Fatten up your sound with these tried-and-true tone roux recipes.
No matter what style we play or whether we use a clean, crunchy, fuzzy or heavily distorted tone, most of us guitarists crave a sound that’s balanced and full. But what about those scenarios when your standard “full tone” isn’t big enough? Perhaps there are songs where you just need to get truly massive in the choruses to set them apart from the verses. Perhaps you play in a guitar/bass/drums trio and you need to fill up quite a bit of space sonically. It might be that you wish your acoustic or electric guitar didn’t sound so small, mono, and pinpointed in your in-ear monitors when playing live. Whatever the case may be, I’d like to share some strategic ways to fatten, thicken, and widen your guitar signal.
I’ve previously touched on both the virtues of buffering your signal when appropriate and the benefits of a clean, properly wired rig. It should go without saying, but clean wiring will help ensure that you are starting with a robust, core tone that’s free of loss due to capacitance and free of ground loops or extraneous noise. So, with that out of the way, we can get to the fun stuff.
Choruses and harmonizers. When chorus units came on the market in the ’70s, they found favor by providing guitarists with a quick and easy way to make rigs sound thicker, while also helping to create a stereo setup (when desired) by running the output of the chorus to two amplifiers. The initial aim of choruses was to create an illusion of more than one guitar playing—hence the “chorus” moniker—and that was accomplished by delaying and modulating the core guitar signal and then blending in that modulated signal with the core tone. Notable guitarists in trios, such as Andy Summers and Alex Lifeson, have used stereo chorus units to great effect for thickening and widening their tones to fill up sonic space.
Harmonizers came on the scene in the late ’70s, and some guitarists used them to create dense harmony lines with multiple intervals. (Trevor Rabin’s solo on the Yes classic “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is a good example.) Other players discovered that a harmonizer could be used to create a sort of “still” chorus effect—accomplished by slightly detuning the core guitar tone by generally +/- 9 cents or less. This technique can sound fat and like a subtle chorus in mono, but in stereo, it can sound positively huge, which is why it became a staple sound throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s. (Eddie Van Halen relied heavily on this sound for over a decade.)
More subtle thickeners. Delays can be used in simple, creative ways to create a larger-than-life tone, but without the obvious modulation of a chorus effect. If you have a simple mono delay pedal and two guitar amps, try placing the amps a few feet apart and running your guitar into an ABY box. Send “A” to your first amp and send “B” to the delay pedal on its way to the second amp. Dial in a very short delay time, the mix to 100 percent, and the feedback all the way off. When you play through both amps at once and switch the delay unit in and out, you should hear the image go from pinpointed and cutting to wide and huge. By varying the delay time (but always keeping it quite short), you can fine-tune the width and the diffuse quality of the sound.
If you have two amps running in stereo via a stereo delay unit, try setting up a stereo delay patch with a different short delay on each channel (30 ms on the left and 40 ms on the right, for example). By setting the feedback to zero and blending in the delay using the mix control, you’ll hear the stereo image get fatter and wider the more delay you blend in. If your delay has modulation controls, increasing these can create a cool chorusing effect.
In-ears and the dreaded mono guitar. Many artists are using in-ear monitors these days, but it can be a difficult adjustment for guitarists, especially if you use a mono amp or acoustic setup. We just aren’t used to hearing our instrument in such a pinpointed, mono way! Using a stereo rig can really help, but not every guitarist can do this, or wants to do this.
Try this trick: Have the engineer pan your main guitar signal left 40 percent and use an auxiliary send to route your guitar signal to a delay set for 8 to 11 ms of delay, zero feedback, and 100 percent wet. Send the return of the delay to another channel and pan that channel 40 percent right. Then pull up that channel, blend it at the same level of your main guitar channel, and voilà—your sound is now far more spacious and stereo-ized in your in-ears. This sounds great on electric-acoustic guitars as well as miked guitar amp signals. Singers who play guitar really dig this trick because it splits the guitar wide and makes space for their voice up the middle.
I hope you get a chance to experiment with some of these tricks. Until next month, all the best to you, guitar nerds!
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Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
Adding to the company’s line of premium-quality effects pedals, Missing Link Audio has unleashed the new AC/Overdrive pedal. This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal – the only Angus & Malcom all-in-one stompbox on the market – brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
The AC/OD layout has three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone. That user-friendly format is perfect for quickly getting your ideal tone, and it also offers a ton of versatility. MLA’s new AC/OD absolutely nails the Angus tone from the days of “High Voltage” to "Back in Black”. You can also easily dial inMalcom with the turn of a knob. The pedal covers a broad range of sonic terrain, from boost to hot overdrive to complete tube-like saturation. The pedal is designed to leave on all the time and is very touch responsive. You can get everything from fat rhythm tones to a perfect lead tone just by using your guitar’s volume knob and your right-hand attack.
