We talk with Darryl Poulsen and Adrian Gross, Toronto-based session guitarists, about their tech set-up and approach to going into the studio.
MM: What about strings? What kinds of things influence string selection?
DP: Depends on what you’re doing. I’m used to playing on .011 gauge strings. Playing rhythm guitar I found it stayed in tune better… the tone was a bit fatter. For electric, the difference between a .010 and .011 isn’t as noticeable as the acoustic gauges switching.
I don’t think .011 gauge strings bend as well as .010 gauge strings. All my favourite guys play .010 gauge strings and when you hear their solos and hear how the note bends it sounds different than a .011 gauge string. It just feels like you can manipulate it more with the .010 gauge.[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”] Strumming lighter and using a lighter touch to get the most out of a thinner string can get a really good sound in the studio. -Adrian Gross [/pullquote]
I’d say it’s a pass off between if you’re doing rhythm or doing leads. I wouldn’t want to be playing thick strings and trying to play 10 passes of a solo. Thinner strings for soloing and thicker strings for rhythm.
AG: I used to always use .013 gauge strings, which are kind of the bluegrass, acoustic guitar setup. It’s a thick, big string that sounds huge. If you’re doing a bluegrass record or something in that vein, that’d be great. But for pop stuff, or backing up someone else, like a .012 or even .011 gauge in the studio works better. The thicker ones give you a huge sound and it’s often what you don’t want to hear in the studio.
You never really hear musicians saying, “that guy’s got a really great thin tone”, but you kind of want a thin tone in the studio. I’d say strumming lighter and using a lighter touch to get the most out of a thinner string can get a really good sound in the studio.
I generally use D’addario strings on all my guitars, though Newtone and John Pearse both sound great, and each brand offers something a little different. It’s worth it to buy 5 packs of strings, different brands and gauges, and try them out on all your guitars to see what works. A string that sounds great on one guitar might not be the best fit for another.
DP: D’addario for sure.
AG: The Phosphor Bronze are awesome. I use the coated version of that. They last longer. Or 80/20 is another kind. They’re a bit brassier, a bit ballsier.
But Phosphor Bronze, .011 or .012 D’addario ones are perfect for the studio. And .013’s if you’re doing a big bluegrass kind of thing. What do you say about that?
DP: For electric I like D’addarios. They have that jazz-rock set: the E-string is like a .011 but the low E-string is like a .046 or something, so its from a set of .010’s and .011’s. I generally bash strings a bit more that normal I guess.
I don’t know if it comes from playing bluegrass and that kind of thing, but I do like to fight it a bit. I don’t mind that struggle. I started out on .009’s then went up to .010’s and finally just stuck on .011’s but that set of mixed strings seems to be really good.
One thing I noticed with the acoustic strings is one time I was recording and getting a lot of that (squeak) (squeak) sound. I wonder does the gauge of strings affect that as much?
AG: I find the coated strings don’t have that as bad. The D’addario EXP –it’s the Dadarrio string but it’s coated- you don’t get as much string buzz. The Elixirs are really coated, and you don’t get much of the buzz on those. I kind of dig the buzz.
DP: I don’t mind it, but…
AG: But sometimes you don’t want it.
DP: I’ve had producers actually say, “ oh we’ll have to chop that up later”.
MM: Do you have tricks for that? Or is that just practice?
DP: I had to be really conscious of playing differently… muting with (one) hand while I’m switching chords. If you’re playing really quiet and the mics are super sensitive, you strum a nice chord it sounds beautiful, then you go to move it and the sound in between is 10 times louder than the dynamic you’re going for. It just sounds ridiculous.
AG: Muting. I have a lot of guitar students that are doing studio stuff (and) the first thing we always talk about is left hand and right hand muting.
When you’re playing a live gig and your chord voicing is supposed to have four strings and you strum all six, it’s not the end of the world. But when you’re playing that C major and the low E is ringing (in the studio), it’s going to just sound awful.
So learning how to mute those strings is something you’d never notice unless it was under a microscope. But it’s like the most important thing.
All those extra strings ringing or getting the right tension when you slide up the strings so you don’t get that squeaking sound, all those little microscopic things are just so important in the studio. And they just take a long time to learn. You just get used to it.
MM: Does genre impact how you set up your guitar?
AG: Ya. When you go into the studio for your own band, you want to make sure all your gear is in working order, but you don’t want to take the life out of it. For the Roofhoppers recording it’s sort of a quirky, klezmer, jazzy trio and there’s lots of buzzes on some of the instruments. The intonation wasn’t perfect but it sounded great for the recording.
It’s like those early Rolling Stones records. Those guys weren’t perfect at all. Their timing was really loose and their instruments have buzzes, and it’s awesome. It has a great vibe.
Obviously you want to be in tune. You don’t want mechanical errors. You don’t want dust in your cable jack, but you still want a vibe. If you have a bit of a buzz but you have a wicked sound that’s ok.
Whereas if you’re hired as a session person people might want your vibe, but generally they want you to just be a guitar-strumming machine. So I’ll bring a guitar that’s more cleanly set up. It might not have all the mojo of the others but it gets the job done.
For acoustic stuff I try to bring a mahogany guitar and a rosewood guitar. The rosewood is really big and boomy and full. The mahogany is brighter. They both come in handy. If it’s an acoustic band and there’s no drummer, you want a big, percussive, chunky sound. Like a bluegrass band, you want to play at a pretty loud volume and you want balls in the music. If it’s a pop thing you want it to be a little more transparent, thinner, blend in more.
MM: What are some of the most common mistakes in the way you see other people set up their guitars?
AG: Playing for 10 years but have never spent $75 to have someone set up their guitar. If you get the set-up and it’s great, but you play pretty hard and the action is too low, ask them to tweak it.
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]A crappy guitar with a great setup is way better than a good guitar with a bad setup. -Adrian Gross[/pullquote] Music store guys can be intimidating. It’s like talking to a car mechanic… you feel like prey. But if you get your guitar back and it feels pretty good but not exactly how you want it, ask them. They’ll tweak it for you.
You got to get it set up. I’d say a crappy guitar with a great setup is way better than a good guitar with a bad setup.
DP: And learn to do your own setups too. For electric guitar (I would never touch an acoustic guitar. Just going to say that for the record) it’s pretty mechanical. You can buy a kit for like $60-$70 and you can go on Youtube and find a couple videos. I bought a bass a little while ago. I just went online and a slight adjustment of the truss rod made such a difference.
Set up is the main thing. Spending the $75, or setting it up yourself… just getting that done initially will be a huge help.
You can also follow their various projects through these links:
Adrian Gross: adriangross.ca
Darryl Poulsen: darrylpoulsen.com