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Interview: Dann Huff, part 2: On Studio Preparedness and Recording Tips

What do you do when a session simply isn’t happening?

I have never been in too many situations where I did not find redeeming qualities. Don’t panic. If you panic, everyone panics. Some days, the sad thing is that not everything you play is worthy. The smartest thing is to not be afraid to say, “This sucks,” and then come back. If you have no budget, decide what is salvageable. When you’re tracking bass and drums, it involves mic'ing and the room. That’s the toughest thing. Guitar you can get later. What’s the priority? Is that guy in town for one day? Figure out what you can’t do without, and do that. If you can’t get this studio tomorrow, make sure you get the drums. Then live to find another day, your home studio, your laptop.

Do you ever miss the stage or being in a band? Do you ever play on your sessions?

If it’s necessary on a session, I’ll play. I miss the stage, but I’ve got enough music every day and I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I’m a father with teenagers at home, so I made that choice. I came from the studio and I’m doing what I was born to do. I loved traveling, and playing was exciting, but I hated the 23 hours between shows.

Are guitarists as willing to stick to their guns today in terms of originality?

The newer young musicians tend to be very much individual. Sometimes I miss a great instrumentalist if he’s not playing in a great band. The importance for every musician is to be in a musical setting that accentuates what you’re doing. If you’re in a mediocre band, and the band makes music that does not make people want to show up and hear you play, you’re in the wrong band. It has to be effective.

Do they tend to paint themselves into stylistic corners?

I don’t know. I couldn’t say. I’m sure the answer could be yes. It depends on who it is. I have a hard time being too critical. I’m hitting that age where I tend to say, “The music we used to …” Music is for everybody, and what I like is not necessarily relevant to a 19-year-old coming into the scene. I hate to define their music by mine and vice versa. It’s an ongoing thing. History is essential. It’s not essential to be able to play the solo to “Stairway To Heaven,” but it’s essential to have heard it and know it. Music is not static. It reflects the past but it should go forward. Express yourself based on where you are. There will be overlap, but I see some of these people marketed as young, brilliant guitar players and they get touted as “the new Hendrix.” I see a kid with a Strat playing Hendrix’ style and I think, Why are you doing that? I know it’s fun, but it’s not the music of your day and age. I don’t feel the need to understand anything new. I just want to enjoy and learn from it, not quantify it by what was hip when I was 20.

Several years ago, a producer by the name of Dann Huff told me in an interview, “It's not about a piece of gear, or everybody would have a good sound.” Agree, disagree, expand upon.

First of all, that was somebody brilliant! The easiest way to do it is to look at a piano. Five people play it, it’s immovable and it sounds different every time. The guitar more so because it bends more—I mean the piece of wood itself, exponentially. It seems to be true today like it was when I said it, but I would add this: Unless it’s so distorted that it’s not a tone anymore, although some players can do that great. It still comes down to expression. Younger musicians don’t have the baggage and don’t know what they should or shouldn’t do, and it’s a great line for communicating. It’s knowing but not knowing. That quote is a good thing to know. For younger guitarists there is no one thing, no one sound, no one guitar. Your guitar may be a Tele, the next guy in the room is an SG player. It comes down to this: What do you really want to say? Do you have something to say? If not, you need to listen more.

Is there one guitar session horror story you would like to share?

This is actually something that happened to me. I was a session player and I knew my setup, the racks, and what sounded good. It was a basic session. I knew the sweet spot on the speaker, and this engineer insisted on using $5000 mics on a cone and three feet off the speaker, which in my estimation was the most heinous place, sound-wise, to mic these speakers. I listened in the headphones. It was piercing, horrible, and there was nothing I could do. So I found where my speakers were and I moved the mics accordingly. He got really nasty with me: “You’re the guitar player! You do your job and I do my job!” I tried to explain that my job is making sure the guitar sounds good, and he saw it as an aggressive move against him. I wanted to be gone so fast, because if there’s a horrible sound, I’m not going to play well. It was hopeless. That was 15 years ago and I still remember that day.

If you play on music you hate, if you’re a pro, you do it, even if it’s a horrible song. The key closing shot: If someone is paying you to do it, try to be a pro. It’s not about you. They’re paying you, and the most honorable thing you can do is carry the job out and keep your opinions to yourself unless you are asked. Musicians often think that they are above the law. In older times musicians were court jesters. Think about that and put your self-importance into perspective. Don’t think of yourself as lesser than, but also don’t think of yourself as more.
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