GREAT GUITAR TONES STICK TO PETER FRAMPTON like gnats on a spider’s web. But, of course, nothing is as easy as it seems. Throughout his almost four decades as a professional musician, Frampton has been committed to refining his craft and developing his sound, and he has worked with enough legendary engineers and producers to compile a vast playbook of studio strategies. Frampton’s latest album—and his first-ever all-instrumental project—Fingerprints [A&M/UMe] was mostly recorded in the comfy confines of his very own home studio. Although the majority of GP readers probably don’t have personal recording spaces as well equipped as Frampton’s, the guitarist’s basic approach to crafting sounds is something that transcends gear. So, as Kevin Spacey’s mean-boss character spews in Swimming with Sharks, “Listen and learn!”
How do you approach crafting your guitar tones in the studio?
For me, it’s important to have a number of different amps and guitars at hand, because I get inspired by different sounds. First off, I usually get a decent sound on the amp, and then decide whether the best sound for the part I’m playing is a single-coil or a humbucker. I can’t remember the process exactly, because I’m seeking an inspiring tone for each guitar part, and getting excited by a sound is all very spur of the moment.
I definitely prefer to get the sound in the studio before the mics are set up. Getting the best match of guitar and amp is critical, and I’ll worry over those details forever. Someone once said to me, “You’re like molasses,” because I’m so methodical. I do take my time. The engineer in me is the complete opposite of the live guy—who is totally a spur-of-the-moment guy. My approach for live performance is that there’s no second take. But you’re under a microscope in the studio, and in order for me to play my heart out, I have to be completely turned on by the sound. Whereas the audience gives you the adrenaline live, the thing that gives it to me in the studio is having that killer sound. It’s like you can’t stop playing because you love the tone so much. This is why I’m so obsessive about sound. I’ll take all day to choose an amp, choose a guitar, and sort out mic placement, and then I’ll be too exhausted to play until the next day. It’s whatever it takes. Some things come in a minute, some things take three days, and you never know how long it’s going to take.
Do you have a typical method for miking your amps and guitars?
I’ve found that mic technique is all down to trial and error. Basically, I work two different ways as far as electric sounds go—close-miking and room miking. For close-miking, I typically position a Shure SM57 at a 90-degree angle somewhere near the middle of the paper diaphragm between the speaker cap and the rim. I don’t like pointing the mic directly at the center of the cone, because the sound is a little too honky for me. I might also place a different mic close by to complement the sound of the SM57.
For the room sound, I’ll position a couple of vintage Neumann U67s about ten or 12 feet away from the amp in a wide, left/right stereo configuration. You don’t have to use vintage Neumanns for this in your studio, of course—any good condenser mics should do the trick. However, I remembered that, back in the old days when I was with Humble Pie, [engineer and producer] Glyn Johns used U67s to record just about everything. I don’t remember seeing SM57s in the studio back then. And when I got my hands on these beautiful old U67s, I can see why. You can put them close to the amp, and they capture virtually the same sound as you’re hearing in the room—as long as you don’t place them too close. If I use the U67s for close miking, they’re about 18 to 24 inches away from the amp.
Sometimes, I’ll also set up a stereo Royer Labs SF-24 ribbon mic—or two mono Royer R-121 ribbons in an X-Y pattern—between the close mics and the room mics. So, you see, I’m typically recording five tracks to capture one guitar sound. For recording my acoustic guitars, I typically position one Neumann KM 184 by the soundhole, and another KM 184 by the fretboard. The Royers also sound good on acoustic guitars.
How does the environment of your recording space affect the overall guitar sound?
My home studio area is a combination of cherry wood, stone, and absorptive fabric, so it produces a lot of nice signal reflections. It’s probably 25' x 20' with a 14' ceiling—which is just big enough to give you an ambient sound without getting too bombastic or reverb drenched. We get pretty loud in there, but there’s definitely a threshold where the volume overwhelms the room, and you don’t get any ambience at all.
What’s your position on recording with or without EQ?
I usually track myself flat. You shouldn’t have to do a lot of EQ. It’s okay to EQ things when you’re mixing, as you typically have to change a sound’s shape a bit to fit it into the sound spectrum. However, if I’m tracking, and I can’t get a good sound with the right microphone and mic preamp, then I’ll break it all down and start over. There are no rules, really—you just do whatever sounds good.
As Fingerprints is your first all-instrumental album, did you have to make any adjustments for the fact you were interpreting each song solely with guitar?
Yes—and that was an eye opener. The thing with an instrumental is that there isn’t a lyric to make the second verse more interesting than the first, and that epiphany slapped me right in the face! I realized that I had to keep the interest going and build the song, so I’d occasionally throw in a harmony line or interpret the melody slightly differently. I found myself approaching the themes as a jazz player might express them by adapting and developing the melody lines to keep surprising the listener. I also switched between using a pick and plucking notes with my thumb to present some dynamic variation.
Is it truly an advantage to record your own tracks, or do big studios offer a kind of professional mojo that most personal spaces can’t hope to emulate?
Well, it is a luxury being able to work in your own space. To this day, whenever I work in a commercial studio, I always feel rushed. It’s like, “Oh God, I’m paying for this!” But whether you record in your home studio or in a big-time facility, the pressure is still on you to deliver the goods. I’ve painfully learned that you can have all the best equipment in the world, and if you don’t rise to the occasion, the magic ain’t going to get on tape. And, trust me, I’ve been there [laughs].