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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.
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.