Home Recording Basics VI: How to Mic Your Electric Guitar

If you’re looking for a sure–fire way to start a fight, ask a room full of musicians who had the greatest guitar tone of all time.

The electric guitar is one of the most versatile instruments on the planet, with a rich history rooted in rock and roll. Its sound has been reinvented so many times over the years by so many different musicians that there really isn't a blueprint for what a guitar is supposed to sound like.

Whether you’re talking about Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, or Eddie Van Halen, they all cultivated their own distinct signature sound, and recording it was part of the magic. So with so many possibilities, where do you begin when trying to record guitar?

Right From the Start

One of the most important steps in recording electric guitar is getting the tone right at the source. The player, the guitar, and the amp all have a huge effect on the overall sound.

A big part of getting the tone right is volume. Every amp has a sweet spot, and while this may be difficult if you're recording in an apartment, oftentimes an amp won't really start "singing" until the drivers are visibly moving.

Spend some time experimenting with what you have available, and try to dial in your tone with the amp first and foremost. This is going to vary greatly depending on the genre, the song, and your mood that afternoon, but the bottom line is this: if it doesn't sound right when you're standing in front of the amp, it's not going to sound any better when you try to record it.

Location, Location, Location

Amp placement has a lot to do with your overall tone, too. If you're using a combo amp, it's a good idea to pick it up off of the floor. Sure, it works fine during practice and maybe at live shows, but leaving your amp on the floor during recording may cause the mics to pick up some unwanted low–end due to the proximity effect.

You don't have to go out and buy a fancy new stand or anything, just find something sturdy enough to keep your amp a couple of feet off of the ground.

If you're using a larger amp, like a half stack, you don't have to raise the amp off of the ground, although you may want to mic one of the top drivers when the time comes.

Pro tip: Before you start placing mics, you should set up a Direct Box to capture the raw signal of the guitar, just like you would when recording bass.You probably won’t use this signal in the mix, but it gives you the opportunity to try out some different tones with amp simulators or even to re–amp the signal with a different setup later, which is a nice safety net to have. Just remember the age–old adage: it’s better to record a DI and not need it than to need it and not have it...

Mic Placement

Mic placement when recording electric guitar can vary quite a bit, especially when you start getting creative with your mic’ing techniques. But that said, there are a few tried–and–true methods that will almost always yield good results.

First, place your preferred mic in the center of the driver about three inches back. It doesn’t matter what mic you use, just experiment with what you have, and use what sounds best. Here are some common choices:

Remember, you can place the mic on–axis for more clarity and detail or off–axis for more airy, room tone.

Try moving the mic toward the center of the driver for a more aggressive tone or toward the edge of the driver for a more mellow tone. Move the mic closer to the driver if you want to hear more amp and less room, but watch out for the increased low–end from the proximity effect. You can even use the added low–end to your advantage if you’re recording a heavier tune.

It’s not uncommon to see guitar mics literally touching the grill of an amp. Get as close as you need to.

You can move the mic farther away from the driver for a more diffused tone. The sound of all the drivers becomes “additive" around 15–24", so that’s a good place to start if you’re trying to capture the sound of the amp in the room, as opposed to just the amp itself.

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Blending Multiple Mics

Sometimes, engineers find they can’t get their desired sound with a single microphone. A typical solution is to pair differently colored mics together. The most common combination is a bright mic (like a Shure SM57) and a dark mic (like a Sennheiser MD421).

Experiment with different placements for each mic, and try blending the signals together in your DAW to find the best balance. Many engineers pan one mic hard–left and the other hard–right to create wide–sounding guitars.

Just be careful when using multiple mics that you keep everything in phase. Be sure to use the phase–flip button (found on many stock EQ plugins) on one of the mics to make sure you’re not losing any low–end.

Pro tip: It’s okay to break the 3:1 rule here. If the capsules of both of your mics are the same distance away, they’ll “hear" the sound at the same time, which means they’ll be in phase. It’s very common to see two mics less than 1/2" away from each other or even the amp itself.

Finally, after blending a bright and dark mic, many engineers put up a third mic a little further back from the amp to capture the room tone. Most frequently, this is a Royer R–121 ribbon mic, but just use whatever mic you have that sounds best in the moment.

If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative to a Royer R–121, check out the Beyerdynamic M160 and Cascade Fathead ribbon mics.

Double Vision

At this point, you should have a pretty well–balanced guitar tone, but there’s one more trick to getting big, powerful guitars… doing it again.

A common production trick when recording guitars is to “double track" them. It’s exactly what it sounds like — you just record the same part again for added thickness.

Most engineers choose to use a different guitar, amp, or mic selection when double–tracking to help separate the two parts. The small inconsistencies in the two recordings help make it feel human and musical, while adding extra depth to the guitar tracks.

Of course, not all of these methods will work well for every song. As always, you have to do a little experimenting. Just remember to use your ears, and trust your gut.

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