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

Award-winning producer Dann Huff shares his studio tips

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Click here to read Part 1: On Keith Urban and Being a Producer
Last week, Premier Guitar spoke with Dann Huff about making records on Music Row, cultivating relationships with the artists he works with, and how he applies the latest technology to these projects. This week the award-winning producer, legendary session player and former lead guitarist for 1980s rock band Giant discusses the craft of recording guitars, offers tips for studio preparation, gives insight about the new generation of players, and shares some experience-based advice for professional musicians.

In the studio with Dann Huff: Let’s start with some tips for harmonizing guitar lines with vocals.

The biggest tip is you have to listen and digest the main melody of the song you’re recording. All other melodies need to be subservient to that. There is no way to give more definition. The key thing is that the more you know a song, the more you know what you’re playing to, the more what you play will be effective. The biggest mistake is when they want to hear themselves. That’s where you run into problems. People ask how to become an effective studio guitar player. I don’t know if it can be taught. There’s so much intuitive talent. The pertinent point is melody. Accompany and accentuate the main melody. How do you do it? It plays as big a part because they all have to accentuate and make certain moments of tension and release to the main melody, but you can’t dissect it from the rhythm. The most important word to music is relationship: sound, rhythm, melody, everything is in the relationship. Does it make that song more poignant and emotional? Then get into the nuance and texture and content of the vocal. Sometimes the melody you play—or don’t play—decides it. It’s all relationship-based. There’s a lot of vague area here. Listen to great songs and how they were articulated.

For the iTunes generation, the instant access is unbelievable, but it goes hand in hand with irreverence, too. When we purchased music years ago there was reverence for the whole thing. Now the technology is unbelievable. I love buying music online and hearing things when I want to hear them, but it also devalues it. One of the largest obstacles for the next generation is finding that reverence for music and gear. When a kid had one amp and one guitar, the upkeep and maintenance created reverence. Now, with 30 virtual amps in my computer, how reverent can I be? You’ve got to find it somewhere. That’s the Holy Grail, because if there is no reverence, you’re not making effective music. It’s different for everybody, but you’ve got to have that point where you hold that up or you’ll just be making a lot of noise. In other words, there is no answer!

It’s exciting and daunting looking over the cliff, looking out into the ether land of possibilities. This is a different time in history; we’re so narcissistic to think we’re the only ones it happened to. There have been real advancements in music, certainly from the guitar standpoint. When we get over the newness and clutter of possibilities, people will get down and do stuff. Pay homage to the past, but trying to be anything other than who you are is pointless. Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest, but he’s already been. You have to be different. Copy until you have enough in your repertoire, and then say it differently.

Bassists and drummers always talk about being "in the pocket." Where does the guitarist fit into that equation?

Exactly the same way. The 13-year-old guitar player who plays with my son is unbelievable. He’s got chops and repertoire, solos and licks, more than I had at that age. I told him, “If you want to work as a guitar player, rhythm is key. That’s where the work is.” The solo is the icing, but the rhythm—when you play as a guitarist in a rhythm section, you can destroy a great drummer and bass player if you don’t understand where the pocket is. Again, everything is relationship. Where do the bass and drums put the downbeat and backbeat? If it’s syncopated rhythm, where lies the relationship? What is the drummer doing on the hi-hat? It’s not just the notion of being tight. If you look at a computer and see all the bass, snare, tom and hi-hat hits, it doesn’t necessarily make it the right groove. We live in a world of a grid and cutting and pasting. That’s not groove. Groove lies outside of that. Twelve notes can be mediocre or great. The same with groove. It’s technical and physical but also emotional, and some of the greatest grooves are not tight. It’s being able to differentiate between the two.

For example, I like playing ever so slightly behind the drums to hear the initial attack of the kick or snare milliseconds before I hear the pick strike. It also makes the drums sound bigger. If you’re on top of one another, it diminishes their sound. I prefer to hear the drums in advance of the guitar or bass. When I started, it was a feel thing. There was no Pro Tools; I couldn’t “see” the music and the science of the groove. Having said that, I’m such an admirer of Eddie Van Halen; he’s one of the greatest rock rhythm guitar players of all time and he didn’t play behind the drums, so it shows different possibilities that exist. He played a little ahead, but he led the way with that band and it was devastatingly effective. Some Memphis players are so far behind the beat you’d think they were asleep. Everybody wants to know, but there is no answer. People show us the way, we hear and feel it, and if you limit yourself to that as right and wrong, you miss the point. The point is that it can happen any way you think. It comes down to, "Does something move you?"

Let’s talk about tracking a two-guitar band.

It’s listening and composition, finding sounds that are like a hand in a glove that work well within the composition. It’s rhythmically learning to listen to the other guys, and making sure you’re not sitting in the exact same EQ placement of sound or canceling each other out. Some bands all have the same amps and it’s difficult to sound individual. I like one guy with a P-90 single coil and one guy with a humbucker doing different things rhythmically and always listening to one another. Everyone wants to be the loudest, so sometimes it’s talking one guitar player into understanding that it’s okay to have the smaller sound, and that sometimes it’s really smart to be that guy.

What prep work should guitarists do before the sessions begin?

Hopefully, their gear is in good working order. That’s a real elementary step, but having intonated guitars is a good place to start. Amps and cables that work. A good tuner. Always check your tuning. I’ve devoted years of my life to tuning. It sounds like Elementary Guitar 101, but show up early! Know the songs. Have an idea or at least a starting point. Get to know your engineer. Be a part of getting the sound. Be involved. I’ve been in situations where guys come in and … please, make sure your guitar is in tune and the tubes aren’t rattling.

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.