You’ve spent thousands of hours perfecting your ultimate tone. Now forget about it.
Ever see Billy Wilder’s 1950 film-noir classic, Sunset Boulevard? (Spoilers ahoy!) Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, a has-been silent film star fixated on a comeback that will never arrive. She’s so obsessed with her own image that she’s blind to the world around her. By film’s end, she’s offed ex-boy toy William Holden, and the cops are leading her away. Lost to reality, she imagines she’s on a film set, and that the news cameras are movie cameras. Her immortal closing line: “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!” (That’s a reference to Cecil B. DeMille, the leading Hollywood director of Norma’s 1920s heyday.)
Few of us are quite that far gone, but some of the ways we listen, learn, and practice can nudge us in Norma’s direction. It can be hard not to view the recording process solely through the prism of our own playing. Unfortunately, that can be the worst possible perspective in studio situations, which often demand sudden and extreme changes in approach as you tackle musical challenges from varying angles. That’s equally true whether you’re playing superstar sessions or just nailing a great home recording.
Now, I’m not talking about belligerent, self-centered players who won’t listen to anything, be it tactful suggestions, other players’ parts, or their own musical shortcomings. I don’t believe there are many people like that. Few of us would disagree with the statement, “I play for the song, not my ego.” (Literally hundreds of guitarists I’ve interviewed have uttered words to that effect, including the ones who routinely do the opposite.) Most of us want to be open-minded, but our habits can get so ingrained that it’s hard to see past them. Why is that?
Practice Makes Prejudice?
Unlike players of band and orchestral instruments who came of age playing in ensembles, most guitarists hone their technique in the bedroom. [Insert crude joke here.] Even if we’ve played in bands, we simply haven’t been trained as ensemble players. That’s one reason so many guitarist jokes involve bad rhythm, poor sight-reading, excessive volume, and general self-absorption.
Meanwhile, our musical development often involves a long sequence of personal choices. When a pianist, violinist, or classical harpist outgrows their student instrument, their teacher helps them procure a pro axe, and they’re set. But we guitarists tend to fashion our tools as we go. Single-coil or humbucker? Passive or active? Bolt-on or neck-through? Pick or fingers? Light gauge or heavy? Tube or transistor? Head or combo? Amp or modeler? We read guitar mags. We haunt music forums debating the relative merits of KT66 and EL34 tubes in vintage Marshalls and whether your tone control response improves if you solder the capacitor to the second volume pot lug instead of the third. With luck, we develop a style we love. (If we’re really lucky, it’s a cool and original style.) We take justifiable pride in what we’ve created and are passionate about our choices. But that passion can push us to the point of inflexibility.
Guitar Stars—and the Rest of Us
Now, we all love players whose sound we can identify in a few seconds, but recording can demand a more chameleonic approach. It’s one thing if you’ve been called upon to do your special thing in the studio, like Eddie Van Halen on “Beat It” or Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” But for us regular schmucks, sessions are about making the production work, and your “special thing” may be totally irrelevant.
Example: Many of us love a fat, harmonically rich tone with virile lows, glistening highs, and mids chiseled to abdominal-six-pack perfection. But commencing a session with that as your ideal can be problematic. Maybe you need a dark, distant sound to co-exist with the vocal. Or a thin, sharp one to carve through a wall of synths. What sounded awesome in the bedroom can sound like ass in the studio.
The Pedalboard Problem
Got a pedalboard? It’s probably a lovingly curated collection of tools you treasure, but it still might not suit the session. (It seldom does, at least in my experience. Several times I’ve tried commencing album projects with a purpose-built pedalboard, making thoughtful, sensitive choices informed by careful listening to the artist’s material and conversations with the artist and producer. Inevitably, by the second take of the first song, the entire thing had been ripped apart, with cables hurled everywhere and goop on my fingers and strings after prying stompboxes from their tidy, Velcro-lined bed.)
Also, I suspect that starting a session with a preconceived setup makes it tougher to devise alternatives if Plan A doesn’t work. You can find yourself thinking, “Yikes! Now what?” when a more productive attitude would be, “Wow, so many possibilities!”
Here’s a little thought exercise—or maybe a real exercise, if you have the opportunity: What if you were to start a session with no particular gear in mind, other than a general awareness of what’s available? Listen to the music in progress with no pedalboard and no preconceptions.
· Consider the overall structure. Which sections sound empty? Which sound crowded?
· Evaluate the frequency spectrum, the full range of sounds from sub-kick to cymbals. Where is it congested? Where is under-populated? Is there a particular frequency range where your guitar would be most complementary?
· Think about tones. Which colors would suit the context, both sonically and emotionally? Warm? Edgy? Present? Distant? Clean? Dirty? A smooth, tight performance, or a rough, ragged one?
· Imagine your part. Hear it. Memorize it.
Only then consider which available gear is likeliest to match to your sonic snapshot. Don’t be shocked if it’s something other than your usual Plan A. It might even violate your standards of good guitar sound. But if you choose wisely, you won’t merely fit into the picture—you’ll improve it. Conversely, if the production sounds good, you will too. (I didn’t mention the part about having good ideas and playing them well, but you knew that already.)So think about it: Wouldn’t you rather be a skilled supporting actor in a great production than a miscast star in a stinker, no matter how awesome you look in your close-up?