Playing What’s Right
The quality of instrument—like this 1932 Martin 0-18—will often dictate how you approach a track.
This month, were going to address some of
the differences between playing live and performing in the studio. When you’re onstage
and the energy level is amped-up (no pun
intended), the tendency is to play a few more
notes than you may need to. It’s fun and
exciting to show your chops, because, after
all, that’s what all those hours of practice
were about. But when the tape is rolling and
the red light goes on, it might be best to
minimize your approach.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with many
incredible players, but not all of them are
good in the studio. Playing what’s right for
the song is truly an art form. Undeniably, it’s
easier said than done. You can just say to
yourself, “I’ll just play less.” But it doesn’t
mean what you play will be right.
There’s a big difference between playing, and
playing what’s right. It usually comes from years
of experience, but it also comes from really
listening—listening closely to the melody, the
chord structures, the arrangement, the bass,
and so on. Think about the orchestration of the
song—will your first position chords carry too
much bottom and cloud up the low end of the
mix? Do you even need to play the root/bass
notes of the chords? Consider moving them up
a position, or use a capo to change things up.
Think beyond only your part. Think about what
it really needs as a song.
Also, if you’re cutting a track for another artist, it’s important to avoid any attachment to
your part. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t
be proud of your work, but don’t get stuck
on it. This goes for anybody: drummers, bass
players, etc. It’s vital for us guitarists to think
of what we’re playing as a single Lego block
in a toy house. It should be attachable and
detachable, in the scope of editing.
I’ve had many stressful moments in studio situations where the guitarist I’m tracking gets
offended if his/her parts are not used. It’s the
same if his/her parts are cut up to fit better.
Sure, I always prefer to recut and make them
play it again, but that’s not always possible
(especially after they are gone). Sometimes,
their attitude is enough to make the artist compromise. It can also make for some
uncomfortable moments. That’s not cool.
When I produce, I will often tell a new/unknown
guitarist to have no attachment to what they
are about to cut. That lets them know that they
need to let go of it once it’s recorded. Humor
often works at this point in a session, and I’ll
say, “play whatever you want, as long as it’s
exactly what I need.” Of course I’m kidding,
but I’m also not. The point is to get them to not
feel restricted, but make sure that what they’re
about to give me makes sense.
Another interesting aspect about playing in the
studio is that your instrument will often dictate
the part. I’ve found that the higher quality
the guitar, the less that needs to be played
to sound good. With electric parts, that also
applies to the amp. Of course, the player’s
touch is paramount, as is often the mic/preamp
combo, but often a fine instrument can breathe
in a song better than one that’s just ok.
Just last week for example, I was cutting some
TV cues with guitarist/producer Scott E. Moore.
He had just picked up a 1932 Martin 0-18. We
put a single Earthworks QTC- 1 on it with an
Anthony DiMaria/PreSonus ADL 600 preamp,
and it simply sang. There are guitars, and then
there are guitars. The light, airy clarity of this
instrument dictated the parts we laid down.
On several cuts, we stripped back the melody
to take advantage of the sound of the instrument. So it was not only the musicality of the
melody, but the simplicity and beauty of the
single notes. They just cut through. Sure, you
could play the same notes on other acoustics,
but it wouldn’t be the same. That’s not to say
you need a vintage Martin to cut all acoustic
parts—you certainly don’t. It’s just that you
should take the sound of the instrument into
consideration from a production point of
view. We all know some guitars simply sound
better than others. That’s especially true
when magnified by microphones.
So next time you’re getting ready to cut
some studio tracks, take a step back for a
moment. Think about what guitar is the right
call. It may not be the same one you gig with
all the time. Next, think about the part and
the position that you’ll be playing it at. Take
the time to make sure it fits both the production and the arrangement of the song. And,
of course, try to use the best mic you possibly can. Then, after all of that, forget about
everything and just play!
Rich is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has
worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David
Bowie. A life-long guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools
Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox
NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon and HBO.