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Guitar Tones From the 1950s to the Millennium

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Read Time: 17 min
This post is part of a series called How to Record Guitar.
10 Great Tuts About Recording Electric Guitar
Easy Fixes for Modelled Guitar - Basix

Every decade has its sound. And every guitarist from that era has a specific sound that was popular at the time. Whether it was the rockabilly twang of the fifties, the spring surf of the sixties or any combination of rock sound from the last few decades, every decade has something that's inherent to them. Throughout this Premium tutorial I'm going to go through what guitar sound stood out in each decade, going through the history of the guitar tones as well as showing you how to achieve them yourself.

The 1950s Rockabilly Sound

The 1950s guitar sound was characterized by the distinct slap back echo giving it that almost close-echoed sound as you hear the guitar chords jangle off the wall. The guitars sounded like they were recorded in small bright rooms where their echos would immediately bounce, or slap, off the walls. That, in addition to the heavy archtop and hollow bodied guitars of the time give the 1950s a special characteristic sound we've come to know as the rockabilly sound.

1950s was a clean decade, Presley's gyrating hips were being censored and distortion was a term nobody knew about then. It was all clean archtop or hollowbody guitars playing clean tube amps that gave this decade its sound. Listen to Elvis Presley's Mystery Train here below to hear the distinct guitar sound of the fifties. Immediately, in the intro you hear the slap back rhythm guitar echoing off the walls.

Recreating such a sound is fairly simple. In the old days they probably had some pretty sweet boutique amps, with warm vacuum tubes giving them that clean sound. If you haven't got a tube amplifier you can try using an amp simulator of some sort. The quality of amp emulators is increasing with every new version, and you can often just plug in the desired sound from a preset in your guitar amp emulator of choice. But when you have the clean sound down you need to find a nice echo stompbox or plug-in to create that distinct rockabilly slap. Using either echo or tape delay you can simulate this slap-back by dialing in a 110 ms delay or so with only one repeat. That way your delay doesn't repeat more than once, giving it that slap-to-the-wall-and-back sound. As the slap back in those days was fairly bright you can also EQ out the low end of the repeats, up to about 400-500 Hz, if your plug-in has a separate EQ section. You could always set up your delay as a send effect in order to have more control over the characteristics of the delay. That way you can add some tape saturation to dirty up the slap without affecting the original signal.

Just by noodling around in Logic and using its built-in guitar plug-ins I managed to create a fairly convincing rockabilly slap sound. This is actually an acoustic guitar, which I used to get that fat archtop or hollow body sound. It's cheating, but if I'd used my electric it would have sounded too country! My acoustic, coupled with a tube amp emulator and some tape delay I created a simple 12 bar blues structure straight from the fifties!

The 1960 California Surf Sound

Ahh... the southern California surf sound. Those clean tremoloed chords of a smooth Fender guitar. In the 1960s, Fender guitars were mostly manufactured in California, giving their guitars an almost default market dominance over the California surf scene. You can almost smell the beaches and waves when you hear the spring reverb-loaded guitar sound of the 60s surf scene. Listening to some of the most famous examples of surf music from the 1960s is like taking a journey through the use of spring reverb. If slap-back echo was the dominating effect in the fifties, spring reverb ruled the market in 1960s Southern California.

Below are three examples of the different, but hugely popular songs at the time, Wipeout by the Surfaris, Pipeline by The Chantays and Misirlou by Dick Dale

The Surfaris – Wipeout

Take special notice of the chord stabs in the chorus of the piece, where you can clearly hear the “boing” sound of the spring reverb. The clean lead guitar has a bunch of spring reverb as well, pushing it back in the mix but not so much as to bury it in the track. The brittle glassy sound of the surf scene is aided by the single coil pickups of the Fender guitars that were so popular at the time.

The Chantays – Pipeline

Pipeline is an even better example of how you can create something that can be described as “dark surf music”. The heavy spring reverb on the lead guitars along with the choice of melody and scale suggest a dark and mysterious. The closeness to Mexico might have enabled some of the traditional Mexican music to influence some surf musician.

