Tone Tips from the Road: Recipes for Non-Guitar Sounds
Here are some cool ideas to add to your sonic cookbook.
A Pedaltrain JR wired with Spectraflex cables that’s literally overflowing with sonic options. Top row: MXR Stereo Chorus, Way Huge Aqua-Puss, Way Huge Ring Worm, MXR EVH Phase 90, Dunlop DC Brick, MXR KFK-1 10-band EQ. Bottom row: Line 6 M5, MXR Blue Box, Way Huge Green Rhino, Way Huge Pork Loin, MXR Custom Badass ’78 Distortion, MC404 CAE Wah.
One of the most legendary performances ever delivered on an electric guitar was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. What really made it impressive was his ability to emulate the sounds of a battlefield—bombs being dropped from a fleet of planes, ambulances in transit, and the absolute chaos that surrounds a war scene.
When in the pursuit of specific instrumental tones, I reduce any sound to two parameters—the bloom (sustain) and the attack—and then analyze them. Does the instrument have infinite sustain or does the note die off quickly? Is the initial attack of the sound hard and pronounced or does it blend in with the bloom? Then I’ll assemble a chain of components that will help me capture the desired effect. Following are some tonal recipes to add to your sound cookbook.
Tonal Characteristics: Infinite sustain, slight pitch warble, attack and bloom are indistinguishable.
Components Needed: Pitch vibrato pedal, slide, Sustainiac pickup or EBow, volume knob or volume pedal.
The theremin is often associated with spooky movies but has also been used in pop music, including the Beach Boys’ mega-hit “Good Vibrations.” The Pitch Vibrato setting on the Line 6 M5 is great for obtaining the slight pitch warble, and a slide will allow you to change pitch in that smooth theremin manner. This is important because the flutters produced when running your fingers over bumpy frets are a dead giveaway that the sound is coming from a guitar. Also, you’ll want to swell into notes using your guitar’s volume knob or a volume pedal to achieve the most convincing theremin sound.
Tonal Characteristics: Rotating or fast pulsing effect. Boosted bass and slightly overdriven.
Components Needed: Chorus or rotary pedal, EQ pedal, overdrive pedal.
If you don’t have the cash for Leslie cabinets or your amp doesn’t have vibrato, the MXR Stereo Chorus or the Rotary setting on the Line 6 M5 are great substitutes. You can use just about any chorus pedal, but make sure the rate or speed is turned up enough to simulate the rotating nature of a Leslie. To get an organ sound that’s even more authentic, I’ll use an MXR KFK-1 10-band EQ to boost the low frequencies and scoop out some highs and mids. A mild amount of dirt from an overdrive pedal also helps provide some genuine organ character.
Tonal Characteristics: Short attack with a bloom that dies off quickly. Lows are cut, while mids and high mids are pronounced.
Components Needed: Wah pedal and well-developed tapping and hammer techniques.
It’s best to have two pickups engaged for this sound. Your fingers are taking the place of the clavinet hammers, so you’ll want to be sure they’re landing on the strings with a good amount of force to get the right sound. What makes this convincing on a guitar is the length of the notes while paired with the midrange honk of the wah. (View a video of me demonstrating this sound at jimdunlop.com.)
Sitar, Koto, Shamisen, and Biwa
Tonal Characteristics: Narrow frequency range and pinched sounds. Reduced bass frequencies and lots of high-mids and highs. Attack is sharp and pronounced. Bloom has a metallic character.
Components: Paper clips, bread ties, coins, metal jewelry, EQ pedal.
The koto, shamisen, and biwa are traditional Japanese instruments with distinctive, metallic-like tones. This metallic element is even more pronounced on a sitar. The best way I’ve found to achieve this is to place varying amounts of paper clips and/or square bread ties at different locations on the strings. Placing metal jewelry on the strings can also yield similar characteristics. Using a coin as a plectrum helps accentuate the sharp attack, and plucking the strings as close to the bridge as possible is vital for obtaining these ethnic sounds. I’ll also use an EQ pedal to cut low frequencies and boost the highs and high-mids.
Tonal Characteristics: Infinite sustain with constant volume. Notes often pass through a step series of frequencies. Highs are usually reduced.
Components: Sustaining device and synthemulating pedals.
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon contains some of the most iconic synthesizer sounds ever, and the Way Huge Ring Worm has a step-sign setting that nails the arpeggiating synth sound from the intro of “On the Run.” There’s a particular bank of sounds on the Line 6 M5 that also boasts a number of useful synth settings for guitar.
It’s one thing to create non-guitar sounds on a 6-string, but the artistry lies in making the listener visualize what they’re hearing. As Hendrix demonstrated at Woodstock, sounds can make images appear in our minds. I encourage you to experiment and develop ways to communicate your own artistic ideas.