Throughout the history of guitar playing there have been a lot of amazing and inspiring tones created. Signature sounds that are can be picked out from a lineup with your eyes closed. As a rock guy I particularly gravitate to tones from Ace Frehley’s “ALIVE!” era to Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced” to Van Halen’s “Fair Warning.” No doubt all of these sounds were created first by the player’s style and songs but clearly were carved out by the combination of guitar, amp and FX choices. Some may have been happy accidents while others were the culmination of many experiments and careful choices that led to the final result. Nearly all of these tones continued to evolve over time, and in some cases devolve with changes that may have sounded like a good idea at the time but actually took them a step backward. The question is, without copying somebody else’s sound how do you create a signature tone of your own? Let’s explore and see if we can’t just assemble the next classic tone…yours.
My assumption is that most of us have been playing long enough to know what we like and already have been through various guitars, amps and FX over the years. But does that mean you’re 100% happy with your tone? Again, like most of us you probably would always welcome a little tweak here or there. Lets go way back to basics and ask a few questions that might help get you in the right frame of mind.
1. What style do you play? If you play more than one just pick one of them and go with it. Certainly each style has a distinctive tone to it.
2. Are you the only guitarist in the band? How many players make up your band?
3. What are the main components you want your tone to cover? Do you need clarity and sustain? Thick and chunky power chords? Searing gain drenched in delays and modulation FX?
4. Does portability matter in your setup? Where will you use it? Can it be recreated in any sized venue or are you planning to carry full stacks cranked to 10?
Once you’ve gotten into the frame of mind of what you really want to accomplish you can start putting together your sound from there. The classic example of Les Paul into a Marshall is a good starting point for a heavy rock tone. But amazingly there are many players with this combination yet they all sound different. Again, aside from their playing style what separated them from each other? For instance Zakk Wylde plays Les Paul’s and Marshall’s just like Jimmy Page but Zakk’s Les Paul has EMG humbuckers in it while Page has stock PAF’s. Page also used a non-master 1959 model Marshall while Zakk uses JCM800’s (among others no doubt). Similar on the outside but very different on the inside.
Making small changes from similar setups makes a world of difference to your sound, but making bold changes can help launch you into another universe. These days there is such a surplus of manufacturers of great amps, guitars and FX that you could easily spend the rest of your life experimenting…fun, but probably not the best way to get your sound solidified. I recommend finding a guitar that is comfortable and is equipped with what you need for your style and spending a good amount of energy on the amp and speaker choice. While the guitar will absolutely have a big effect on the overall sound, the amp and speaker(s) will probably have the most significant sonic imprint. Before getting too crazy with the FX side try to establish the core of your sound and finding the sweet spot of the two. Effects play a big part of classic tones from The Edge to David Gilmore and Hendrix, and with the thousands of pedals both new and old available it would be easy enough to create your own sound if you chose to go that route.
After covering 75 different songs for various video games in the past couple of years I’ve had the luxury of recreating some great sounds. To be able to study the tones of so many players really opened me up to the idea that with an open mind and a clear idea of what you want to achieve anyone can create their own personal signature sound. Now, all you have to do is write that hit song and you’ll have a place in history along with the greats!
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