Used creatively, a humble capo can … dramatically
change your guitar’s scale length and natural resonance.
advent of 8-, 16-, and 24-track recording, vast vistas were opened
to guitarists looking to explore orchestration in the studio. Brian
May’s work with Queen is a great example of this. Now, with digital audio workstations (DAWs)—not to mention all the plug-ins
available to help you layer different tones—we have almost unlimited ways to experiment.
A great example of this is how Jimmy Page layered his parts
in the classic Zeppelin cut “Ten Years Gone.” The song starts out
with a single guitar in the left speaker, with a bit of plate-style
reverb in the right. Then the bass plays along in the center until
the second guitar part appears in the right speaker playing a lower
octave than the first part. Then it breaks back down to the single
guitar in the left speaker again. Throughout the song, various guitar parts come in and out at different pan positions—sometimes
in mono, sometimes in stereo. Some parts play octaves of each
other, and some play harmonies. By the end of the song, you can
hear at least six guitar parts intertwining with each other, covering lows, mids, and highs. It’s a fine example of studio production
and guitar orchestration.
Simulating a String Section
One reason string sections sound so rich is that when several musicians play the same line—as they do in an orchestra—subtle differences in intonation, timing, and bowing thicken and enhance the
sound. And, of course, each instrument produces unique overtones
and timbres that enrich the music.
In the studio, you can easily emulate this effect with your guitar
by tracking an important line several times. Even if you play the
line with the same guitar and amp and try to match the performance perfectly, you’ll have small variations in timing and intonation—just like an orchestra. Panning these lines identically increases
the blending effect. Alternatively, the further apart you pan them,
the more distinct each line becomes. Naturally, using different guitars, amps, and effects each time you re-track a line adds even more
overtones and timbral thickening.
But you don’t need a roomful of guitars to generate ear-grabbing
overtones. Used creatively, a humble capo can be a powerful tool.
Essentially, you can use it to dramatically change your guitar’s scale
length and natural resonance.
For example, first play through a chord progression in the lowest positions, using open strings whenever possible. This gives you
the rich, full sound of long, vibrating strings. Record this, and then
clamp a capo in the middle of the neck—between the 3rd and 7th
frets, depending on the key—and work out the progression in this
new position. As you navigate the changes, the strings will be shorter and sound tighter and brighter, and the chord fingerings and
voicings will be different. If you include open strings, they’ll fall in
different places than in the original track. Using a lighter pick on
this capoed part will brighten the sound even more. Two tracks of
chords may be enough, but for an even bigger sound you can place
the capo around the 10th or 12th frets and work out yet a third
variation of the changes.
Using this capo trick, you’ll have many unison notes played on
different strings. Though the pitches will be the same, these notes
will have different timbral qualities, thanks to the variations in string
gauge and length. And when you layer guitar parts using a capo the
way we’re discussing, you’ll also be introducing some chord tones an
octave (or two) higher, which adds sparkle to the ensemble sound.
High-Strung and Baritone Guitars
You can get a similar effect by playing a progression or line on a
high-strung guitar. To convert a standard guitar to a high-strung axe,
simply replace strings 6-4 with the E, A, D, and G octave strings
from a 12-string set. The B and high-E strings ( 2 and 1) remain the
Adding a baritone guitar to your collection lets you extend your
6-string orchestra into the cello register. Baritones have longer
string-scale lengths, which allows them to be tuned a fourth (B-B) or
fifth (A-A) below standard. Sonically, this places them right between
guitar and bass. Designed by Joe Veillette, the acoustic in this
baritone trio is a 27 3/4"-scale Alvarez Avante equipped with an L.R.
Baggs M1 Active soundhole pickup. Next to it is a 28 1/2"-scale
Fender Jaguar Baritone Custom hot-rodded with Duncan SJAG- 1
pickups and a 16-position ToneStyler control. Other than its bone
nut, the 28"-scale Gibson Les Paul Studio baritone is stock. Each
guitar sports a set of Ernie Ball 6-String Baritone Slinky nickel-wound strings, gauged .013-.072. Photo by Andy Ellis