Most of us, when we try to describe our favourite guitar tone, use words like smooth, warm, creamy and sustain, but it’s not always that easy to achieve that tone and we even have a tendency to dismiss great sounding equipment simply because we don’t use it right. In this feature we’ll look at how to achieve that killer tone on different rigs.
One of the most frequently asked questions on this site is (something like) “how do I get my guitar to sound like David” or “how do I get that smooth sustain with my gear”.
You read tons of reviews and watch clips on YouTube but once you plug into your new pedal, it seems that it has mysteriously lost all its mojo on the way from the store to your home. The disappointment and frustration comes creeping.
Now, obviously, tone is a combination of many things and most importantly, your fingers, but a great tone and achieving that, is also about knowing what gear to use. No matter how good an amp or pedal sounds, not everything work together or are even designed to be working together.
There are no bad sounds. What you consider to be crap, others might think is pure heaven. A nasty, ear pinching fuzz might sound horrible for Gilmour, Hendrix and classic rock, but for other guitarists and genres, it’s just what you want.
However, a guitar’s main frequency range is right there in the middle. The guitar is a lead instrument, just like vocals and our ears are designed to focus on the middle range because that’s where the frequencies of our speech lies.
A guitar with lots of low end sounds great on its own, but in a band, it will drown behind the drums and bass. High end appears to be cutting but that’s also where the cymbals and keys are going to be, and again, your guitar will drown behind that dense curtain.
Taming the lows and highs and making sure that your guitar has enough mid range, will place it right in front with the vocals. Mid range is the key ingredient to not only a great tone but more importantly, a tone that people can hear.
There are lots of different amps out there but let’s focus on the two classics: Fender and Marshall. The reason why these are easy to focus on, apart from them being very popular and I’m sure most of you own at least one of them, is that they each represent the complete opposite sides of the tone spectrum.
Obviously, not all Fenders sound the same (early era Tweeds usually had more mids), but in general, Fenders has a mids scooped tone (meaning that there is more bass and treble than mids). Most Marshalls, on the other hand, has a pronounced mid range.
Now, the bigger and louder Fender amps, like a Twin, also has a lot of headroom – meaning that they have less compression and need a lot of volume to break into overdrive/distortion. Combine that with scooped mids and you get a very open and pristine clean tone.
If you add a fuzz or Big Muff to that, with their square wave clipping, it will sound pretty nasty and harsh. There’s nothing to compress the fuzz and even out that sharp edge square wave, and no mid range to compensate for the scooped tone coming from the pedals.
This does’t mean that there’s anything wrong. What it means is that the amp and pedal doesn’t go that well together. At least for the tones you want. You may want to return the pedal, or amp, but don’t do it with the impression that the pedal is broken. In fact, the more open and uncompressed the amp is, the less coloured the pedal will be.
Mids scooped amps are particularly suitable for clean tones and rhythm guitars, where you just want to fill in the space but don’t get in the way of the vocals. For cutting lead tones, you either want to use mids boosted pedals, as we’ll look at below, or get an amp with more emphasis on the mid range.
A typical Marshall, like the old Plexi, JCM and even newer series like the DSL, has lots of mid range and compression. Although most of these has enough headroom, at least for low output vintage style pickups, you might find that they do lack some of that pristine clean tone and that they sound somewhat dark due to the mid range.
However, that compression will smooth out those square wave fuzz pedals and make your Fuzz Face and Big Muff sound smooth and creamy. The tone will also cut through more easily, both on stage and in a recording situation.
But again, not all pedals work as well with Marshalls or Hiwatts. The fact that these amps has a lot of mids and compression, can make pedals like a Tube Screamer, OCD and Rat, which all have quite a lot of mids boost, sound dark, boxy and even choked. It’s nothing wrong with the pedals, but too much mids will sound just as bad as too little.
Marshalls, and similar sounding amps, are ideal for that cutting lead tone and fat chords but they can be a bit too dominating for subtle rhythm work, jazz and other styles where the guitar doesn’t need to be up front.
A third kind of amps are the ones with a fixed mid range, like the Vox AC30, which doesn’t have a dedicated mid range control.
Bryan May certainly has plenty of mid range coming from his wall of AC30s and by rolling down the lows in particular, he allow more space for the fixed mid range to cut through. The fact that he also plays insanely loud, will create tube and speaker compression.
Other amps, like the Laney Lionheart, can do a bit of both. The clean channel does a very good Fender/Vox pristine cleans kind of thing, while the drive channel sounds very much like an early Marshall Plexi, with creamy mids and a bit of compression. Both channels can handle most pedals (the channels share a 3-band EQ) but the tone between the two, is distinctly different allowing a wider range of tones.
So, understanding these differences will make it easier to decide which pedals to buy and ultimately, make it easier to get the tones you want.
This takes us to the pedals and we’ll focus on overdrives, distortion and fuzz. Modulation and delay aren’t as dependent on what amp you have, although most modulation pedals (chorus, flanger, phaser) seems to get less dominating and slightly smoother sounding, with a bit of mids and compression.
