Double-Tracking Lead Guitars. Part 1

An instructional article on performing and recording two lead guitar parts or solos to be heard simultaneously.

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In an age when few want to play lead guitar at all, not to mention twice, an article on double-tracking guitar solos might seem pointless, but for those players keeping the faith, this one's for you. This month we'll discuss the pros and cons of double-tracking lead guitars and ways to get around common problems. For those new to the concept, double-tracking is when the guitarist performs and records the same exact part twice, usually turning one performance to the left side of the mix and the other to the right. It's frequently done for rhythm guitars, but less often with leads. What follows are some modern home studio audio recording techniques and tips to help you record these guitar solos.

How To Do It

First off, why double track? Lots of reasons:
  • Two guitars performing the same thing sounds fuller (like a chorus compared to a single voice)
  • Alternating between doubled and single-guitar creates variation
  • You can use two different guitar sounds for a new tone
  • You can use two different articulations (one legato, one staccato)
  • After a decade of no guitar solos in popular music, we have to double-up to make up for lost time
  • Impress other guitarists If all of that sounds good to you (and I know the last one does), here's how to do it.

    The Method

    For starters, you should be able to play the lead part note for note, so take some time to memorize it. Some feel this will rob their lead playing of spontaneity, but if you feel this is true, just improvise your first performance ("Guitar 1") and then learn it for the doubling ("Guitar 2"). In theory, double-tracking is simple. Just record Guitar 1 like any other lead part, then turn Guitar 1 all the way to the left (or right). Turn the live Guitar 2 to the other side. Then, wearing headphones, listen closely to Guitar 1 while recording Guitar 2. That's it!

    Problems And Solutions

    If that sounds too easy, you're right. There are a lot of problems to worry about, but you can avoid some by doing Guitar 1 well, so we'll focus on that first. When you record Guitar 1, be sure that there are no strange anomalies within your phrasing or timing that you cannot duplicate. The tremolo bar is a good example. You've got to repeat any dive bombs or other tricks exactly later. Pinch-harmonics are another problem, as it's hard to get the exact harmonic you want. Any harmonic will often do the trick, too, so you've probably learned to not care which one you get. The good news is that getting a different harmonic (or none at all) on Guitar 2 can work fine or be better. I did this on purpose on "Still At Large" from my album, The Firebard. Play the clip. Slides can be easier, since they're sloppy anyway, but that only helps with fast slides. These should start from the same place (roughly) and go the same distance at the same speed. It helps to improvise a couple times and notice where you're starting. If the slide is prominent and in the rhythm track, you can try one of my tricks, which is to start Guitar 1 from a certain note, such as A in A major, and slide Guitar 2 from C#, so they start in harmony. Slow, expressive slides are more trouble. These need to start from the same place more exactly. The amount of finger pressure can be a factor in the slide's sound, too. This is more problematic when that pressure must change as you go, and if the slide's speed changes. All you can do is practice and be aware of speed, pressure, start and stop point, and the emphasis placed on the destination note (how much pressure and vibrato are you using?). Bends are tough, too. If you're not consistent and precise with the speed of your bend, hold, and release, the variation when you double will be out of tune. Quickly bent and released notes can be easier, but don't count on it. You may be more consistent with a given technique, such as bending with your fingers, the Floyd Rose, or the old tuner trick, but you won't really know until you try doubling and simply can't do it. To make matters worse, bending is generally an expressive thing, so being controlled about it may rub you the wrong way. The solution is good technique through practice. Vibrato usually isn't an issue because most people tend to use the same vibrato each time they play a line, so you may be in luck here. It tends to be applied unconsciously as well, meaning you'll do it the same without ever realizing it. Still, make note of what you're doing and the speed of your vibrato. If the lead is almost painfully slow, with long drawn-out notes and vibrato that starts after a few beats, then changes speeds and vibrato types, these variations create more room for error. Then again, such a lead is so expressive that doubling is probably not wise anyway. This is one reason I didn't double the final lead guitar on "Epic" (many slow slides were the other) Finally, Extraneous Noise in Guitar 1 is hard to duplicate exactly, and why would you want to? If Guitar 1 was perfect except for some weird sound in it, you have ask yourself how important doubling is and how noticeable the sound is. A finger sliding on a string can be easier to duplicate, and if only one side does this, it can be okay. It's a judgment call. With recording software like ProTools, it's possible to fix it in the mix, but if you aren't sure, double-track anyway and worry about it later. You can always turn Guitar 2 (or 1) off. You could also save the Guitar 1 with noise but re-perform it. Maybe another attempt would be even better - and not have the noise. If you're starting to think all of this is an endorsement for speed, because that would reduce bends, vibrato, and slides as issues, not so fast. That's when Timing becomes the biggest issue of all. Without good timing on Guitar 1, you'll really feel the pain later. Practicing with a metronome, while a good habit, may not help with a troubling passage. Maybe the drum groove or rhythm guitars are slightly off, or DAW-induced latency is disturbing your feel, or you're just having a bad day and can't do something right. What to do? It sometimes helps to hard-pan Guitar 1 to one side while playing it, and/or wear headphones. This way, you can focus on the rhythm section on one side while fitting in your lead notes on the other. Turning down the lead guitar helps, too, for if the lead is too loud while you're playing, it obscures the timing underneath. For latency, try reducing or eliminating it altogether with a no-latency setting. Be aware that on some days, your sense of timing will simply be different/off, just as you might like a guitar sound one day and think it's terrible the next. Perseverance is king.

