Studio Guitarists Survival Guide
(11 Jan 05)
The what to do's and the why's
To be a studio guitarist, I thought in my younger teens, was nearly impossible 'cause I always thought that I wasn't good enough. On the one hand, that kind of thinking made me practice harder, on the other side I did not even have a clue what it took to be a studio guitar player. It was a big myth back then - and not only to me, maybe because studios were huge, expensive and unaffordable for the average musician.
Since technology made it possible to a lot more people to open up studios of all sizes, opportunities to get booked became available. Btw. Thank god that guitar is a difficult instrument to emulate on a sampler or synthesizer.
Of course I can only speak for myself and about my experiences, and there are probably a lot of ways to get into the recording scene, but I was just the average, hard practicing kid, so why shouldn't it work for you as well.
Any reference to "they" or "them" in the article is directed towards the producer(s) of a project or anyone who is responsible for hiring you.
Why do some studios need a guitarist?
Styles and requirements can vary a lot. Somehow they need the sound of an electric or acoustic guitar on that composition. This is where a guitarist is obviously needed.
It has to be done quick, 'cause time is money and the sooner the guitarist is on "tape" the better. This is the first good reason to be on time as well - but be there too early, they might have a tight schedule and don't need musicians hanging around while they are working.
You rarely know what you will get to play over - it could be drums, a click-track, a midi backing or a finished song/jingle (for which adding some guitar was an afterthought which has to be taken care of quickly). Anything is possible, and that's part of the fun.
So, why should there be a need of a "new guitarist"?
Don't they have someone who they usually call?
Again, anything is possible:
Maybe they have someone who usually does the job, but maybe
- he is ill
- he is on holiday
- he wants too much money and the budget is limited for that project anyway
- his equipment is broken
- he is getting divorced
- he gave up....
The other thing is that today there are millions of studios and the number of (good) guitarists is reduced. Compared to 10/15 years ago, kids now tend to be dj's or rappers, producers or dancers. So the chances of finding work are better than ever.
Why should they call you?
- you know them personally for some reason and they give you a try
- you were recommended
- they heard your recordings and liked them or need something in that style
- they heard you play live
- they somehow have your business card
- you live upstairs
- you are a cool guy and you met one of the studio guys in the pub yesterday
There are hundreds of possibilities here as well. Your chances increase if you take the initiative yourself to get closer to them - promote yourself.
Now, what do they expect from you?
They don't need:
- (mindless) shredding
- rockstar behaviour
- someone who has done it all
- your knowledge of 212 scales plus their modes
- marshall stacks
- a sightreading master
- a guy showing up with his girlfriend
- someone who can't stop talking about guitargod x
- someone they can't rely on
- a nervous wreck
- someone who keeps proclaiming how amazingly he usually plays
- A reliable cool guy who is into music and can play the guitar that fits their needs.
Yes, that is all there is.
You don't have to be a virtuoso or guitar monster. That does not help, it can even put you under pressure and turn everything into a disaster. So don't brag about how versatile and reliable you are before you've even recorded a note. They will get the idea by themselves.
As I said, there are hundreds of different options and settings, but all they generally need is a solid and usually clichéd guitar track.
What to play?
Basically whatever fits the style and can be sold. It can be a whole song you have to play, including riffs, overdubbed licks, doubled rhythm guitars, a bit acoustic strumming or picking, maybe even a guitar solo, doubled lead vocals with the guitar, a theme and variations of it, the outro solo. Maybe it is just a theme that needs to be doubled, or maybe just one tough powerchord and the end of a jingle.
You may be asked to play in the style of guitarist "x", so know what the differences are in the styles of a couple of famous guitarists.
Due to the amazing recording possibilities nowadays don't be surprised if the producer cuts your recorded tracks in pieces and uses just bits and pieces for the song.
There might be a predetermined idea on what the guitar has to do - then just try to fit it as close as possible. They might also have no clue what you ought to play - then just offer possible guitar lines in the appropriate style.
Under the headphones
This is usually where you end up. That will be your working space for the next 5 minutes or few hours.
- Before you finally start playing, go to the toilet, wash your hands.
- Check your tuning again.
- Take all the guitar picks you might need and put them on a place that is easy to reach (nothings worse than loosing your pick during a perfect take and not having a spare one to grab).
- Maybe have a glass of water besides you.
- Have the lead sheet napkin in front of you (if you need it).
- No matter if you sit down or stand up to play, make sure to have the guitar in the "easy to play" position. It's not the right time for headbanging with the guitar down at your knees.
- Make sure that you can see the guy who is recording you. If you record acoustic with a microphone, he might sit in the next room and you are separated by glass. If you are recording electric guitars you stay probably in the control room with the others.
- People who are in the same room with you while recording should know how to behave and be quiet - if they are not, tell them to do so. This is your time for work and you need to be able to concentrate. They will respect that because they don't want to be disturbed when they are doing their part of the job.
- Have a test run and check the volume of the playback. You don't want to loose your eardrums but you have to be able to hear everything that's necessary. Play and check the volume of your guitar and how it fits in the overall sound. Let the backings be as basic as possible. You should hear the beat clearly. If there are instruments playing the chords make sure to hear them as well. They may help guiding you through the parts. Most of the times you won't need massive background choirs to record your guitar tracks, so tell the sound engineer to mute them for you. You have to be absolutely comfortable with your mix in the headphones. If you mess things up you can't complain afterwards that it was because you couldn't hear a thing, so have everything set up before you start recording.
A small tip - if you are doubling guitars, let them be panned hard left and right so that you can tell the difference between the guitar track that is already recorded and the one you are playing now. I always have the "old" one panned hard left and the "new" one panned hard right. Chances are better for you to nail them exactly on top of each other if your brain can separate them.