If you play the guitar or you are an aspiring engineer/producer who have been asked to record your first band, you may want to learn how to record the guitar. Recording acoustic guitars requires a different technique then if you are recording an electric guitar. We cover how to record both electric and acoustic guitar below.
Recording guitar can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. Before we do a deep dive on the multitude of options you have, let’s go through the basics of guitars and recording.
If you’re already familiar with the basics, feel free to jump ahead to the recording steps, which cover both electric and acoustic guitars.
Getting started – the basics
The sound from any guitar starts with the strings. Guitar strings quickly lose their sparkle, and over time become dull and flat-sounding. Always record guitar with new strings, if possible.
An electric guitar’s sound comes through its pickups, which capture the energy from the strings. Pickups can be passive or active.
Active pickups are usually hotter, or louder. Active pickups also require external power, most often a 9V battery housed in the guitar itself.
Single-coil pickups can be quite noisy, especially in the modern world, where everything and its mother is wireless.
If you’re recording a guitar with single-coil pickups, you might struggle with getting a clean signal outside of an isolated space.
Whether you’re recording guitar through an amp or straight into your computer, you’ll use an interface. It doesn’t really matter what kind of interface you’re using, as long as it works.
There are a million options for interfaces out there, and we’ll go through a few options and settings later.
Lastly, the program you’re recording your guitar into is called a DAW, or digital audio workstation. Pro Tools, Ableton, Cubase and Reaper are all common and popular DAWs. They’ll all do the job, so use whichever one you like best.
How to record DI guitar with an audio interface
Recording DI guitar is probably the most common way of recording electric guitars, as it’s easy and the options are limitless. DI (or direct inject/input) simply means the direct signal out of your guitar.
The simplest interface is one that directly connects your guitar to your computer. Interfaces such as Behringer are the most popular types. They do not usually have much controls or buttons. They’re just plug-and-play.
These interfaces can be quite limiting, however, as they only take instrument-level inputs and often have no controls or buttons.
More common interfaces include the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, the most popular audio interface in the world.
This kind of interface has a few inputs, a few outputs, and can often accept a connection directly from your guitar.
If your interface has an input for instruments, it may have a switch that changes the impedance of the input to better match your guitar signal.
This is more a concern with passive pickups than active pickups, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
Another kind of interface are mixers that have interface capabilities, such as Behringer’s Xenyx USB models. But they’re just interfaces with more buttons, faders and knobs.
Interfaces only get bigger, more complicated and more expensive from this point on, but they often have instrument-level input. Sometimes it’s marked with a guitar icon.
Finally, some interfaces do not have instrument level inputs. To use these, you’ll need a separate DI box.
They range from cheap bricks to expensive bricks, but they all do the same thing: they transform your guitar’s output level to microphone level. They usually have instrument inputs and XLR or microphone outputs.
How to record guitar into your DAW
Once you have your guitar set up, your instrument inputs ready, fire up your DAW and start recording your guitar. Create a new track, arm it, and hit the big red button!
A few things to note: First, your DI guitar probably sounds quite silly. Dry guitar is honky and buzzy and if it doesn’t make you throw down your aux in disgust, then you know you’re ready for the big time.
Second, be sure not to clip your DI signal. This means that your instrument level is too hot, or your gain is too high on the interface.
If your gain is at its lowest, and you’re still clipping, then you’ll need to lower the volume on your guitar.
This might fundamentally change the way your guitar sounds, so keep that in mind (and keep reading).
Third, there are many plugins, both free and paid, that model guitar amps. Many DAWs include their own basic guitar amp models.
IK Multimedia’s Amplitude is another good option to get you started, as the free version includes lots of stomp boxes, guitar heads, cabs and microphone models.
It also has separate input and output controls, so you can control how hot your guitar goes into the plugin.
Finally, if you’re recording guitar, and you hear a significant delay when monitoring, you’ll need to adjust the monitor mix or buffer settings (these can be hardware or software settings), or you may need to disable the plugins.
