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10 Tips For Overdubbing Guitars in the Studio

Ted Drozdowski

Verité be danged! Overdubbing guitars on studio recordings — or even on GarageBand — opens up an entire new universe of compositional logic, textures and sounds, and makes your recordings larger than life. Overdubbing can also help you exceed your grasp as a player. Here are 10 things to consider when recording overdubs on your home demos or in the studio:

• Think texturally: Sure, overdubbing allows you to record both rhythm and lead tracks yourself, but that’s no big deal. The beauty of overdubbing is in creating wonderful soundscapes, where parts intertwine, emerge, appear and disappear in the mix. For a primer, investigate Jimi Hendrix’s studio version of the “Star Spangled Banner,” which also throws tape-speed manipulation into the fray to achieve fife-like high tones.

• Use multiple guitars: One of the coolest ways to expand the sonic palette of a recording is to use multiple guitars for overdubs. Imagine a tapestry of single-coil and humbucker tones; solid body and hollow body sounds; acoustic and electric six strings. Now go create that tapestry.

• Use multiple amps and setting: Blending high gain and clean tones, vintage and modern sounds, or a variety of any of the above makes for satisfying orchestration and listening. If you’ve got just one good amp, try making the most of the gain and clean stages, or even rolling off all the bass and going with full-throttle treble for a track. Double a rhythm or lead part with low-voiced and high-voiced tracks to get an idiosyncratic sound. There are plenty of variations to explore.

• Think rhythmically: Texture isn’t just for lead, harmony or melody lines. Consider blending a chordal track with a single-note rhythm figure, or maybe a sliding chord accent over a bed of chords locked tight to the beat. I recently wove together four guitar tracks — open tuned chords, a sliding dyad, standard tuned barre chords picked as single notes and a single note line — into the rhythm part for an old-school Memphis soul style song I wrote and recorded, employing that blend to evoke the guitars-plus-horns orchestration of classic tunes like Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “I Pity The Fool” and Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood.” And with judicious use of space there was still plenty of room for elegant B-3 organ.

• Use space: Overdub shouldn’t crowd the mix. Space is truly the final, neglected frontier in many modern rock recordings. Lay down as many guitar tracks as you like, but leave room between the notes to let the music breathe and be fully heard and appreciated by listeners. Today’s penchant for ultra loud mastering can also take the space out of recordings and turn interwoven guitar tracks into mush. Once again, look to our guru Jimi for guidance. His Axis: Bold As Love album has many guitar overdubs, but they all have presence thanks to his wise use of space and the virtues of old-school, head-phone mix, home stereo style mastering. To investigate the rock old guard’s use of space further, listen to the classic albums Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan’s Aja. Both feature smartly layered overdubs of all kinds. Then check out the latest Artic Monkeys record or even Adele’s 21. Although the Adele album’s instrumentation is quite spare, there’s an absence of space in the mix that puts it firmly in the modern realm and makes the album feel sonically crowded. Let your ears be your guide.

• Exceed limitations: So you’re not the flashiest six-string player around. No big deal. You can break complex chord-and-single-note parts into small bits and overlay them as multiple tracks to become your inner guitar hero in the studio.

• Balance effects: Sometimes guitar tracks laden with effects can be overpowering or undermine a rhythm track’s ability to drive a song. Try tracking the same part twice — once with the effect or combination of effects you’re looking for, and once sans effects. Then pan the tracks left and right in the mix. You’ll get the core sound you need with the outré tonal color your desire.

• Evoke St. Pete: One of Pete Townshend’s signature studio moves is blending acoustic and electric guitars together — either playing the same parts or slight variations, or chiming out radically different bits. It’s an effective way of broadening the sonic horizon and can be heard at great efficiency on “Pinball Wizard,” “Baba O’Riley” and many more classic Who tunes.

• Don’t get lost: A word of caution: overdubbing can become a studio rabbit hole. Don’t get lost in it. A good strategy is to cut basics first plus any initial overdubs that are already planned. Then take files or CDs of those rough mixed tracks home. Play them and see where more guitar parts would add to the songs. Then track the new parts on GarageBand or other basic home demo software to see how well things mesh.

• When in doubt, throw ’em out: Be a good editor. If the overdubs you’ve conceived clutter a song or fail to add anything of harmonic, melodic or sonic significance, leave them out of the final mix. Overdubbing can be as much about discovery and experimentation as a finished result. Even when a part doesn’t work, something valuable has been learned.

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