  It’s usually solved with some new strings and adjusting the volume & tone controls on the guitar. If the guitar sounds kind of dull and frumpy, put on some new strings, dude! I buy mine a dozen sets at a time from StringThis.com

FYI, I don’t have any kind of relationship with StringThis and I don’t get paid if you buy from them.  They just kick ass and I love their stuff.

Once the guitar itself is all set to go, with new strings and great intonation and tone, then (assuming you’re not recording direct) it’s time to set up the…

The Guitar Amp

There’s a classic setup for rock, pop-rock, alt and similar stuff that has an edge to it.  In this case, you can’t really go wrong with an all-tube, open-backed guitar amp with 12 inch speakers. The Fender Twin Reverb amp, Mesa-Boogie Mark III or IV, or any of several Marshals, the JCM-900 being the classic.

I stumbled upon the Carvin Belle Aire and it sounds incredible. (50 watts, all tube, 2-12″ speakers, open back tweed cabinet). Don’t be afraid to try some off-brands to see how they sound. You can save some money that way and, really, the only thing that matters is how it sounds.

The thing to do with the guitar amp is similar to what you just finished with the guitar. Make sure everything works flawlessly. Is it noisy? Is there a hum, or crackling or other crap going on?  Hum can be caused by ground loops, by a bad cable, by worn-out tubes, by lighting circuits with dimmers on them and assorted other gremlins.  If you’ve got ANY of that stuff going on, track it down and fix it now.

yes, fix it now. REALLY.

And, no, you probably can’t “fix it in the mix.

Stomp Boxes and Effects Pedals

Here’s where a lot of folks get into trouble. Stomp boxes, wah pedals, volume pedals and the like, take a lot of abuse in a typical band. It’s not uncommon for cables to get yanked, jacks bent, dirt or spilled beer to get in where it doesn’t belong. That pedal board that spends most of it’s life in clubs, festivals and live shows probably needs a little tune-up before you take it into the studio. Maybe a big tune up. And even if you’re not gigging regularly, it’s still a good idea to go through your effects thoroughly before hitting “record.”

Clean it up. Vacuum out any dust or dirt that have found a home and wipe everything down with a damp cloth. Test all the knobs and, if needed, hit them with some contact cleaner so they operate smoothly and silently.

Once that’s done, check all your cables, including the power cables, for any that look damaged or crimped or frayed. You don’t want that perfect guitar take to be ruined by a cable crapping out at the wrong time. I still sometimes solder cables to fix them if they’re otherwise in good shape but “when in doubt, toss it out!”

Now is also the time to fix any weird hums or other noises. 9 times out of 10, a hum in your pedal board or stomp box setup is caused by a ground loop. One of those little 3-prong to 2-prong power adapters (about 89 cents) will often fix it.

If it seems like I’m spending too much time “Getting ready to record” and not enough time actually recording, it’s only because I know now important it is to be able to 100%, without fail, bank on it, abso-freakin-lutely know that your gear will not let you down.

Now that all the prep stuff is out of the way, we can get into the actual topic of this post: How to Record Electric Guitar and capture that potential awesomeness you’ve just created. In <Part 2>, we’ll do just that!

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