Latency is dependent on your interface, your computer speed, and the buffer setting in the software.
How to record electric guitar amps
If you’ve spent hundreds on crafting the perfect tone out of your amp, you’re probably asking why you wouldn’t just record that.
You would, you should and you can. Recording guitar through amps and cabs is a bit more complicated, that’s all.
Get your DI signal
If you’re going to record guitars through an amp, please please please do yourself a favour and record the guitar’s DI signal simultaneously. This can save you hours, days or even centuries of work down the road.
Most audio interfaces will easily accommodate two signals, and all you need is a splitter.
Many DI boxes themselves will split the signal so you can record the DI guitar as well as the guitar amp itself. More on DI re-amping below.
Get your tone
Use your ears. When you play through an amp, the first step is to make the amp sound good to your ears.
Get your guitar tone as close as possible to what you want coming out of the amp by adjusting the guitar, any (and all) pedals, and the amp’s onboard controls.
There are no wrong answers—it’s all up to what you want to hear coming out of your amp.
Many newer models of guitar amps offer direct output from the amp itself. This is a line level signal that often incorporates some kind of cab (or speaker) model.
You might like the sound of the direct output, but many guitar players don’t.
It’s not quite the same as the sound coming out of the front of the speaker. Use your ears to decide if it’s good for you.
Get your microphones
Next, you’ll need to mic your amp.
The most common way is to stick a dynamic mic such as the Shure SM57 right on the grill, in the centre of the dust cap (that’s the circle in the centre of the speaker.)
If your grill comes off, lucky you. If not, have a flashlight or your cell phone handy to place the mic.
The dead centre of the dust cap will give you the brightest sound. On clean guitars, this can translate to sparkly and wonderful.
On overdriven or distorted guitars, this can sound harsh and very unpleasant. As you move the microphone away from the centre of the dust cap, the sound will become darker (or duller).
You can also adjust the angle of the microphone.
If you move the mic further away from the grill, you will capture more of the sound of the cab box itself or even the room’s acoustics.
In the end, it comes down to your ears, and getting it to sound how you want.
Dynamic microphones are cheap, useful and common for recording guitar through amps. Condenser mics are brighter and fuller, and many engineers use them as primaries or secondary microphones.
Ribbon mics are also a great choice for recording honest guitars—with ribbons, you often get what you hear and not much more.
Whichever mic and placement you choose, you’ll plug the mic into your interface and record it like any other track in your DAW.
Turn it up (and then turn it down)
If you’re recording distorted guitars, you may have a tendency to turn the gain up.
How else are you supposed to capture that bone-crunching, heart-stopping riff?
The problem is that most microphones don’t hear as well as you do, and what they hear is a staticky mess.
At first, you may not even notice that your guitars have too much gain—but when it comes time to mix, your guitars just all blend together and become indistinguishable.
The solution—as much as it may hurt—is to turn down the gain. A good rule of thumb is to turn it up to perfection, and then back it off just a little.
The more distorted the guitar, the more difficult it will be to capture performance, tone, subtlety and distinction. Keep that in mind when you reach for the Boss HM-2 …
Make your room shut up
When recording guitar amps, you probably wanna crank the volume to eleven. Sometimes that’s how you get the best sound of the amp.
You’ll also get a good loud signal into your microphone. Unfortunately, the louder the amp, the more the room sound can creep into your signal.
If you’re lucky enough to record guitars at Abbey Road, good on you.
If you’re recording guitar in an apartment with plaster walls and windows that rattle, it can be a real problem.
Room sound is almost always impossible to remove once it’s recorded—it’s like trying to remove the sugar from a cake.
The closer the microphone is to the speaker, the less room sound you’ll capture.
But you can always mitigate unwanted sounds by dampening flat surfaces with carpets, blankets, couch cushions or acoustic foam.
Bass traps in corners are a great way of keeping the low end under control.
Try to keep your ears on reflections—where the sound will bounce off and how it might sneak its way into your microphone.