Dick Dale – Misirlou

Pulp Fiction anyone? The sound of the guitar is the same, although maybe a tiny bit darker and more overdriven, but the heavy spring reverb is still there. Although now, because the playing is so fast the spring reverb sounds like a wet mess behind the original guitar line, giving this famous track its characteristic sound.

Just by loading up on a little spring reverb and some tremolo you can achieve some psychedelic surf sounds right off the bat.

Here is a dull an uninteresting E and A chord before any surf treatment.

and here we have the same chords with an ample dose of spring reverb and some tremolo for added effect. The tremolo is a bit off-decade though since it's stereo, but you get my gist.

Overdriven Rock Guitars of the 1970s

With rock and roll growing bigger, the genre started getting harder as the amps got bigger, louder and most importantly more distorted. Before, artist needed to poke holes in the speaker cones to make them rattle and thus “overdrive” but it wasn't until the late sixties that overdrive and distortion started being household names in the music business. With heavy rock acts such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin pioneering the rock genre in the 1970s thick overdriven tube amps paired with humbucker guitars was the signature sound of the seventies hard rock and metal.

Listen to Led Zeppelin's Black Dog to hear that overdriven seventies sound. In a sense, the sound is very dry, without any effects except the aforementioned overdrive that was given by the cranked tube amplifier.

The signature hard rock sound of the seventies was achieved with 4x12 Marshall and most guitarists, like Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin used humbucker guitars like Gibson SGs and Les Pauls. Humbuckers have a very distinct and thicker sound to them compared to single coil pickups. Humbuckers are basically two single coil pickup wired together in opposite polarity. What this means is that it reduced the noise of the guitar significantly, especially when the guitar has a distorted sound. In turn, the two pickups together create a thicker and juicier sound than the single coil pickup, which was very desirable to the rock guitarists of the 1970s.

Listen to the audio clip below of a typical rock riff played with a humbucker first, and then the same riff with a single coil pickup.

Notice how the sound changes by just using either humbucker or single coil pickup. The sound get significantly weaker and way noisier in the later riff when I've switched to the single coil pickup. One could say that the juicy sound of the humbucker was pivotal in the evolution of the thick rock guitar sound of the seventies. However, don't let it fool you so much that you think you can't achieve any sort of rock guitar tone without a huge amp and a humbucker type guitar. Led Zeppelin's solo in Stairway to Heaven was recorded with none of those things. It was actually recorded with a Fender Telecaster through a tiny 10w amp so sometimes you don't necessarily have to believe all the hype. But big rock riffs sound thicker and bigger with the use of overdriven tube amplifiers and humbucker-style guitars.

Disco Sound

Disco music of the 1970s. Bash it if you will but there is no denying the perfection of the crystal clean guitar sounds that this genre popularized. Clean chord stabs from guitarists such as Nile Rodgers were a kind of a contrast to the heavy arena rock and heavy metal. By using clean single-coil pickups, as opposed to the distorted humbuckers, the guitar sound of disco was born. Clean disco sound is almost the exact opposite to the rock guitar sound of the seventies. Instead of humbucker style guitars, guitarists preferred using single coil pickups like are found on Stratocasters, and instead of using big Marshall amplifiers they usually just plugged their guitar tone directly into the mixing board, preferring a DIs sound that was as clean as it could get.

Listen to Le Freak by Chic below and hear the squeegee clean DI'd Stratocaster of Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers.

Of course, there are so many incredible songs and sounds from that decade that one could really write a book about, like many have actually done. But the decade in guitar sound comes down to thick creamy overdrive from Hard Rock and Metal and tight clean strumming from the more taboo-ish genre of Disco. It seems like the guitarist of this decade didn't realize how much the next decade would do to their clean and un-effected guitar sounds. In the 70s guitarists were happy with smooth overdrive and compressed cleans, not knowing how much reverb, delay and chorus the guitarists of the eighties were going to inflict on the industry.

