"This is what Bruce calls his primal scrub": Bob Clearmountain talks mixing and tweaking Springsteen's Born In The USA guitars

Born In The USA album cover
(Image credit: Sony Music)

It's more than the voice, the sax and the crescendos; there's a Bruce Springsteen guitar sound when he takes off with the E Street Band. And we know it when we hear it. Well it turns out The Boss has a name for it – the Primal Scrub.

So says mixing master Bob Clearmountain in the latest edition of Mix With The Masters, and he isolates Springsteen's guitar on Born In The USA to illustrate his point. In truth, it's not a pleasant sound to be honest – but it's got punk rock attitude. 

t doesn't matter – it adds to the craziness, the vibe of the song, the aggressiveness of the song

"He's just slamming the guitar," observes Clearmountain. "It's going all kind of sharp – the E string, he's pulling it sharp." But in context it's a lesson in how such 'imperfections' can be vital to the mood of a song. Especially this one in particular. 

"It doesn't matter – it adds to the craziness, the vibe of the song, the aggressiveness of the song," adds Clearmountain. Born In The USA, the title track of Springsteen's 1984 album, has been famously misconstrued over the years as a celebratory song of patriotism. This skewed translation went right up to the Oval Office too.

"We had a president in this country. an ex B-actor called Ronald Regan who loved this song and he thought it was a patriotic song talking about how great America is," explains Clearmountain. "He kind of got it completely wrong – this is actually a protest song talking about how badly Vietnam veterans were treated after they came back. They gave their lives, gave their limbs, got PTSD, they just went through hell and we treated them like dirt, basically, unfortunately, it's just awful. 

"So that's I think what he's thinking about when he's playing it – that primal scrub. It's angry."

Clearmountain then brings us up to the present day of technology by applying Apogee's ECS Channel Strip. "It's pretty amazing actually," says Clearmountain – even  more impressive considering Apogee bundles a version with its Boom USB interface.

With a basic EQ, compressor and overdrive, the plugins interface is simple, but the results on Bruce's guitar track really make it pop. Clearmountain then applies it to Garry Tallent's original DI bass track - adding some 5/1 compression, 3K and overdrive. It's a startling change that makes it sound like an amp was in the studio that day.   

Check out the full video above as Clearmountain experiments with some mixing board EQ tweaks on some of the other tracks from Born In The USA – including Steven Van Zandt's part and adding Empirical Labs Distressor digitally controlled analog knee compressor to an acoustic guitar track in open tuning that's almost hidden in the original version. 

Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.