4 Must-Have Base Tones
Pete Thorn details how he can cover a ton of ground with four basic tones by adding the appropriate guitars and effects. What are your must-have base tones?
Base Tone 1: An American-style clean, with a bit of compression and lots of headroom and sparkle.
Base Tone 2: An edge-of-breakup tone with some chime and a bit of overdrive that’s reminiscent of a Vox AC30.
Base Tone 3: A British EL34 crunch, reminiscent of a great Plexi or JCM800.
Base Tone 4: A boosted, singing lead tone—usually with some delay.
I've assembled and used versatile guitar rigs over the years for the many different types of musical situations. Channel-switching heads with effects loops, vintage-style heads or combos with no master volume, wet/dry/wet rigs, modelers—I've done it all. What I've come to realize is that essentially I need just four “base tones” available, no matter the gig or rig I’m playing. If I have this quartet of tones accessible through my feet or fingertips, I can pretty much cover any gig from pop to heavy rock, just by playing the appropriate guitars and adding the right effects. Guitar rigs are like snowflakes in that no two are the same, but if you can achieve these base tones with your rig, I guarantee you'll be able to cover a ton of ground. So this month, I'll show you how I achieve them with my current touring rig.
Base Tone 1: American Clean
Channel 1 of my signature CAA PT100 amplifier is designed to give me a great American-style clean. I set the controls so that the amp is totally clean when I play a guitar with single-coil pickups, but breaks up a bit when hit hard with a humbucker-equipped guitar. To round out this base tone, I just add a good, transparent compressor. My preferred pedal compressors are the Carl Martin compressor/limiter and the new Suhr Koji. Both are versatile enough to go from subtle and transparent smoothing and boosting, to all-out squish. I also love the Origin Cali76, which packs an 1176 circuit into a pedal. It's too large to fit on my pedalboards, but I do use it in the studio often. The Seven Sisters Grace from Red Witch gets honorable mention as well, because it's small enough to fit on almost any pedalboard. I usually set my compressors for subtle and transparent boost and smoothing—subtle enough that you might forget they are on but would miss them if you turned them off. This setting just pumps up my clean sound and makes everything a bit easier to play.
Base Tone 2: Edge Of Breakup
A good edge-of-breakup tone is vital for my current touring gigs. I just hit channel 1 of the CAA PT100 amp with the clean-boost side of an Analog Man King of Tone (KoT) pedal, which gives a beautiful, light breakup with a perfect balance of highs, lows, and mids. It's also quite smooth sounding without being dark. For a cool lead tone, I like to boost the KoT pedal with either a Suhr Koko boost or an XTS Precision Multi-Drive, or just use the red high-gain side of the KoT pedal. I’ll sometimes use one of these options as an alternative to my main lead sound (aka base tone 4). Some other pedals on the market that I think achieve the edge-of-breakup tone quite well include the BearFoot Honey Bee, the Teletronix Mulholland Drive, and the Carl Martin AC-Tone.
Base Tone 3: British Crunch
Channel 2 on my PT100 was designed to give me a killer Brit-style crunch distortion, with great punch and upper-mid cut. Think JCM800 with the preamp gain at 3 o’clock and the master set to about 11 o’clock so the output tubes are cooking a bit. I love this sound because it’s the epitome of rock ’n’ roll to me. I like enough gain that the guitar will feedback a bit and sustain, but not too much since I want to retain definition and punch. I also want to be able to roll the volume down on my guitar and get almost clean as well. Just remember that the more gain you use, the less punchy and dynamic you sound—it's all a balance. I’ll sometimes hit this tone with a fuzz for crazier, more out-there sounds. I like and use the Boss Hyper Fuzz because it plays nice with buffers, something many fuzzes don't do. If you’re a clean amp kind of player that doesn't use channel switching and you achieve your gain tones with pedals, I recommend the Carl Martin Plexitone pedal to achieve this base tone.
Base Tone 4: Lead
A singing lead tone that has great sustain is almost universally important for the modern, electric guitarist. My PT100 amp has an excellent built-in lead-boost circuit that adds drive and gain to channel 2’s British-style crunch tone. I’ll use the amp’s built-in boost if I just want more gain without changing the tone. If I want to add some mids and overdrive while boosting the sound into endless sustain and musical feedback, I’ll use the XTS Precision Multi-Drive. I like the mid-boost side of my Suhr Koko Boost for this lead application as well, and I’ll hit it if I want the upper mids boosted to make a part cut through, but don’t want any extra overdrive from a pedal.
It takes finesse to get a great lead tone that sings and cuts, but isn’t piercing. It needs to be tight, but not thin. And this is achieved by using an amp with just the right amount of bass in the preamp. Too much, and you get mush and woof when playing chords. Too little, and single notes will sound thin. If using a pedal like the Plexitone into a clean amp is how you achieve your crunch, then boosting the Plexitone with a pedal like the XTS will give you great results here.
Once again, if you can dial-in these four base tones, you should be able to cover almost anything musically. If you use a modeler—no worries. Just set up these core tones as four presets, and then base all your other presets off of them. There is no need to use every amp model in the box. Simply pick four great ones that are in the same ballpark as the ones I’ve been talking about, and it’ll make your modeling rig seem much less complex and easier to get a handle on. Until next month, happy tone tweaking!