50 Kings of Tone: Learn the Secrets Behind Their Sounds | VIDEO

September 29, 2016
PHOTOS: Michael Putland (Garcia and Gilmour) and George Wilkes Archive (Green) | Getty Images

Tone. It’s one of the most magical and beautiful aspects of the guitar. It’s also the most mysterious and, at times, frustrating. A player can chase after technical skills for years, and nothing he or she plays will sound like much if the tone isn’t there. Conversely, if a guitarist’s tone is happening, it doesn't seem to matter if that player is out of tune or out of time. Their music will still sound inspiring.

Even after many years of studying guitar tone, it remains enigmatic. We know great tone when we hear it, but achieving it is still a tall order. Part of the equation involves gear. Buy the same equipment as your favorite player and you can get a tiny part of their sound. But if it were that simple, we’d all be plugging Strats into Marshalls and sounding like Hendrix. That’s where the greatest riddle about tone lies. Guitarists with amazing tones typically get their sound no matter what gear they use. That’s why the phrase “It’s in the hands” get thrown around as much as it does: because it’s true.

This list of the 50 greatest tones of all time should inspire discussion, debate and arguments. While there can be no right or wrong answers, every choice is backed up with recorded evidence, and we should all listen and judge accordingly.

More than anything, this is meant to be a celebration of tone. Tone is what makes all music come alive and hit you in the face, gut and heart. Without it, music is just a collection of dots on a page. Tone is everything.
 

DUANE ALLMAN & DICKEY BETTS
“Statesboro Blues”
The Allman Brothers—At Fillmore East
Anyone can get a good sound with a Les Paul and a Marshall, but not many players can drop jaws with that rig like Dickey Betts and the late, great Duane Allman. Their full, thick tones are right in your face on this classic live cut from At Fillmore East, with Betts fretting his riffs and Allman playing his with a Coricidin bottle slide. Betts’ tone is slightly cleaner than Allman’s—due, in part, to his choice of 100-watt Marshalls (Allman used a 50-wattter)—and he wrenches snarling rock tones from his Les Paul that bark with dynamics and tension. Allman’s tone is smooth, luscious and almost impossibly sweet.




ADRIAN BELEW
“The Great Curve”
Talking Heads—Remain in Light
Adrian Belew’s two solos on this Talking Heads epic from Remain in Light are some of his wildest guitar moments. Characterized by a searing fuzz tone, huge intervallic skips and end-of-the-world dive bombs, Belew’s six-string work changed people’s views of how a guitar could sound in a non-rock context. His bag of tricks in the early Eighties included a Fender Stratocaster, a Roland JC-120 and an effects palette that featured a Foxx Tone Machine, Electro-Harmonic Electric Mistress, Graphic Fuzz and Big Muff, and an MXR Dyna Comp.




RITCHIE BLACKMORE
“Smoke on the Water”
Deep Purple—Machine Head
It’s tough to imagine double-stops ever sounding as big as Ritchie Blackmore made them sound on this anthem from the 1972 Deep Purple album Machine Head. Blackmore made rock history by plugging his scalloped-fretboard Strat (set to the neck pickup) into a 200-watt Marshall and, rather than playing power chords on the two low strings, using blocked 4ths, with the first diad comprised of D and G. Does this tone sound so huge because this is one of the coolest riffs of all time? Or is this one of the coolest riffs of all time because this tone is so damn huge? Who cares?




