Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a studio musician? Although it isn’t exactly what you would call an “in the spotlight” job, it can be very rewarding mentally, creatively and financially. I’m going to take you through the basics of being a hired gun in the music business.
Reader or Player
This is the stereotypical studio player who can read anything upside down and backwards in his sleep. This type of player usually gets calls for TV or movie stuff that has been meticulously arranged and doesn’t call for much interpretation. If you want to become this kind of studio cat, you are going to have to get going on your reading chops. Get as much reading material as you can and get your metronome out and start practicing today.
Also, don’t just read guitar stuff; read as much treble clef stuff as you can get your hands on. Because the guy who arranged the music probably isn’t a guitarist, the part he has written for the guitar probably isn’t guitar-friendly. The arranger is usually a pianist who doesn’t know too much about the limitations of the guitar, so he might write a guitar part that is awkward to play. It’s important to remember this: there aren’t many guitarists who are great readers. For this reason, these guys are really busy. If you want to make a bunch of cash, get your reading chops together.
This is the other kind of studio cat. The player has decent reading skills but generally is a great improviser and chord player. More so than notation, he reads chord symbols well and can play a guitar solo over anything you throw at him. He has an uncanny ability to come up with the perfect rhythm and solo parts for any tune. He gets in the studio and gets his chart, listens to the track and comes up with a part within a few minutes. Although there are probably guys who can do both, I personally have never met any of them.
The Speed of Light
No matter which player you wish to become, the most important thing besides playing the perfect part is speed. You hear guitarists always talking about speed, about playing lightening fast. But to the studio musician, speed means something else.
Studio time is very expensive. The studio is being rented by the hour and the engineer and assistant are also on the clock, so the producer wants you in and out of the studio as fast as possible. The whole thing is costing somebody a bunch of cash. That’s why if you are late or take too much time to get your part together, you’ll never get a call back. Be there early with your stuff set up, guitar tuned and have your track done in a take or two.
If you can’t get it together or are playing something the producer doesn’t like, he will walk in from the mixing room and give you a pep talk. This is the equivalent of the baseball manager walking out to the mound. Consider yourself in slight trouble. You will usually get paid by the hour for studio work. Where I live, I usually make about two or three hundred dollars per hour whether I use the whole hour or not.
Two Battle Plans
The trick is to make the producer happy, not yourself. On one of my first studio jobs, I was lucky enough to get the backing track for the solo part I was to record a week ahead of time. It was this slow ballad type of tune and I decided to do this crying, emotional type of solo that I was sure would fit the song perfectly. I worked it out and came up with the perfect solo. I got to the studio early, set my stuff up, put the headphones on and the tape started to roll. I played my solo exactly like I planned it. For me, it was perfect! I took off the headphones and walked back to the mixing room with my head held high.
I walked in thinking the producer was going to say he loved me. But instead he said, “I have in mind a different kind of thing, I want you to play a blazing, super high speed, burning solo!” I was at a loss for words; I had to rethink the whole thing from scratch. Needless to say, I ended up playing this super fast, mediocre guitar solo that nobody, including the producer, liked very much. The thing I learned from this experience is to plan two solos, one a complete extreme from the other. I usually end up playing one or the other or a combination of the two. Remember, don’t assume anything, and prepare two battle plans ahead of time.
Everything you play counts. You may work out the perfect solo but you’ll ruin the whole thing if your vibrato is out of whack or you bend your notes sharp or flat. Most guitarists are so concerned with chops that they overlook the small details. Make sure your guitar is in tune all over the neck. Have your intonation checked. Or better yet, learn how to set the intonation on your instrument yourself. These days I’ve been using a Suhr guitar set up with the Buzz Feiten tuning system, which ensures the guitar is in perfect tune everywhere on the neck. You also have to be careful with floating bridges because the way you rest your hand on the bridge can cause your guitar to go sharp. These small things may not bug you when you are on a gig or practicing with your band but they will make you cringe when you listen to the playback in the studio.
Start by paying attention to everything, every small detail of what you play, all the time. Whether you are in the studio or not, focus on every single note you play, every time you play your guitar, until perfection becomes a habit. Even if you play everything perfect, it counts for nothing if you are not in tune, so never be without a good tuner.
