Since the middle of the 20th century, the guitar has been one of the most popular instruments in the world, and it’s not hard to see why! It’s relatively easy to learn, it’s not too expensive, and it can find a home in just about any musical genre. One important reason behind the guitar’s popularity is that it excels not only at playing chords but also at single-note expression.
What’s so special about that?
The piano is an incredible chording instrument but has little control over individual notes. The violin has masterful control of single notes (vibrato, volume swells, etc.) but can barely play a chord to save its life. The guitar sits right in-between. It offers well-voiced chords up to six notes at a time and has a fair amount of control over the timbre of individual notes. The electric guitar expands that tonal range considerably … and with options! Even with such a diverse range of sounds, this ‘hero of rock’n’roll” is easy to pick out in a mix.
Unlike most instruments, the electric guitar doesn’t produce the proper sound by itself. It needs an amp! Amps do two essential things to make an electric guitar sound like an electric guitar. First, they produce a terribly uneven frequency response – nowhere near flat. They peak around 3 kHz and roll off steeply after that. Second, they add all kinds of distortion. Even the cleanest electric tone you’ve ever heard was still riddled with distortion! The input tubes, phase inverter, output tubes, transformer and speakers all add their own little handful of dirt to the sound. These two characteristics would sound awful when applied to most sound sources, but on an electric guitar they just sound “right”.
We’ll leave guitar effects for future posts. For today, let’s break the guitar down into three sounds that should be easy to identify.
The “chunk” is the low end of the electric guitar. It’s most noticeable on more overdriven or distorted tones and stands out like crazy when a guitarist palm mutes a chord. It’s found around 125-250 Hz. On cleaner tones, this same range could be referred to as “warmth”. A guitar will sound thin without any presence in this bass/lower midrange area.
The “bite” is the sound the electric guitar makes when it’s ripping your face off – in a good way! It’s the signature, the “hi, I’m here!” in the 1-3 kHz range that’s difficult to ignore. It can also become offensive and tiring if not treated carefully. (side note: any sound in the area of 3 KHz can easily become offensive and tiring!).
“Shimmer” is the high-end chime of the instrument. It’s where the guitar really sings. If you’ve ever said to yourself “wow, that electric guitar sounds pretty!”, it’s probably the “shimmer” that did it for you. Electric guitar amps have little response above 4 kHz and are pretty much out of the picture by 8 kHz, so this desirable sound can be a challenge to find! One way to tune into it is by listening for any delay and reverb effects used on the guitar. They tend to ring out well in this range.
As we’ve said before, you won’t find it at the console if it’s not there at the source! If you’re dealing with an electric that’s all “bite” and no “shimmer” you need to work with the guitarist and music leader to dial in something that fits. Contrary to popular belief, a guitarist’s ears are not located on his or her ankles! What you hear at front of house may be very different from what the musician hears on stage. These conversations are crucial to a good end result and should be normal part of musicians and techs working together.