This article brings together a series of EQ advice columns published on Sonic State, combined to create a comprehensive guide on how to EQ guitar for producers, guitarists and sound engineers. Written by former sound engineer turned journalist Richard Beech, you can follow Richard on Twitter for mad ramblings and advice on guitar tech.
Guitar EQ might not be as sexy as reverb, delay or modulation, but it's a production and mixing aspect that is most likely to be overlooked, and you can always tell when this happens, because the mix sounds unprofessional and unfinished.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that EQ is THE most important aspect of guitar recording and production, alongside compression (which is also a bit boring).
First of all, the reason that EQ is important is that the guitar produces an incredible range of harmonic overtones, and takes up a broad spectrum of the audible frequency range to human ears.
Sometimes, there are harmonic overtones which sound great, but sometimes, there are harmonic overtones which sound awful or jump out of the mix, and over the space of this two part feature, I'm going to teach you how to get rid of those frequencies.
There are two main parameters you need to think about here - volume, and frequency. The frequency is basically the pitch of the note you're hearing, higher frequencies are higher pitches. No frequency sounds inherently awful on it's own, until it's too loud. So the key here is not identifying 'nasty' frequencies, as is the common misconception, it's simply identifying frequencies which are too prominent, too loud or have too much volume in the mix.
Though frequencies which pop out of the mix are commonly referred to as 'nasties' or 'nasty frequencies', by this, we simply mean the frequency is too loud in the mix.
I'm also going to help you identify the frequencies that the guitar sits best in when you are doing a mix. Too much low-end, and it will conflict with the bass guitar, too much high mid and it will dominate the mix (the human ears are very perceptive to high mids), too much high end and it will sound piercing.
So in this part of the series, I'll be teaching you a simple and easy way to get a great guitar sound. I'm going to assume that you are recording at home with a simple setup such as:
(Alternatively you might be using a guitar interface such as a Line 6 POD HD, or if you are really lucky, perhaps a Kemper Profiling Amp or Axe FX unit).
So here's what we're going to do. Let's assume that you have the fundamentals of your track already built up - drums, bass and perhaps a synth part (or two). This is when it becomes tricky to find a place for the guitar in the mix.
Many guitarists will start off a mix at home by recording a guitar part, probably because they wrote the song on the guitar. In a studio, we'd call this a guide track. It's very rare that the guide track would make the final mix. The electric guitar should usually be one of the last things to be recorded. It's absolutely fine to record a guide track at home, and it could end up sounding great.
But some people make the mistake of building the mix around the guide track (in terms of EQ), and that isn't a good place to start.
So let's assume you have deleted (or muted) your guitar guide track, and that you're about to record your final guitar part to go alongside with the rest of your mix.
Now I want you to open up an EQ plug in on the guitar track in your DAW, and I want you to create a high and low shelf. This is when you cut off the extreme high and low ends of the EQ.
Most plug-ins have this is a preset, but to create it manually, create a downward slope in the high and low end, in the high end it should start to drop off at about 10kHz and higher, and in the low end, it should start to slope off at 100Hz and lower (as shown below):
I learned this technique when I was a studio engineer, from a friend of mine who is an incredibly efficient producer, and this method is all about efficiency. Once you nail it, it will take you a very short amount of time to dial in the right settings and get a great guitar sound.
Now I want you to set up your microphone in front of the speaker cone of your amp, as you usually would (I'm not going to prescribe a precise angle or positioning because everybody has a different opinion on this, and it's all about personal preference).
Now record yourself playing along to your track for 30 seconds, with a tone that sounds good to your ears on the amp. And then play it and listen to it back alongside the rest of your mix, make sure it's not too loud and that it sits comfortably in your mix in terms of volume.
Now, clearly, there's a massive disparity between what your ears hear when listening to your amplifier in a room, and what the microphone 'hears' when it's picking up the signal from the speaker cone.
What sounds great in a room might not sound great in a mix, and this is what this little exercise is all about.