One of the best things about being a guitar player is that moment when you genuinely manage to recreate a sound, a tone, a riff, or a solo by a guitarist you love. But sounding like your heroes is not easy, and of course it’s about your fretboard skills and technique as much as it is the gear you’re using. Knowing how to set your rig up helps, though, so here we begin the first in a Blog Of Tone series on achieving the amp sounds of the stars. We’ll begin with no less than Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and the Hitmaker himself, Mr. Nile Rodgers…
Great guitar skills and tone are completely subjective. Want proof? Well, try this: ask ten guitarists to name their top ten six-stringers.
We’re pretty sure you’ll get 10 completely different lists.
But anyway, here we’re going to pick guitar players we love, regardless of anything else, and tell you how to get your amp tone in the same ballpark. Let’s do this!
In the early morning hours of August 18, 1969, a force of nature was unleashed that would forever change the world of electric guitar.
Granted, it wasn’t that exact stellar moment at Woodstock that transformed James Marshall Hendrix, journeyman guitarist, into Jimi Hendrix, cosmic rock deity, but his apocalyptic rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the legendary hippie happening imbued the phrase ‘flower power’ with a whole other meaning.
Wah, fuzz and feedback
That strange brew of wah, fuzz and feedback transformed the American national anthem into a battle cry and Jimi’s guitar into a machine gun.
Perhaps he was protesting the Vietnam police action; maybe it was an act of patriotism. Whatever his intentions were, there’s a strong case for claiming that Jimi Hendrix ‘invented’ modern rock guitar with that performance.
More than a musical instrument
The musical vocabularies of today’s guitarists are sprinkled with phrases coined by Jimi, and the same goes for the modern toolset of tones and techniques.
Even if one isn’t given over to venerating pop icons, Hendrix’s bold visions, fearless experimentation, and genre-defying psychedelic soul music merits respect on another level.
In his hands, the electric guitar was more than a musical instrument.
He felt or understood it to be the weapon of the young, the disenfranchised and the unheard, and he used it in a way that was wild, savage and sexual, and certainly a revolution in musical expressiveness.
Thus Jimi not only reinvented the guitar, he also created the template for what countless young men would later aspire to become – a Rock Star in capital letters!
The Hendrix sound
Jimi’s setup – much like the man himself – was modest, but oh so effective.
Electronics guru Roger Mayer crafted effects to fit Hendrix’s music just as well as the bespoke cowboy-dandy duds that fashion designers tailored to fit his frame.
The Mayer/Hendrix connection proved fruitful for all of us, yielding fresh sounds that extended the electric guitar’s powers of expression by several orders of magnitude. Wah, fuzz, Uni-Vibe effects and fluidly controlled cascades of feedback created a whole new universe of sound swirling around the massive star at its gravitational center.
It was a sound so otherworldly that contemporaries couldn’t help but thinking that there was a little voodoo involved.
Here’s how we got our amp sounds into the Hendrix galaxy. Using the Red Box AE DI out (on 0 watts, meaning we get the full power amp saturation at ear-pleasing volumes), we selected the amp’s Lead channel (with the Boost switched off, and set the EQ so the bass and treble are at 12 o’clock, and the mids are cranked all the way! With the gain at 2 o’clock, we’re pretty close, we reckon…
By the way, if you’re using a tube amp with no Red Box-type DI, start with the Master volume down super low, or you’ll deafen the neighborhood! Once you start playing, you can then crank it up as much as you need to get those Hendrix-esque sounds.
Welcome to the Clean Machine: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour is another master of sparkling tone, albeit with a touch more British steel.
His forays into neighboring crunch and lead territory can certainly make your hairs stand on end, but Gilmour’s ethereal clean tone is still the yardstick by which undistorted cathedral guitar sounds are measured.
Take, for example, that haunting four-note motif after the initial solo on Wish You Were Here’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
That line is a masterclass in restraint, proving that the Gilmour style guide boils down to one rule: less really is more.
