August 1, 2004

Steve Morse’s Guitar Layering Tips

Few producers are as adept at layering guitar parts as Steve Morse. From his early-’70s albums with the Dixie Dregs to the recently released Major Impacts 2 [Magna Carta], Morse’s guitar tracks leap out of the speakers with uncommon clarity. But they don’t always start out that way.

“Often, I’ll record a sound that I imagine will go well in a particular piece, and then discover it’s not as cool as I thought once I hear it in relation to the other sounds,” explains Morse. “Sometimes, all that’s needed is to add a clean guitar track or two beneath the original one—just to put a little punch into it. Most people would just turn up the treble, but I prefer to punctuate the parts by layering different guitars at various points.”

Morse offers five tips for guitarists who want to add some of that sonic sizzle to their own recordings:

• Make a mono melody line sound nice by surrounding the electric guitar with a stereo pair of acoustics that have been thinned-out by compressing them heavily and scooping out the frequencies already being covered by the main guitar. Add a little high-end boost to compensate for the heavy compression, if necessary.

• Another combination I use a lot is a clean electric and a nylon string—especially if it’s a warm electric tone. The nylon-string sound adds punctuation. A 12-string is also great for this purpose, because the octave strings stick out naturally, and you don’t have to artificially boost the highs.

• Record a stereo track direct into a mixer using a simple effect such as a very short stereo delay with a single modulation, and pan the dry signal to the left and the delayed/modulated signal to the right. Then double-track the same part, and pan the dry signal to the right and the delayed/modulated signal to the left. That mixes up the sounds and makes everything less identifiable.

• Use a buffered splitter—not a “Y” cord, because they usually hum—to go to a miked amp and a POD or other amp simulator, and then blend in just enough of the simulator to add some crunch. Record the signals to separate tracks, and blend them to taste when mixing.

• Use a hard disk recorder (such as Pro Tools) to select parts and place them on parallel tracks panned hard left and right—or even center—and then bring them in here and there for accents. For example, if a snare drum plays the same accents as a guitar part, bringing in the doubled guitar parts on those beats will bring the guitar part out.

—Barry Cleveland

Classic Tracks: “Peggy Sue”

Bill Bush’s June ’82 cover story on Buddy Holly was one of the most extensive pieces of pure reporting ever published in Guitar Player. One of the article’s many subtopics detailed the way in which Holly and the Crickets utilized the very latest in studio technology—1957 style—to record “Peggy Sue.” —Tom Wheeler

Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, New Mexico, was located next to a noisy machine shop and a major highway. As such, most recording was done late at night, with the group sleeping in an adjoining guest room during the day. By 1957 standards, Petty’s studio represented the state of the art. The walls were acoustically tuned with a series of built-in, round baffles. Petty also employed a live ceramic-tile echo chamber, and had perfected an unusual mono “overdubbing” technique. Laying down the basic track on an early Ampex recorder, he would record Holly on another Ampex mono machine during playback, repeating the process for as many parts as needed. The result of this ersatz “ping-ponging” was that the finished tape would contain various generations of recorded sound. It was laborious and tricky, but it allowed Holly to harmonize with himself.

“Still, we basically had one mono track,” said Crickets bassist Joe B. Mauldin. “If you didn’t hear it on the first playback, you didn’t have it, so you went back and did it all over again till you got exactly what you wanted. Working in mono added a lot of spontaneity to our records. Once you got rolling, you had to let it go all the way through.”

For the recording of “Peggy Sue,” J.I. Allison played only one drum, and was seated in the studio’s reception room to prevent the sound from bleeding into the vocal mic. Unbeknownst to the group, as the song was being recorded, Petty kept switching the signal in and out of the echo chamber in time with the music. He also varied the volume on Allison’s drum mic, giving the song an unusual pulsating quality. If you listen closely to the record, you’ll also note that Petty used very close miking techniques on Holly’s amplifier and the strings of his Stratocaster. The clicking of Holly’s pick added even more of a live sounding rhythm.

“Buddy was having trouble switching from the rhythm position to the lead position on his Strat for the lead break,” remembered guitarist Niki Sullivan. “and it broke his timing. So finally he said to me, ‘Niki, you get down here on the floor and when I nod my head, you reach up and move that switch for me.’ My big part in ‘Peggy Sue’ wasn’t even playing!”  

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