Hey there,

When you hear a professional song recording it often sounds completely flawless. Take a listen to Guthrie Govan, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, etc. not a single noticeable mistake in their songs. I was wondering how to not to screw up so much in my recordings (or at all!). For some reason when I hit record I **** up a lot - dead notes when I'm arpeggiating chords (this kills me for some reason), sometimes timing issues, the occasional few sour notes when it's a REALLY bad take, etc. I often have to settle with a bunch of mistakes because no matter how many takes I do I always make mistakes. I write instrumental songs so I play lead guitar over rhythm, and usually I improvise a large amount of my songs. I never have it planned a measure at a time, I just kind of go with it with a number of ideas I came up with earlier in mind to implement in an order. I never plan every single note. I also find myself short of time when I record stuff and don't like recording when other people are in the room, yet I'm fine playing live in front of other people.

Pros always end up getting that "perfect take" for their songs. I want to be able to do that and make my recordings less crappy.

PS: I mess up much less in other situations, but also how do you get to a point where you aren't making mistakes live as well? I would really like to clean up my playing when I record at least.
Ok, well it's a combination of a few things but there's no reason you can't get seemingly flawless takes.

1) Practice makes perfect. You need to be able to play it flawlessly 9 times out of 10 to pull off a great recording. Most professional musicians will play the part night after night on tour, and in rehearsals, and downtime, so I think it's safe to say most will be at a level beyond that, where it's rare they screw up.

2) Decent editing skills allowing you to do multiple takes and choose the best bits are far more common these days, thanks to the flexibility of digital recording on computers.

3) Performance anxiety. Chances are you're still new to recording and still get a certain anxiety and pressure when you press the red button. If you have someone else available, have a few 'practice runs' through the playback, and they can secretly start recording without telling you, after a run or two, and you'll not know so maybe find it easier. That being said, just like playing live - the nerves go away with time and experience.

4) A lot of professionals are still not 100% happy with their performance on every note of a record - editing and production aside, you can't actually be in their head and know what they were aiming for at the time, whereas with your recordings you know exactly what you intended to record so know whether you made a mistake far easier. Everybody notices their own mistakes more than others, once they get past the ~15yr old "wow look how amazing I can play!" stage.
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It's not so much that you make less mistakes live, you just don't get the opportunity to go back over the recording & relisten to it.

Getting the perfect take when recording can take between 1 and 1,000 takes. The more practiced you are, the more likely you are to get it right sooner, but realistically the only option is to keep redoing it until you're happy.
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The more you play / practice the fewer mistakes you make. Everyone knows that.

But the trouble is, progress can be so slow as to be almost imperceptible.

Editing is one solution and I've done my fair share in the past. These days far less. Also needing fewer takes to get the right one - from 50 or more to under 10.

Over the last three years I can hear my progress when I listen to my old stuff, even though improvement is too slow to measure from day to day.

So practice, patience, and in the meantime learn to edit.
One more thing I'll add and it may be obvious but worth stating any way. Warm up before pressing record - if you're playing guitar play for 15-30 minutes before hitting the record button. Stretch your hand, fingers. Run through some difficult scales and get those fingers warmed up. Practicing what you'll be playing days before will help as well - even if you know the song upside down and backwards - practice it anyway.