The unique Gilmour style
Few would dispute that his trademark emotive touch – a unique blend of spare beauty and soaring pathos – is unlike any other guitarist’s in the rock era.
There’s no excess in his art, and his lean lines would never have prompted Emperor Joseph II to give Gilmour the kind of grief he gave Mozart about there being “too many notes”. Yes, his playing is economical, but there’s no denying the powerful compositional drama in his note choices and delivery.
Getting the Gilmour sound
Born on March 6, 1946, in Cambridge and brought on board the mothership as a stand-in for Syd Barrett in 1968, just in time to set the controls for the heart of the sun, Gilmour still goes to great lengths to produce his tone today.
His current setup is fairly extensive (check out some recent live footage to see what we mean!), but the essence of his magic can be distilled with relatively basic tools.
A Strat, a good tube amp, a touch of compression and a little echo or reverb are all it takes to at least shine like a hazy diamond.
In our example, we dimed the clean channel gain to get just enough drive and natural compression to lend sustained notes some staying power. The mids are cranked too, and the bass and treble are at 12 o’clock – couple that with plenty of picking hand energy and you’re certainly in the ballpark:
Now it’s time to pay homage to a man who spanks the plank like no other, Nile Rodgers, furioso funkateer and the raja of rhythm who rules the R&B roost!
Rodgers is the undisputed heavyweight champion of clean funk-approved playing. His distinctive touch is instantly recognizable; his ultra-tight licks the propelling force that drive hits such as Chic’s classic Le Freak and French electronic duo Daft Punk’s platinum-selling Get Lucky.
Those infectious syncopated grooves, locked in with four-to-the-floor beats, have made millions want to get up, dance, and do the white man’s overbite.
Jazz, weird chords and superstars
Then there’s his knack for choosing unusual chord inversions, a gift informed by a deep love of jazz. Yes, friends, listening to jazz is acceptable.
Indeed, Rodgers’ musical roots ring true in those rich, sophisticated voicings and chops honed in the jazz clubs and concert halls of Lady Liberty’s home town.
Formed and tempered by experience in this crucible, his pop craft paid big-back dividends for superstars such as Madonna and David Bowie, for whom he produced landmark albums. We would be hard-pressed to call to mind another guitarist with as many gold records to his or her credit as Nile Rodgers.
Like so many of the very best stylists, his approach to guitar parts is surprisingly simple and logical: come up with a smart idea or two, an infectious groove and a catchy hook line, and capture the magic with a clearly structured sound and a tight performance.
Sound like The Hitmaker!
Rodgers’ rig is as simple as they come – all he needs is one Strat.
(His studio weapon of choice is a hard-tail known as The Hitmaker: this axe has skanked to the tune of some two billion dollars’ worth of music!)
Pretty much any Fender-style combo will do to take his distinctive ‘chucking’ sound to the stage. There’s not a huge amount of top end in Niles’ tone, and little of that typical Strat twang and snappy attack.
He prefers to dial in a warm midrange that sits nicely in the mix without stepping all over other instruments’ frequencies – a brilliant strategy, if you ask us.
To get this sound, the low end has to be tight and restrained to keep the preamp in the clean zone even when the spanking gets vigorous.
Give the power amp master knob a healthy nudge to the right so as to leave plenty of headroom, and back off the gain; 12 o’clock will do nicely.
Start with the EQ controls flat, set to the center position, and make subtle adjustments as needed (we found dialing in a few more mids worked wonders – give it a try). And it all sounded like this:
So there you go – three legendary guitar sounds to try and emulate. Let us know if these tips inspire you, or get you sounding a little more like Hendrix, Gilmour or Rodgers.
And do tell us: who would you like to sound like? Want to know how we’d set our amp to sound like AC/DC, or Tom Morello, or James Bay?
Then let us know, and we’ll see what we can do!
First published: April 22 2016. Most recent update: April 26 2016.