Big Riffs and Big 'Verbs

As guitarists started experimenting more and more with distortion and effects the sound only got bigger, thicker and more distorted. Gone were the days of crunchy in-your-face overdrive but instead we had huge rock guitar riff thats were only enhanced by the generous use of, well, quite a lot of reverb. The eighties are known as the decade where reverb reigned supreme, sneaking their way into each and every aspect of the music production of that era. And guitar sound was no exception. Listen to the 1978 song Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love by Van Halen to hear the significant difference between the overdriven rock guitars of the early seventies and then the reverb-driven rock guitars of the late seventies and eighties.

Beside the thick arena reverb that gives Eddie's guitar that distinct sound, there are also some pretty subtle uses of modulation effects that only got bigger as the decade went on. The last three notes of the intro riff have a different sound to them than the rest of the riff because Eddie switched on a phaser effect to accent the end of the riff. As the eighties went crazier with reverb they also started dabbling with more and more modulation effects like chorus. It might seem like I'm describing a decade as a drug addict slowly sinking into more hardcore drugs, but the analogy kind of makes sense. Popular music went absolutely crazy and became obsessed with huge reverbs and modulation, and it wasn't until the 1990s that people checked themselves into reverb rehab and got away from that overabundance of reverb and effects in their music productions.

Eighties Cleans and Leads

Just like the decade before, there was a contrast to the richly reverbed rock riffs. Heavily compressed and tightly chorused clean guitar riffs were the mainstay of bands such as Duran Duran, while many glam rock bands had a clean ying to their distorted yang. “Is This Love” by Whitesnake encompasses many of the guitar sounds that were so popular during the 1980s; clean chorused guitar in the intro, heavy reverb on the rock guitars in the chorus as well as a hefty amount of delay for the lead lines.

The thing about the eighties was, it all really did sound much better in context with all those effects and all that reverb going. Let's take the lead guitars for example. Lead lines at the time sounded huge, with heavy doses of reverb and delay thickening up soulful guitar solos and lead lines. Just like in Whitesnake's song above, the lead lines and solo sounded way better that way than if somebody decided to ban reverb and delay on their record.

Listen to these two exact lead lines below and judge for yourself. The first one is just the typical amplifier without any reverb nor delay.

Now, as we add a big reverb to it and then some medium to long delay on top of it, the line starts sounding much better. All these added elements create that typical eighties power ballad lead line, and they just sound much better and more interesting with all those things than without them.

The smallest details were sometimes crucial to the overall sound of a specific band. In some of the pop bands of the eighties we had the typical clean chord jabs that were heavily compressed for punchiness as well as subtly chorused for that eighties pop sound. But one of the characteristics of the guitar sound wasn't just the chorus or clean compression, but the pickup switch of the guitar. The out-of-phase position of the typical single-coil Stratocaster they were able to create a rounder and slightly weaker tone. This was preferable and desired by the guitarists at them time since it had a cleaner and thinner sound that was good for clean rhythms. Take “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran as an example. There we have a really simple guitar riff that has that choppy out-of-phase sound to it.

Just like I did before when showing you the difference between a humbucker and a single-coil, let me demonstrate with the same riff how different those two pickup positions sound.

Here is the riff with the neck single-coil pickup.

And here we have the same riff with the out-of-phase position between the neck and the middle pickup.

Listen to how the sound changes from the bassy neck pick-up to the slightly weaker out-of-phase pickup position. That was a very desirable sound to the pop guitarists of the eighties.

Chorused Cleans of the 1990s

The rise of grunge and alternative rock signaled the end of the heavy reverb and bubblegum chorus chords of the 1980s. The whole decade had the “what was I thinking?!” period and started scrapping all the big production ideas, which allowed grunge, alternative and other types of hard rock to move to the forefront. Although huge reverbs and cute chorus effects were gone, that didn't mean guitarists were abandoning effects altogether. No, modulation effects found different uses, sometimes subtle but always interesting.