Recording guitar pedals
What if you don’t want to record your guitar amp, but you do want to use your own pedals?
The steps are largely the same as recording DI guitars—just send the last pedal’s output to an instrument input on your interface.
Pedals often work fine with instrument inputs, as long as the pedals aren’t too hot.
If you’re using distortion, you’ll probably want to put a guitar amp model in your monitor.
Distortion pedals don’t usually sound so great straight into your ear.
How to record DI guitars … through your amp
You have the DI guitars, recorded with painstaking accuracy and grace.
And you have a guitar rig worth more than your first car.
How complicated would it be to get the guitars back out of your computer, into the guitar amp, and then back into the computer?
The answer is … not that complicated. You’ll need a couple things before you get started.
First, your audio interface will need at least 2 separate outputs, and preferable more than that.
Second, you’ll need a re-amping box or a DI box that permits backwards routing.
In your DAW, you’ll need to route your DI signal (usually with plugins disabled or removed) to an unused output.
Most DAWs put your main outputs as 1-2, so any output 3 or higher will work fine.
We’ll use Output 3 as our example. Plug output 3 into your re-amp box. Plug your re-amp box into your amp or the beginning of your pedal chain.
If the audio is flowing, you should be able to play back the DI on your DAW, and it should be coming out your amp’s speaker.
You may need to adjust the output volume (usually down) on the DAW. If it’s working correctly, the steps for recording the amp are the same as mentioned before.
Get your microphone and get started.
This is why it’s smart to record DI guitars, no matter what.
You never know when you might have a mistake that needs correcting through re-amping, or you didn’t quite nail the amp settings or microphone placement when you recorded the amp the first time.
Recording DI guitars allows you to tweak and refine your sound until you get it just right.
How to record acoustic guitar
Recording acoustic and classical guitars is similar to recording any other acoustic instrument such as violin, didgeridoo or vocals.
Point the microphone at the where the sound is coming from and adjust, using your ears.
For both acoustic and classical guitars, the principles are the same. The sound comes from the strings, resonates in the body and comes out the sound hole.
A beginner might stick a Shure SM57 near the sound hole and call it a day.
But the sound hole is where the sound is coming from, as in the air is pushing and pulsing and vibrating, and that can translate to a boomy recording.
If you over-correct and move the microphone onto the frets, you’ll get a bright but thin sound.
If you point the mic between the sound hole and the edge of the body (where it meets the neck), it’ll sound like an acoustic guitar.
In a solo guitar recording, this might be just what you need. But it might also have too much mid-range.
As in all things audio, it comes down to your ears and your choices. Move the microphone around until it begins to capture the sound you’re looking for.
Use reference tracks to help you identify what it is in an acoustic guitar recording you want—sparkle, depth, low-end, jangle, and so on.
And remember to take notes—every mic, guitar, placement and player are different.
Choose your mic
When it comes to microphones, condensers and ribbons are often the best choice for acoustic guitar.
Ribbons will capture the dark timbre of an acoustic, so don’t be afraid to boost the high-end with the EQ on your pre-amp or in your DAW.
Condensers can help you get a rich sound, without too much mid-range. They’ll also gently exaggerate the sparkle of an acoustic, often in pleasant ways.
If you use more than one mic, try stereo techniques like XY or M/S. Try capturing different frequency ranges with your microphone.
A great place to start is one mic in the sweet spot for capturing the majority of the tone, and another near the first fret for extra sparkle.
Some acoustic guitars may have their own pickups and electronics.
Many cheap acoustics come with pickups that aren’t worth your time, but you should always make that determination yourself.
Back in the room
As with recording electric guitar amps, recording acoustic guitars is heavily influenced by the sound of the room you’re in.
Small rooms often have poor acoustics, and you may not be able to capture your guitar the way you imagined.
Treating your room’s acoustics is one possibility, but don’t be afraid to move your gear around.
Find an empty hallway with long, straight walls and a tall ceiling. Play in a garage.
Just keep your ears open and take note of how the space you’re recording in affects the final product.