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“Vox-style” Clean: The British Vox Company developed and popularized a clean tone unlike any other with some unique preamp tube choices, EL84 power amp tubes and a Class A power configuration. Characterized by scrunchy highs, a warm midrange, and soft, full lows, Vox amps do their own thing. Amps such as the Vox AC30, the Carr Hammerhead and the Orange Tiny Terror produce this spice. Brian May of Queen, The Edge from U2 and jazzbo extraordinaire John Scofield (a recent convert) can be seen using Voxes for their signature clean tones.
But which one is right for you? Here is where those difficult questions start. How do you want your clean tone to feel? Cutting? Smooth? Raw? Fat? Think about the environment you’ll be playing in – what instruments will you be blending with (if any)? Are you using more than one clean tone? How much do you use your clean tone – is it as important, or less important than your distorted tone? Also take into consideration volume and headroom – where are you playing, and how much volume do you need to cover the space? Ask these questions and let them lead you to your own questions. Learn to describe in detail the clean tone you hear in your head. Once you can accomplish that, you’ll be on your way to finding your own sound.
Checklist Point #2: Distortion/Overdrive Tones
Dirt, glorious dirt. The right kind equals bliss, while the wrong kind often equals barf. There are quite possibly, and without exaggeration, hundreds of thousands of distortion colors on the market and you can get your distortion in a variety of ways. Here are a few categories to help explain it all.
There are tons of uses for these little jewels. You can use them to distort a clean amp signal, further distort a slightly distorted amp signal, boost the guitar’s signal, filter it for timbre purposes, distort an effected signal, send a distorted signal to an effect or any one of umpteen options. The Ibanez Tube Screamer and the Boss Blues Driver are popular overdrive boxes, while the Krank Krankshaft and the DigiTech Distortion Factor are popular with metal mavens. The Electro-Harmonix Big Muff and the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face are popular with the psychedelic fuzz crowd.
Overdriven Amp: Take a good tube amp from the sixties and turn every knob all the way up. You’ll get a preamp and power stage pushed to their limits, thereby creating a mild distortion rich in singing overtones. This is the sound of early rock n’ roll and blues. Since the amp is doing all the distortion work, circuit designs and tube choices play a huge part in shaping the tone and flavor of the overdrive. From Hendrix and Clapton in the sixties, to Angus Young and Ritchie Blackmore in the seventies, to modern overdrivers such as Pearl Jam’s Gossard and McCready, there are a multitude of overdriven amp flavors to choose from. You’ll want to spend some time listening to your favorites to nail down a specific tone.
Cascading Gain Circuits: As the seventies rolled around, amp manufacturers realized that distortion was a good thing and began looking for ways to create more. Californian Randall Smith (of Mesa Boogie fame) began modifying Fender amps with a new preamp design that multiplied the number of gain stages. Thus began the era of the high-gain amplifier and the sound of modern rock. These amps create thick, rich distortion with chunk, drive and a girthy buzz with more distorted definition than pedals or previous amp circuits. Most major manufacturers now have high-gain amps in their line, with Mesa’s Dual Rectifier and Marshall’s TSL and JVM series being popular favorites. Some distort moderately and some rage like an underfed Doberman – James Hetfield, John Petrucci and Steve Vai are just a few of the more famous players falling into this category.
Of course, not all solid-state amps are modeling amps. With tight, focused distortion colors, defined overtones and a rounder attack, many players prefer solid-state tone. Ty Tabor used these amps for his unique signature tone on King’s X’s first four discs, and “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott used them for the entire Pantera catalog. Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine is a recent modeling convert and has added them to his live rig. It should also be noted that as a category, these amps are generally less expensive than tube amps, which make them very attractive to the guitarist on a budget.
Which type of grit is right for you? This one is a little tough, because circuit design variations within each category mentioned above drastically affect the distortion flavors, but we can still ask some basic questions to get you thinking about your tone. How do you intend to play with your dirt? Is it the cornerstone of your sound, or is it just for solos? Do you have to worry about covering up other instruments, or making the mix muddy? Do you need one dirty tone, or several at different levels? You need to be able to describe each sound in detail, whether it’s sweet, singing, ballsy, freaky, chunky, nasally, grinding, thick or focused. Once you ascertain what your needs are in detail, you’ll be able to narrow down the vast amount of distortion options and find a sound that fits you.