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Six Over-the-Top Efforts to Get the Tone

Published: Mon October 06, 2008  News Feed

While many fans might imagine their favorite guitarists’ efforts in the studio being much like their playing in concert — only in an enclosed room with a lot of recording gear at hand — these two roles that a professional musician plays are often extremely different.

Most experienced pros will tell you that the job in the studio is to do whatever is necessary to record an interesting sound and to make the track really stand out. Achieving this occasionally even requires them to go to unimaginable extremes, or to conduct sonic experiments that are totally off the charts.

1) Semisonic guitarist and singer Dan Wilson went as far as inflicting minor damage on studio gear to record the erratic, striking distorted guitar sound on the song “California” from the band’s hit 1998 album Feeling Strangely Fine. Not only did he run through two wild ZVex Fuzz Factory pedals set to different extremes of compression and gating, but he also set the lead channel of the studio’s own Soldano tube amp to 10 and its rhythm channel to 0, then committed a little piece of cable abuse to get the sound he was hearing in his head: “Instead of using the amp’s channel changer to switch between them, I cut the footswitch off — which kind of pissed off the studio — and stripped the wires and had the assistant engineer put the two raw wires in his hand with a copper penny and rub it around so that the penny would make and break the circuit really quickly, and sort of disastrously. What happened was that the amp switched convulsively back and forth, stuttering on and off. We did it several times while I was performing and [the assistant] was doing it a bit too smoothly. Finally I said to him, ‘No, man — make it sound terrible!’ Then it was perfect.”

2) Captain Beefheart guitarist Morris Tepper described how the good Captain insisted his sideman take a very literal approach to recording the out-of-leftfield performance on “Run Paint Run Run”: “He had me running across the room to hit a particular chord section in the chorus. I’d taken off my shoes, so it was just my socks on this waxed floor, and just as I hit the chord section I had to stop suddenly and slide, at the same time wrenching the guitar behind me, so there was this particular choking sound, almost this ‘swallowing’ of the last chord.”

3) Johnny Marr, former guitarist with the Smiths, achieved his famously haunting tremolo sound on the hit “How Soon Is Now” by channeling his then obsession with Bo Diddley, and roping in the studio engineer to help him nail the sonic vision on a multi-amp setup of unprecedented complexity. The adventure started with Marr “laying down a rhythm part on a Les Paul, then sending that out into the live room to four Fender Twins. John [Porter] was controlling the tremolo on two of them, and I was controlling the other two, and whenever they went out of sync we just had to stop the track and start all over again. It took an eternity … But it was just one of those great moments.”

4) Ike Turner and band, recording as the Delta Cats behind Jackie Brenston way back in 1951, achieved what is widely considered to be the first rock and roll record, “Rocket 88,” largely by being a little careless while loading the equipment into the van. “The amp — a Fender [tweed amp, likely a Pro] — was in the trunk of the car, and it fell out, right in the road,” Turner said, “and it was raining, so the amp got wet. When we got to the studio and plugged it in one of the tubes went ‘pop’. And we didn’t have no more tubes — so that was where the fuzz came from.”

5) Dave Davies, legendary guitarist with the Kinks, intentionally inflicted even more serious damage upon his own amp back in the early ’60s to create the famous distorted guitar tone on the hit “You Really Got Me.”  As he tells it, “I was getting really bored with this guitar sound — or lack of an interesting sound — and there was this radio spares shop up the road, and they had a little green amplifier in there next to the radios, and Elpico. I got a single-edged Gillette razorblade and cut round the cone like this [makes slits from the center to the edge of the cone], so it was all shredded but still on there, still intact. I played and I thought it was amazing, really freaky. I felt like an inventor! We just close-miked that in the studio, and also fed the same speaker output into the Vox AC30, which was kind of noisy but sounded good.”

6) Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, known for his broadly experimental style, went particularly off the hook during the recording of 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles: “When I played some of the more, uh, ‘out’ solos on the record, they were laughing at me — not with me, but at me. Like, ‘Surely you’re not leaving that?’ And I’m going, ‘Uh, that’s how it goes … that’s the whole solo and, yes, it goes on like that the whole time and I realize it might not sound right to you … but it sounds right to me.’ I guess it’s having the courage — or foolishness — of your convictions, to stick with something that doesn’t feel like it fits, not in the traditional way.”

Next time you get into the studio, or fire up your home studio, let your inner mad scientist come out a little. It might result in something memorable, distinctive … even legendary.

Original article from Gibson.com. Read it in full here.

Artist quotations taken from interviews conducted by Dave Hunter, Richard Batey, and Michael Leonard, and published in The Guitar Magazine(UK), 1998-2001.

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