Studio Guitarists` Survival Guide

Hey guys and girls,

I've been playing guitar for 17 years now, and began working in studios around 8 years ago. I've picked up a lot of rocks and diamonds along the way, although picking up the diamonds was obviously more fun, the rocks taught me a lot more - sometimes in a rather painful way.

This article should help you to benefit from my mistakes. Having your own experiences is invaluable but it is better to be prepared and to know what situations can await you in the world of studios, producers, broken cables, detuned guitars and free pizza.

There are different occasions that can end up with you sitting under headphones in a well air-conditioned room with the sound engineer pushing the red button. If you don't know what to do and how to do it, that red button can instantly trigger panic attacks, an empty brain and cramped up muscles.

In worst cases you won't be able to get a single straight note out of your instrument and you'll feel like your dog could play better guitar than you.

In best cases you lay down some awesome tracks in your first shot and everybody will pat your back making you feel like the godfather of recording artists. I want you to take a bit of the fear out by showing you the things that you can do to make a studio session successful. Everything is possible.

The Characters And The Surroundings

First I'd like to introduce you to the characters you will have to deal with in a studio. Depending on the size of the studio and the project that is being recorded, you'll meet several people there.

The Producer

This is the guy you have to make happy because he will pay you in the end - usually. He gets the order to deliver a product which could be a whole album for a band or singer, or a cat food commercial. He is responsible for the final product, the budget and how to spend it to get the desired results. Producers come in all flavors - they might be musicians as well, or just plain businessmen with a vision that they want to sell to someone else.

The Sound engineer

He is the one who is in charge of the sound, the whole recording process from micing the amps to pushing the recording button. If you can't hear yourself properly when recording, he is the guy to talk to. He will eventually ask you to do another take if there were any technical problems during the take - for instance if you were tapping your foot too loudly while recording an acoustic passage. It is the producer who gets to decide which track is used in the end.

The Songwriter

Sometimes you have to deal with the ones who actually wrote the music you are recording. He may give you complete lead sheets or just chords written on a napkin. He may have a distinct idea on what the guitar has to play including which inversions of which freaky chord he wants to have played at which part of the song. On the other hand he might not have a clue what he is expecting out of a guitar in that piece of music - it might have just been the producer's idea to throw in some guitar licks.

The songwriter and producer's idea of the finished product can be subject to change several times during a recording session. For you this means even more, different or edited chords on the napkin or the lead sheet. The lead sheet can look like a strategy plan for a football team, with arrows, crosses, dots, repetition signs, weird chord names, stains from coffee cups and perhaps a telephone number (don't mix it up with a chord formula and try to play it). Don't get confused. Try to be flexible and spontaneous - more later.

The Studio Owner

He might be around, or away on holiday. Maybe he'll drop by and make sure the long haired guitarist isn't going to blow up his expensive tube compressor. You won't have to deal with them a lot, but leaving a good and professional impression may be reason enough for him to suggest you to other people renting his studio for their projects. So be sure to compliment them on the fabulous acoustic design of the recording room, be interested in what material the ceiling is made of, but don't come across as a looney.

If you happen to be invited to a very small basement studio, all the people described above can be the same person. If you happen to meet one of those poor guys, make friends with him and he'll call you all the time for some work. He might not pay you well (or at all), but that is the place where you can gather experience without doing too much harm. He is usually a musician as well - preferably a keyboard player who built a small studio in the cellar of his parents house and tries to make some bucks with recording local bands or jingles for small local radio stations. He owns the equipment, writes the musical layouts, is responsible for the product and is recording you. If you are lucky, his mom can cook as well.

I've had the opportunity to record in a number of studios of all sizes in different countries - the tiny ones with posters of naked women on the wall, mid-sized ones with esoteric pictures on the wall by an artist who is starving around the corner, and huge ones where your way to the coffee machine is leading through a hall with walls covered with golden and platinum records. No matter where you end up though, always do the best you can and remember that it is all about music. If you are professional and easy to handle, you will be favorably remembered.

Whether a session turns out to be a devastating disaster - or fun and successful - comes down to how well you can deliver what is asked of you - how to achieve that is covered later - and is a matter of how well you get along with the people you are working with.

Quite some time ago, I was booked by a studio close to where I live. The guy on the phone seemed to be nice and the pay looked good. The tune I had to play on the guitar was quit easy and i was looking forward to becoming maybe a resident guitar player for all the work they would have. Everything sounded nice and easy - but it turned out to be a nightmare and I almost quit playing guitar after that night having struggled with the producer/songwriter for 4 hours.

