Some of us start out on acoustic guitar before ‘graduating’ to electric. Some of us stay on acoustic our whole lives. Some of us are electric shredders who don’t require an acoustic guitar often enough to actually plonk down enough cash to own one, but we might need the sound of an acoustic on our tracks from time to time. This post is for them. So, what do you do if you want to lay down some acoustic guitar on a track you’re recording, but you don’t have one at hand? Technology to the rescue! There are few tricks you can use to conjure up the spirit, if not the sound, of an acoustic guitar.
Hybrid guitars featuring piezo elements in the bridge saddles have been around for decades now, allowing electric guitarists to take a direct feed off the string saddles themselves, free of the influence of magnetic pickups, thereby getting much closer to the sound of an acoustic guitar than they otherwise could have. Piezo pickups can be extremely handy, especially when combined with the amplified guitar sound. But just as piezo pickups don’t capture the ambience and woodiness of an acoustic guitar, they won’t give you the warmth and depth when used with an electric either. It helps to add a little bit of outboard sweetening, especially if you have an acoustic preamp or a processor to add some compression and reverb. It’s often helpful to use a very short reverb time to mimic the sound of the strings echoing through an acoustic’s body. A little compression can also help, especially with a slow attack time to improve sustain. A short attack/release setting will just emphasise the attack of the strings, and that’s not necessarily what you want when trying to simulate acoustic tone.
Yeah, this one sounds obvious, but with a carefully-crafted clean tone you can often trick your audience into thinking they’re hearing an acoustic. For example, Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is full of clean electric guitars, but the arrangement and production conspire to distract the ear to the point where the casual listener might think it’s an acoustic. (Those with keener ears might easily tell the difference, but not everybody’s as obsessive about this stuff as we guitarists). You can further sell the illusion by using a neck and middle single coil in parallel, as this will give you plenty of ‘string zing’ which would be masked with a humbucker or a lone single coil.
Companies such as Boss, Line 6 and DigiTech routinely include acoustic simulators in their multi-effect processors. Boss even makes a dedicated Acoustic Simulator pedal. These are very useful for adding some acoustic blended in the background of a track, or even as the source of an acoustic tone for live use. Closer inspection might reveal a few sonic limitations but usually these simulations hold up pretty well when placed in the context of a full band or even in a guitar-and-two-vocalists duo. You could also combine the D-Tar Mama Bear with piezo pickups for a more lifelike acoustic representation.
Roland’s GR-55 guitar synth offers a few different ways to achieve acoustic tones. One is via accessing the unit’s acoustic guitar samples, but to be honest these don’t really sound that great, and they’ll make you sound like a keyboard player trying to play guitar parts on a keyboard. That can be a cool effect but it’s not great for authenticity. Much more effective is the set of COSM models available within the GR-55 which actually manipulate the sound of the strings, rather than simply using the strings to trigger samples. The GR-55 is especially strong in its nylon-string guitar COSM model. The only downside, if you wish to call it that, is that you need a compatible guitar able to speak to the GR-55. But hey! GC-1!
Perhaps the most low-tech way of all, this is a great way to add a little acoustic-like zing to an otherwise electric track: simply pop a mic up near your electric guitar and record the sound of the strings. A condenser microphone gets good results, and it helps if you can be acoustically isolated from your amp. In fact, this is a great method for players who tend to record using amp sims and headphones because you don’t need to fuss with sound separation at all: just throw up a mic wherever it sounds good and blend it in with your amp modelling software. This method doesn’t usually work all that well when used on its own but it can lend a haunting quality to single-note solo lines in certain musical situations.