Want Big Guitar Tone? Record As Few Guitar Parts As Possible

2015 Apr 13, 2015

Why is it that so many of us are addicted to recording a torrent of guitar tracks per song?

It’s almost like a badge of honor, having as many guitar tracks as possible. And we justify it by saying we’re “layering” tracks to get a huge wall of sound.

I mean, isn’t that what the pros do?

Maybe – or maybe not.


Via Art Bromage Flickr

The Irony Of Huge Guitar Tone

I get it – if you’re in the rock or pop (or even country) genre you usually want huge massive guitar tone. You want impact and power from your guitars.

I know I sure do.

But the irony is that we do the exact opposite of what we should be doing in order to achieve our goals of sonic awesomeness.

Instead of recording more and more guitar tracks (which follows the logic that if one guitar sounds cool – more guitars will sound cooler) we should be recording as few guitar parts as possible.

I’ll give you two big reasons why this is true.

Less Frequency Masking And Overlap

One reason mixing is so hard is that we need to take a handful of different recordings (tracks) and shove them all through a 2 channel pipe (your stereo output).

But if you have 10, 20, or 30+ tracks all squeezing through two speakers you get a lot of frequency overlap – or masking – where one track’s frequencies are covering up those of another track in your song.

In essence some of your tracks get hidden – or lost in the mix.

That’s why we all reach for things like panning and EQ to get as much separation and clarity as possible. We are trying to uncover our track’s true potential.

The more tracks we add to our song, the more potential exists for masking and overlap. Especially if we are adding a lot of the same type of instrument (i.e. guitars).

With every guitar part you “layer” you make it harder and harder to hear what’s already there. And at some point you are losing ground with each track you record, not getting ahead.

You’re in essence making your job of mixing harder – and potentially impossible.

This concept is reason enough for me to keep my guitar track count low, but there’s a second reason (or should I say benefit) to doing this that I want to share.

A More Intentional Arrangement

I’ve said it many times (and I’m sure I didn’t invent this) but good mixing is good arranging.

If you have an arrangement that is perfectly crafted (all the right parts in all the right places) your song will virtually mix itself.

So many of the songs I’ve listened to (or mixed) from home studios are doomed from the start – not because of the audio quality, but because of the lazy and poorly thought out arrangements.

And this is why there is a second benefit to recording as few guitar parts as possible – it forces you to craft a better, more effective arrangement of your song.

If you aren’t going to have a ton of guitar tracks – then each part must play a critical and complementary role.

Take the song we’re doing for the $300 Studio Challenge.

Last week I laid down the guitars and if you listen to the ending section (where all the guitars are in) you’ll hear only five parts. At its busiest moment there are only five guitar tracks.

You have the bass guitar holding down the bottom (and rhythm), the acoustic giving the texture and vibe of the song, the overdriven chords on the left, the complementing and harmonizing whole notes on the right, and then finally the solo up the center.

That’s it.

Every guitar part in that moment has a purpose. If I took one of them away, the song would feel empty. If I added one more to group, the mix wouldn’t improve at all.

That is a sweet spot – and that’s where you want to be.

Some Homework For This Week

I want to give you a little assignment this week (and don’t worry, I’m not gonna grade you) to further push this point home.

Go find one of your favorite songs that has (in your opinion) very full guitar sounds. Put on some decent headphones, find a quiet place, and then listen to the song with a critical ear.

I want you to count how many guitar tracks you can hear.

Not only count them, but take note of what they are doing for the song or what they are adding to the arrangement.

Then come back here and report your findings:

  • How many guitar parts could you hear? …and
  • Were you surprised by your findings?

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