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Barry’s Guitar Recording Techniques: Not all guitars sound the same!

In this series, we’re going to cover recording techniques for different types of guitar sounds including electric guitars direct into the mixer/soundcard and miked, acoustic guitars direct and miked, guitar samples recorded from a keyboard or played by virtual sample players and processed with plug-ins.

Good guitar sounds are very dependent on the instrument’s condition and intonation, the technical level and or artistry of the performer, room acoustics in which the guitar is recorded, choice of effects along with volume, EQ and placement in the mix. These subjects will be covered as we go along.

Since each electric guitar sound is typified by it’s pickup type, we shall start there. There are two main types of passive pickups that you will encounter: single coil and double coil. Single coil pickups have a thin, clean and transparent sound, but they can be noisy, picking up occasional RFI. These pickups are usually about 3/4th of an inch wide and 2-1/2 inches long. Single coil pickups are common on Fender guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster.

Double coil pickups have a thick meaty sound are the most noise-free of the pickup types. They get their name from the fact that they are comprised of two single coil pickups working together as one pickup, but wired out of phase in order to cancel out the noise. They are also referred to as humbucking pickups. Double coil pickups are most common on Gibson guitars like the Les Paul.

Many guitars have a combination of single and double coil pickups. It’s also common for a double coil pickup to have a switch that will turn one of the coils off to offer the player a choice between single and double coil.

There are a number of different types of guitars available with number of different pickup configurations and each having a characteristic sound. Often a guitarist will play one type of guitar and ask you to make it sound like another. This used to be a problem before the days of guitar modeling, but now, an instrument like the Line 6 Variax can sound like a number of classic and modern guitars at the touch of a switch. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that you don’t have access to a Variax or other modeling technology such as Roland COSM or Korg REMS. However, guitar modeling for rock and pop still derives from 3 basic guitar types. Therefore, it is still essential for you to be familiar with the basic guitar sounds, especially if you are recording a “guitar purist” with a vintage instrument. Even with the basic guitar types, there are many different combinations of pickups, design configurations, type of wood, finish, body style, precision of assembly and hardware such as bridge type and tuning machines that all play an important part in the sound of the instrument. In spite of the aforementioned differences, electric guitar can still be broken down into three basic categories:

  • Stratocaster: Single Coil

  • Les Paul: double coil
  • Hollow Body electric jazz guitar: double coil

The single coil Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster are very common in rock, country and pop. The warm, smooth, double coil sound of the Gibson Les Paul is a favorite for rock, blues, pop, and jazz.

The double coil sound of the big hollow body jazz guitar has a pure rich sound. (Two favorites were the Gibson ES-175 and Gibson L5.) Some guitar players approximate the hollow body jazz sound on the Les Paul by playing above the 12th fret with the treble control on the guitar turned all the way down.

In recording, the jazz guitar is traditionally left dry, that is, treated with little or no effect. In fusion and some other jazz or rock styles, we can use any and all effects to shape the jazz guitar sound.

(Thinner Hollow Body electrics also became available, hoping to combine the sounds of solid body electrics and the big jazz body. Two such guitars were the Gibson ES 330 and Gibson ES 335. The most famous ES 335 is “Lucille, B.B. King’s legendary blues guitar.)

Interestingly enough, these basic types or sounds still form the basis of modern guitars such as the Paul Reed Smith Custom 24, which was initially introduced the as the guitar that could produce both the sound of the Les Paul and the Stratocaster. Which brings us to an interesting topic regarding the combining of single and double coil pickups; In the American Deluxe series, Fender has just introduced their new Samarium Cobalt Noiseless pickups along with “S-1″ switching. These new pickups innovated by Fender and legendary pickup designer Bill Lawrence, are a stacked double coil design utilizing miniature Samarium Cobalt magnets and special alloy pole pieces that are able to sound like the original Stratocaster single coil, but without any noise of single coils, or the side effects of earlier stacked single coil designs, which were much larger and tended to take on some of the sonic characteristics of dual coil pickups! The S-1 switch, which is not visible on the guitar, but mounted in the crown of the master volume knob, changes the pickup wiring configurations to combine the pickups from single to double coil configurations, in either series or parallel depending on the position of the rotary switch in order to produce the fuller and punchier sound of the double coil, and does it remarkably well.

If you are miking a guitarist with a vintage single coil Fender, remember that these pickups are the most susceptible to noise, so some precautions are necessary. If you encounter a noise problem, try moving the guitarist to a different location in the room. If this doesn’t work, try having the guitarist face in different directions. You can usually find a position in the room where the noise and interference are minimal. Keep the guitar away from computers, computer monitors, (flat screens are not a problem) drum machines, or other microprocessor controlled equipment.

Join us next time as we continue our in-depth study of guitar recording tech tips.

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