Overdubbing is an art form with compositional options as complex as the act of songwriting itself. And the electric guitar is the perfect instrument for creative overdubs thanks to its melodic reach and huge sonic palette.
For an extreme example, check the studio recording of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Jimi Hendrix, who was an absolute master of creative overdubbing. He used tape speed variations, different guitar and amp tones, distortion effects, the whammy bar and his imagination to create a truly symphonic — and twisted performance.
Or course, overdubs at their most basic have a practical purpose. One guitar player can play rhythm to his or her own lead. A wonderful example is the rhythm-chord-and-whammy-bar hits David Gilmour placed beneath his marvelously emotive solos on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” arguably his crowning melodic statement as a guitarist.
Wild as Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” or as practical as Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb,” overdubs are, at the core, overdubbing is all about texture — about increasing the size and dimension of your recordings.
Here are 10 suggestions regarding overdubbing to consider:
• Forget Vérité: The world of recording is magical. Don’t be limited by real-world basics. The entire point of recording is creating a work of art, and one of art’s beauties is its ability to extend our perceptions, to prod us to imagine more than what we see or hear. So if you’ve got a guitar solo to cut, chances are putting a rhythm part beneath it — ala Gilmour’s “Numb” — is going to make that solo sound better. Cut the rhythm track first — unless you need the momentum of playing live with a band in the studio to solo — then go back and tag the lead on top. After that, drop the rhythm low enough in the mix during the solo that it supports rather than overwhelms.
• Go high and low: Nothing serves a growling, low-in-the-belly rhythm part better than contrasting it with a higher-voiced guitar part. Consider doubling parts accordingly.
• Contrasting Parts: When doubling, playing the same rhythm part or lead line is fine — especially if you want heavy. But throwing in a spikier or more colorful line that fits with the basic rhythm track gives listeners’ ears more to enjoy and expands the sound of the guitar.
• Harmonize: When playing a single note rhythm or a lead line, consider duplicating the same line a third or a fifth above or below, for starters. Also try sevenths and sixths. It worked for Duane and Dickey, and in the studio one guitarist can play both of their roles.
• Unplug: Some of the best rhythm tracks mix acoustic and electric guitars. Twined acoustic and electric guitars create a big, breathing layer of sound with plenty of contrast, but no inherent conflict. A classic example is the Who’s “Magic Bus.”
• Multiple Electric Guitars: If you’ve only got one guitar, borrow another from a friend when you’re cutting demos in the studio or even on GarageBand. Having two guitars to work with is ideal. That automatically gives you access to two instrumental voices. Aim for one guitar with humbuckers and another with single coil pickups, so the difference is as pronounced as possible.
• Mix ‘n’ Match Amps: The same applies for amplifiers. The option to lay down tracks with high-and-low gain amps, or quality clean and overdriven tones, is great for creating textures that will stand out thanks to their wide sonic range. If you’re constantly battling with band mates during mixing sessions — which can become arms races, which each “opponent” raising the stakes with their instrument’s volume” — and don’t have the option of excluding others from the room, cutting parts with a broad enough sonic expanse to stand up to any challenge in the mix goes a long way toward being heard, too.
• Use Effects: The irony of electric guitar purists — the “all I need is a cord and an amp” types — is that electricity itself is a bastardization of pure sound. If you fit that mold, it’s time to get over it. Sure, a good basic sound is essential, but pairing a straight-into-the-amp track with a track featuring just one effect — phase shifting, wah-wah, distortion, delay — tastefully yields a bigger and truly expansive, and often more original, sound.
• Take Risks: Layer feedback over rhythm parts and behind leads. Use slide as a textural device, pedaling on root notes to accent them. Drop in sonic bombs as accents. Any number of moves from the catalog of extended technique can help give your recordings more excitement. Just make sure they don’t dominate the mix. Check the recordings of Reeves Gabrels, Roy Buchanan and Marc Ribot for shining inspiration on this front.
• Check And Double-Check: It’s good to have a plan mapped out when recording anything, from demos to album tracks, but try to keep the door to more recording open. Often sweet ideas for fresh melodic, harmonic, counterpoint or contrasting overdubs develop with repeated listening. Give yourself time to go back and revisit your recording files or tape at least once before you consider a demo or album track done.