The invention of the electric guitar goes hand in hand with the evolution of popular music. The contemporary era’s most well-known riffs and licks were undoubtedly made more unforgettable by the wide tonal options that pickups and amplifiers offered. This is why musicians are more obsessed than ever in researching how to copy the guitar tone of their favorite guitarists or songs.
This obsession has led to a multitude of innovations in the guitar equipment industry, with musicians as willing test subjects in this experiment to unlock more sonic possibilities. From the pickups to the effects pedals and amps, various gear companies promised to blow your mind with some revolutionary features.
Amid all the technological advancements however, the foundations of shaping tone remains the same and anybody with a cheap electric guitar and a 10-watt amp can still conjure magic. Guitar skills, a basic understanding of how pickups blend with each other, as well as a fundamental grasp of your guitar amplifier’s features, is enough to summon Stevie Ray Vaughan’s sound.
How can I copy a certain guitar tone?
With an incompatible tone, a musician would normally feel a little unsatisfied even after hitting all the right notes to his favorite song. A little tweaking can fix things, but diving head first without any basic knowledge can only lead to futile attempts.
There are a number of factors that affect tone and focusing on those that you can manipulate, such as equalization and gain, will give you control of your set-up’s tonal capabilities even without acquiring more expensive gear.
You have a lot of tools at your disposal, all you need to know is how they work alongside or against each other. Diligent research and investigation is also needed to uncover what kind of guitars, amplifiers and effects were used by past guitarists on a certain record. This will help you get closer to the tone that you are after, using whatever existing rig you have.
Factors that affect tone
While wood and preamps contribute a lot to the guitar’s sound qualities, we will focus on the ones that you can manipulate to shape your tone.
Although there are no strict written rules in combining pickups, more experienced guitar players know that a twangy sound perfect for chicken picking can be accessed by using the bridge pickup of a strato or a tele. They also know that in order to imitate the tone of the likes of Jimmy Page and Angus Young, a guitar with humbucker pickups would be an important requisite that can’t be missed.
We cannot deny the fact that pickups helped us humans in pushing our creativity to unprecedented heights. As we understood deeper, the scope of tone that can be derived from various pickups and their configurations, these electronic devices became more than just apparatuses to amplify sound.
This is why it is important for guitarists to study the unique sound characteristics that can be derived from each pickup configuration, as they can open up a whole new world of tonal potential for every musician.
- Single Coil
Commonly-seen on stratocasters, single coil pickups use a single magnet to deliver a bright tone that can be heard on genres such as blues, funk, country and rock and roll. Although single coil pickups are not primarily known for their piercing power in more modern variants of heavy metal, they have penetrated various cultures and generations, since the stratocaster is one of the most recorded instruments in modern history.
These pickups are composed of two single coils working together to produce that fat sound that made Les Paul guitars famous. Due to their fat, farm tone, humbuckers are more preferred by jazz musicians like Joe Pass, as well as hardrockers such as Aerosmith and ZZ Top.
P90s combine the qualities of single coil and humbuckers, for a safe tonal range that satisfies the need for balance.
Along with pickup configuration, the right guitar amplifier settings will be enough to find the specific sound that you are looking for. An amp can dramatically change the character of your guitar’s sound with just a few turns on the knobs. Understanding the use of each feature and how the masters manipulated them to their advantage, can help you get a spot-on impression of your favorite guitar hero.
You can copy any guitar tone on any amp, regardless of wattage or brand, you just need to understand how to use these features:
One of the foundations of shaping sound, the equalizer, or EQ on a guitar amp can usually control the lows (bass), mids, and high (treble) frequencies. Mastery of how each channel will blend with each other, knowing which needs addition or subtraction, will give you the flexibility that every guitar player needs.
Be careful in utilizing the gain knob if you are aiming for the cleanest tone possible, as it could create distortion at high levels. Gain is useful not only when you wanna rock out, it can also help beef up guitars with weaker preamps or pickups.
Presence can bring out some extra sparkle and brilliance on your guitar. Use sparingly if you are already using a very powerful active preamp, or if your sound is already too bright.
Effects may come built-in with an amplifier (or even a guitar), or as external pedals and modules. Thousands of songs since the genesis of the electric guitar, utilized effects, stretching and testing their capabilities, giving birth to more sonically mind blowing music.
Learn how to use each effect properly but don’t be afraid to experiment. The greatest artists in history weren’t fearful in using whatever creative tool was available and this pushed music creation to unparalleled levels.
- Modulation effects – chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo
- Dynamic effects – compression, distortion, limiter
- Time-based effects – delay, echo, reverb
- Tone filter – wah pedal
Ways to Copy Guitar Tone Digitally
With the help of some softwares and plug-ins, even the cheapest knock-off guitars today can sound like Jimi’s stratocaster. When guitar effects programs such as Guitar Rig and Amplitube pioneered the creation of multi-effects softwares in the 2000s, a new generation of bedroom studios mushroomed all over the world. This gave more independent musicians the chance to record better material without the need to book themselves in an expensive studio.
Today, the market is flooded with VST plugins that sound so realistic that an untrained ear won’t even know the difference between simulation and the ones recorded using real guitars, amps and effects pedals. Most of these VST programs also provide patches and settings dedicated to copying the tone of the legends, with just a click of a mouse.
For more creative control, you have the flexibility to mix and match guitar models, amplifier models and effects. You may use the program in real time and play your instrument live with the effects already slapped on, or record clean straight to the audio interface, then apply the patches later on during post-editing.
After you have copied your desired guitar tone, the best part comes next and that is playing the beloved riffs and licks that made the iconic sounds very much sought after in the first place.