These days, we really are spoilt for choice when we go shopping for guitars. Walk into any major music store and you’ll be confronted by swathes of them, in probably as many shapes, sizes, colours, and price brackets as you can imagine.
This creates a problem: which one do you need? Picture your music project like a home improvement task – you have a particular result in mind, and you need the right tools for the job. Different types of guitars will provide your recording with unique voices. And in the hi-fidelity audio environment of a recording studio, a guitar’s signature tonal characteristics will shine through to their fullest.
In this blog, we’re going to help you choose the right type of guitar for your project by exploring some different sonic options.
If the electric guitar has a voice, then the pickups are the vocal cords. Pickups are magnets sitting in the guitar body (or, very occasionally, piezoelectric systems mounted in the bridge) that ‘pick up’ the vibration of the strings and convert it into an electrical signal that an amplifier can translate into sound. The type of pickups you’re playing with will have more of a fundamental impact on your tone than any other aspect of your guitar.
The single-coil pickup – so-called for the single coil of wire around the magnet – is the original electric guitar pickup from which all others followed. It made its debut in the 1930s with Rickenbacker’s revolutionary ‘frying pan’ Electro A-22, and the idea was soon adopted (or picked up?) by makers like Gibson and Epiphone. By the 1950s, the immortality of single-coils was assured by Fender, with the pickup designs it created for its iconic 1950s guitar models – most famously the Telecaster and Stratocaster.
Single-coils are clear, crisp, and bright-sounding. With a clean amplifier sound, your neck single-coil pickup can give you a rich, spanky jazz or funk tone (think Nile Rodgers or John Frusciante). Meanwhile, your bridge pickup will give you chiming high frequencies that were home to 70s guitar heroes as well as the jangly indie bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Push your amplifier into overdrive or distortion and you’ll get a pleasingly sharp bite from the pickups that cuts through a mix.
Combining single-coil pickups can give you interesting results, too – for example, using switch positions 2 and 4 on a modern Stratocaster will give you a thin, honky sound, which you’ll recognise from many of Dire Straits’ hits or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.
If you’d like your guitar parts to cut through nicely with clarity on each note and chord, whether it’s clean or distorted, then single-coils are the way to go. Much like chilli peppers, single-coil pickups also come in different levels of output that will emphasise their high-frequency character – so, when you’re in the guitar shop (or looking for a new set of pickups to put in your existing guitar), consider how ‘hot’ you’d like them to be. Gibson P90 and P100 pickups are also worth investigating if you want a single coil design with some more aggression.
However, if you are going down the single-coil route, just remember that they create a ‘hum’ noise, which you’ll notice when you’re not playing (particularly if the mains power outlet/circuit is less than perfect). It’s no big deal – you can counter the hum by adjusting the direction you’re facing with the guitar in the studio. If it really bothers you, though, you can find a set of specially-designed ‘noiseless’ pickups – or consider moving to the old-fashioned alternative we’ll be discussing next…
Humbucking pickups also had their origins in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until Gibson and Gretsch perfected them in the 1950s that they took a hold on electric guitar playing. The humbucker is essentially two single-coil pickups coupled together in series, which has the effect of eliminating the humming noise you get from a single-coil pickup (hence the name). It also has the effect of a huge power increase over a single-coil pickup – providing a thick, loud, sound that is very full in the low and mid-range, instead of chiming in the higher end.
Humbuckers give you a punchy clean tone that can easily push a tube amp into a dark, bluesy overdrive, simply by virtue of their immense output. And when you actually hook up to a distorted amp… you get a knockout blow of chunky distortion that is perfect for fat rhythm playing and screaming lead parts. It’s no coincidence that guitars like the Gibson Les Paul and SG are symbols of classic rock and old-school heavy metal just as they are synonymous with the humbucker pickup.
So, while humbuckers don’t quite cut through the mix like single-coils, they’re a great choice if you want your rhythm guitar parts to add fulsome depth and width to your songs… or if your lead guitar parts are meant to shred hard.
Custom switching systems
Just a quickly - keep in mind some single-coil guitars have wiring systems that enable you to combine two of the pickups in series, which effectively creates a humbucker. Likewise, some humbucker guitars have a coil-splitting function which separates the coils and gives you a single-coil tone when you want it. There are also phase switching systems that enable you to get interesting and unorthodox sounds out of your pickups as well. Consider if the guitar you're looking at has some special tricks up its sleeve - or maybe even talk to a guitar repair shop about installing some of these modifications to the stock guitar you have, and get the best of both (or multiple) worlds...
Solid vs hollow and semi-hollow bodies
One of the things Rickenbacker discovered while working towards their 1930s frying pan was that using a magnetic pickup in a hollow-body guitar created a horrendous amount of acoustic feedback. The formula improved over the following years, but when Fender came along with their solid-bodied Esquire (the forerunner to the Telecaster) in 1949, it became officially clear that solid wood was a more stable foundation for electrification.
This is a relatively minor consideration compared to your pickup selection, but if you want to record with a hollow body (e.g. Epiphone Casino) or semi-hollow body (e.g. Gibson ES-335) electric guitar, be prepared to deal with some feedback while recording – especially if you’re tracking live with a loud band, where the effect will be much more pronounced. Have a chat with your engineer about what you can do to make sure feedback doesn’t spoil the perfect take!
Acoustic guitar tonal characteristics
Perhaps your music features acoustic guitar at the forefront – or maybe it’s strumming away in the background almost like a percussive element beneath the electric guitar tracks. Either way, it pays to consider which acoustic guitar to bring to the session.
The bigger the acoustic body, the beefier the sound. This means a jumbo is going to trump a dreadnought for sonic girth on a boomy strum-along song. On the other hand, if you want a bright and jangly rhythm sound, or a more delicate tone for a stripped-back fingerpicking ballad, you might be served better by a smaller acoustic, such as a 000-size. The wood used in the guitar also makes a difference – for example, a solid wood top will give you more tone and volume than the laminate tops found on guitars priced at the lower end of the marker. Woods like spruce and cedar are very popular, but you might also like to try a mahogany acoustic for a mellower sound.
Experiment and diversify!
So, to wrap up, I'm going to leave you with three pieces of advice. Firstly - get on the internet and check out as many demos of this stuff as you can, to hear how it all sounds. Better yet, go to helpful guitar shops and talk to other guitarists in your community to see what you can try for yourself.
Secondly - don't feel like you have to pick just one guitar for your next recording... the point of this article is not necessarily to find one guitar that does it all, but to get you thinking about which guitars to apply to different recording situations. This is also a very handy way to justify a massive guitar collection, just quietly.
And lastly - remember, none of this matters if the guitar in your hands doesn't feel right. The main thing is to play something you're comfortable with, so while you're finding the right sound, always make sure the playability box is ticked.