Simulating a String Section
One reason string sections sound so rich is that when several musicians
play the same line—as they do in an orchestra—subtle differences
in intonation, timing, and bowing thicken and enhance the
sound. And, of course, each instrument produces unique overtones
and timbres that enrich the music.
Adding a baritone guitar to your collection lets you extend your
6-string orchestra into the cello register. Baritones have longer
string-scale lengths, which allows them to be tuned a fourth (B-B) or
fifth (A-A) below standard. Sonically, this places them right between
guitar and bass. Designed by Joe Veillette, the acoustic in this
baritone trio is a 27 3/4"-scale Alvarez Avante equipped with an L.R.
Baggs M1 Active soundhole pickup. Next to it is a 28 1/2"-scale
Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom hot-rodded with Duncan SJAG-1
pickups and a 16-position ToneStyler control. Other than its bone
nut, the 28"-scale Gibson Les Paul Studio baritone is stock. Each
guitar sports a set of Ernie Ball 6-String Baritone Slinky nickelwound
strings, gauged .013-.072. Photo by Andy Ellis
In the studio, you can easily emulate this effect with your guitar
by tracking an important line several times. Even if you play the
line with the same guitar and amp and try to match the performance
perfectly, you’ll have small variations in timing and intonation—
just like an orchestra. Panning these lines identically increases
the blending effect. Alternatively, the further apart you pan them,
the more distinct each line becomes. Naturally, using different guitars,
amps, and effects each time you re-track a line adds even more
overtones and timbral thickening.
But you don’t need a roomful of guitars to generate ear-grabbing
overtones. Used creatively, a humble capo can be a powerful tool.
Essentially, you can use it to dramatically change your guitar’s scale
length and natural resonance.
For example, first play through a chord progression in the lowest
positions, using open strings whenever possible. This gives you
the rich, full sound of long, vibrating strings. Record this, and then
clamp a capo in the middle of the neck—between the 3rd and 7th
frets, depending on the key—and work out the progression in this
new position. As you navigate the changes, the strings will be shorter
and sound tighter and brighter, and the chord fingerings and
voicings will be different. If you include open strings, they’ll fall in
different places than in the original track. Using a lighter pick on
this capoed part will brighten the sound even more. Two tracks of
chords may be enough, but for an even bigger sound you can place
the capo around the 10th or 12th frets and work out yet a third
variation of the changes.
Using this capo trick, you’ll have many unison notes played on
different strings. Though the pitches will be the same, these notes
will have different timbral qualities, thanks to the variations in string
gauge and length. And when you layer guitar parts using a capo the
way we’re discussing, you’ll also be introducing some chord tones an
octave (or two) higher, which adds sparkle to the ensemble sound.
High-Strung and Baritone Guitars
You can get a similar effect by playing a progression or line on a
high-strung guitar. To convert a standard guitar to a high-strung axe,
simply replace strings 6-4 with the E, A, D, and G octave strings
from a 12-string set. The B and high-E strings (2 and 1) remain the
same. This is also known as Nashville tuning. A high-strung guitar
adds the jangle of a 12-string without its burly bass and low mids.
But maybe you want more bottom end. Using a baritone
guitar—a long-scale 6-string that’s tuned a fourth or fifth below
standard guitar—you can often double a line an octave lower and
thus emphasize it the way a cello player might. But unlike a cello,
you can also play chords on a baritone, and this opens up a world
of harmonic possibilities in the lower registers.
Orchestrating with the Space Ace
When I worked with Ace Frehley on his last solo record, Anomaly,
he cut an instrumental song called “Fractured Quantum” that was a
continuation of the song “Fractured Mirror” from his first solo album.
It’s another good example of studio guitar orchestration. It begins with
a single guitar panned slightly left. It’s followed by a 12-string part
playing an identical line on the right. Then more layers are added as a
single electric melody starts to take shape. By the outro, eight or more
guitar parts can be heard weaving around each other. At the end, it
breaks back down to a fade-out on a single guitar.
While we were cutting many of these tracks with engineer Alex
Salzman, Ace would grab any number of guitars—from old Les
Pauls to Strats, Teles, and acoustics. He also used one of my high-strung
guitars, along with 6- and 12-string acoustics, and even a
doubleneck. Then we recorded different guitars through different
amps for a variety of tones. A lot of the electric parts were played
through a Vox AC15 right in the control room.
Although Ace had a clear direction in mind, he also spent a lot
of time experimenting up and down the neck to see which guitar
parts layered well with each other. The different tonal ranges of
each guitar, along with various amps, also helped create unique colors
in the song.
Make the Most of Multi-Tracking and Education
I’ve worked with several different teachers to develop orchestration
skills, and I still feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. It can be difficult
and challenging, but the time spent studying and learning has
truly helped my composition ability—and my guitar work. Now,
whenever I work in the studio on other people’s tracks or my own, I
think about how different layers could help me create interesting parts.
For example, I cut a piece on my last record that was simply
an experiment in guitar orchestration. (You can get away with this
when you don’t care about “moving units.”) I wanted to write a song
that layered various forms of acoustic guitar like a classical composer
would with strings sections, but I also wanted to include real strings.
I started with a line played on a high-strung guitar. Under that,
I played bass lines on a jumbo Guild F-50 acoustic. Together, they
sounded like one guitar. In the second verse, I played an old Fender
P bass (strung with flatwounds) to add deeper bass to the initial
tracks. In the bridge, I had the violins, viola, and cello (recorded
by David Henry in Nashville) play the melody around the guitars.
At this point, the guitars now included a doubled 12-string panned
hard left and right to make room for the strings—both sonically
and production-wise. I let the real strings take the solos (panned as
they would be on an orchestral stage), and then I mixed in layers
of high-strung, 6-string, and 12-string guitars, along with tempo-mapped
delays. Each guitar part and each guitar type was carefully
chosen to add specific tones and frequencies to the production.
Orchestration studies have also helped me with mixing and production
skills. To emulate the sectioned-off nature of instruments
in an orchestra, I break songs down into layers, such as lows, low
mids, mids, high mids, and highs. Each instrument gets placed on
the “stage,” or the stereo field. I separate the instruments and parts
using both EQ and panning, and I think about what listeners will
hear from a production point of view.
Here’s what I mean by thinking about it from a production
point of view: Put on a pair of headphones and listen to a few well-produced
pieces of your favorite music. Focus on the specific tones
and frequencies of each instrument and where it sits in the mix.
Listen to how the layers of sound are formed.
There’s a lot to learn by just listening to the production and
orchestration of great music. Take what you like, discard what you
don’t like, and then apply it to your own recordings. Use your
home studio to experiment with various techniques you hear being
used successfully by others. Also, consider taking time to study
basic orchestration principles with a teacher or on your own. It’s
worth the time and effort.