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!