Have you ever noticed that very few guitar players are equally adept at both rhythm and leads? A lot of gifted shredders lay down rhythm tracks that sound like leads, while the best rhythm guitarists' leads sound a lot like rhythms. Obviously both require very different skill sets. Perhaps that goes a long way toward explaining why a lot of bands who play guitar-oriented music, like metal, have two guitar players: one who is good at rhythms; the other, solos. Even jack-of-all-trades players tend to gravitate more to one than the other. I've always been into solos myself. While I have a history of being the sole guitar player in bands, more often than not, the solos are where I put the vast majority of my efforts. The result was rhythms that were not as strong as they could be. Luckily for me, I got the opportunity to work with one of the best rhythm players in metal, when I collaborated on the Knightfall CD with the Annihilator mainman, Jeff Waters. He explained to me exactly what makes for superlative rhythm tracks, and believe me, there's a lot more to it that you probably ever imagined! Today, I'm going to share with you what I learned from a bonafide master.
1. Impeccable Timing
This is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about rhythm tracking. Ever since Les Paul invented multi-tracking some fifty plus years ago, the ability to overdub tracks has elevated the importance of being able to play tightly to a click. That seems like a no brainer, but all too often, people belittle the true amount of work and effort that's required to be able to play tightly. I used to play a song to a metronome a couple of times before recording and thought to myself that it sounded great. Had I actually recorded my playing and listened back to it, I would have seen just how uneven my parts were! Contrast that to Mr. Waters' obsession of playing everything to a click, including picking and scale exercises. In fact, his motto is: "if you don't practice to a click, then it doesn't count as practice."
2. Clearly Accentuated Picking
Listen closely to any great player's tracks and you'll instantly notice how well how clearly defined every note is. These guys/gals have spent countless hours honing their picking technique until it runs like a well oiled machine. When they play a passage, they don't just concentrate on hitting the notes on time, they are thinking about making each note sound even and well defined. It's like speaking. Wouldn't you rather listen to somewhat who clearly enunciates each syllable, than someone who slurs them together like a sloppy drunk? These players have put a lot of thought into the gauge and material of their picks as both make a lot of difference to your sound. Moreover, they tend to strike the strings at the optimal depth and at an angle that is as flush with the string as possible. Angling the pick a bit might make it easer to pass through the string, but it doesn't sound as good.
3. String Muting
Just as proper accentuating of each note is essential to great rhythm tracks, it is equally critical to mute all unwanted string noise from one's playing. Don't count on drums hiding minor string noise. It'll still be there to some degree, if only on some subliminal level. To the average guitar player, suppressing string noise falls somewhere after timing, which comes after hitting the right notes, on the priorities list. While in a live situation, you can certainly get away with some string noise, it won't fly on recordings. Especially when dealing with high gain settings, control over feedback on string noise is a prerequisite. Therefore, you have to train yourself to listen for it. Common offenders are the fretting hand when switching between chords. The picking hand can also be at fault when your palm doesn't come down between notes, misses one of the strings, or simply rubs against them while picking. All of these are flaws in technique than need to be worked on. If you can't eliminate string noise when playing a part, then try changing it. There are a lot of ways to play the same thing on a guitar, so don't get stuck on only one way.
4. Tuning and Pitch
Guitarists take it for granted that you have to tune your instrument before recording, but I am constantly shocked at just how nonchalant most people are about tuning. It's not until they are faced with a professional engineer that they realize what's actually involved in recording a pro-level CD. Not that, when I say professional engineer, I mean someone who has experience in recording CDs for major labels. Even in home recording situations, musicians always show up with a low end tuner. While those are fine for jamming and playing small bars, they are not adequate for any recording purposes. Strangely enough, even a lot of supposedly pro quality gear has very minimal tuning capabilities.
For recording, you need something that will go well within 2% deviation, which is where most people can detect out-of-tuneness. For that, you need something like a Korg rack tuner. All you need is about $250 to shell out! If you want to go really precise, nothing beats a strobe tuner. Some of which can go as high as five to six thousand dollars! Thanks to the magic of digital recording, you don't need to spend very much money at all to achieve pitch perfect tuning. Peterson, who makes the best strobe tuners in the biz, also makes a software version of their coveted strobe tuners called Strobosoft. It can get to 0.1% precision. That's up to 30 times better than the average tuner. It's what I use.
