This blog is absolutely rubbish, and the post below in particular on the subject of guitars completely misses the mark. I don’t know what else I can say about this waste, this travesty, this injustice.
– Angus Young, Feb 2011
What is my all time favourite movie moment?
It isn’t the pivotal scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone thrown into the air cuts seamlessly into the spacecraft. Nor is it the beach assault from Apocalypse Now. Nor even is it Captain Kirk shouting “KAAAAAAHHHHHNNNNN!!!!!!!!” across the vacuum of space. No, nothing that epic. For me, it’s when Mr Bean gets up to do an improvised speech about the painting “Whistler’s Mother” in Mr Bean: the Movie. For some reason the idea of talking about guitars makes me think of that scene.
“Hello, I’m guitarist Josh…
And my job is to make noises by hitting the guitar.
What can I say about guitars? Well for one thing, they’re very loud. Which is good. Because if they weren’t, then hardly anyone would be able to hear them.”
Guitar has become ingrained in culture as an icon, artefact, and status symbol to those who care. It’s hard to work out what to say about it. Everyone has their own ideas ranging from the noise a guitar is supposed to make, to the faces you should pull when you do a solo. Here’s my favourite guitar. It’s a Gibson Explorer from 2007 I believe. Nothing that special, I changed the stock pickups for slightly smoother and smoky sounding ones.
I think my outlook is a little different from some other guitarists. The guitar is seen as the instrument – the thing you either coax beauty out of or wrestle with, depending on your outlook and style. I don’t think of the guitar as my instrument. My instrument is the amplifier.
The guitar amp is even more important than the Electric Guitar. Without the amp, there is no “Electric” anyway. I said last week that the bass guitar sounds recognisable no matter what you plug it into. The same can’t be said of the guitar. Its natural tone is thin, twangy, honky… it’s just bad. It’s the amplifier and speakers you plug it into that make it sound full, thick, aggressive and alive. Don’t get me wrong, a good guitar is better to play, but given the choice between a shit guitar with a great amp, and a great guitar with a shit amp, I’d chose the shit guitar every time. Some players are famous for their relationship with one guitar, their “signature” model. I have a relationship with my amp. It’s the one constant in all my sounds.
This is my Vox AC30. It’s a new model (2007) that I’ve made some alterations to so that it responds to my playing the way I want. It’s got a chiming clean sound with a rich tone. On its own it is a little brash sounding but that’s because it’s designed to sound good in a mix with bass and drums – the brashness ends up sounding clear and forward. Famous AC30 users include the Beatles, the Edge, Brian May, and Peter Buck, but it’s been on so many records I couldn’t list them. It’s not a very cool amp – it looks more like a piece of furniture from the 1950’s, because that’s when it was designed. Often, bands will pretend to play through a wall of screaming marshalls, but behind them the sound will actually be coming from one unassuming AC30. It’s believed the quintessential guitar riff from Smoke on the Water was recorded with an AC30.
When you turn it up magic happens, as with most decent guitar amps – it’s what makes them so important to me. It distorts the sound, runs out of power and squashes the tones so even the quietest note you play seems to jump out of the speaker. The high end fizzy sounds smooth out, the bass seems to tuck in like a jet plane’s undercarriage, and the amp sings. Maybe it’s screaming because it’s being pushed so hard, but it’s my favourite sound, and the way it responds and changes the feel of my playing influences how I play. It’s a symbiotic relationship and as I’m writing about it I’m thinking to myself I fucking love this amp. It’s like the relationship between a loyal dog and his owner. Except I think I’m the dog.
This is the amp in all of our recordings. Recording a guitar amp is a strange process because what sounds good in the room doesn’t seem to come across easily on record. Without touching the amp’s controls at all, just by moving the microphone on the speaker, you can go from a sound that’s muffled and dull to one that’s completely harsh and ear piercing. Somewhere in between is the sound you’re looking for. It’s a testament to how bad guitars naturally sound that they need to be plugged into amps that completely distort and mangle them to give us something usable. And the most commonly used mic to record guitars throughout the world is the Shure SM57 – there’s two in the picture below. It’s not a transparent high quality mic. It completely colours the tone of any sound you record it with. You can get them new for £60, which when you compare that to one of the industry standard vocal mics (at £1200 for the basic model) is nothing at all.
Those who have seen me live will think yeah ok, he talks about his amp, but what about his fucking stupid rack of effects? Don’t they play some part in it? Those who have helped me lift said rack will probably get angry at this point. What’s the point in it? Aren’t they important?
Yes, they are. I love effects. I love the variety of sounds you can create – the ambient washes of noise, the sense of depth you can make. But they, just like the guitar I’m playing, all feed into the amp. I guess it’s all one big instrument.
It’s a lonely life recording the guitars because I’m there by myself, wearing two hats at once – the performer’s hat, and the engineer’s hat. I find I’m good at doing both things at once because I’ve done that as long as I’ve been playing guitar. Where I suffer is that I lose perspective. By which I mean, I might get a great tone and play well on a song, but it’ll be the wrong tone for the song and then I need to go and do it all again. That happens regularly. If we had a producer he’d probably keep me right but he’d have to get his hat back from under the performer’s and engineer’s hats on my head.
It is fun though. Guitar recording lets you get creative, and I like to treat the basic drum and bass tracks as a blank canvass. I never just play the part I play live. I always record different sections, layer different tones and doubles, experiment with effects, and above all else, I improvise. I don’t do that much live, but in the studio with time to spare I absolutely love to let loose and just see what accidentally comes off my fingers. And because I’m the one mixing it, I can really do what I like. No one but me will decide whether it makes it to the final mix, or even if anyone but me will ever hear the results.
You can see why I lose perspective.