    Coda

    If all of this is starting to sound impossible, just wait until Part 2 of this column! Seriously, though, double-tracking is not as hard as it seems. With a little practice it can even be fun, and most of these ideas will help you get a great performance for Guitar 1 anyway. You also might be more ready for doubling than you think. Try doing it a few times and see what your problem areas are, then work on them. Next time, we'll focus on the more problematic Guitar 2. Randy Ellefson is an instrumental guitarist with endorsements from Alvarez Guitars and Peavey, and a Bachelors of Music in classical guitar, Magna Cum Laude. His debut album was independently released in June 2004, and he is now performing in the U.S. The album's title, The Firebard, is a nod to his experience with tendonitis, which took away his playing for five years before he fully recovered it and rose from his ashes. For more details, mp3s, tabs, articles, videos and other cool stuff, visit the official site, randyellefson.com.
  • 35 comments sorted by best / new / date

    comments policy
      Pseudonaja
      Out of habit I rerecord Guitar1 at the end. Cause by then you know the riff so much better. So you go Guitar1, Guitar2, redo Guitar1. Also, if the band has 2 guitarists playing rythm and the other lead, try both playing rythm and then both playing lead to get that double-track effect. Sounds like... well... Soilwork... They do that...
      exe zc
      i double track alot but i dont always try to get them exactly the same. like jimi hendrix double tracked some solos and played them delayed/slightly different than the main solo
      Rockin_devil
      hmmmm...seems you made a case study outta iron maiden btw....can anyone temme whats "stegato n legato"??!
      thefinalcut
      thomas_wh wrote: What's "the old tuner trick"? Great article BTW.
      When you mess with the tuner. You usually tune down then back up quickly. I've seen Page do it on his Tele during a live version of "Dazed..."
      CryingNut
      cool i wish i could do this but i dont have recording stuff or headphones for my amp they are lost...
      Wolfhound
      I can't play that well. I just record guitar 1 and then edit it on the computer with a different sound and save it as guitar 2. Its always in time. Hopefully in a few months / years I will be able to play well enough to double track properly
      Six_Strung_Out
      Trying to double track an electric guitar with a nylon string classical guitar is even tougher.....levels of volume input need to be adjusted to mirror amplified vs. acoustic output....
      TheGhostOfYou
      ^ fifteen tracks? Mine usually have twenty-at one time. I like that "wall of guitars" effect. Anywho an alternative to double tracking(with a computer and multi-track recording program like cakewalk)is to copy "track 1" to "track 2" and pan them to different speakers. You can add a little different effects to each track and maybe drag one of the tracks a bit off time that way it will have a little delay and sound like a whole different take. Hope this helps.
      Steph Bets
      double tracking is great because you get to learn what you sound like- how consistent you are and stuff like that. its a good reality check and ghost of you- thats a top tip
      giter'man
      well after reading this artocle and thinking it over i have come to a conclusion that this article sucks balls!
      Four Symbols
      Great article... Although I already know pretty much everything mentioned (I'm an avid user of multi-tracking and harmonizing) I found it entertaining to read. Some of my songs have up to 15 guitar tracks.
      kjohnson08
      it sounds awesome when you do that. for a good example, listen to black dog by led zeppelin
      SirShredAlot
      hmmmm...seems you made a case study outta iron maiden btw....can anyone temme whats "stegato n legato"??!
      Not sure about stegato... But Staccato means something like abrupt and short (with silence in between), legato means something like smooth (where the notes run into each other). In stacatto you usually pick every note, in legato you use alot of hammers and pulls and such to make the note transitions smooth.
      danilo19
      I try double tracking all the time when i record my Ozzy/Randy Rhoads covers cause Randy was a master at double tracking. This article kinda helped. Thanks.
      mercurymay
      great article, one of the first i've read where a guy actually knows about musical techniques and english grammar. AWESOME!
      chuckles_34
      I've never had any less than 2 guitars at any point of any song I have ever recorded since I was about 17. Double tracking definetly works to your advantage.
      Kaadsj
      I agree with everybody else here, but I also want to say that the clip sounded pretty nice.
      Waterboy799
      good informations, but to double a guitar solo, shouldn't you harmonized the solo? i guess not harmonizing it would give you a different tone, bvut i think you should harmonize it.
      lindex
      Another trick is: Get a loop station and learn to play in unison with your own leads. In fact just get a loop station...
      DaveGilmour1189
      great article, but you probably should put in a little bit about harmonizing leads and playin guitar two a third or a fifth up
      codybcool
      Fantastic article, really helped me get to grips with multi-tracking and learning the in's and out's of it. Perhaps in the second installment you could about harmonizing?
      Tedrick
      good article, i think it'll help me with something i'm about to write...
      tHewHiteHendrix
      i like improvising personally for solos, but i did just stard double tracking for main riffs and rythym and it def. adds to the sound. nice article.