I received an email with these questions, "How should you EQ guitars (or other instruments) when you have more than one of them on stage? How do you make them distinctive?" Let's look at this common issue and what you can do.
The question is in reference to acoustic guitars so with that in mind.
How do you EQ a guitar?
Acoustic guitars do NOT all sound the same. The sounds can vary based on the brand of guitar strings, the gauge (diameter) of the guitar strings, the type of wood used, as well as the electronics used inside the guitar. Even the age of the guitar can make a difference in the sound.
Therefore, the first thing I do is listen to the guitar without it being plugged into the system. I'm listening for the dominate frequencies. For example, I remember a guitarist who brought in a brand new Breedlove guitar. It sounded bright and clear. There wasn't much in the way of low end frequencies. Mid's and High's dominated with a bias towards the High frequencies.
Knowing the natural sound of the guitar, I focused on those sounds when I EQ'd the instrument. This meant making sure those mid's and high's were brought out. I wasn't going to try giving it a more bassy sound if I knew that wasn't strength of the guitar.
*That being said, when EQ'ing instruments, I also want those instruments to sit in the mix well. For example, if there was another instrument that was strong in those high frequencies, I'd cut the high's a little in one of the instruments so as to separate them out so they didn't work against each other. I'd also want the right instrument to be right focus in the mix.
What about a second guitar?
Again, listen to the natural strengths of the guitar and focus on bringing those sounds out in the mix. One guitar might be bright, another might be mellow, and another could be warm. Bring that sound into the mix.
What if the acoustic guitars sound the same?
This is where the fun begins. You have three options;
1. Panning. Using left/right panning, you can create a perceived audio separation in the mix. For example, pan the guitar on the right side of the stage a little to the right and the guitar on the left, a little to the left. You should know that in rooms that are wider than they are deeper, if you pan too far in one direction or another, people on one side of the room might not hear that panned instrument.
2. EQ separation. Cut the mid's or low mid's in one guitar. Cut the high's a little in the other guitar. It really helps to have heard a professional recording of the song so you can hear how each instrument is EQ'd.
3. Talk with the guitarists. In the case of two rhythm guitars, suggest capo usage, bar chords, in short any way one instrument can play chords with a different color, chord formation, and/or octave usage. The short-cut capo* is a great way to do this. These capos permit the player to play the same chord, let's say a G-chord, higher up on the neck of the guitar so some notes are in a different octave range.
Regarding chord color, a major chord is made up of the 1-3-5 notes of the chord. A C-chord would have notes C-E-G. However, you can get a slightly different sound by dropping the 3 so the chord is only C and G notes. There are a variety of ways to get color changes by just using minor chord formation changes…or in the case of the capo, major chord formation changes.
*I suggest passing a site on to the guitarists you know. It has free video tutorials on how to use the short cut capo. Check out Randall Williams' how-to video. When I played on a worship team, I used a short-cut capo because it gave us the sound separation we needed and really enhanced the songs. These videos are what convinced me to try the capo.
Knowing your limitations
There is only so much you and I can do with the sounds presented to us. The arrangement of the songs as defined by the musicians can be the difference between an ok song and a great one. And arrangement isn't something we can control. But, like I mentioned in point 3, we can use our knowledge to educate the musicians so they can give us the best sound possible.
Question(s): How do you separate out similar guitars? Have you ever made suggestions to musicians? How did that turn out?