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Are You Nuts?

Thanks to digital-audio technology and the exquisitely collaborative mindset forged by necessity during the global pandemic, musicians are trading tracks back-and-forth as never before. Many recording studios remain shuttered, of course, but savvy and ambitious creators are finding ways to compose, assemble, and complete songs in their DAWs at home.

Perhaps even more mind blowing is the fact that some of those home-grown productions are not solely fashioned by the members of a band recording their parts at home on their own recording software and sending the digital-audio files to another band member or producer to mix.

In the current era of COVID lockdowns with so many renowned guitar stars not consistently working, everyday artists without record deals or industry support can potentially hire a famous player to add some magic to their projects. Think about that. Catch an Elliot Easton or a Jennifer Batten or a Steve Stevens or a Gretchen Menn, or any other guitarist you love at the right time, and they might agree to lay some genius on your song.

As an early proponent of the personal-studio revolution while at Electronic Musician in the ’90s, the fact that weekend warriors and emerging artists can have almost unprecedented access to superstar players is phenomenal. It’s a dream come true, in fact. Go team!

So why screw it all up?

I’ve heard from quite a few guitar stars that artists commission them for tracks, but want them direct (no amp sound or effects) so that they can determine the guitar sound instead of the famous player.

This is madness.

If you hire a star guitarist — someone who has built a career developing their tone, phrasing, note choices, deployment of effects, and so on — then why would you seek to destroy all of that proven “commercial awesomeness” just because YOU want to determine how the star’s sound fits into YOUR mix?

That’s kinda arrogant of ya — don’t you think?

I would assume — perhaps erroneously — that if you LOVE how, say, Reeves Gabrels (of The Cure/David Bowie) plays and sounds, it’s that very attraction that prompted you to reach out to Reeves to play on your track. But if you delete Reeves’ sound — mess with the full Reeves package, so to speak — then are you getting precisely what you were imagining?

Or do you feel that YOU are the best person to re-engineer Reeves’ guitar tone?

Perhaps you believe that designing Reeves TO work within YOUR perception of what YOUR track needs is much more important than retaining the integrity and authenticity of Reeves’ sound?

Let’s take this further. Do you think David Bowie or the Cure’s Robert Smith or the endless parade of top artists that Reeves has made recordings with ever told him, “Hey, we are changing your tone to be something that’s not you”?

If these artists wanted something different, they would not have brought Reeves to the session.

Now, I get that the creator of a project owns the project, and he or she should get exactly what they feel they need to enhance the work. If that means adapting, modifying, and/or transforming guitar, drum, bass, and vocal sounds, then so be it.

But I also think that hiring established artists to contribute to your track requires a major level of “let it be what it is.” After all, you should be respecting their essence, and that’s not just the notes — that’s everything that makes their guitar sound like them.

There’s also a component of grace. If Steve Stevens or Jennifer Batten agreed to play guitar on a track of mine, I would be jazzed beyond comprehension. I mean, who am I? So why would I disrespect the respect they paid forward to me, by messing with who THEY are?

Perhaps this is an old-school attitude — one forged from WWII-era parents and their ages-ago concepts of good manners and interpersonal etiquette. I hated it in the 1980s, when hip drum sounds were essential to new-wave songs — the “snare from god” and so on — and engineers took it upon themselves to tune the drums or replace the drum sounds entirely (Wendel Jr. anyone?). This approach definitely garnered hits and even got some demos listened to by industry executives, so it’s difficult to argue the success quotient. But I felt so bad for the pro drummers who took great pride in their tuning, their dynamics, and their tom, kick, and snare sounds. Those elements are a huge part of a drummer’s personality, and having a stranger decide what their kit is going to sound like just seemed all kinds of wrong. If you want ultimate control, why not program a drum machine? (Of course, THAT happened a lot, as well.)

But, hey, I’ll admit to a colossal helping of personal paranoia. If in a moment of absolute insanity, Steve Lukather agreed to let me pay him to do a solo on one of my songs, I would not in any universe decide that I know how to craft a better “Steve Lukather” guitar sound than Steve Lukather himself.

When you eat at a fantastic, multiple-Michelin-starred restaurant, you should trust the chef.


Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!

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