Ensure That Your Main Guitar Part Sings Loud and Clear
WHENEVER I’M OUT on the road, I always get asked about tone. There are the usual questions—like what guitar, strings, amps, and pedals I use—but, sometimes, there are very interesting questions about the philosophy of tone.
When layering guitar tracks on a record, I believe one needs to determine which guitar is going to be Frank Sinatra. I’m old enough to have parents who listened to tons of Frank when I was young, and I remember the great sound on those records. You had a big band with 12 horns and a rhythm section sounding big and fat, but when Frank came in, he sounded absolutely huge. The treatment of his voice in the mix makes it clear he is the star. Ten years ago, I made a record with Karl Ratzer—an amazing Austrian guitarist— and when asked by the engineer how he wanted his guitar to sound in the headphones, he simply said, “Make me sound like Frank Sinatra.”
I address guitar tones the same way. First, I determine which sound will be Frank. In an instrumental recording, this will be the main melody and the guitar solo. All other guitars will support these parts, so no other tones can be bigger. (I can name many examples of big, distorted rhythm guitars that overshadow a weenie-tone solo.) For example, if power chords are desired for the rhythm track, use small combo amps, double the part, and pan the two signals right and left in the mix. These parts will still cut through and rock the track, but will also leave sonic space for Frank to step in later.
Here is one of my “casting call” amp auditions at home in my garage. Who will make the cut?
Before I make a new record, I do a few days of pre-production in my garage. I set up around 15 amps and 10 speaker cabinets, and I imagine the parts for each song. I’m very conscious of the harmonic properties of each tube amp. The 6L6 amps do a certain thing, and that is very different from EL34 amps. Then, there are the sounds of 6V6s and EL84s—all with different harmonic overtones. I like to combine these tones, and listen to how the harmonics stack up.
Speaker cabinets make a big difference, too. Certain guitar parts are just perfect for 10-inch speakers, while others need the sonic girth of 12s. I like the way an open-back cabinet throws the sound around the room, and I’ve had many engineers place a mic behind the cab for added ambience.
The focus and challenge of pre-production is determining which combinations of guitars, amps, and speakers are assigned to which parts. If you own more than one guitar, chances are you have the option of selecting single-coils, humbuckers, P-90s, or Filter’Trons for supportive or dominant rolls in your song.
My advice is to spend the time before you start recording to find that perfect marriage of wood and tubes. Then, write down your settings in a logbook created for the project. This will give you a general place to start when you get into the studio, and, more often than not, you’ll stick to your original inspiration. After all, the last thing you want to do is upstage Frank!
Grammy-nominated guitar virtuoso Carl Verheyen has released 11 Carl Verheyen Band and solo albums, two live DVDs, two instructional DVDs, and two books. A member of Supertramp since 1985, Verheyen has performed to millions of fans in sold-out arenas worldwide.