Darryl Poulsen and Adrian Gross play together in Toronto bluegrass bands, The Slocan Ramblers, and Sorry Cousins. As accomplished guitarists the two play extensively, both live and in the studio as session musicians. We sat down to chat about guitar tech and the differences in setting up a guitar for a live show vs. the studio environment.
MM: When did you start playing guitar? How did you start doing session work?
DP: I started playing when I was 12 or 13 years old. My dad is a carpenter, so he built a couple acoustic guitars. There was always a small parlor-type guitar sitting in the corner of the living room I would play. Going through music school and meeting a lot of different musicians I got exposed to enough different types of music where I could go out and do different things if I wanted to.
It was through Humber where I started meeting people who played a lot of different types of music. So that’s how I got into doing to sideman session stuff. Just going through music school.
AG: When I was 8, I was at my cousin’s house and he played me a Metallica record, The Black Album, and blew my mind. Then I had to learn how to play guitar so I begged my parents for a guitar.
I played various styles but it was at Humber that I really got into learning certain skills that help you doing session stuff.
You just kind of hone your skills, working on rhythm, working on being able to fit into any scenario, being able to adapt to whatever situation is thrown at you.
By the time I was done there I started playing with lots of different kinds of groups and realized that they’re not all so different.
It’s pretty easy to blend in with different styles of musicians when you know what’s expected. The singer is always right (laughs). As long as you follow the singer you’re in good standing.
MM: What elements are critical to you in the way you set up your guitar?
DP: Intonation is key. Finding a guitar and setting it up in a way that’s really comfortable to play, and doesn’t feel awkward. The worst is if you’re playing someone else’s guitar in a session and you’re not used to it, and it sounds like you’re not used to it.
Sometimes just getting a brand new set of strings and a brand new pick makes a huge difference. Or changing your strings and then doing a couple takes of a guitar feature just to get a certain sound. … changing your strings right before you do a take. Seems ridiculous, but when you hear it back it makes a big difference.
AG: It’s tricky because the best live guitars aren’t always the best studio guitars. For a live thing you get thick strings, a thick pick, good action, so you can dig in.
It’s loud, it’s chunky, and things like intonation aren’t as important because you’re playing live and no one’s lingering on a note. A little buzz here and there often gives your guitar character. That’s cool for a lot of different styles.
But when you go into the studio… I mean if it’s your own personal creative project where you’re working on your own sound, buzzes are not a huge problem. But if you’re working with a producer then it’s not about you and your creative sound. It’s about the record. It’s about the singer. It’s got to be perfect.
I change my setup a lot. I found that when I’m in the studio I put lighter strings on my acoustic. Really thin strings on an acoustic often sound better in the studio for a pop thing.
I find a rosewood guitar can be really nice, but a mahogany guitar seems to sit in the mix better. A mahogany guitar doesn’t have as much bass. It has a tighter, brighter sound, and it doesn’t take up as much sonic space. It compresses and slots itself into the mix and takes up a perfect amount of space in the sound. I have a Gibson J-45 and it does that really well.
A thinner pick also gives you a big, clear, bright sound but doesn’t take up too much space. When you’re playing a solo acoustic show you want this big, warm, acoustic sound, but you don’t really want that when you’re recording. You often want a brighter, tighter sound. Thinner picks and new, thinner strings seem to go really well for that.[pullquote style=”left” quote=”dark”]A little buzz here and there often gives your guitar character. That’s cool for a lot of different styles. -Adrian Gross[/pullquote]
DP: I agree with the thin picks. Having that kind of jangly sound… just glides through the strings, doesn’t sound as harsh. It just sounds more musical and it totally sits better.
AG: For me going into the studio, the most important thing I can bring is like 30 picks.
MM: So what are the situations that will influence what pick you’ll use then?
DP: Picks make a huge difference, but the material doesn’t matter as much as you’d think.
AG: Ya, cause those really nice, expensive bluegrass or gypsy-jazz picks sound huge. They take up tons of space and they’re really big and warm and boomy. And on a recording you don’t want that much acoustic guitar. A lot of producers would rather use a really thin pick, like a little Jim Dunlop .73mm. The little grey ones.
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]Picks make a huge difference, but the material doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. -Darryl Poulsen[/pullquote] DP: The grey ones! Those are the picks.
AG: They’re super thin, they cost like 25 cents and they don’t take up much space at all. They’re bright, and they’re jangly like a pop record. A lot of producers would rather you do two or multiple rhythm tracks with a thin pick and a lighter set up as opposed to one guitar track with a thicker setup where it takes up too much space.
I think that’s the hardest thing to realize when you’re playing in the studio. You’re not playing to get this exciting, live, energetic thing. You’re playing to get something that will sound good, and probably as a guitar player playing rhythm will go unnoticed. Everyone’s listening to the drummer, the singer, the soloist.
The acoustic guitar… you shouldn’t really know it’s there unless you take it out. It should be jangly and thin and bright and sitting in the back. Never intrusive, never coming out, and never getting in the way.
DP: I can’t agree more with that. I did one thing where I was playing acoustic guitar, and he (the recording engineer) had it mixed so low and I was like, “well you can’t hear it”. I put in all this time and now it’s hardly there. But then he took it out, and I was like “oh man. This sucks!” Just that little bit of high-end, chimy sound of the acoustic guitar sitting in with the crispiness of a high-hat or something, it just makes the rhythm of whatever it is so much stronger.
AG: Like a little shiny bed for everything to rest on.
DP: Got to let your pride go and realize it’s making the overall thing really good.
AG: I find that I use capos a lot in the studio the same way. I might play the same chords with different voicings up the neck using a capo. A lot of live players don’t use them as much, but in the studio you got all these different sounds. And you have the time to switch.
You can do the bridge with a capo and the verse without it. You never have that option live, but in the studio if you craft it right with a capo, and all those different spots on the neck can really work to your advantage.
Check out Part II of our interview with Darryl and Adrian, where we discuss string selection and how genre impacts guitar choice when heading into the studio. In the meantime check them out with The Slocan Ramblers and Sorry Cousins.
You can also follow their various projects through the following links:
Adrian Gross: adriangross.ca
Darryl Poulsen: darrylpoulsen.com