MICHAEL BLOOMFIELD
“Albert’s Shuffle”
Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills—Super Session
Armed with a worn blonde Telecaster, Michael Bloomfield burst onto the mid-Sixties rock scene as the hot-dog guitarist for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. His serrated tone and manic speed left folkies, blues purists and nascent flower children slack jawed, and his wicked licks in “Mary Mary” and “Born in Chicago” sound as ecstatic today as they did almost 40 years ago. In 1968, Bloomfield joined organist Al Kooper to record Super Session. The album’s first cut, “Albert’s Shuffle,” is a seven-minute blues-guitar masterpiece. In it, Bloomfield throws down chorus after chorus of penetrating, chromatic-laced licks, using a PAF-equipped 1959 sunburst Les Paul straight into a Fender Twin Reverb or Super Reverb. This tune encapsulates Bloomfield’s melodic swagger, microtonal bending, expressive touch and relentless attack.—AE




ROBBIE BLUNT
“Big Log”
Robert Plant—The Principle of Moments
When you’re filling the huge shoes of Mr. Jimmy Page, you had better get a good tone. So when Robbie Blunt got the gig as Robert Plant’s first post-Zeppelin guitarist, he conjured the haunting, bell-like Strat sound on this track from Plant’s sophomore debut. Blunt used his 1956 Strat (which sported a 1954 neck) and a Fender Princeton Reverb to create the clanging single-note lines, lazy bends and double-stop stabs that would become his trademark.




TOMMY BOLIN
“Quadrant 4”
Billy Cobham—Spectrum
When it comes to combining rock tone and attitude with super-jazz chops, Tommy Bolin’s playing on Billy Cobham’s 1973 album, Spectrum, doesn’t get nearly enough love. While trading breakneck licks with keyboardist Jan Hammer, Bolin gets an absolutely killer tone that would influence tons of guitarists—including Jeff Beck. Bolin’s proto-fusion distorted sound is plenty cool on its own, but things really get freaky when he fiddles with the controls on his Echoplex in real time for the earliest known ray-gun effect.




ROY BUCHANAN
“Sweet Dreams”
Roy Buchanan
Many consider Roy Buchanan’s tone to be the ultimate Telecaster tone. His trademark sound inspired Jeff Beck and Danny Gatton, and it prompted Seymour Duncan to start a tone empire. What floored these guitarists can be heard on this tune from Buchanan’s self-titled 1972 debut. Squealing harmonics, volume- and tone-knob manipulations, and great dynamics—all hallmarks of his style—are here in abundance.




LARRY CARLTON
“Kid Charlemagne”
Steely Dan—The Royal Scam
Whereas many studio guitarists tend to stay in the background, Larry Carlton exerts his personality so strongly on this classic Steely Dan tune that he pretty much assumes costar status. Plugging his tried-and-true tobacco sunburst Gibson ES-335 into a cranked Fender Princeton Reverb, Mr. 335 floored the guitar community with his touch, phrasing and awesome tone. And although his gear choices would shift to include Dumble and Boogie, this solo represents the Carlton tone. In the words of his disciple, Steve Lukather, “It’s all in his hands and heart, man!”




KURT COBAIN
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Nirvana—Nevermind
The tone that launched a million angry bands is actually four different tones, but grunge’s theme song is best remembered for Kurt Cobain’s four-chord distortion fest. The humongous wall of six-string angst that slams forth four bars into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds twice as heavy because it’s preceded by the same riff played with what California kids would call a “hella clean tone.” The massive distortion—contrasted with the dreamy, chorused, two-note verse figure—energized a generation and instantly taught legions of kids about feedback, dynamics and the glory of the almighty power chord. Although famously cagey about the gear he used, Cobain most likely wreaked his sonic havoc on “Teen Spirit” with a late-Sixties Fender Mustang, a Boss DS-1 Distortion, a Mesa/Boogie Studio Preamp and a Crown power amp driving various Marshall 4x12s.




DICK DALE
“Misirlou”
Dick Dale and His Del-Tones—Pulp Fiction Soundtrack
On the subject of surf guitar, Dick Dale once told Guitar Player, “People are going to have to start giving Dick Dale his full deserved credit, because Dick Dale is the one who started this whole thing.” Hey—who needs pronouns when you’ve got one of the biggest Strat tones of all time? “Misirlou” shows how much power can be conjured with the bridge pickup of a Strat (strung with beefy strings), a Fender reverb amp and a cranked Dual-Showman. Pick as fast as you can, let out a war-whoop and have at it.




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