As we’ve discussed before, and you’ll find a full list of pedals in the overdrive and distortion buyer’s gear guide, there are mainly two different kinds of gain pedals tone-wise: mids scooped and mids boosted. Obviously, there are thousands of variations within that range.
The first pedals that emerged in the mid 60s and further into the 70s, like the Colorsound Powerboost, Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and EHX Big Muff, all had a typically mids scooped and uncompressed tone.
They were (perhaps apart from the Big Muff) mainly used to drive a cranked tube amp into serious distortion, which provided the mids and compression from the tubes and speakers you needed to cut through.
As mentioned above, these pedals sound great with darker sounding British amps like a Marshall or Hiwatt but paired with mids scooped Fender or Vox, they can sound pretty harsh. This means that if you do own a Fender or something similar sounding, you might want to look for pedals with more mids and compression.
In the late 70s, with the transistor boom, pedals like the Tube Screamer and Rat emerged and these, unlike their predecessors, had a nice mids hump and lots of compression.
These pedals were basically designed for guitarists who wanted their Fenders and smaller amps to produce that fat Marshall combined with a fuzz kind of tone and some, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, also used them as a boost for solos, allowing the guitar to do subtle rhythm work and cutting leads.
The Tube Screamer, and Rat, are one of the best known and most used pedals of all time but some guitarists often dismiss them for being too boxy and thin sounding. But, that’s their nature and if you don’t find that tone pleasing, it might be because you have an amp that already has a lot of mids.
So let’s repeat this one more time: for your guitar, and your solos in particular, to cut through and reach everyone’s attention, you need mid range. Your guitar needs to be right there in the middle with the vocals, away from the boomy drums and toppy cymbals and keys.
A pedal, or amp, that has less low end but more mids will cut through much more easily, than a pedal, or amp, with a scooped tone and thunderous lows. It might sound dull in your bedroom but on stage and on a recording, it is crucial that your guitar has enough mids, and compression, especially for the parts where you want it to be properly heard.
It’s also worth mentioning pedals like the Klon and pedals inspired by the Dumble amp (OCD, Tree of Life, Euphoria etc).
While the Tube Screamer and Rat were designed to emulate the combination of a tube amp combined with gain pedals, the Klon and Dumble pedals, has a more pure amp quality, with a wider range from pristine cleans to pretty heavy overdrive. What they also have is a fat low end and tons of mid range.
Again, used on mids scooped amps, these pedals can do wonders and Dumble inspired pedals in particular, are extremely suitable for recording. However, on amps that already has a nice amount of mids and compression, they can sound overwhelming and be tough on your ears.
I like to say that there are no rules when it comes to tone and choosing pedals and amps, but keep this in the back of your head:
Mids scooped and uncompressed amps (Fender/Vox and similar) – NO fuzz, Powerbooster and Muff. ONLY Tube Screamer and Rat (or similar sounding clones).
Mids boosted and compressed amps (Marshall/Hiwatt and similar) – NO Tube Screamer and Rat (or similar sounding clones). ONLY transparent, mids scooped or flat EQ overdrives, distortions and fuzz.
The harsh and brutal reality is that no matter how much you want a Big Muff – why not? that’s what’s Gilmour is using – it won’t get you the tones you’re looking for if you don’t have the right amp.
Likewise, if you walk into a store and the guy behind the counter recommends a Tube Screamer, or a clone, because “you can’t go wrong, all the greats used one”, then he failed to ask what amp you’re using. On a clean Hiwatt, that Tube Screamer will sound like a fart.
See the Buyer’s Gear Guide – Overdrive and Distortion for recommended pedals within each category.
Guitars plays a minor role when it comes to mid range but different models and pickups can enhance or worsen what we’ve discussed above.
Stratocasters generally has a mids scooped tone. Paired with a Fender amp, you get that classic bell chime and pristine cleans. But, it also means that while a Les Paul with a pair of hot humbuckers might compensate to some extent for the lack of mid range, your Strat will make it worse. On the other hand, using a Tube Screamer with that combo, gets you right into Stevie Ray Vaughn territory and the Strat will even add a nice top end bite.
A Telecaster, although very similar sounding to a Strat, generally has more mid range and therefore, it’s often considered to be more versatile in the sense that it pairs equally well with mids scooped and mids boosted amps.
Les Pauls and other humbucker guitars, has a much warmer tone, with more mid range and compression, mainly due to the design of the pickups. They won’t sound as clean and chimey as a Strat on a Fender amp, but they’ll compensate to some extent for the lack of mid range. They’re the perfect match for a Marshall and even a Hiwatt, but add a mids boosted Tube Screamer and you might experience a tone that’s all over the place, muddy and even choked.
I hope this cleared up a few misconceptions and perhaps even answered some of your questions. Again, there are no rules when it comes to tone but a bit of basic know-how, will hopefully keep you from spending too much money on the wrong gear.
Please feel free to use the comment field below and share your experience and thoughts on the subject.