The Challenges Of Recording Solo Acoustic Guitar
I had an email from a subscriber recently, and I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember his name because these days unless I write things down, nothing gets done or remembered. It's my age you know. Anyway, he asked me if I had any tips on recording solo guitar as he had recently been doing so and was having a hard time. He said "Everything is just so exposed, I hear every note, fluff and squeak, and it just sounds terrible and I had to give up in the end".
This email struck a chord with me because during the last few weeks I have been finishing up my new beginners/intermediate guitar course, 'Guitar Made Simple' and have been recording all the audio examples here at my home studio. Now I can tell you that for me, writing this course and getting inside the head of someone who knows nothing about guitar, I mean a total beginner, was no small feat, because after playing guitar for a good while, we naturally take things for granted. Just to illustrate this further, years ago when I gave private instruction, a lady once said to me, "If I fret this note with my left hand here, do I have to strike the same string with my right hand?" This of course may be extreme, but I can assure you that when someone has never touched a guitar in their life, it can indeed be rocket science to them, so teaching needs to be done carefully and attentively during a student's early stages. And so my audio examples in the first part of this course needed to be played very slowly and explained articulately.
So I'm recording these audio examples, and I find that because many of them are played on the acoustic guitar, solo, with nothing but a little reverb to make me sound better, recording say four notes very slowly in isolation, is unbelievably hard! Just to play a two octave scale, at say metronome mark 60 evenly and cleanly is extremely challenging.
Now, because it's my guitar course I'm writing, I can hardly give up can I? and the truth is that what is acceptable to me and what is acceptable to anyone reading through the course may well be two different things, but for my own horribly anal and perfectionist nature, I simply HAD to get these little examples to sound as good as I personally could. Even to play one simple chord in isolation with the fingers, where all the notes came through evenly, where the attack of the chord sounded absolutely right, well that was quite an issue too. Not to mention microphone noise and technical issues to get the level right and so on. I would brush the pickguard of my guitar ever so lightly and I would hear it in the recording, and naturally it was unacceptable and had to be re-recorded. And breathing? Well forget it! OK - a little drama here, but you know what I mean. The damn mike picks up absolutely everything. Oh for a drummer to soak everything up!
Have I gone mad you ask? Well no, and I thought I had too, but I put this whole experience down to well, just that - experience. I was a professional session guitarist for years, having played on TV shows, albums and now a recording artist with five albums to my name, so why on earth was this so difficult?? But I honestly hadn't recorded anything so difficult in a long time! Oddly, the process got easier as the examples got more challenging. Anytime I got to layer an instrument, the recording went just that little bit quicker because it wasn't so exposed.
I have recorded quite a lot of solo guitar in the past, but music that had a beginning, middle and end and one could get into a 'performance' state of mind, and at comfortable tempos. These little isolated examples were difficult because so many of them had to be played so slowly, and at the end of the day I can't recommend that students run before they can walk.
So what advice do I have to impart? Well first I can now highly recommend that if you think you have good time, if you think you know how to play cleanly and evenly, know how to stop individual strings ringing on when they need to be muted while playing others, know how to project each note at the same volume as the next, then I urge you to play a G major scale, solo acoustic at metronome mark 60 and listen back to yourself. And a better microphone may just make things worse because you'll only hear more!
Is this advice or instilling fear into you? Well it may be the latter and I do apologize, but only because I may not actually have any real advice other than just do it. I believe that if your ears are open, what you hear back from your recording should tell you what you need to work on.
Here's the good news...
Do we really want to be robots? Do we actually want to have a quantize button attached to our guitars? Do we want to be that serious and intense? I think the answer is no. This is why most of us are more attracted to humans playing music than machines. Music should push and pull, it should ebb and flow and shortcomings are often the character in one's playing, to an extent. We need to just relax and play.
But if you are to record your acoustic guitar solo, you will no doubt come face to face with certain issues that I did, and my subscriber friend did also. All I can suggest is this; First, don't give up, but understand that one needs to surmount a problem to the level of personal acceptance. In other words, if it sounds good to you that's OK, provided you are pushing yourself and striving for your personal best. Now, that template will probably change as you grow as a musician and what was acceptable then may not be now.
All I can say is, however you feel about this stuff, and whatever level you're at, recording yourself playing solo acoustic guitar very very slowly is just bloody good practice!
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