I just couldn't make it right. My timing was way off he said, he didn't like the way i voiced the chords, he started to edit my vibratos, he wasn't happy with my note choice and ended up constructing childlike melodies for me to play. It was embarrassing. He was just giving me so much unnecessary pressure that I almost went nuts. It just didn't fit and the only professional actions left for me to take was to go through it all and telling him afterwards not to call me again for whatever reason there may be. Nobody is perfect and that can happen anytime to anyone and it is just not worth it.

On the other hand I have worked with some absolute pros that had recorded guys like the Scorpions, Jeff Beck, Seal, Huey Lewis and others. This work was smooth and entertaining like a walk in the park, and sold a few hundred thousand copies in the end.

What I want to say is that it's not only the size of the project can give you a hard time, but the people involved. I wouldn't be afraid if Peter Gabriel calls me tomorrow, but I might get extremely nervous if the insane jerk from next village would ask me to play on that incredible project from outer space he is working on. The quality of the finished product is not only determined by the quality of gear and technical ability of the musicians but by the atmosphere during the session as well.

As for the atmosphere, you can do your part by being gentle, polite and humble - not stiff and tense with a frozen smile on your face. Relax, you are there to make music - the thing you love.

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. 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 don't get 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....
  • whatever

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, rappers, producers or dancers. So the chances of finding work are better than ever.

Why should they call you?

Because:

  • 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 behavior
  • 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 "Guitar God X"
  • someone they can't rely on
  • a nervous wreck
  • someone who keeps proclaiming how amazingly he usually plays

They need:

  • 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 of acoustic strumming or picking, maybe even a guitar solo, doubled lead vocals with the guitar, a theme and variations of it, or 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 (nothing's worse than loosing your pick during a perfect take and not having a spare one to grab).
  • Maybe have a glass of water beside 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 lose 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.

The What Should I Be Able To Do's

To be in good shape for recording sessions there are a lot of things you can practice at home. Be prepared and know your abilities!

Here is what you can do and what you should work on:

A solid rhythm

Practice 8th notes, triplets, 16th notes and rests with a metronome or drum machine.
Practice strumming patterns and picking patterns for acoustic.

A good ear

Practice ear training! Figure out chords, progressions, intervals by ear. Be able to get a grip on phrases quickly.

Clean playing

Muting and dampening strings, changing chords with little or no sliding noises.

Dynamics

Hear how volume and sound differ if you pick the strings softer or harder and get comfortable with this. Be able to include it in your phrasing to feature accents and to add more life to your playing.

Variations

Practice chord inversion, chord changes with little overall tonal movement, changes in different inversions all over the neck. If you play the inversion the producer hears in his head quickly you save time and this can also get you the next job. To practice this skill, write and arrange guitar parts that contain three or more different guitar tracks that fit well layered over each other.

Versatility

Be able to play different styles with their distinct details as reliably as possible. You could be listening to Slayer in the car and run into a country session. To work on this skill, switch through radio channels and improvise over what you hear in that certain style.

Earpleasers

The usual clich&eacute things. No one needs a wholetone lick when a simple pentatonic doublestop does the job. To know what the producer wants - to listen as fast as possible - is one of your most valuable weapons!

Vibrato and Bendings

I think it was Steve Lukather who once said that he could hear if a guitarist is good or bad by just listening to him bending a note. I agree with him. To make a perfect bend or vibrato can tell you how much control that guitar player has. The more control, the better. Adding a sweet vibrato to a note is better than just waiting for a note to fade away.

Lead sheet reading

Practice reading lead sheets and be able to write your own. Sometimes you have to figure out progressions by ear, sometimes you get a lead sheet. They can differ in quality and are subject to change a few times during the session. Make sure you can read chord symbols and their variations. A lot of lead sheets are written by keyboardists or pianists; it is possible that they don't write out the chords as you would see them.

For example, they might write Dsus because they want a suspended sound there but you would see the chord as a C/D. Or they think of a Amin7/C which could be your average C major shape. Be aware of those differences in chord spelling. Be flexible.

Simplicity

Don't overplay. You are not recording a guitar album. A lot of times you are just there to fill spaces or to just deliver the sound of a guitar. Do this. Listen closely to the beat and melody, maybe vocals if available as well and fill spaces logically. Listen to jingles and hit songs - basically everything that is commercial - and figure out at which places the guitars are added. If you are used to playing whole melodies, try to play just every second note. Same with chord changes.

