Guitars. They can be the most elusive to record, yet in many cases so crucial to the song...
Getting a great guitar performance depends on a number of factors, such as how well-rehearsed the player is, the vibe of the room, the mics, the outboard gear, and more. On top of that, it takes a lot of skill as a producer to work with the musician to bring the best out of them.
There are three main approaches to getting a great guitar performance. What will work for one guitarist may not work with another, and as a producer, or even if you're recording yourself at home, being aware of which approach facilitates the best takes for you is essential. We'll discuss these three approaches here and talk about how and why they work. We'll also explore the pros and cons of each method.
This is the age-old, tried-and-true method. In the days of analog tape, you couldn't just punch in and fix the way you sang one word. You had to play through the whole song and hope that you nailed it! Today, this approach is still popular because it is the most effective way to capture the full picture of the song. It allows the guitarist to be present in every moment of the song from the beginning to the end, enabling him or her to be more dynamic and aware of the vibe and feeling of the song in the context of its entirety. It captures the essence of the whole song while still giving you the option of choosing the best parts of each pass. In doing this right, it would be ideal to have about five to seven solid full takes of a performance to work with.
Pros: Getting a natural performance in its entirety, capturing the feel and dynamic of the song in context, giving you the option to comp
Cons: Running the risk of having a bad section and not having a take to replace it, potentially tiring out the players.
Section by section
This is also a great approach, especially with the technology we have nowadays, and I know some high-profile producers who drill this method. They will go section by section – for example, doing the first verse, jumping to the second verse, then going back and grabbing takes of the choruses. On each section, they will drill it over and over again, getting anywhere from 10 to 30-plus takes of that one section while steering it with advice, trying to get it absolutely perfect down to every single note. This method is great for being nitpicky and getting exactly what you want. It's really all about the details for this approach – do I want the guitarist to slide into the note or to hit it right on? Do I want the last word to cut off or hold out a tad bit longer? Do I want the section to sound more airy or full?
Pros: Getting specific on exactly what you want, digging into the details
Cons: Losing perspective on the song, risking the sections not flowing cohesively in the context of its entirety.
This can be the most versatile approach. You'll do a good number of solid full takes, listen back to all of them to discuss any particular issues or sections you want to redo, and punch in on just those areas. This will help your sections flow together cohesively while still allowing you to get into the details.
It does take a lot more time and effort during the recording process because not only do you have to do the full takes, you also have to listen back, address the issues, then go back and re-track. But as a result, I find that this approach ensures the highest chances of guaranteeing a "perfect" performance of the song as a whole.
Of course, it's debatable whether or not a performance can ever be perfect, but this approach will give you the most flexibility and options to ensure that you have the best and most material to work with to piece together a solid performance.
Pros: Preserving the vibe of the whole song while being able to get into the details
Cons: It's a taxing process, it may tire out the singer, it can take quite a long time to do properly
When it comes down to it, the best way to capture a performance is really dependent on the individual players. Being attentive to the song's needs and potential is what will give you the best results from these approaches.
It would be a good idea to start with full takes to get a sense of what the entire piece is like, (especially if you've never worked with all of the musicians involved in the project). And if you know the musicians, try to find out which approach best suits each person, and be flexible! It's a fluid process, and it takes a lot of practice and patience to get a great performance, but in the long run the hard work is always worth the effort.