By Nicholas Rubright
Getting your guitar tone just right while spending time in the studio is an important part of creating great recordings.
When recording acoustic guitars, most of the tone is going to come from the guitar itself, the microphone you chose, and the room you record in. You can find some great-sounding acoustic guitars for under $500 that can easily be used for recording. Pair one of these up with the right microphone and a recording space with great acoustics, and you’re good to go. [*Here are some quick tips on recording acoustic guitars if you need them!]
Electric guitars are a bit more complicated. There are more parts involved when recording this instrument, such as the amplifier, the speaker cabinet, and any effects pedals — all in addition to the guitar, itself. Because of this, we’re going to focus mainly on recording electric guitars for this article.
Here are five ways to shape your guitar tone in the studio.
1. Choose the right pickup.
A great guitar tone starts with a great guitar, and one of the biggest determining factors in how your electric guitar will sound is the pickup you’ve got in it. There are tons of different pickups on the market you can choose from, but let’s back up for a minute. Here are two common ways pickups are classified.
Active vs. Passive
Passive pickups are built by wrapping a magnet in multiple coils of copper wire, it’s the oldest form of guitar amplification. Active pickups still use copper coils like passive pickups, but fewer of them, since they incorporate a battery-powered preamp to boost the signal level.
Like everything in the guitar world, there’s a lot of debate about the differences between active and passive pickups and which are better. And like everything, it’s absolutely subjective. In my experience, passive pickups pick up more of the unique resonances and vibrations from the guitar, but active pickups tend to benefit the subtleties of the player’s actions on the string.
One of the most popular brands of active pickups is EMG. My band used these when we first tracked some of our guitar solos, but we found there were too many overtones and not enough of a body resonance sound in the tone. Because of this, we swapped out the EMGs for some passive Seymour Duncan pickups.
Single-Coil vs. Dual-Coil
All pickups have coils of wire wrapped around a magnet or magnets. Single-coil pickups have one set of these coils, while dual-coil pickups have two. Dual-coil pickups are typically known as humbuckers because they don’t pick up the hum noise that most single-coil pickups do, they “buck” it.
If you’re looking for a guitar tone that has a thin, bright sound, single coil might be the way to go. These pickups are used often for clean tones. However, if you’re playing a genre of music that requires lots of tonal output and distortion, dual-coil pickups are your best bet. Pickups determine what is sent into your pedals, amp, and cab, so the ones you choose are going to have a strong affect on your overall tone.
2. Optimize for pick attack.
Some guitarists want to hear minimal pick attack in their recordings, while others (myself included) want a lot — especially on guitar solos. Pick attack presence is a combination of pickup selection, pick type, picking location, the angle of the pick, and your amp settings.
To adjust your pick attack presence, try making the following adjustments.
- Adjust the treble: If you’re using your bridge pickup, most of the attack will be present in the treble frequencies. For more pick attack, turn up the treble. For less, turn it down. You can also add an overdrive pedal to your effects loop to increase pick attack presence.
- Use the pickup switch: The bridge pickup will have more treble frequencies than the neck pickup, so using the pickup switch on your guitar can help you find the best combination of the two.
- Change how and where you attack the strings: For more pick attack, try picking further away from the selected pickup with the pick at an angle. If you pick right over the pickup with the pick being almost flat against the string, this is where you’ll get the most attack from your playing.
- Try a different size or shape of pick: Thick, stiff picks with a sharp tip will have the most attack.
3. Decide to use real amps or amp simulators based on what works best for you.
With the advent of systems like the Kemper Profiler and Fractal Audio AX-8, many guitarists are making use of amp simulators instead of using the real thing. Even some of the most well known bands are using them live and in the studio.
There’s a ton of debate about whether they really do sound like the real thing. In my experience, amp simulators come extremely close, so much so that it does actually make sense to invest in one of these systems both for touring because of the convenience and ease of use. In the studio, though, where you’ll likely have several options available to you, it really comes down to taste and playability.
Some guitarists like the level of control and consistency you get with amp simulators, but a little bit of wild energy in the room from a live amp can go a long way in terms of inspiring a great performance. For example, out of a real amp, when I palm mute power chords, I can hear (and feel) a lot more low-end rumble on the initial attack. The decision to use amp simulators instead of a real amp is up to you. Try both, and see which one gives you the tone you’re happy with.
4. For a bigger sound, try bigger chords.
For most of the music I play, power chords usually do the trick. I make use of them almost exclusively when writing rhythm parts or exploring chord progression ideas because they’re simple, communicative, and easy to arrange around. Sometimes, though, you’ll want something that sounds a bit fuller and more epic.
Guitarists often jump to the conclusion that if you want a bigger sound, you need to add more layers. The downside of adding more layers to your guitar tracks, though, is that you lose some of the textures that make your tone so great. So, instead of layering, try using more complex harmonic chord shapes like open voicings and sevenths.
Here’s a quick tutorial on how to build seventh chords out of simple triads, courtesy of Soundfly’s acclaimed online course, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords.
When done correctly, and maybe with a little reverb, this can make any guitar part sound massive and emotionally complex.
5. Don’t copy — follow your ear.
Something a producer once told me is that too many inexperienced musicians attempt to copy the sound of their favorite artist.
I get that — creating something new is scary. You aren’t sure what people will think of it, and you’re worried it will be received negatively. There’s value in taking influence from your favorite musicians, but by copying them, you’re putting yourself in a position where if your music were to suddenly disappear, nobody would miss you as a guitarist because they can easily find your sound somewhere else.
So, just embrace what makes you unique as a guitar player. Follow your ear in the studio. If you have a preference for darker tones when playing the riffs or a solo you wrote, follow through on that. Experiment with your tone by trying pedals and amps that are unique to you, rather than using all the signature equipment of your favorite guitarists.
If you follow your own ear instead of the attempting to mimic the sound of your favorite guitarists, you’ll be on your way to creating a tone that’s unique to you that others are going to want to copy.
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Nicholas Rubright is the founder and editor at Dozmia and the lead guitarist for the band Days Gone By. He has a passion for playing the guitar, writing new songs, and creating awesome blog posts like this one.