Guitar 101: The Recording Experience, Then And Now
My first experience in a recording studio was back in the Dark Ages. 1965, to be exact. In Memphis, there was a guy names Roland Janes who owned and operated Sonic Studios on Madison Avenue. Most of us didn’t know it at the time, but Roland was a great guitarist who played on many Memphis rockabilly records in the ‘50s, including most of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Sun recordings. Almost all of the teenage garage bands in Memphis did their first demos at Sonic. It was almost like a rite of initiation. My band The In Crowd was doing a demo so we could be on George Klein’s TV show, Talent Party. We were going to record two songs: “My Girl” by The Temptations and “For Your Love” by The Yardbirds. Then, on the TV show, we’d lip-sync to tracks we cut at Sonic. And then all the girls in the Memphis viewing area would like us. Easy.
Larry Gresham (guitar and vocals) had his driver’s license already, so some of us piled into his ‘57 Plymouth Fury with all of the band’s equipment. Jimmy Newman (bass) was driving by then, too. That was great ‘cause nobody’s parents had to drive us to the studio. To have a recording studio in Memphis, there were only two criteria: it had to be in a “bad” part of town, and there had to be a good barbecue place nearby. Most of the studios were not built to be recording facilities. They were converted movie theaters, grocery stores, beauty salons and the like. They were dark, windowless, funky bunkers. Not at all like today’s acoustically designed showplaces full of beautiful polished wood, glass doors, and lounges with comfy couches.
I played lead guitar and sang in the band. My Silvertone amp with two 12” speakers and red toggle switches had just blown up at a skating rink gig. We made a joke that my amp had started smoking before I did. So I got to use a real Fender amp that day. Maybe a Twin Reverb. I was thrilled! I still have a ’65 Fender Blackface Deluxe that I use a lot. I had a Fender Esquire that somebody had stuck another pickup on and had spray-painted black. Larry played a Gibson 335 (which I own now). Thinking about what electric guitars are popular today, not much has changed. Fender Teles and Strats, and Gibson Les Pauls and 335s are still ubiquitous. You see them everywhere, too. And believe it or not, back then there were no guitar effects pedals. The fuzz tone and the wah-wah pedal were right around the corner, though. Jimmy played a Gibson EBO bass plugged straight into the “board” (recording console). That is still the preferred method of recording electric bass in studios today. We had Vern Norwood on drums (Ludwig, maybe). Tony Cain was our lead singer and John Evans was on piano that day. There were no portable keyboards in those days. Contrary to popular belief, a Hammond B3 organ with wooden Leslie cabinet is not portable, a fact that myself and many other musicians denied for years.
The In Crowd had been performing “My Girl” and “For Your Love” live so we thought we knew them pretty well. We were semi-confident and semi-terrified. The first thing I learned that first day in the studio was that I couldn’t tune my guitar very well. Roland (Mr. Janes to us) politely suggested that I should check my tuning. Everybody had to tune to the piano (or organ). Electronic tuners did not exist. You couldn’t use a pitchpipe, because the piano might not be in tune with it. The big, clunky strobe tuners didn’t come along until the late ‘70s. In spite of all that, learning that you can’t play in tune is still the first thing most people learn when they start recording.
As we ran the songs down, the second thing that Mr. Janes called to our attention was that we weren’t exactly playing together. Somebody was rushing or dragging, or both. I’d never noticed that before, but when you really listened closely, you could hear it. This was our first experience of listening closely, (which later would develop into a habit). Today, whenever I do a session, it’s done with everybody playing to a “click” track. It comes through your headphones, and the drummer has to be able to play in sync with it. Most drummers who are not pros cannot do it at first. In fact, learning to play in time is something that takes most guitar players a while to learn.
In today’s studios, one of the undesirable consequences of having so many tracks, effects, pitch correction and the ability to synchronize beats is that you really don’t have to get it right when you play it, or sing it. On a recent demo session in a studio that looked like a palace, I noticed something I’d played was not “in the pocket.” In the days before modern recording, I’d have had to go play it again (which is still my preference). But on this recent day, the engineer said, “That’s okay, I’ll just ‘fly in’ the first chorus,” meaning repeat an earlier chorus for the one I’d flubbed. In my opinion, a quick fix like that is good and it’s not good. Professional studio players are as good as they ever were, but for the average player, there’s just not that feeling that you’ve got to play it right the first time. It might take them 20 takes to do what the session player could have done in one take, but it sounds right when he’s done. I think something is lost in the process, but maybe other things are gained.
Anyway, back at Sonic, we got our two songs recorded that day and we got on George Klein’s Dance Party on WHBQ. We’d never have imagined that two years later, two of us would be back on the same TV show playing “The Letter,” which was on its way to being a number one hit. Life is funny that way.