Lastly - relax.
It’s rare for anyone to get a solo correct all the way through in a single take. When you say “I improvise a large amount of my songs” it sounds like you are just hoping for divine inspiration. Sometimes it happens, most times it doesn’t. When you read interviews with people like Steve Vai or Eric Johnson they often say things like “I have been working on my new album for about a year now” or longer. That means they have been working on maybe 12 songs (more or less) for more than a year and they are doing it in pro recording studios and have highly skilled producers and engineers to work with. Most likely, they have already done a great deal of rehearsing and made some very pro sounding demos ahead of time and have nailed down some fairly solid ideas of what they are looking for. It’s not magic; it’s dedication and hard work with a ton of talent thrown in. Don’t get frustrated because you aren’t getting the results that they are. As Sal Amato said to Eddie Wilson (Eddie and Cruisers Part 2) “just play the best you can”.
For difficult leads or things I don’t have a pre-defined idea for I will record on my Tascam 2488. I do this because I can use a "punch in-punch out" pedal to start and stop the recording by myself. Once I have something that seems like 80% of what I want I go back and punch in spots where I want to change things or fix my mistakes. I can then move the finished track into my DAW. If you are doing it in a DAW, teach a friend or someone how to punch in and punch out on your DAW and let them do it for you. A good example of some great playing and editing is Eric Johnson on “Cliffs of Dover”.
(from Guitar World interview)
Though he had been playing “Cliffs of Dover” live for four or five years by then, it still took Johnson multiple takes to nail the song to his satisfaction—and he was never pleased with any version. “The whole solo is actually a composite of many guitar parts,” Johnson says. “I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound—almost regal—and though I had versions that were close, none quite nailed it, so I kept playing around with different permutations of the many versions I had recorded until I got it just right.

“As a result, I actually ended up using two different-sounding guitars. Almost all of the song is a Gibson 335 through a Marshall, with an Echoplex and a tube driver. But in the middle of the solo there’s 20 or 30 seconds played on a Strat. It really does sound different if you listen closely and at first I didn’t think it could work, but I really liked this string of licks so we just decided to keep it. It basically just sounds like I’m hitting a preamp box or switching amps.
Last edited by Rickholly74 at Aug 20, 2014,
If I'm getting performance anxiety, or having trouble nailing the first hit of a passage, I will loop the passage and record the bit over and off hands-free - whenever the loop comes around in Ableton, it can be set to just re-write what's on the track. That way, it might take me 3-4 takes but once that fourth one comes out perfectly, I can hit stop and it'll be in place. No copy/pasting necessary, sometimes you just need to get your hands off of the computer and on the guitar.
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When I record, if I have a touch of recording anxiety, I'll set the "punch in/punch out" to the section I want to record and set the loop to be a bar either side. This means if I screw up the first take, it will keep going and add another track and give me 2 bars to prepare myself.
Other than that, just practice. A lot.
I see a lot of professionals that do not really ever play anything to their greatest ability, if that makes sense. Like when a pro guitarist is sound checking/warming up it is insanely fast and crazy what he can do. Then when it becomes show time/recording time it is a good bit more tamed. Still really great but there is less room for error when you are not playing AT the fastest/most complicated you can play. If you can pick 220 bpm than maybe trying to write a solo at 220 is a bad idea. Way more likely to screw up. And then you have the guitar legends that somehow manage to play really awesome all the time, no matter what. lol

Just my 2 cents.
Bit of a bump to the thread, but I'll let you off as it's not that old (a week) and that's a fair point, too I know with my band there's not much that is near the limits of my playing, but you want to be recording stuff you can completely nail, so it's true that you'd rarely go to record something you can't play proficiently (apart from maybe getting down ideas for initial demos, before you've finished working it out).

Another related point is that it's rare for playing at your limits (especially in terms of speed) to be as memorable, melodic and listenable in general once you're a decent guitarist. Usually it's about fitting the song and making something that sticks with the listener.
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Having worked in studio for a while I saw that the best way is to learn the part as good as you can, then go through a pass and not stop at the first small mistake. Then you can come back and punch in just those few bum notes. That way you have a performance with a feel, multiple edits with stoppage and continuation kill that feel.
For leads, lately I do "flight of fancy" instead of writing them out, I feel it is more spontaneous that way then edit a composite take that I learn and retrack. If I can't nail the feel and I like the composite better, that's the one that stays.
Record the different parts of the song separately and then arrange them in the DAW. It is much easier to play 20-30 seconds of guitar perfectly then to play 3-4 minutes of guitar perfectly