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The Recording Guitarist: Are You Playing for the Song—or for Your Butt?

The Recording Guitarist: Are You Playing for the Song—or for Your Butt?

Try putting some distance between you and your amp—physically, sonically, and conceptually.

If I had a nickel for every guitarist I’ve interviewed who uttered some variation of the words “I play for the song, not my ego,” I’d have … well, somewhere between 15 and 20 dollars. Some of those players are lying. Some interpret that as “I won’t necessarily storm out of the studio if they don’t ask me to play a 32nd-note shred solo on an acoustic ballad.” And many are 100 percent sincere! But just because we want to play for the song doesn’t mean we do—or even can.

We guitarists hold some great advantages over other instrumentalists. Unlike most band and orchestral players, we can perform complete-sounding arrangements entirely on our own. We’re also largely unburdened by centuries of pedagogy decreeing the “correct” way to play. We’re freer to fly by the seats of our pants and just make shit up. That’s generally a plus—what other instrument boast such a wealth of styles, or so readily invites new ones?

Class dunces. Still, the ways we learn and practice can make us dunces when it comes to recording. One remedy (or at least a worthwhile thought experiment) is to distance ourselves from our amps—physically, sonically, and conceptually.

Now, when I say “dunce,” I don’t refer to theoretical stuff, like the way most guitarists suck at music reading. But compared to other instrumentalists, we usually have less experience playing within ensembles. (This also contributes to our reputation for having poor senses of rhythm.) Putting in hours with a good band makes us better at aligning our performances with other players’ parts, but doesn’t necessarily help us objectively perceive our contributions within the larger sonic picture.

Consider how most of us practice: with loud amps aimed at our butts. Yeah, it’s fun, but it can cultivate a warped sense of how parts should sound in context. Over time, that butt-thumping sensation becomes synonymous with “good tone.” Hearing ourselves from any other source—studio monitors, say, or the crappy little computer speakers and ear buds used by most of today’s music consumers—feels wimpy in comparison. That can make us play too loudly, mix ourselves too prominently, and monitor ourselves so deafeningly while recording that we can’t hear ourselves within the production.

Keep your distance. It may help to get in the habit of evaluating your performances as they emanate from monitors, not from your amp. A few techniques worth trying:

· When tracking in a studio with a control room, try playing from behind the desk, not from the floor. (This also provides a huge psychological advantage: hearing the comments and reading the body language of the folks who will decide whether to keep or flush your part.)

· If tracking while wearing headphones, experiment with turning your performance way down. You may be surprised by how little level you truly need to play well. (In some cases, hearing yourself quieter than usual can make you dig in harder for a more intense performance.) Try focusing on anything but your part. For example, if you’re playing to a good drummer, try monitoring her hi-hat louder than your guitar. (And that goes double for acoustic guitar tracks.)

Years of practicing next to amps makes us crave loud, fat sounds, but “quiet and skinny” often works better within an arrangement.

· Listen analytically to your favorite recordings—not for the tasty licks, but the amount of space each part occupies, both over time and within the frequency spectrum. How continuous is each part? How much does it vary? Which frequency ranges does it occupy? You can even geek out and map the arrangement on graph paper: When does each part occur, and where does it sit within the frequency spectrum? Next, map out one of your own productions. Are the visual patterns as interesting and varied? Is there as much white space?

Fat or fit? Years of practicing next to amps makes us crave loud, fat sounds, but “quiet and skinny” often work better within an arrangement. (The illicitly leaked “Multitrack Masters” bootlegs of classic rock recordings with each track soloed are an invaluable lesson. Search for those words on YouTube if you haven’t yet. Spoiler alert: Many classic guitar parts have fewer lows and low-mids than you might think.)

It may also help to practice with amp modelers, even if you hate them. Whenever amp modelers get mentioned in a guitar mag article, someone inevitably bellows, “Modelers suck! My [insert pet amp name] blows them all away.” I get it—hearing a modeled sound through monitors seldom feels as exciting and immersive as a loud amp blasting your butt. But if you compare the recorded sound of that butt-blasting amp to a modeled sound, the gap narrows to near insignificance.

(I’ve created and administered blind listening tests for audio industry clients, and I’ve got the numbers: While many guitarists can distinguish amps from models while performing, only a miniscule percentage can consistently do so by listening to recordings—and we’re talking guitarists, not general listeners.)

In any case, working with modelers can teach you to perceive volume independently from tone quality. I’m not saying don’t use analog amps—they’re awesome! But time spent evaluating yourself via headphones or monitors rather than a blazing amp can recalibrate your ears and teach you to hear yourself more objectively.

Play like a producer. A generation ago, fewer players needed to worry about this stuff— they’d just set up and play, leaving the tone sculpting to producers and engineers. But nowadays, even leading session players are likely to be fine-tuning their own tones in small project studios. And of course, many of the greatest recording guitarists always crafted parts and refined tones with an objective sense of frequency and space. (I’m looking at you, Pagey and Gilmour.)

Ironically, evaluating your parts with detached objectivity can create more emotionally engaging recordings. And that’s what truly matters—assuming you play for the song, not your butt.