At the Blog Of Tone, we think of ourselves as musical problem solvers. Like all guitar players, we’re always wondering how we can make ourselves sound better, and when we find a way to improve our tone, we post it here for you all to enjoy and learn from. Or at least, that’s the idea. Today’s problem? Two guitarists in one band – both playing the same amp model. Now that’s a challenge, so read on to see how we’d solve it diplomatically…
A guitar-playing twosome wrote us recently to pose some intriguing questions that sparked spirited discussions around the water cooler at Blog Of Tone towers. Yes, we have towers.
But anyway, the crux of the matter was that (a) the two guys share guitar duties in a band, and (b) they both use exactly the same amp: a GrandMeister 36, in case you were wondering.
Excellent taste, we’d say.
Moving swiftly on, though, the two had a bunch of questions they thought we could help with, namely:
- What amp settings should we use?
- Should our setups be the same or different?
- What sounds work together well?
- Should we play at the same volume levels?
- What’s the best way of getting a good stereo spread?
It takes two to tango
So we thought we’d have a go at clearing some of these up.
Now, as you can imagine, this is the kind of debate that could go on and on. And on.
Tone is subjective, after all, and there are simply too many variables to consider. As so often in life, it’s all about context.
Perhaps Jack cranks out the riffs while Jill handles the leads. Maybe they double up on the riffs to get a heavier groove going, and switch over to playing harmonized lines for leads.
For all we know, they’re practitioners of the ancient craft of weaving, interspersing clean snippets in between raunchy chords and vice versa. Maybe Jack likes his lines straight up and neat, while Jill prefers her sonic cocktails sweetened with loads of FX.
With so many permutations, questions about the best sounds and settings are entirely justified.
Two guitars, one riff
Let’s start by examining a most interesting variant where both guitarists play the same riff.
Doubled lines can pack a mighty wallop. Executed properly, a twin-pronged attack can be a powerful propellant that drives the song and performance forward.
So what exactly does ‘doing it properly’ entail? Let me back up a bit to explain.
Until the 1950s, recorded music was a mono affair, though not necessarily monotonous. True stereo was still beyond the reach of technology, although stereophonic recording (still very much in its infancy) was already showing great promise.
After all, humans have two ears with which they hear stuff.
Enterprising engineers in the fledgling hi-fi industry sought to serve up such sensory treats. I forget exactly why they did this; it was either to elevate the aural arts for the betterment of humankind or to make a bigger buck with their products. Hmm.
Seeing stereo sound
Close your eyes and you can still hear if a car is approaching from the left, right, front or back. And that’s a good thing on those occasions when one finds oneself in a temporary state of visual impairment.
But I digress.
In any event, when audiophiles wax poetic about an orchestral recording’s uncanny breadth, tridimensional depth and polyphonic clarity, that’s exactly what they’re gushing about – that you can tell where each instrument is coming from in a big, bold stereo soundscape.
If an audio engineer with good chops and great ears is manning the desk, stereo recordings end up sounding realistic and vibrantly alive. They ought to call the good ones engineers, I suppose.
Sounds of the 60s
Moving on though, there was still a lot of experimenting going on in the 1960s, with some taking it to the lunatic fringe.
To offer a milder example, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix tried panning the guitar hard to one side and vocal to the other, with nothing in between. Cool but ultimately artificial, of course.
Rather than stereo, this is a sort of dual mono, and the spatial information provided to the listener has little to do with the way we perceive a natural guitar/vocals performance. The more conventional wisdom is that a good stereo recording captures what you would hear with a set of ears.
So, how does this little nugget of wisdom help our axe-slinging duo?
Well, one of the reasons why the stereo effect sounds the way it does is because it mimics so well the natural delay of a sonic event. It takes a moment for sound to travel through the air from its point of origin to the ears on opposing sides of your head.
If the guitarist is on the left, the riff that he’s grinding out will reach the left ear slightly sooner than it does the right. Also, the left ear is exposed directly to the source signal, which arrives at the right ear a tad later, and with a lot more information in the way of the surrounding room sound and reflections.
From The Beatles to Batman
Shutting one’s eyes in a setting like this is an interesting experience. You can practically pinpoint the source of the sound waves; an impression is so strong that it may be the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what a bat’s echolocation feels like.
Put another guitarist on the opposite side, and it’s the same sensation reversed. The composite of the two will sound bigger, roomier and livelier.
Forgive me for rehashing Aristotle’s tired old adage, but it does fit the picture: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s not just what you play, it’s how you play it
My unsophisticated little excursion into physics has a bearing on our thought experiment with the dynamically riffing duo: although both may be playing the same lines simultaneously, it’s almost impossible for them to be doing exactly the same things.
Even superhero guitar twosomes that are, musically speaking, practically monozygotic twins can’t achieve the feat of playing with identical touch and feel.
And that’s good, because precisely those slight discrepancies in timing, intonation and interpretation lend doubled lines such sumo-sized heft.
Incidentally, these little variances in pitch and delay time are the building blocks of effects such as chorus and flanger, the sonic glory of which is most impressive in stereo mode. This give-and-take between two very similar signals can yield anything from a watery shimmer to a jet-stream swoosh.
Recordists spread out the two signals in the panorama, one to the left and the other to the right, to immerse the listener’s mind in an aural action movie with exciting little subplots unfolding all over the screen.
Where to put your guitars in the mix
Experimenting with placement is entirely legit.
It’s not necessary to pan hard left/right, leaving a hole in the center big enough for a baby rhino to stroll through. Twisting the knobs two-thirds of the way to the left and right respectively can work wonders because then the gap in the middle is not quite as, well, gaping.
Getting back to our axe-slinging tag team, this means the two should always strive for some panoramic spread at gigs and in the studio.
When mixing tracks in a studio, one soon appreciates how the soundscape gets wider and wider as the two signals are panned to the left and right, respectively. It’s imperative to find the right balance because exaggerated pan settings (100% left, 100% right) can, in extreme cases, sound unnatural because there’s a crater dead center of the audio image.
Rubber Soul by The Beatles is a great example of an album made sonically wider through panning. Actually it’s a great album full stop, so listen for a bit in headphones and try to work out where the drums, vocals and guitars are all all times! It’s quite an experience:
Different players, different fingers, different tones
Another key point to consider for a band with a dual guitar attack is the two instruments’ timbres.
It certainly pays to work with different sounds, especially when both guitarists play the same type of guitar and amp, which is probably rare.
But older readers may recall Thin Lizzy, which featured several pairings of great players wielding the same breed of axe plugged into the same or very similar amps. Nonetheless, each guitarist had a trademark tone informed by different pickups, little tricks like a cocked wah, and different delays such as the Echoplex and the WEM Copycat.
Variations like this lend the overall guitar sound more room, greater girth and a fatter foundation. Add two different signals together and, with a little tone-tweaking nous, you can come up with an intoxicating blend of your own with which to fill the room with sound.
Try things out before you record or play live
All this is especially important when both guitarists play the same part.
Here’s my advice for all other situations where one guitarist is laying down the rhythm while the other punctuates the proceedings with fills and leads: EXPERIMENT, especially with the panorama spread.
Be sure the audience can hear the lead lines, but without drowning out the chord work altogether. Make the most of your sonic possibilities, for the options are many when several guitars are played simultaneously.
Build a wall of sound, weave a lighter tapestry of interlaced lines, or alternate between the two for maximum dynamic effect.
If you haven’t tried this, do so now. You are sure to have a blast.
First published: September 11 2015. Most recent update: December 02 2016.