Session Guitar: Arranging and Production Tips to Really Make Your Guitar Stand Out

(Image credit: Cindy Moorhead)

This week, I'd like to discuss some tricks I've learned to make a guitar really stand out in a track.

As a producer, I have to make many decisions. One of the main decisions concerns the dominant feature of the song.

Since we are all guitarists here, let's just assume the guitar is going to be the main focus (as opposed to a more "vocal" song). Next, we see what kind of song is it. For this blog post, let's use a rock track. By that I mean we want the guitar sound to be distorted, creamy, fat, juicy with some delay. That's the sound that feels right. That is this track's guitar voice. We want to hear it sing. In order to do that, we step into the worlds of production and arranging.

To discuss the arrangement of the song can be difficult without having a song to use. However, we can use general guidelines. If the groove of the song is chosen to be a busy one, the sound of the groove must be produced differently than a slow, more open groove. Remember we are using a BIG guitar tone. That means the rhythm section should use tones and be equalized to not interfere with our fatty guitar sound.

Let's start from the bottom up. A kick drum really doesn't have to always be super-deep and bottomy. If we were using a busy groove, that would just muddy up the bottom and detract attention from the guitar. Same with the bass. But the bass can be mixed in several ways. I like the kick to have bottom on accents, say every 4 to 16 beats. The rest of the time, the kick is a mid-toned kick that isn't overly bottomy, but defined and loud enough to make itself known.

For the bass, I prefer it to be very deep without accentuating the highest frequencies a bass can conjure. This will interfere with my guitar sound. And that is the main focal point.

Try to decide which should be deeper: the kick or the bass. The snare can also interfere with my guitar. So I would choose a thinner snare for a busy groove. For a slower groove, I might allow it to be fatter. But it all depends on the song. This technique is called shelving. Shelving is when we cut certain frequencies to carve out an EQ landscape where the focal point AND each instrument can exist together happily.

Most newbies usually grab the EQ and start boosting without even thinking! Consider what you want to hear first, think about the dominant instrument, then try carving out frequencies that will interfere with that instrument and each other. Next use panning and finally, effects.

To give a different view: Take a white piece of paper and put a black dot in the middle. The black dot looks really black. Now take that same black dot and put it on a dark grey piece of paper. Not so black anymore, is it? The colors in the art world affect each other greatly, and the same is true for the world of music production and arranging. If you decide to use a nice fat synth pad behind the fat guitar, the guitar is not as prominent. I would choose a glassy, airy synth pad.

A great example of what happens when similar sounds are used is Deep Purple. The organ was played through a Marshall amp and was distorted, and the guitar was the same. There are many times on Machine Head that you CANNOT tell the guitar from the organ or who is doing what! And that was a good thing. They were going for that! But what if you are going for that same thing but still want the guitar to stand out?

Welcome to arranging and production. Mixing one to the left and one to the right might be an answer. Better still, use your arranging skills to make the guitar stand out by simply having the organ/synth/fatty keys stop playing when the all-important guitar is singing. Allow it to ride over the drums and bass only, then bring in the fatness when you want the part, say the chorus, to get bigger!

I could go on and on, but let me offer one more arranging trick: This is a pet peeve of mine. When the guitar solo comes in, most usually play over the verse again. Try this instead. Please -- for me. Instead of doing that, WRITE A NEW PART THAT MODULATES TO A NEW KEY! I guarantee that the guitar solo will jump out if the composition and arrangement allow the guitar to do so!

Modulate by a whole step or minor 3rd and write a part for the guitar to solo on. This trick really makes the part jump out of the speakers because your ears are treated to a new, fresh audio environment. If it's a fast song, try cutting the groove in half. That really gets attention. In a new key.

As a final note, if the guitar chosen were acoustic, then the drums, bass and keys can easily be fatter in sound and arrangement because the guitar is naturally thin. Get it?

Try some of these ideas and let me know how they work out for you!

Ron Zabrocki on Ron Zabrocki: I’m a session guitarist from New York, now living in Connecticut. I started playing at age 6, sight reading right off the bat. That’s how I was taught, so I just believed everyone started that way! I could pretty much sight read anything within a few years, and that aided me in becoming a session guy later in life. I took lessons from anyone I could and was fortunate enough to have some wonderful instructors, including John Scofield, Joe Pass and Alan DeMausse. I’ve played many jingle sessions, and even now I not only play them but have written a few. I’ve “ghosted” for a few people that shall remain nameless, but they get the credit and I got the money! I’ve played sessions in every style, from pop to jazz.

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