Unfortunately, using a high-precision tuner is not enough to achieve excellent pitch in your recordings. Alas, the guitar is a very temperamental beast and reacts to its surroundings. Not only does the temperature and humidity of the room wreak havoc on the pitch, but even your fingers can throw off the pitch by a couple of percents, which is enough to go from extremely in tune to noticeably out of tune! I'll never forget how, in my early days of club playing, I would tune my guitar backstage (or in the bathroom, depending on the conditions), only to have it go way out of tune by the end of the first song! I eventually came to realize that the difference in temperature was making the guitar go flat. At that point I started leaving the guitar on stage and then tuning it shortly before show time so that it would have time to acclimatize to the environment. I would warm up on a second guitar, backstage.
The best way to have your guitar stay in tune while you do your tracking is to begin by warming up the strings using you fingers. Play something or simply rub the strings with your hands. Once you've warmed up the strings, give each one of them a good pull. And I mean a good pull, almost hard enough that you try to break them! This is a crucial and necessary step as it will remove any stretching capacity that is left in the strings (you are using brand new strings right?) and helps wrap it as tightly as possible around the tuning peg. The idea is that the string won't have any room left to fall. Even when you think that the string is taught and ready, a few good pulls will loosen it - and the pitch - way down! Keep doing this until pulling the string no longer has any effect on the pitch.
Now, the enemy is sharpness. Every time that you stop to listen to your takes, the strings immediately start to get cold. And that means re-warming and retuning them. You may be surprised to learn that in a professional recording session, guitar players spend more time tuning that playing their tracks! That's one of the reasons that you have to be such a good player to record CDs. You have to be skilled enough to lay down high quality takes within a couple of minutes, which is about as long as you can go without a tuning break. Because of the volatility of strings, it behooves you to become very quick at tuning. The faster the better!
5. Good Sound
Your sound has to bring out your ideas and expression, not hamper them. Too many guitar players use distortion as a crutch in an effort to hide weakness in technique. Have I done it? Duh yeah! Listen carefully to any great guitarist and you'll notice that their tone enhances everything that they are doing. It's no accident. They work hard on it. Even when you think that an artist is using lots of distortion, it is really their playing that is making the sound through aggressive playing (more on that in a moment). Universally, enhancing one's expression means turning down the gain and bringing out the subtleties in one's playing. Just be aware that this also makes it easier to hear weaknesses in technique!
6. Play Like You Mean It
Closely related to number five above, great players don't play a part like the average person. While the latter simply plays a passage, a true guitar expert will express it. And the way that he/she does that is to play every note with conviction. Most of us tend to concentrate on key notes - the ones that represent the main chord movements or lock in with other instruments. As a result, a lot of less important notes, like passing tones, and so on, will receive less attention, and suffer for it. This issue goes a lot deeper than focusing on all of the notes and picking harder. The purpose of music is to express yourself, so when you doubt yourself and are unsure of what you're playing, it will come out. Only by learning to entertain positive thoughts about yourself and realizing that you have just as much right as anyone to be on a stage in the studio, can you bring out your full potential in your playing. I'm not saying that great artists don't have issues, because they clearly do, but their playing is not one of them!
Knowing what makes a great rhythm player, or just a great player period, is not sufficient for achieving greatness. That takes dedication, sacrifice, and the ability to accurately gauge your playing. Neither blindly adhering to the belief that you are a great player or a lousy one will advance your cause. Ironically, some of what it takes to be a great guitar player has very little to do with guitar playing per se. But don't take that as an invitation to go on a self expanding voyage. You still need to focus a whole lot on guitar!
Rob recently embarked on a solo music career, after playing with Ivory Knight since 2000. That band was rated as one Canada's top bands by Brave Words magazine (issue #92) and released two CDs. In 2007, Rob recorded the KNIGHTFALL CD in collaboration with the former Ivory Knight vocalist and legendary guitarist/producer, Jeff Waters of Annihilator fame.