- Three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone
- Die-cast aluminum cases for gig-worthy durability
- Limited lifetime warranty
- True bypass on/off switch
- 9-volt DC input
- Made in the USA
MLA Pedals AC/OD - Music & Demo by A. Barrero
Energy is in everything. Something came over me while playing historical instruments in the Martin Guitar Museum.
When I’m filming gear demo videos, I rarely know what I’m going to play. I just pick up whatever instrument I’m handed and try to feel where it wants to go. Sometimes I get no direction, but sometimes, gear is truly inspiring—like music or emotion falls right out. I find this true particularly with old guitars. You might feel some vibe attached to the instrument that affects what and how you play. I realize this sounds like a hippie/pseudo-spiritual platitude, but we’re living in amazing times. The Nobel Prize was just awarded to a trio of quantum physicists for their experiments with quantum entanglement, what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Mainstream science now sounds like magic, so let’s suspend our disbelief for a minute and consider that there’s more to our world than what’s on the surface.
I recently spent a day filming a factory tour of Martin Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. After we wrapped, we discovered that Martin has this amazing museum that showcases more than 170 historic instruments. We decided to meet at the museum at 7:45 a.m. the next morning to film a few choice pieces before catching our flight in not-too-near Newark, New Jersey, that afternoon.
These were not ideal conditions for a performance. Neither my brain nor my fingers work well before 10 a.m., plus I hadn’t slept well the night before. Even so, we loaded into the museum, met the curators, set up the shoot, and began rolling by 8 a.m.
The first guitar was an 1834 gut string, perhaps the oldest Martin in existence. It was beautiful but had some tuning issues and did not project very well, so playing it felt more like work than music.
Next was a prewar D-45 worth over $500k. The strings were ancient with that rusty feel, like you’ll need a tetanus shot after playing it. I’m sure it sounded great, but I was tired and thinking more about making our flight than playing guitar. Wonderful instrument but uninspired performance on my end.
Then, I played a 1953 D-18 coined “Grandpa” by Kurt Cobain. I picked up the deeply sacred D-18, and my hands went to an A minor. This sounds like hype, but honestly, I closed my eyes and connected with a deep, beautiful sadness. The feeling was palpable as soon as you picked it up. This guitar pretty much played itself, leading me to a sad version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I don’t know if it was any good, but I know I felt something deeply. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place. I don’t have to play well to feel moved.
I later talked to the museum director, who told me the D-18 was given to Cobain by his 1991 girlfriend Mary Lou Lord. Cobain played it on tour before and after Nirvana’s Nevermind. It was returned to her after Cobain married. Shortly after that, Mary Lou loaned the guitar to Elliott Smith, who played it until his death.
When I’m sad, I make myself play guitar to feel better, because it usually works. This 70-year-old guitar spent a lot of time literally pressed up against the hearts and chests of two artists who were so tormented by their emotions that they ended their lives. That’s heavy. You can’t explain those feelings that make the hair stand up on your arm, or when you feel like crying for no reason … but hitting that A minor made me feel it.
We had to split for the airport, so Chris Kies and Perry Bean started packing up. As they did, I saw this cute little 1880 Martin 000 that belonged to Joan Baez. In the photo next to it, Joan looks like my mom in the ’60s. I asked the curator if I could play it, and Chris grabbed his phone to do a quick Insta video. I swear there was a happy vibe coming off this tiny guitar. It felt like watching my mom dance—like a warm hug I needed after Cobain’s D-18.
In Chinese culture, there is a superstition that antiques may hold evil spirits, and chi (energy) transfer can bring this negativity into your home. Feng shui is all about objects carrying good or bad chi. Here’s how I see it: All matter is made of atoms. Atoms contain energy. Ergo, everything contains energy, or, more aptly, everything is energy. Ever walk into a room and feel powerful emotion: joy, sadness, fear, tranquility? That’s energy. We all have felt energy coming from people, places, and things. But that’s what I love about old guitars: Their atoms spent the first few hundred years as a tree in the forest connected to nature. Then, they’re turned into an instrument that makes people happy or consoles them when they are sad. That’s the kind of chi I want around me.
The Saddest Martin Ever? A 1953 D-18 Owned by Kurt Cobain & Elliott Smith
Sporting custom artwork etched onto the covers, the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One Humcutters are designed to offer a fat midrange and a smooth top end.
Billy Corgan was looking for something for heavier Smashing Pumpkins songs, so Joe Naylor designed the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One pickup. Sporting custom artwork etched onto the covers, the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One Humcutters have a fat midrange and a smooth top end. This pickup combines the drive and sustain of a humbucker with the percussive attack and string clarity of a P90. Get beefy P90 tone plus amp-pummeling output with the Railhammer Billy Corgan Z-One.
Patented Railhammer Pickups take passive guitar pickups to a new level with rails under the wound strings lead to tighter lows, and poles under the plain strings offer fatter heights. With increased clarity, the passive pickup’s tone is never sterile.
Railhammer Billy Corgan Signature Z-One Pickup Demo
For more information, please visit railhammer.com.