If you’re anything like us, you want your guitar tone to be as hot as possible. Well, you’ve come to the right place – what better way to improve your sound than by tweaking your amp and rig to sound like a guitarist you love? Today we show you how a few simple knob twists will get you in the same six-string ballpark as three of the guitar world’s greatest: Angus and Malcolm Young of AC/DC, blues-rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, and all-round axe slinger Steve Lukather. Let the riffing commence!
We’ll start with everyone’s favorite Australian schoolboy upstarts – but by the way, don’t forget you can nail the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour and Nile Rodgers by checking out our previous Get The Guitar Sound blog right here!
OK, let’s get that right hand going then (quiet at the back!)…
The rock ‘n’ roll circus that is AC/DC may be winding down these days, but make no mistake: those Aussie pub rockers took Chuck Berry’s recipe for rock ‘n’ roll success – a catchy line over a driving backbeat – and added a shot of venom, vigor and high voltage to rewrite the book on lean, mean rock riffery.
The Young brothers may not have invented the formula, but the lusty exuberance and unrelenting, go-for-the-throat savagery of their rhythm and lead work raised the rock riff to an art form.
They bludgeoned their way to chart-topping success and into guitarists’ collective consciousness with all the gleeful abandon of schoolboy delinquents armed with guitars.
Plug and play!
Technically speaking, there’s no big secret to that Thunder from Down Under: break out a guitar loaded with crisp humbuckers, plug it into a tube amp, and push its power stage to the brink of breaking up to get a touch of compression.
Now comes the hard part: play only what’s absolutely necessary, but with the intensity of a jackhammer chewing up pavement.
Lock into the rhythm like a human metronome; stab at those lead notes like you’re plunging an ice pick into a zombie that’s snatching at your main squeeze.
That should put you squarely on the Highway To Hell. And that’s a fine place to be in the Young brothers’ universe.
Oh, and if it’s not sounding right, reach for your gain knob! We explain why that’s so important when channeling the AC/DC spirit here.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Though departed, this man remains an object of adulation for many who worship at the altar of sizzling blues guitar sounds.
And even those with a foot or other extremities in the pop camp value his tasty tone on the tracks he laid down for David Bowie. The improbable pairing of a redneck blues-rocker and the androgynous Thin White Duke, with a couple of off-the-cuff lead lines played over an amp on the verge of breakup, resulted in a pop song with enough R&B cred to be called Let’s Dance.
I’m talking about none other than Texan titan Stevie Ray Vaughan and his contribution to Bowie’s oeuvre, of course.
Making the blues less blue
Stevie had a wonderful gift for making raw roots blues palatable to more genteel tastes.
Some of his work was certainly radio-friendly enough to get playing time on pop stations. This is why purists may scoff, but Stevie Ray Vaughan was more than just another Lone Star axe-slinger.
He was an ambassador and a rejuvenator of traditional guitar-driven music, a mediator between genres, and a Hendrix disciple.
Even in a lineup of Texas bluesmen as illustrious as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Albert Collins, T-Bone Walker, Freddy King, and Billy Gibbons, Stevie stood out with a base tone that was more or less clean, with oodles of headroom supplied by the usual suspects in the way of blues combos.
A good drive pedal, heavy strings and lots of wrist action!
His penchant for Ibanez Tube Screamers is public record, but his preference – TS808, TS9, or dare I say TS10 – is up for debate.
That said, it really doesn’t matter which green box he liked best. He plugged ’em in and made ’em sing like a heavenly choir of steroid-addled angels.
Besides, his distinctive touch and tone probably had a lot more to do with his choice of hefty strings – he was rumored to go with sets starting at .013 gauge – and the sheer violence with which he attacked the instrument.
That kind of heavy-duty wire will make you battle for every note.
Bending becomes an exercise in masochism, and that struggle was palpable in every riff and chord. Stevie often played as if the next lick would be his last.
A blues legend taken too soon
Perhaps it was with a sense of foreboding that he made his joyful noise.
Stevie indeed played his last licks on August 27, 1990, in the Alpine Valley Music Theater at East Troy, Wisconsin, dying after the concert in a helicopter crash on the return trip to Chicago.
His tragic demised contributed to the legend.
As his eerily predictive musical hero Hendrix once said: “It’s funny the way most people love the dead. Once you are dead you are made for life.”
That may be so, but the true Vaughan legacy is not the mystique surrounding the man; it is the sheer power, deft touch, impeccable taste and divine tone that makes his music so extraordinary…
Back in the late 1970s when hair was big and shoulders were getting unnaturally broad and bouncy, a young man arrived on the scene who would give guitar aficionados many a tasty lick to relish in the years to come.
Already an accomplished session player, San Fernando Valley tone meister Steve Lukather hit the big time with Toto.
His lines were intriguingly sophisticated; his grooves tight as spandex.
And his sounds were state of the art, providing a sonic template for a whole generation of guitarists to follow. His timing would shame Swiss luxury watchmakers.
No matter how complicated, even lightning-fast licks would fly from his fingertips with preternatural rhythmic precision. By the early 80s, countless players were trying to mimic his singing, cascading solos, usually in vain.
Rich and melodious, his axe-work put a bold new sheen on that West Coast sound.
Learning those Lukather licks
The fundamentals of Luke’s tone are fairly straightforward: a gainy amp with a creamy distortion channel, some delay and an occasional pinch of chorus. (On the surface of it a lovely effect; but then how does it manage to make so much 80s pop sound so dated? But I digress.)
His technique is another matter, though: there’s no hope of acquiring those chops unless you’re willing to practice ’till your fingers bleed.
There’s more guitar sounds to come
The journey continues, of course, but progress has slowed somewhat since the 1990s.
Although some true innovators come to mind – Tom Morello, Jack White, Reeves Gabrels, and the like – these more experimental players ply their trade a tad further towards the fringe.
Perhaps the biggest mainstream game changer has been the detuned guitar.
There are some fine players out there who know how to come up with gems down there in the sludgy end of the spectrum.
Kids know mud is a fine, fun place to play, and we’ll get down and dirty with it in one of the next episodes.
So stay tuned and break out your rubber boots! Or wellies, if you happen to be in the UK…
And tell us who you’d like to sound like in the comments section – we take requests too!
First published: August 12 2016. Most recent update: December 22 2016.