Kurt Cobain, one of the pioneers of grunge and alternative rock wasn't just one to pile on the distortion from his Boss DS-2 pedal. He also popularized the use of the chorus effect with a different group of guitarists. His use of the Electro Harmonix Small Clone and Poly-Chorus pedals is definitely a crucial part of his clean guitar sound, easily demonstrated with his song “Come as You Are”.

Not only can you hear the signature sound of his clean chorused guitar sound in the memorable intro riff, but by using it with screaming distortion also created his signature chorused distorted rock sound. Listen through the whole song to hear the different styles he plays; the chorused intro line, the overdriven jangly chorus chords of the chorus as well as the juicy distortion in his solo that is only enhanced by his use of the chorus effect.

This was a whole different way to use the chorus effect than those glam rock bands of the eighties had done. But Kurt Cobain was able to make everything sound angst-ridden, even his modulation effects.

Fuzzy Pumpkins

I have actually written a different Premium tutorial only about the different modulation effects in modern music called 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Modualtion Effects. There I touch a little bit upon The Smashing Pumpkins and Billy Corgan's use of flanger. However, in this tutorial I want to touch a little bit upon the difference in distortion effects. Kurt Cobain was famous for using his DS-2 distortion pedal into a Mesa Boogie amplifier to get his signature grunge rock sound. However, Billy Corgan used a totally different distortion effect to get his thick distortion, namely fuzz. If we divide distortion into three categories; overdrive, distortion and fuzz, then fuzz is definitely the most intense sound. It's like if you are cooking and you need to thicken the sauce a little bit to get that perfect distortion you want, but end up adding too much flour or corn starch that it ends up way too thick and fuzzy. Weird cooking analogies aside, you can put fuzz at the extreme end of the distortion spectrum, as it usually involves an incredibly thick and creamy sound that has been desirable too many guitarists. Jimi Hendrix was the one to popularize it, but Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins was definitely the one to take it to the extreme.

Just listen to “Quiet” from Smashing Pumpkins's album Siamese Dream and you can immediately hear the difference between the rock distortion of Come as You Are and the thick fuzz from Billy Corgan's Electro Harmonix Big Muff fuzz pedal.

Whammy Against

It's hard to classify one sound as the sound of a decade, and as music get more complicated and more genres start popping up using basically every effect and gear known to man there is not really any signature sound anymore. However some band have come to the forefront not only for their musical skills but also because of the genius of their guitarists. If we take some of the late 1990s guitarists that are known for their crazy guitar shenanigans I can name two that pushed the envelope as far what you could do with the guitar as an instrument. Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine and Mike Einziger of Incubus took the guitar to then unknown heights, with either piling on modulation effects in order to take the guitar as far away as possible from sounding like a guitar, or by making it sound more like a turn-table than an actual guitar.

Listen to Mike Einziger eclectic blend of modulation, reverb and delay on Incubus's song “The Warmth” from the 1999 album Make Yourself as an example of how they tried to distance themselves as much from anything that could be classified as a typical guitar sound.

Tom Morello took things a bit further and created a sound that was sometimes unrecognizable as coming from an electric guitar. By using his guitar's pickup switch, his whammy pedal and some hand scratching over the strings he was able to coax new and exciting sound from the guitar. His intro and solo to the 1992 song “Know Your Enemy” from their self-titled debut album Rage Against the Machine

is a great example of his genius. By using his whammy pedal and flicking the pickup switch, with one pickup off and one on he creates a scratching tremolo effect that was unheard of at that time. The intro alongside the heavily whammy pedal played guitar solo put him into the higher echelons of the guitar players of all time.

The Continuation In the New Millennium - Clean and Dirty

As seen by all these decades, the guitar sound has evolved substantially. Each decade has a specific sound that's characteristic to that decade, regardless of whether it's clean or distorted. The clean sound of each era has had a particular sound to it, evolving from the rockabilly slap to the dark chorused grunge guitar line. The same can be said about the evolution of overdrive, or distortion. From the era where people needed to tear their speaker cones to get any audible distortion in the fifties to modern day metal where there is more juicy distortion present in any amplifier than you will ever need.

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