Know your gear

Be in tune. Tune before every take if necessary. A good guitar (bridge, nut and tuning machines) can save you that hassle, and saves time and nerves. If you bring your own pedal(s), know how to tweak the sound quickly (thinner, less distortion, more mids etc.). Most of the times your small multieffect unit does the job and no hi-tech racks or Marshall walls are needed. In some situations even the distortion is processed directly with the computer and you plug the guitar into the studios tube pre-amp that's connected to the computers soundcard. That makes it possible for the sound engineer to adjust the amount of distortion in the mix.

If you realize a slight delay between you plucking the strings and you actually hearing it through the monitors, ask the sound engineer to adjust the latency. Don't dare to play like that or you'll be wondering how you messed up your timing.

Relax

Don't panic, no matter what. You'll get sweaty hands and your muscles will tense up and you'll have a hard time sounding relaxed. You are dealing with human beings and mistakes are natural for everybody. Have fun. Smile and have a laugh if you hit the wrong note. You are doing this because it's fun and nobody forces you to do it. Don't be afraid to play even when you get corrected a few times.

Know your abilities. If you honestly feel that what you are asked for is beyond your abilities, be fair and humble and admit it. That will save valuable time and stress, plus they will know better for which situations you can be booked in the future.

Nobody can be perfect in all situations.

Know what you do

To know what key you are in helps how to play harmony parts for example.
Be able to double a take exactly. Maybe the producer wants to pan the
guitars, or they were not recorded in the first place. If you offer possible guitar lines that you would play, and the producer goes, "Yes, that's exactly what I want," you should be able to redo it.

The Cashtalk

Last but not least, a few words about money.

Of course you should be paid for what you did. But be fair. Maybe you can ask around and find out how much that studio usually pays to be not too much off.

Don't write a 400 dollar bill for playing two straight power chords and insist in getting it - especially if it's your first job at that studio. Be realistic, fair and understand that if the producer gets 500 for the job, he won't pay 400 to the guitarist.

If you are a pain in the butt he might do it, but you'll never hear from him again. Remember that a good reputation is what gets you jobs in this business.

If you can sort out a good deal that works for both parties, they'll be happy to call you for the next job. I'd even suggest doing the first job for free depending on the situation. Be someone to get along with well and don't show up with dollar signs in your eyes.

A Word On Home Recording

Doing home recordings surely helps to know the basic procedures of recording and gives you a picture on what you sound like on tape.

Nothing helped me more with sounding good than doing home recordings. There were times when I was recording and re-recording just a few seconds of a solo for hours and hours, 1000 takes maybe until it sounded the way i wanted it to sound.

The product is what you will be judged by. Nobody will ask you how many hours you spent in front of your 4 track, as long as they hear quality playing.

Before you decide to learn all the modes of the feng shui scale, take what you can already play and make it sound perfect - don't compare yourself with your high school's best guitarist but with world class players. Push the limits higher and always mess with the best. Even if you fail, let your goal be precious and valuable and you can be sure to succeed on your way. Work on all the tiny bits and details, listen with the ears of an elephant and be highly critical with the stuff you record.

If you want to impress a girl, you would take care in ensuring your words don't fall out off your mouth like stones as well, wouldn't you?! The notes and musical phrases are your words and sentences now - let them be as perfect, meaningful and true as possible - then you can pass on your recordings and be assured, even if someone doesn't like the music you are doing, that you have done everything possible to express what you wanted to say.

You should record yourself (a tape recorder can be enough) over and over again to check your playing from a listener's standpoint. You may be surprised if you are doing this for the first time. It's like hearing your voice on tape for the first time. You might go "Oh my god, is that really me?", but that is how everybody else hears you. If you don't like what you hear, analyze it and change what annoys you with practice.

Be brave, and good luck.

Sven Stichter was born in 1974, raised in Germany and first picked up the guitar when he was 13. He completed his studies at the American Institute of Music (A.I.M.) at age 17.

After having been focused on rock and metal, his musical interests diversified into other styles such as pop, country, hip and trip hop without losing sight of the essentials of being a good guitarist and performer.

Tone, musicality, technical ability, a good commercial ear combined with his own personal magic have made Stichter a well booked musician in a variety of categories.

Sven Stichter

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