The year, 1992. The country music charts were topped by songs from Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, and Garth Brooks, and peaking at the number 2 spot was Hal Ketchum’s “Past the Point of Rescue.” Pop on the headphones, cue the song, and let’s talk mixing multiple guitars.
The song arrangement includes three guitars. Panned right is a melodic finger-picked guitar. Panned left is rhythm. Dead center is the lead. Three guitars distinct in the mix, complementing each other, and sitting in precisely the right spot. Sculpting any multi-guitar mix, even in mono, comes down to two things: knowing each guitar’s role, and how to treat it.
Common guitar roles are lead, rhythm, and a melodic role such as the finger-picked guitar noted above. How guitars are used in these roles varies by music genre, arrangement, and the limitations of the band. Mixing an 8-piece country band requires different mixing than a 5-piece rock band. Ketchum’s song has been performed with only an acoustic guitar – the overall sound was equally as good but the mix requirements were quite different. Knowing the role of each guitar enables mixing in the right way for the song. And no role is less important than another.
The year 1992 also brought the release of the film “A Few Good Men,” with Jack Nicholson nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role. Imagine the movie without him – what a difference! The same applies to mixing multiple guitars. It’s a mistake to perfect the lead mix while only spending moments on a supporting guitar(s). Consider mixing multiple guitars in two common arrangements: two rhythms, and a lead and rhythm.
Synchronized strumming is an arrangement that happens with multiple acoustic guitars, electric guitars, or a combination. The key is blending with uniqueness. An easy mistake to make is boosting the same EQ areas in an attempt to create perfectly matching sounds. As discussed in my two previous articles (February and March 2014 issues), each guitar has a unique sound. The EQ work for one acoustic guitar usually doesn’t work for another.
A rhythm electric combined with a rhythm acoustic provides a significant amount of tonal variation. Such variation increases the range of frequency dynamics and adds depth to the mix. In the case of two rhythm acoustic guitars, hope that one musician is playing chords with different colorings. Otherwise, it truly is a case of synchronized strumming.
Coloring comes from alternate chord formations that bring added depth because of sonic differences. A major chord is made up of the 1-3-5 notes of the chord. For example, a C-chord would have notes C-E-G. By dropping the 3, the guitar is now ringing out only C and G notes. A guitarist might use a short-cut capo for such alternate coloring, and the capo also enables playing the same notes in a different octave.
While two guitars can be similar in volume, their contributions to the mix are quite different. But there are a few ways of blending them together. The first method is mixing a single unified sound. Identify any frequencies that make one guitar clearly stand out from the other and apply a slight cut. Consider cuts in the 800 Hz to 1,000 Hz range for smoothing out an otherwise harsh sound.
In the case of guitarists playing the same chords and the same type of guitar, this is fairly easy. But if the guitar types and/or playing styles differ, it leads to a second method: for those unique frequencies, instead of boosting, apply a slight cut in the same area for the other guitar. By carving out frequencies areas, each guitar’s uniqueness can shine through without dominating the overall band mix.
Despite various methods for mixing multiple guitars, song arrangement is a limiting factor in creating an emotional mix. An instrumental interlude with two synchronized strummers lacks excitement, with few exceptions. Unless another instrument brings melodic variation, there isn’t much to do.
Additionally, unless the two guitarists are in lock-step, synchronized strumming can get ugly. In these situations, it’s a monitor problem, so try increasing the in-synch guitar volume to the out-of-synch guitarist’s monitor. If that doesn’t work, pull back the volume on the out-of-synch guitar and let the other take the starring role.