When recording electric guitars, less is often more.
For a typical rock song, we’re often aiming to get a nice big guitar sound. We want it to sound huge, and in-your-face.
As a result, we’re tempted to double everything, layer a ton of parts together, and crank the gain way up to get a nice heavy distortion.
The problem is, once we start putting too many tracks in there, things start to get worse instead of better. The guitars can actually start to sound smaller rather than bigger.
Here’s the reality: you don’t need that many guitar tracks to get a big guitar sound. You just need to record them strategically. You need to record the right parts.
But before we get into what those parts are, it’s important to understand why too many tracks is a bad thing.
First things first:
Too much doubling makes the guitars sound smaller instead of bigger.
This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s not.
When I say “doubling”, I’m talking about recording the same guitar part twice. Usually, the two recordings are panned hard left and right.
Doubling is great and can sound really awesome. But the problem is that once you start to get too many doubled parts, the “hard-left” sounds and the “hard-right” sounds become more indistinct. The mix actually starts to sound more mono.
The trick here is not to record parts that are identical, but parts that complement each other. This way you get a nice full sound like you would with doubling, but the two sides of the spectrum remain distinct.
For example, say you’re recording a typical rhythm guitar part. Rather than doubling it, try recording a second part playing the same chords, but up further on the fretboard. You will probably find that this will sound wider and more interesting than a straight-up double.
Beyond the issues in the stereo spectrum:
Too much layering can cause annoying buildup in the high mids.
This is for distorted guitar parts. You generally don’t need as much gain and crunch as you think you do. What sounds good on stage doesn’t necessarily sound good in the recording.
The problem is that as you layer distorted guitars on top of each other, the distortion causes buildup in the high mids. This happens when using too much gain, or even just stacking too many layers.
So try dialing it back. Use less distortion in the studio than you would on stage. You might be surprised at how full and powerful the part sounds, even with less gain.
With all that in mind, what are some good guitar parts to record? How can we make the guitars sound great and big while avoiding the issues that come with too many tracks?
Well, there are a ton of ways to do it. But let me share some of the key guitar parts that contribute to a huge sound. Many of these suggestions come straight from what I did on my current EP, which is going to be released very soon!
First of all I need to say this: the guitar parts on my EP sound really nice and full. And guess how many electric guitar tracks they have?
The song with the most electric guitar tracks has eight. All the rest have less. And most of these eight tracks don’t even play for a bunch of the song.
This isn’t to say that eight is a magic number. But it’s not a very high number of tracks. And it worked in my case.
Here are the types of parts that work well for me, and I bet they’ll work well for you too:
First, it’s nice to start with a Main Rhythm part. This lays the foundation for your song, and gives it some strength.
You may decide to double this part, depending on the song. Just remember not to overdo it. You may also want to play different inversions of some of the chords in a second recording to give it some variety.
After laying the baseline, a great way to fill out your song is to add Complementary Tracks. These are guitar parts that complement each other, add interest or texture, and are often panned left and right.
Examples of things you can do in these tracks are arpeggios, diamond (single-strum) chords, lead parts, and crunchy rhythm parts. Using different guitars for the complementary parts also helps to give variety and width.
Although you want to be careful not to take it too far, adding some tracks for Layering can be beneficial. This is where you record an additional guitar part and put it on top of another, rather than panning it somewhere else.
Layering can give additional strength and flavour, but be careful not to clutter up the mix. A complementary part and a different guitar can help.
For example, you could play steady power chords with a solid-body Les Paul while picking open chords with a hollow-body Gretsch at the same time.
Finally, throwing in some Extras can help you fill your song out and add interest. Record a part for the bridge that doesn’t sound anything like the other guitars in the song. Or create a little “lick” or “hook” that plays after each chorus. Give people something different and interesting to listen to.
Personally, I find electric guitar to be one of the most fun and interesting instruments to record. Just remember not to overdo it. You don’t need a ton of parts to make your song sound full and big. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Less is more.
What do you think? How many guitar tracks do you record? Does it feel like too many? Too few? Leave a comment!
