Matching the Tools to the Genre on a 1970s Gospel Session

Thought for the day: "Playing guitar is the art of doing completely unnatural things with your fingers and making it sound utterly natural."

That thought came to me as I was working on a session on Monday. Much of the process revolves around making yourself play music that is new to you and getting takes in a short time. However, somehow the process rarely feels immediate to me.

On the face my process typically looks like this: I walk into the session and hear a working copy of the song with no score or tab and then I'm expected to compose and record my parts. Behind the obvious, what it means is that I have to crack the code of the key and chord structure by ear, conceive the rhythm chord changes as they are to play out on he guitar, teach myself to play them, make them relatively smooth and effortless, choose the guitars I'm going to use for the parts, and record. That all is typically fit into a three-to-four hour block. Rhythm guitar is always the most challenging part so I start with it, leaving leads and fills to the end of the session as a reward to myself.

Here is how it worked out last Monday:
The Task: Create and record guitar parts for an L.A. Gospel-style song in the style of Andre' Crouch in 1976.
Materials: a mix minus, a few sentences describing the request, and a couple of reference tracks on YouTube.
Gear: Electric guitars and Line 6 Helix modeler.
Time: Three hours.
Guitar Challenges: Finding the right tool for the job.

After hearing the song I checked the Andre' Crouch album from 1976 and found that it had everything from smooth-sounding guitar fills to wah-wah guitar. My first task would be comping chords to fit with a Wurlitzer electric piano. I remembered some L.A. Gospel types using the Tele so I brought out the Helix and Tele and got connected. For smoothness, I started off with the Tele's neck pickup, but the sound just wasn't right. Even with the tone control pulled right back it was just too "spiky," if you will. Then I remembered Pop Staples in Guitar Player Magazine and on the Midnight Special playing a pretty white Gibson SG Custom. We used to be exposed to so many more genre's of music via radio and TV than we are today - and the genre's weren't as different from each other, as polarized, if you will, as they are today. So, I switched to the Gibson SG Standard '61 Reissue Limited Edition. The SG's wider and flatter fretboard and the neck humbucker, a 57' Classic, fit better and made quicker business of the rhythm parts.

Next I attacked a little lead figure the composer had asked me to duplicate. He had simulated it via a keyboard synth on the guide track. It took a little adjustment to make it "guitaristic, but it dropped right in. Next I came up with some little transitional licks to smooth out song transitions from verse to choose and back. All of the previous parts were doubled to give fullness and allow them to drop back in the mix a bit. My final contribution was a rhythmic wah-wah track. Wacka-wacka-wacka! At the beginning of the track the wahs only hit on the first beat of the odd measures. At the end of the song I gave it a faster routine with the wahs hitting every beat in order to raise the tension a bit. To get the wah going I added a second foot controller to the Helix, a Mission Engineering EP1-L6 Line 6 pedal. That freed up the excellent onboard expression pedal to do wah duties. From the Helix's extensive menu of wahs I selected a basic CryBaby wah for the track. Back then there were basically two generations of Thomas Organ Company Crybabies (one of which I happen to own) and the big, chrome Morley photo-isolator wah, in general circulation. I put my money on Mr. Thomas.

All-in-all I created nine tracks of guitar parts: four parts doubled and one single.

  1. This business really is much more complicated when you are wearing all the hats in the studio, ie. producer, composer, engineer, and musician.
  2. I would have been much more comfortable on my SoundSeat! I ended up on a tall-ish stool because all the studio chairs had armrests. That eventually led to a pretty good case of back pain before the session was over. Unfortunately the company hasn't sprung for a SoundSeat and I'm not going to transport mine from home for each session.
  3. Next time I work with the SG I will probably do it standing up. The SG's body shape shifts the neck off to the left and my arm needs to be longer to reach first position!
  4. I'm remembering lockdown and the comfort of recording in my own living room. I am considering putting together my remote laptop rig again to record at home because I'm tiring of the load-ins and outs.
  5. The Helix v3.5 update a year ago replaced all the speaker cabinets with IRs. The more I play them the more I love them.

So, there you go: Soup to nuts electric guitar on a 1970s gospel session!