The Fortune Cookie
When I was about fifteen years old I got this fortune in my fortune cookie: “Simplicity of character is the natural result of profound thought.” This statement has helped guide me through all sorts of musical situations. It is way better to play something you can pull off than struggle with something you can’t. As I said before, speed is the name of the game in the studio. Think simple. You can sometimes say a lot more with something simple than something overly complicated. Technique is only important if it helps you play what you have in your head. Don’t play to show what chops you have. Speed should be used for contrast. A good guitar solo should be a song within a song, with a story all its own. It should have a beginning, a climax and a clear ending.
Where to Stand
There are basically two places to do your tracks. Some guys prefer to sit in the control room and run a line to an amp in the next room. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to wear headphones and you can have your amp up as loud as you want. You don’t need headphones because you can listen to what you play through the studio monitors. You can also talk freely to the engineer or the producer or the pretty girl that may be hanging around. The only disadvantage is that you are completely isolated from your amp. You can’t make your guitar feedback (the good kind) and you tend to lose sustain. Although it is uncomfortable, and the headphones make my ears hurt, I prefer to play in the same room as the amp. Some players may disagree but I think you get a much better tone.
There are really only three types of electric guitars in my book. A Stratocaster, Telecaster and a Les Paul are pretty much the only kinds of guitars there are. I’m not talking about shapes or brands; I mean sounds. Although I play a Suhr, and a 1960 Strat, I can get a Les Paul type of tone from the Suhr because of the vintage-type humbuckers I use in both the neck and bridge positions. I tend to use the humbuckers for rock and jazz. I use the Strat for blues and classic rock. If I need an even bluesier or country tone I have to bring a Telecaster.
Marshall and Fender are the two basic sounds. I’ve been using a Fender Dual Professional and a fifty-watt Marshall half stack for most of my recording these days. Most other amps are usually based of one of the two sounds. I generally use the Marshall for hard or classic rock and the Fender for the other stuff. If you don’t know what amps the studio has, bring your own. It’s a safe bet to always bring your own amp anyway. Even if the studio has some good amps, you never know what kind of condition they are kept in. The tubes could be five years old.
One more word of advice. It comes in handy to carry around with you some overdrive boxes just in case you can’t get the tone you want from the amps available. I have been using some stomp boxes made by a Japanese maker called HAO. They make handmade units that can duplicate vintage Marshall and Fender amps. I also recorded a CD for them to demonstrate their products. If you are interested, go to: http://www.jes-in.com/hao/index.html. The CD is also available from my website.
Dry As a Desert
The studio is a really dry-sounding room. There are most likely no reflective materials in the room, so the sound from your amp doesn’t bounce around at all. What you get is a super dry sound that makes it hard to play. We guitarists love reverb and delay and anything else we can get our hands on. But unfortunately, when you’re recording it is a better idea to put that on later. One reason is that once you record the track, you can’t change the speed or depth of the effects, so you’re stuck with a sound you may not like. It’s better to put the effects on later and tweak them to your liking.
Another reason is that the stomp boxes we guitarists use are usually cheap and therefore noisy, while the gear in the studio is way more expensive and sounds much better. So, you’re stuck in this dry-sounding room with no reverb or anything else on your guitar and you’re hating life. But the good news is that the engineer can put all the effects you want in your headphone mix. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Get Things Straight Ahead of Time
There are two ways to record your rhythm tracks and it’s best to get this straight ahead of time. The first is pretty simple: you play the rhythm part and you’re done. The other is more difficult: you record one track and the engineer pans it right, then you record the exact same track and pan it left. The engineer may want you to use a different amp and/or guitar for the second track. The thinking is that the two parts are slightly different in tone and will sound super fat. The problem is that the two tracks have to be identical, a mirror image.
I once had the experience of recording my rhythm track only to be asked to play the exact track one more time. I wasn’t prepared to do the same track again because I wasn’t really sure what I had just played. I apologized and started over again. If the tracks don’t match up perfectly, the effect will be lost and you’ll get this cloudy sounding track that will sound terrible. Ask the producer ahead of time how he wants to record the tracks and if he wants them doubled. If he wants them doubled, make sure you play something that you can play twice exactly the same.
Sometimes I record using two amps at the same time. You can get a similar effect this way. The other kind of doubled track is more like what Ron Wood and Keith Richards usually play: intertwined rhythm tracks that are nothing alike. Both the rhythm tracks are tonally and rhythmically completely different. They mesh nicely together. Before you do anything, make sure to get all the information you need before the tape rolls.
I really enjoy the time I spend recording in the studio. It not only keeps me on my toes but also keeps me connected with various people from the biz. It also keeps me prepared for doing my own stuff, which is the most rewarding part of one’s career.