8 thoughts on “How To Record Huge Electric Guitars”
Agreed. Another thing you can try is recording the same part but in a different tuning – if one guitar is in standard tuning and one is in (for example) open-E tuning, it will sound bigger because the chord voicings are different.
Sometimes doubled guitar parts can just sound boring since they’re the same thing on top of each other. Agreed that taking the time to compose some complimentary (but different) parts to play will add much more interest to the song.
Well written and insightful. Thanks!
Cool idea to record parts with different tunings. That’s definitely another great way to do it!
Have a good one!
I found that you can get a good solid (guitar) sound by having your guitar track I/O sent to a guitar bus, then a send from the same track to the same guitar bus, for an instant double!! of course you need to adjust your send level, give it a try!
Are you sure that technique isn’t just raising the volume? If you send an identical track to two places, it’s not the same as a double. A double has to actually be two different guitar tracks so our ears can pick up on the subtle differences. I think if you send the same track to a bus twice, it’s just going to raise the volume.
To understand this, try duplicating a track and then panning the original hard left and the copy hard right. Even though it seems like you’re doubling, it will just sound mono, because you’re playing the same thing in both speakers.
There is an interesting way to create a double though. Duplicate the track, and then take the copy and push the audio back a little bit. Not enough to get it off the beat, but enough to make it lag just a smidge. Maybe 10-20ms. Then pan them hard left and right. You’ll notice that it sounds wide now, because there is a difference between the left and right tracks.
Although this is a neat trick, it can cause phase issues. So I personally have never used it.
The best way to get a double (if you even need it) is to actually record the same part twice, and pan the two versions. It’s even better if you vary the two parts a little (as mentioned above).
Hope that helps!
In my last EP the max number of simultaneous guitars is four, and I think I got a bigger sound than my previous EP that, ironically, had more guitars.
Alex, you say you recorded a max of 8 guitars in a song, but how many play at the same time?
Thanks for the post, looking forward to listening to that EP 🙂
Very nice! Yeah one of my tracks for this EP only has a single acoustic guitar, and two electric guitars, one of which only plays for about half the song.
As for the song that has 8 electrics, the busiest section has 5 playing simultaneously:
– A main rhythm part playing strong distorted chords on 1/8 notes
– Doubled part playing diamond chords. Played on two different guitars (Les Paul and a semi-hollow body)
– High clean arpeggio panned off to the side
– Guitar solo
That’s about as busy as any of my songs get on the EP. But they sound nice and full, even with few guitar parts. It’s all about what parts you play 🙂
I was listening to “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers the other day as I was arranging it for my 7/8 grade boys chorus to sing and that song only has one guitar, one bass, drum set, and lead vocals, for the vast majority of it. By any standard, it is an awesome song. I gravitate towards groups and songs that are minimal in what is required to make their sound. Even groups with many instruments like Streetlight Manifesto make recordings that sound like they do live (no doubling of guitars or sax/trumpet/trombone parts unless someone in the group is able to play it that way live). I record my music with the same mindset, just because I can conceive many parts doesn’t mean the song is better because of it. So before I add a track, I ask myself “What is missing and is this part really going to make it better?” It is the Bach Two Part Invention Mindset.
Too often I hear musicians, especially guitarists, layer two or three inversions or harmony lines into a song and all that is really accomplished by it is making a mess. Brian May of Queen really understood arranging and when he layered guitars it is crystal clear what the purpose was. Sometimes the best songs are really simple.
Thanks for the post,
Yes, I remember listening to a lot of RHCP when I was in high school. They have very sparse arrangements, but they manage to fill things up perfectly. It has a lot to do with the skill of the musicians too. If you’re just going to have one guitar playing, it has to sound pretty fantastic. You can’t hide it behind anything.
I think the key is what you said: “What is missing and is this part really going to make it better?” Just because we can record 64 guitar tracks in modern DAWs doesn’t mean that’s going to make things better. Intentionality is so important. Even more so these days because of the “limitless” nature of the technology we use.