Thinking about it, the tones I admire tend to fall into two categories. There are those arrived by tracking lots of parts with distinct but complementary tones, in order to build up a sound that couldn’t be arrived at with any one guitar/amp combination. Others happen when a player simply has a great tone and the arrangements they’re working with give them the space to let it shine: Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Curtis Mayfield, Andy Summers, Jimmy Page, Roger McGuinn would all fall into this category for me. None of these players functioned in particularly dense musical settings, and certainly none of them (not even Page) made their trademark the kind of persistent, steady-state energy that happens when you put together a wall of a dozen or so distorted guitars.
However, the latter practice is ubiquitous in most forms of modern rock music. At some point – and I guess it happened in the seventies, as 16- and 24-track recording became pretty much standard in professional studios – someone realised that just because the band had, say, two guitarists, that didn’t mean they had to stop putting down rhythm-guitar tracks once they’d done one each. They could do two each. Four each, even. In fact, if they were needed you could bounce tracks together and just keep going.
I don’t know who it was who made this breakthrough, but the practice grew more and more widespread so that for getting on for thirty years now this is how the majority of guitar-based rock music has been produced: drums, bass, then big old wall of guitar, then vocals and solos and any extra bits. An awful lot of real estate, then, both in terms of tracks and in terms of space within a rock mix is given over to creating a bed of distorted guitars.
As mentioned above, a standard way of doing this is to blend together different but complementary tones: a classic example is doubling a powerful midrangey guitar, like a Les Paul, with something brighter and cutting, such as a Strat or Tele. This way you can get a tone on record that you can’t in real life. If there’s a guitar that gives you the sustain and creamy midrange of an LP with the clarity and cut of a Tele, I’ve yet to hear it.
I love this approach to recording guitars. I grew up with it. I do it myself. The first rock band I really listened to as a teenager was Nirvana and I loved the guitar sounds on Nevermind, so hearing Butch Vig take the rhythm-guitar bed on Drain You apart for the Classic Albums DVD was really cool. But Cobain was just the tip of the iceberg: I later came across the playing of Bob Mould, Jerry Cantrell, Kevin Shields and Billy Corgan, all of whom were great at creating a huge wall of guitar by various means. Of course, credit also has to go to the producers and engineers these players were working with: Dave Jerden, for example, who produced AiC’s Facelift and Dirt albums, had a technique whereby he split the guitar signal to three different amps, picked for their qualities in certain frequency ranges, so he’d have one amp to give him his low end, one for the midrange and one for the top. And anyone who appreciates a wall of blazing guitar will tell you that Cantrell’s sound on Dirt absolutely rules.
Other guitar sounds I really love? Angus and Malcolm Young on Back in Black. Bowie on Rebel, Rebel. Nile Rogers on anything. Various Beatles sounds, too: Lennon on Ticket to Ride (the first Beatles record where the guitar is pushed to the point where it’s starting to really saturate and come alive), Harrison’s distorted tone on Strawberry Fields Forever (about 2.55 in), the lead guitar on Fixing a Hole, McCartney’s solo on Taxman. Great stuff, all of it.
I’ll be back later with one little practical tip then I’ll give the guitars a rest for a while.
Dave Jerden knows how to record guitars and he’s not taking any guff from the likes of you. ©Gonzo Sandoval.