If there’s one thing rock music has carried with it from decade to decade, it’s an ever-growing love and appreciation of massive rhythm guitars. Name just about any band in hard rock, metal, or similar genres and more often than not you’ll find that their guitar tone is a huge part of their sound. Even if the guitarist isn’t much of a shredder, the rhythm guitars on these tracks are usually gigantic.
While these big guitar mixes started appearing as early as the 60s and 70s, they really started to take off in the 80s and haven’t stopped growing in size since.
Everybody wants a bigger, wider guitar sound. The appeal of a huge guitar mix with the right combination of percussion and vocals is what makes many bands strive to replicate sounds of the past and the sounds of their peers. And if you’re here, you’re probably wondering how you can get a piece of that sound too.
Well it’s easier than you might think…
Whether you’re playing guitar through an amp sim, small combo amp, or massive stack – your guitar mix is always going to start relatively small in the grand scheme of things. Whether you’re planning on using just a couple of guitar tracks or layers upon layers, you need to break your guitar tone down to its basic components: the setup of a single track.
So many new engineers think they can just throw a mic up on a guitar cab, record a handful of takes, and call it a day, but the attention is in the detail when it comes to room-filling guitar mixes. Take your time to dial in the amp – setting the right amount of gain, the right EQ, and the right presence. If you’re using pedals, consider their placement in your chain and how they’re coloring your sound.
Now here’s the kicker – do this for each of the tracks you record. Simply capturing a handful of takes is fine if you’re going to comp together a single track, but in practice you’ll more than likely be stacking these tones and variety is going to be your best friend when you do.
Guitars that sound thin and tinny on their own might be the perfect complement to a very bass-heavy guitar mix. Experiment – mix and match different amps and cabinets if you’ve got them. Try out a few different mics in a few different positions.
I love working with DI signals because of the flexibility you get in-the-box after the session. As long as I’m sure I’ve got a clean DI signal I can work with, I can focus on the performance first and the guitar amp settings/overall mix later. It’s perfect when you’re trying to work fast.
Check out this example of Euge Valovirta dialing in his rhythm mix after the fact with Toneforge Guilty Pleasure:
Mix With Dimension
One of the quickest ways to build the size and scale of your guitar mix is to double-track your rhythm guitar parts and pan them hard left and right. This creates an instantly thicker stereo image and starts to create that feeling of having a wall of sound. For songs with simpler productions, this is sometimes all you need to fill out your guitar mix.
But as you start working your way into denser sessions with lots of different things going on, you need to find ways to build your guitar mix up and further out.
Spatial wideners are perfect for when you want to push things a bit further out to the side and make more room for your leads in the middle. Likewise, stacking varying rhythm parts will help create a bit of height, with more treble-focused parts sitting on top. Finding the right balance between panning and tonal variety is the key to any great rhythm guitar mix.
Leave Room For Leads
Ultimately, no matter how incredible a rhythm part is, it’s still just that – the rhythm. It drives the song forward and provides a foundation for other instruments to sit in front of. Whether it’s a lead guitar or a lead vocal, you can’t have your rhythm part masking it.
The easy solution for many guitar mixes comes in two parts – first the arrangement and second the mixing. On the arrangement side, changing the playing style to fit the song section is a simple and effective method of “controlling” the rhythm mix. By switching from open strumming to palm muting or using a single pickup instead of both, guitarists are able to drastically change their sound without anything else changing.
From a mix perspective, you can make similar adjustments – ducking various guitar tracks (or removing them altogether) when your mix feels a bit too cluttered. I’ve heard some great tracks where quad-tracked guitars were used for a bigger, fuller chorus but dropped to just two rhythm tracks during the verses where the rhythm didn’t need to be as heavy.
Find the combination that sounds best to your ears and run with it!
Learn How To Tone Match
One of the biggest shortcuts you can take on your road to finding the perfect guitar mix is to learn how to match the tones you hear in your favorite songs. There’s no doubt a plethora of great guitar tones in the world already and with a bit of critical listening, practice, and patience, you can start copying some of those tones immediately in your mixes.