A Studio Guitarists Survival Guide

(originally published:

Hey guys and girls,

I’ve been playing guitar for 17 years now and began working in studios around 8 years ago. I’ve picked up a lot of rocks and diamonds along the way, although picking up the diamonds was obviously more fun, the rocks taught me a lot more – sometimes in a rather painful way.

This article should help you to benefit from my mistakes. Having your own experiences is invaluable but it is better to be prepared and to know what situations can await you in the world of studios, producers, broken cables, detuned guitars and free pizza.

There are different occasions that can end up with you sitting under headphones in a well air-conditioned room with the sound engineer pushing the red button. If you don’t know what to do and how to do it, that red button can instantly trigger panic attacks, an empty brain and cramped up muscles.

In worst cases you won’t be able to get a single straight note out of your instrument and you’ll feel like your dog could play better guitar than you.

In best cases you lay down some awesome tracks in your first shot and everybody will pat your back making you feel like the godfather of recording artists. I want you to take a bit of the fear out by showing you the things that YOU can do to make a studio session successful. Everything is possible.

The characters and the surroundings

First I’d like to introduce you to the characters you will have to deal with in a studio. Depending on the size of the studio and the project that is being recorded, you’ll meet several people there.

The Producer:
This is the guy you have to make happy cause he will pay you in the end usually. He gets the order to deliver a product which could be a whole album for a band or singer, or a cat food commercial. He is responsible for the final product, the budget and how to spend it to get the desired results. Producers come in all flavours – they might be musicians as well, or just plain businessmen with a vision that they want to sell to someone else.

The Sound engineer:
He is the one who is in charge of the sound, the whole recording process from micing the amps to pushing the recording button. If you can’t hear yourself properly when recording, he is the guy to talk to. He will eventually ask you to do another take if there were any technical problems during the take – for instance if you were tapping your foot too loudly while recording an acoustic passage. It is the producer who gets to decide which track is used in the end.

The Songwriter:
Sometimes you have to deal with the ones who actually wrote the music you are recording. He may give you complete lead sheets or just chords written on a napkin. He may have a distinct idea on what the guitar has to play including which inversions of which freaky chord he wants to have played at which part of the song. On the other hand he might not have a clue what he is expecting out of a guitar in that piece of music – it might have just been the producer’s idea to throw in some guitar licks.

The songwriter and producer’s idea of the finished product can be subject to change several times during a recording session. For you this means even more, different or edited chords on the napkin or the lead sheet. The lead sheet can look like a strategy plan for a football team, with arrows, crosses, dots, repetition signs, weird chord names, stains from coffee cups and perhaps a telephone number (don’t mix it up with a chord formula and try to play it). Don’t get confused. Try to be flexible and spontaneous – more later.

The Studio owner:
He might be around or away on holiday. Maybe he’ll drop by and make sure the long haired guitarist isn’t going to blow up his expensive tube compressor. You won’t have to deal with them a lot, but leaving a good and professional impression may be reason enough for him to suggest you to other people renting his studio for their projects. So be sure to compliment them on the fabulous acoustic design of the recording room, be interested in what material the ceiling is made of, but don’t come across as a looney.

If you happen to be invited to a very small basement studio, all the people described above can be the same person. If you happen to meet one of those poor guys, make friends with him and he’ll call you all the time for some work. He might not pay you well (or at all), but that is the place where you can gather experience without doing too much harm. He is usually a musician as well – preferably a keyboard player who built a small studio in the cellar of his parents house and tries to make some bucks with recording local bands or jingles for small local radio stations.
He owns the equipment, writes the musical layouts, is responsible for the product and is recording you. If you are lucky his mom can cook as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to record in a number of studios of all sizes in different countries – the tiny ones with posters of naked women on the wall, mid sized ones with esoteric pictures on the wall by an artist who is starving around the corner, and huge ones where your way to the coffee machine is leading through a hall with walls covered with golden and platinum records.
No matter where you end up though, always do the best you can and remember that it is all about music. If you are professional and easy to handle, you will be favourably remembered.

Whether a session turns out to be a devastating disaster or fun and successful comes down to how well you can deliver what is asked of you – how to achieve that is covered later – and is a matter of how well you get along with the people you are working with.

Quit some time ago, I was booked by a studio close to where I live. The guy on the phone seemed to be nice and the pay looked good. The tune I had to play on the guitar was quit easy and i was looking forward to become maybe a resident guitar player for all the work they would have. Everything sounded nice and easy….but it turned out to be a nightmare and I almost quit playing guitar after that night having struggled with the producer/songwriter for 4 hours.

I just couldn’t make it right. My timing was way off he said, he didn’t like the way i voiced the chords, he started to edit my vibratos, he wasn’t happy with my note choice and ended up constructing childlike melodies for me to play. It was embarrassing. He was just giving me so much unnecessary pressure that I almost went nuts. It just didn’t fit and the only professional actions left for me to take was to go through it all and telling him afterwards not to call me again for whatever reason there may be. Nobody is perfect and that can happen anytime to anyone and it is just not worth it.

On the other hand I have worked with some absolute pro’s that had recorded guys like the Scorpions, Jeff Beck, Seal, Huey Lewis and others. This work was smooth and entertaining like a walk in the park and sold a few hundred thousand copies in the end.

What I wanna say is that not the size of the project can give you a hard time but the people involved. I wouldn’t be afraid if Peter Gabriel calls me tomorrow, but I might get extremely nervous if the insane jerk from next village would ask me to play on that incredible project from outer space he is working on. The quality of the finished product is not only determined by the quality of gear and technical ability of the musicians but by the atmosphere during the session as well.

As for the atmosphere you can do your part by being gentle, polite and humble – not stiff and tense with a frozen smile on your face. Relax, you are there to make music – the thing you love.

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