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Essential Listening: Timeless Guitar Tones

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This post is part of a series called Essential Listening.
Essential Listening: Snare Drums
Essential Listening: Classic Piano Sounds

Welcome back for another round of Essential Listening! Last time we took a close look at some top notch snare sounds, and why they are excellent reference points for us as audio engineers. Today we are going to look at electronic guitar tones in the same way.

Anyone who has ever talked to a guitar player (or is one!) knows how much guitar players obsess over tone. "Maybe X amp, plus Y cab, with X guitar will get the sound because so-and-so used this combination on their album." Throughout the countless genres and albums certain combinations have risen to stand above the rest.

These timeless guitar tones are just as relevant today as they were in a bygone time. As engineers we need to know how these tones were crafted and how our mic choices influenced them.

So without further adieu, here are the essential guitar tones!


Marshall and Rock

Marshall Anniversary edition guitar amplifiers by fvancini

Marshall Anniversary edition guitar amplifiers by fvancini

If rock/metal had to be summed up in one sound it would be Marshall. Along with their matching cabinets, almost every metal/hard rock band has at least experimented with some form of a Marshall amp. Coupled with a Les Paul guitar, it is simply metal heaven. 

Even if you prefer say a JCM800 over a JTM or perhaps a Silver Jubilee over a JMC900, the Marshall sound is very distinct.  Go watch a rock/metal video and chances are you will see Marshall strewn everywhere on stage. From a gritty rhythm to a scorching lead, Marshalls are capable of a wide array of sounds. Typically these amps are mic'd with a dynamic or ribbon microphone (usually a SM57 or Royer 121 now and days) with the dynamic used for a even sound while the ribbons are used to smooth out the top end if too bright.  

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The thick, tight low end of the amp. Even as the amp model changes a Marshall rarely gets woomphy unless dialed in to do so. This provides an excellent sound for palm muting and rhythm tracks.
  • Crisp top end for a clear crunch. The Marshall top end is always bright but still controlled which creates a articulate sound that excels in lead and rhythm applications.
  • High gain with long sustain. When a Marshall's gain is cranked it will sing for a long time. This feature alone is a major reason why many guitarists love it for hard rock solos.

Vox and the AC30

Two guitars propped up against a small Vox amplifier by 6strings

Two guitars propped up against a small Vox amplifier by 6strings

If the Marshall sound encapsulates multiple amps, the Vox sound can be almost entirely summed up in the AC30. From Brian May of Queen to the Beatles, to Tom Petty, many big name acts have chosen the AC30 as their choice guitar amp.

When toned back it provides a clean sparkling sound that supply just enough grit. However when it is cranked, it screams with a clear distortion that soars without overpowering. Typically the AC30 is described as being bell or chime like in its clarity and how clear the attack is.

Unlike the Marshall, the AC30 takes to just about any microphone depending on how the engineer wants to help sculpt the sound. If the tone is even but you do not want room sound, then a dynamic works perfectly. Should the amp be a bit too sparkly and bright, then just about any ribbon would do wonders.

The big difference comes in the use of condensers. If the tone is perfect and you do not want to lose any detail, then a condenser is a must. But do keep in mind you may need to pull back to avoid a sibilant top end which also leads to a more roomy sound.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The detail of the amp and how the tone of the guitar itself really plays into the sound. Unlike the Marshall, an AC30 does not always take over the sound. If you play a Fender, Les Paul, etc. you will definitely hear the tone easier on a Vox AC30. This extra detail also lends itself great to chorusing and delay.
  • Smooth transition into distortion. One of the Vox AC30's biggest features is how smoothly it moves from a clean sound to a saturated gritty distortion to full on high gain sound.
  • Clean mids and bottom end. Where as the Marshall has a thick but tight bottom end, the AC30 provides a cleaner overall bottom end. While some guitarists might scoff at the idea of a cleaner bottom end, it is not uncommon for an audio engineer to take some of that out via EQ anyways.

Fender and the Twin

1973 Fender Twin Reverb by Micahmedia

1973 Fender Twin Reverb by Micahmedia

If there was ever an amp to be so highly coveted for its clean tone it would probably be some version of a Fender Twin. From Eric Clapton to the Beatles to Hendrix, the Fender Twins have been a long standing staple in guitar tones. Of all the Twins, Fender's biggest hit was probably with the Twin Reverb model which added one of the best spring reverbs available.

Being such a clean amp, the Fender Twins are great ways to test out distortion pedals, if you prefer the pedal route. When dealing with a Twin it is almost mandatory to use an SM57. Why? Because that simply was the sound, end of story. Sure you can try out ribbons and other dynamics, but for a classic Twin sound it has to be a SM57.

Here are some points to listen for:

  • The rich clean tone. A Fender Twin is commonly referred to as buttery and for good reason, it provides just enough detail without over doing it. Should you come across a particularly buttery Twin, be careful with ribbon mics or you might end up with too much butter!
  • The classic spring reverb sound. A big allure of the Twin Reverb is that built in spring and boy does it deliver.
  •  How it lets the tone of the guitar shine through. Similar to the AC30, the Twin really shows off the guitar itself (probably better than the AC30!). This is why it is a favorite among Jazz players who need a clean true sound.

Conclusion

While there are the Mesa Boogies and Oranges of the world, there are just some amps that will never go away. From Marshall's thick screaming leads to Vox's detailed tone to Fender's smooth sound, these tones are simply classics that everyone (guitarist or not) should be aware of. Each of these amps works great in different situations so if you have the chance do not be afraid to mix and match for the song!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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