Acoustic guitar. It can be your favorite instrument to record, or it can be your arch nemesis. Some days you think you’ve got it figured out, then you listen to that guitar part you just recorded, and it sounds boomy, muddy, harsh, tinny, lifeless — pick one.

The word frustrating comes to mind. I know. I’ve been there. What’s the deal?

Well, for one thing, the acoustic guitar is an acoustic instrument. Aside from the human voice, a lot of us simply don’t record a lot of acoustic instruments. We use virtual instruments and samplers. If we need a piano sound, we use a piano plug-in. If we need an orchestra sound, we use an orchestra patch in our favorite sampler.

[I know this is a gross generalization, but I imagine it’s true for the average home studio recordist.]

Accurately recording an acoustic instrument isn’t always a matter of throwing a mic on it and pressing Record. They’re complex instruments with complex sounds. There are all sorts of places where the sound originates, and there’s an ocean of harmonic content present as well. That’s why the same guitar can sound completely different from one day to the next, depending on where and how you record it.

That’s a long, befuddled introduction to this series called Great Acoustic Guitar Tone. Over the course of the next several articles, I’ll share with you the things I’ve learned over the years about recording acoustic guitar. (And at the end, you’ll have the chance to sign up for even more in-depth training from me. Sign up for the newsletter to find out about that as soon as I announce it.)

Step 1 – The Guitar

Chances are you’re going to gloss over this step. You want to get to the good stuff. Go ahead, that’s fine. But this step is important.

Great acoustic guitar tone begins with a great acoustic guitar.

There’s really no other way around it. If the guitar sounds dull, you can’t do any sort of fancy mic tricks to make it sound bright and vibrant. At best you’ll have something that sounds a little…different. If the guitar buzzes a lot, you can’t hide that with a plugin. If it won’t stay in tune, you can’t AutoTune it (at least not yet). ๐Ÿ™‚

Am I telling you to go out and buy a brand new $5,000 acoustic guitar? Or that you only need to record high-end acoustic guitars? No. But you need to be honest with yourself. You can’t make a $300 guitar sound like a $3,000 guitar. Remember that.

I’m going to share with you all about mic choice, mic placement, etc. and you should practice those skills and get really good at them, but remember that the biggest variable is the instrument itself.

Know the guitar

Whether you’re working with an expensive guitar or not, take the time to get to know how it sounds. That means spending time with your ears in front of the guitar. Once you’re familiar with how it sounds, you can make a better decision on how you want to capture that sound.

If it’s a really boomy sound, you probably want to mic closer to the neck than the sound hole…unless you’re going for a really boomy sound on that particular song. If there’s a lot of “finger squeak” noise, you may not want to put a mic directly on the fretboard…unless you like the sound of those squeaks for the song.

Whether your goal is to capture the sound as accurately as possible or capture an “altered” version of the sound, you need to know what the guitar sounds like first. That’s important.

That’s all for now. Much more to come, but we have to start at the beginning if we’re going to make great-sounding acoustic guitar recordings.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

  • Reid Howland

    In the context of a production, a well-set-up laminated acoustic often works best–they’re premixed, with not a lotta low-or-high end to speak of. They sound small by themselves, but fit perfectly into dense mixes. The Taylor and Martin are there to write on, but the Yamaha ends up on the track.

    • HA! Good point, a lot of pop mixes have a VERY thin-sounding acoustic guitar. I like my guitars to be a bit fuller personally…even in a bigger mix.

  • Lexbravarymusic

    Strings and picks are a huge variable as well that perhaps you’ll mention later, but I would include them as part of knowing your guitar.

  • Raphael Cassis

    Will be nice this course…
    And agreed, instruments are beautiful!
    Thanks Joe

  • Right. You’ll notice I didn’t say you can’t get a great recording out of a $300 guitar. I said you can’t make a $300 guitar sound like a $3,000 guitar. Take your analogy further. Have Clapton play the $300 and $3,000 guitars on the same session, and chances are the $3,000 is going to sound better.

  • Taylor Holtzheimer

    Are there any good general rules when dealing with a bad room? Ideally, I record up to a couple feet away since I’m a pretty “dynamic” strummer, but my room isn’t great (terrible actually). I would like to record closer, but I want that more balanced sound I get from farther away. Would a small diaphragm mic be better at splitting the difference (less room sound) at about 10 to 12 inches?

    • Sadly there’s no real rule of thumb. You have to just find the sweet spot. Ideally you should make your room sound better. Otherwise you have to compromise and sacrifice.

      • Taylor Holtzheimer

        Well, I guess that’s what headphone extension cables, extra long mic cables, and well furnished bedrooms are for. ๐Ÿ˜‰