9 Tips for Recording Heavy Rhythm Guitar

Updated: Feb 24

I consider the role skull inlays play in the quality of a guitar's tone - Multi-tasking while wearing a guitar (don't do it) - You're not Yngwie, but that's a quality I like in you - How to get Blue Whales to like your riffs - Apologize to your local snake coil salesman - Some examples

Rolling up your jeans will NOT improve your tone

Getting big, tight heavy guitar tones at home can be a bit tricky. If you're a guitarist, you've probably had the experience of hitting play on something you've just recorded and being simultaneously underwhelmed and over-confused.

Why does this sound so.....small?

Do I need a bigger amp?

Do I need a guitar with a more skull inlays?

You probably have everything you already need for a nice chunky tone. Here are some things to keep in mind:

1 - Keep a clean DI signal for your takes

You may have a tone that you LOVE in isolation. Those palm muted chords really chug out of your amp in your mom's basement. That's cool and I love it but here's the thing: it may not work for your recording. You may find that the full mix, with all of the other instruments, requires a different tone. A recording technique that adds a TON of flexibility is to split the signal out of your guitar and record both a dry, DI (Direct Input) signal and the signal running through your entire signal chain and amp. "Dry" means unprocessed. Most USB interfaces have a high impedance input that can be used to directly record a guitar or bass output. If you have the dry signal, you can "audition" different amp settings or different effect chains after the fact and find what will best. It can be SUPER annoying to dial in your amp tone while holding a guitar pick in your mouth, wearing a guitar and trying to hear the rest of the mix. It is much easier to just loop playback of the mix and then work on tweaking that amp sound. This is called "re-amping" and not only can you do it at home, you can also give your mix engineer the option by providing your DI tone along with the other session stems. The mix engineer may have a better idea of what guitar tone will work for your sound.

2 - Always always always double-track

"Double-track" means to record the same part twice. The full, heavy tone you're probably hearing in your head requires the rhythm guitar to be in stereo. The easiest, most reliable way to get this sound is by recording each guitar part twice. If there's a really "wide open" section where chords are being held for extended periods of time, some people will even recommend quad-tracking to get a "wall of guitars" sound. This means (you guessed it) recording the same part 4 times.

3 - Record with "width" in mind

What we hear as "stereo" is really the difference between the left and right channel. In other words, the more difference there is between left and right, the wider the mix will sound. You can help this effect during recording by changing the signal chain slightly when double tracking. For example, record the rhythm guitar part once, then tweak the mids up on your amp or overdrive pedal and turn the treble down slightly and record the part again. These two parts will already sound slightly different because you're not Yngwie and you won't play the part the exact same way twice (just kidding, Yngwie couldn't do it either - and you don't want to be like Yngwie angway). Having the slightly different signal chain settings will make them sound even more different and, therefore, wider in the mix.

4 - Think twice before compressing

A distorted guitar amp is already applying extreme compression to your signal. It is a common myth to think "compression makes things sound better". Compression is a tool. A hammer is a tool. No one thinks, "hey, you know what would make this circuit soldering job better? A hammer". Some compressors CAN bring out some cool tone in a distorted guitar but it's usually a function of the compressor color more than the actual compression. I would recommend avoiding it in the tracking phase.

5 - If mic'ing an amp, play around with the mic position

The positioning of a mic in front of a speak can make a fairly impressive difference in tone. On-axis placement will result in a "brighter" or sometimes "fizzier" tone, while moving off of the speaker axis can darken the tone. This is another reason to play with re-amping. You can record the same exact performance through different mic placements to see what gets you closest to the sound you like. Once you find a "sweet spot" for your tone, take some pictures of the setup, will ya? I like to think I'll remember the details from each session but I can't even remember what #1 was in this article already and I just started writing it 10 minutes ago.

6 - Strings and string gauge

If you love big riffs and you cannot lie, then the importance of string gauge you cannot deny.

Ok, it's not as catchy as I was hoping but I'm leaving it in there.

If you're tuning your guitar down to notes only blue whales can hear, you need to be using a heavier string gauge. Lots of string makers are now making custom sets for down-tuning. I've been playing around with the Beefy Slinkys from Ernie Ball. I don't get any money from them. Other string suppliers make similar sets.

Heavier strings will get you better tone and better intonation on those low notes. Lighter strings are fun to bend but the pitch can walk around and make things sound loose.

Also, try to use new strings. New strings will add some bite and edge. This is true for bass as well. Strings degrade slowly so it's tough to notice a difference - until you change them.

7 - Cable length

I am a skeptic and I always thought that a guitar cable was a guitar cable and that those fancy guitar cables you see were basically coiled snake oil (snake coil?). However, I've done some blind A/B testing with a friend's fancy shmancy cable and I can tell you that there is a tonal difference and the fancy cable does edge out. If you cannot spring for a fancy cable (I still haven't) try to at least limit your cable length. Using an active DI will help with avoid "tone suck" as well

8 - Let each instrument in your rhythm section do what it's good at

In the world of tight rhythms, "heavy" is often a result of the whole audible frequency spectrum smashing you in the face at the same time. When considering this, remember to let each instrument to the job it's best at.

A huge rhythm "hit" will consist of a kick drum, a bass note, a rhythm guitar crunch from the left, a rhythm guitar crunch from the right and one or two cymbal smashes all occurring at the same time. Read that back with frequencies in mind. The WHOLE audible frequency is covered. Don't try to make the guitar do the work of the kick drum. It can't and it won't. Guitars aren't made for 60Hz - even with those grimy blue whale note riffs you've been writing.

Along those same lines, embrace the thin nasaly sound you think you're getting out of your guitar. The role of the guitar is to smash you in the face in exactly those nasaly frequencies.

9 - Keep it tight

You know what's not heavy at all? Sloppy rhythm. Your playing should be so tight that people will not be able to tell that you double-tracked the guitars. Be reasonable but be demanding. Good drums will help tighten up the feel but if you have a particularly mathy, djenty, tight riff, track it carefully. Remember from #8, the whole frequency spectrum needs to smash your face at ONCE. If the kick is a hair earlier than then guitar chug, the curtain is pulled back. The illusion is gone. You are back in your mom's basement - and it's time to take out the trash.

Use headphones and track with everything except the drums and the click track muted. If everything is kept super tight to the drums, then everything will end up being super tight as a whole.

Here is an example of how weak the final guitar tone sounds on its own followed by adding the bass guitar, followed by adding the drums and ambiance.

Just guitars

Guitars and bass - closer

The whole enchilada

And remember, Calm Frog Recording loves to help your riffs sound awesome. Reach out to us for free tips or to discuss your project.