Session Guitar Tips With Andrew Timothy
This is a guest post written by AirGigs member Andrew Timothy
For as long as I’ve been playing guitar I’ve been fascinated by the recording process. Specifically, by how different session guitarists approach creating parts and crafting tones for a given song. There’s an artistic and creative element that can’t be captured and put into words. But there are also thought processes and techniques that anyone can utilize in their own way on their sessions.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the ideas and techniques I’ve picked up over the years for creating great guitar parts. First I’ll share some general tips, then I’ll walk you through my personal approach for tracking guitars on a remote session. I try to keep these ideas in mind on every session.
Play for the song.
Usually that means “don’t get in the way of the vocal”. The guitar typically plays a support role in most commercial styles. Rhythm parts should lock in with the drum groove. Melodic tracks should NEVER get in the way of the vocals.
Think like a producer.
One of the challenges of remote recording is that I don’t have a producer to bounce ideas off of. Thus, I’m forced to think like a producer. That means keeping the big picture in mind. Always know the end goal. Keep the primary focus of the song in the forefront.
Switch guitars and amps frequently.
If you have options, use them. If not, you can cover a ton of tonal ground by turning knobs, switching pickups, using a different pick, changing your attack, etc.
Vary wet vs dry tones and dark vs bright tones.
I tend to keep most tracks fairly dry in terms of timebased effects, but I’ll often contrast with a verbed-out part to keep things interesting. The same goes for bright vs dark tones. A bright Tele tone sounds great paired with a darker Les Paul track.
Don’t be afraid of extreme or “ugly” tones.
I had the privilege of chatting with Pete Thorn at a clinic here in Nashville recently. He told me not to shy away from extreme tones, as long as they sit well in a mix. Many people would be surprised by how bad individual guitar tracks sound in isolation. When you’re dealing with several guitars stacked in a mix, there’s only so much space in the sonic spectrum for each one. Sometimes an extremely midfocused tone is the best choice. Basically, learn to think like a mix engineer, not so much like a guitarist who always goes for the biggest, most robust tone.
On that note, learn to mix as you go.
When I’m tracking on a remote session, I’ll do a basic mix job to my guitar tracks as I go. Usually that just means some panning and light EQ. For EQ, I’ll roll off anything below around 100Hz, cut ~3dB around 450Hz, and find a nice mid frequency to boost on each track. This helps to see the bigger picture and makes it obvious if any more guitar tracks are needed. When bouncing down tracks, I’ll bypass pan settings so the mix engineer can make those decisions later on.
Make transitions smooth.
I like to think of transition areas in a song (say, the verse going into the chorus) like a baton hand off in a race. Try sneaking your chorus guitar in on the last couple bars of the verse. Similarly, don’t kill the verse tracks right before the chorus. Let them ring out over the first bar or so of the chorus. This creates a more natural feel and makes the transition less blunt.
With those general tips in mind, let’s take a look at my specific approach to tracking guitars on a remote session.
1. Listen and take notes.
Before I pick up a guitar I’ll listen to the guide track a couple times to get a feel for the tune, the vocal melody, the progression, etc. I’ll also sketch out a Nashville number chart. Often times my clients will give me a few artists or songs that capture the sound and feel that they’re after. I’ll give those a listen as well. Once I have a good idea of how the finished product should sound I’ll start tracking.
2. Start with the Chorus.
I always record choruses first. This is a tip I picked up from Tim Pierce, one of my favorite session guitarist. Choruses are generally big dynamically, and they’re the focal point of the song. If you begin there, you’re not as likely to “paint yourself into a corner” by filling up the verses with guitars and then struggling to make the chorus bigger.
3. Double rhythm tracks or create similar parts to pan hard left and right.
For a modern sound, it’s great to double rhythm parts to pan hard left and right. Sometimes I’ll double acoustic tracks, sometimes electric tracks, and sometimes both. It really depends on what the specific song calls for.
Another technique I use is to create parts that aren’t doubled, but are complementary. For example, you could have one part strumming big chords and the other part playing arpeggiated ideas. Or one part could play an idea over beats 1 and 2 and the other part could fill out the back of each measure. The possibilities are endless.
4. Add guitars to verses, intros, turnarounds, etc.
Once I’m happy with the choruses, I’ll move on to the verses, intros, and turnarounds. In general, I like to keep my playing fairly sparse on verses. The idea is to create contrast with the chorus, both in terms of tone and dynamics. An effective technique is to bring in a new part halfway through the verse. This builds momentum and intensity as you move closer to the chorus.
One last idea for verses…another tip I picked up from Tim Pierce. Use verse 2 or verse 3 to introduce an off the wall kind of sound or part. This is the kind of part that won’t necessarily be at the forefront of the mix, but will definitely be felt. Explore sounds such as a reverse delay, a whammy sound, a synthy part, formant filters or any other rarely used sound. Or experiment with unorthodox effect combinations. It’s a good opportunity to grab that pedal you forgot you had and create something memorable! Check out the LA session great Michael Thompson for inspiration.
When it comes to intros and turnarounds (often the same chord progression), I try to keep it simple and memorable. For the genres I get called to record, the guitar often provides a melodic hook on the intro and turnarounds. It’s hard to go wrong if you base your melody on the vocal hook.
5. Create something unique in the bridge.
Typically the bridge is all about new ideas…a new chord progression, a lyrical twist, a new drum groove, etc. Go with that. Bring a new tone or texture to the bridge. If your guitars have been fairly clean thus far, go with a dirty tone. Maybe your parts have been floaty and ambient…bring something heavy and dry to the bridge. Sometimes simply adding one new tone to the bridge can be all it takes to make it stand out from the rest of the song. In a typical ABABCB song form (A=verse, B=chorus, C=bridge), it could be really cool to keep your new bridge sound going through the last chorus to bring the song to a climax.
6. Sweeten it up.
Ok, so there are guitars all over the song. The choruses pop, the verses are unique, the bridge takes it up a notch. Before calling it a day, I’ll take one final listen and see if there are any additional parts I can add that sweeten it up. Sometimes I’ll add lead fills on a verse. Or maybe I’ll double a melodic hook in another octave. Maybe there’s an ambient swell type part that adds a little magic to the chorus. These little ideas are often the difference between an average sounding track and a truly memorable track.
There you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the curtain of a typical remote guitar session. Take these ideas and experiment with them on your next session. And be sure to leave a comment below to add your own ideas and tips.