Things to Know Before You Go Into the Studio

This article reviews some of the most important things that guitar players need to know and master before going in to record and outlines the things that most often cause a guitar player to be bad in the studio.

Ultimate Guitar

For musicians, the first time we go into a studio to record is often as momentous an event as losing our virginity. In addition, for a lot of us it has many of the same traits attached to it, such as being exciting, terrifying, sometimes discouraging, as well as messy, and grueling. However, just as it is my with my chosen analogy, there are always things that we, as guitar players, can work on to make everything run smoother. For Example:

Mastering Right Hand Technique

As a session guitar player, a lot of my work comes from playing for solo artists, producers, or engineers who need a guitar player. However, that being said, I also get a decent amount of work from bands who have guitar players that are not yet ready to record and a player's sloppy right hand technique is one of the most common reasons that I get called in to play on a bands record. The most important part of proper right hand technique is closely watching your pick. Make sure that it is not scrapping against unused or muted strings. In order to practice this, get a good guitar teacher, or even just a friend or band mate to listen to you play and stop you every time they can hear the sound of your pick hitting unwanted strings over your amp. When I got into my first band that was semi-good enough to start recording I was probably around 13 or 14 and had just about the worst right-hand technique that anyone could imagine. The way that I remedied this was to sit for hours and hours and play power chords and major/minor bar chords in steady quarter and half notes listening very, very closely to see if I heard any unwanted notes.

The other side to improper right hand technique is not playing all the required notes in a chord. This was another problem that I struggled with when I was young. When you play a chord, it is extremely important that you play every intended note in the chord (unless you, your band, or the producer choose not to for an artistic reason) - this is extremely important for larger chords such as bar chords. From my time teaching, I have noticed that the string that young players cut off the most is, sadly, the "G" string. The reason that this is a problem is that the "G" string holds "the 3rd" in low "E" string based bar chords. The third is an important note because it gives the chords that you play their tonality. If you omit the third, then you only have a root and a fifth - in layman's terms, an elaborate power chord. Now, there is nothing wrong with a largely voiced power chord, this can sound great in certain circumstances. However, in many cases, when you are playing a low "E" string based bar chord, the third is a necessity, needed to make the guitar part sound huge as well as reinforcing the intended tonality of the song. The reason that it reinforces the intended tonality is that a 3rd is the note found in chords that make them a major or a minor chord. The only difference between these two chords is that there is a flatted 3rd found in a minor chord, and a natural third in a major chord. A great way to remedy omitting the third, or any note for that matter, is to pick a chord - for example, a simple power chord to start, and pick a random note. Once you have picked your note, play it a few times and hum it in your head or out loud. Once this note is stuck in your head, play the chord and listen hard for the note. If you do not hear the note clearly, then you know that you need to make sure that it is ringing through when you are playing the chord, and that you are not accidently omitting it. This is a great, easy exercise because it not only tells you what you are omitting from your chords, but it also trains your ear to recognize these notes and to hear your chords in a more three dimensional way then you did before. I go over why this is important in my online lesson pack. Overall, mastering your right hand technique is a great way to make your guitar tone huge before we even get into our ability to dial in a big tone with our amps and guitars. For example, a band like AC/DC inarguably has a huge, but clear guitar tone. Part of that is obviously due to running cranked Superleads. However, Superleads do not have a boatload of gain; a large part of it is in the way that they play their chords. When you listen to AC/DC play, they utilize ever note, all the time, which is a large part of what gives them a huge tone.

Practicing to a Metronome

Let's face it; we have all heard this before a million times. I highly doubt that I am shocking anyone here by saying this. However, it is still astounding how many musicians cannot play to a click track or to a steady tempo in general. Before even thinking about going into the studio, make sure to practice ever part of your songs to a metronome; and not just to the speed that you already play the song. Try playing it at slower, as well as faster speeds. You need to be able to play your part at a variety of tempos because it is more than likely that the producer or engineer will change the tempo of the song multiple times while recording drums. And you need to be prepared to play at whatever speed they switch the song to, as well as knowing the rhythmic aspects of your parts inside and out. Also, be prepared to have to play other, different rhythms. A great way that I try to make my students more rhythmically competent is to get them to practice exercises out of the "Syncopation for the Modern Drummer" book. This book is a widely used book for beginning drum students. You would find it difficult to find any drummer worth a damn that has not studied out of one of the "syncopation" books at one point in their career. Now, even basic rhythms for drummers are advanced for us as guitar players. Ask any drummer that you know and they will tell you that there are few people worse and duller at rhythm then guitar players. So, even just taking the first few chapters of the syncopation book and strumming random chords to the rhythms with a metronome will go a long way towards bringing up your rhythmic chops, and it will make the drummers in your life much happier! 

Know Your Chord Theory Inside, Outside, Backwards and Forwards

This really separates the boys from the men. Knowing your chord theory as well as possible is a huge asset for any musician, and if you want to be a session guitarist, it is a necessity. The reason for this is that chances are that when you go into the studio, your songs will not come out the same as they went in, you do not want them to, you want them to change, evolve, and come out better on the other end. So, you will often find that while playing a chord, the engineer or producer will turn to you and go "eh, that chord is ok… can you play it in some other spots to see if we can get one that sounds a bit better". It is imperative that you do not sit there and respond with "uh… uh…uh..". When you go into the studio, you should be able to at least play any Major, Minor, and SUS chords in at least seven different voicings. This will allow you to give the producers and engineer's options, and everyone likes options. It also allows for you to layer in a way that many musicians cannot. For instance, by taking a "C" chord and layering it five times over with different voicings that span the fretboard, you get a huge chord that sounds incredibly full - this is a great trick for building up the chorus' in your songs. Sadly, very few guitar players are aware of how important this is and it can get those of us that do know our chord theory well a decent amount of work just because so many people are unable to perform this type of layering and give these kinds of options.

Be Ready for Anything

Try not to go into the studio with any pre-conceived idea of what the record should sound like, practice your improvising and layering skills and be ready for whatever the producer or engineer may ask you to do. So, do not let yourself get too attached to that solo that you have in your favorite song or that one riff that you wrote for your other song because they may, and likely will change during the recording process. Because of this, you need to be willing, and ready to pull out something completely different based on the suggestions that the people recording you give you. This is why the ability to improvise is so essential. If the producer and engineer are not excited about your first solo, you need to be able to pull out another one that is gold as soon as possible. The ability to cope with change, take instructions well, and think up the perfect part for the song on the spot are all essential traits for any session musician or musician in general.

1 comment sorted by best / new / date

    Although I question the wisdom of using an akward sexual metaphor followed immediately by a section entitled "Mastering Right Hand Technique", I still think this is a pretty good article.