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
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.
“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.
“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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
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 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.
“Revolution Is My Name”
Pantera—Reinventing the Steel
It doesn’t get much heavier than this. The late great Dimebag Darrell took a Dean ML, a solid-state Randall amp and a DigiTech Whammy Pedal and crafted tones that should be illegal. The shrieking intro is a positively skull-frying metal moment, and the chugging rhythm lines sound like they’re going to disembowel you. Aggro-rock at its absolute best.
Especially for You…
“Have twangy guitar, will travel.” That’s what Duane Eddy told us decades
ago. But “Have twangy guitar, will kick major ass” is more like it. The intro to 1960’s “Peter Gunn Theme” alone is one of the coolest tone moments in guitar history. Tracked with Eddy’s Gretsch 6120 into a 100-watt Magnatone amp that sported a 15-inch JBL and a tweeter, the sound is totally inspiring. A 2,000-gallon steel water tank served as an echo chamber—how cool is that? Eddy crammed more vibe into one note on this tune than some players achieve in a lifetime.
Jimmy Witherspoon—Black Omnibus (TV show)
Although he’s best known for playing his signature Fender guitar and a Dumble amp, Robben Ford started out with a rig that consisted of a Gibson Super 400 and a Fender Twin. It was during that time—as a sideman with Jimmy Witherspoon—that Ford laid down some of his most fiery tones. The song “Nothing’s Changed” is a stellar example, featuring a round, sweet sound with a raw edge. Ford is never without a great tone, but early tracks like this one are particularly refreshing.
“21st Century Schizoid Man”
King Crimson—In the Court of the Crimson King
Although Marshall and fuzz-tone-facilitated distortion had been around for several years, Fripp’s earth-scorching power chords and ultrasaturated single-note sustain on the opening track of King Crimson’s 1969 debut, In the Court of the Crimson King, was unprecedented. Playing a three-pickup 1959 Les Paul Custom through a 100-watt Marshall stack—with aid from a fuzz pedal (most likely a ColorSound Tone Bender or Burns Buzzaround)—Fripp’s searing overtones and seemingly unlimited sustain on the solo inspired legions of progressive players.—BC
Grateful Dead—Grateful Dead
Before his Tiger guitar—and before his envelope-follower tone—Jerry Garcia was a Strat cat. This Merle Haggard cover off the Dead’s seminal 1971 double live album, Grateful Dead (a.k.a. Skull and Roses), has a clean ringing Stratocaster tone with a fat, clear low end and more country twang to the low strings than we would hear from Garcia in later years. Take a listen and hear what a gajillion Deadheads already know: Jerry’s tone ruled.
“I Thank You”
Billy Gibbons always gets an amazing tone—which makes it impossible to choose just one. But the snarling solo sound to this Women’s Lib anthem is as good a choice as any. After the righteous chorused intro and verse, the Reverend Willy G. throws down with a grinding overdriven single-coil tone that’s chockfull of emotion, grit and good old-fashioned Texas balls.
Pink Floyd—The Wall
David Gilmour’s solos in this song off Pink Floyd’s 1979 milestone, The Wall, represent two of the all-time benchmarks for lead guitar tone. The first break—2:05 into the tune—features an achingly beautiful opening phrase, with a throaty, singing tone. Gilmour used his Strat/Hiwatt setup, although according to producer Bob Ezrin, Yamaha rotating speakers also contributed to the sound Gilmour’s outro solo sports the same gorgeous sustain but with a more aggressive attack. Gilmour claims he comped this solo from five separate tracks, but he’s so fluid you’d never know it.
John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—A Hard Road
Replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluebreakers must have been a bitch, but in 1966, a 21-year-old Peter Green won over skeptics to ultimately become England’s greatest bluesman. Wielding a 1959 sunburst Les Paul, Green made his debut on the second Bluesbreakers album, A Hard Road. With his shivering vibrato and clean cutting tones—which were often drenched in reverb, à la Otis Rush—Green quickly achieved guitar-hero status, a position that made him profoundly uncomfortable. “The Super-Natural” features a series of 10-second sustained notes. To this day, these haunting tones define controlled feedback on a Les Paul.—AE
“Sad But True”
Talk about heavy—Metallica’s James Hetfield had already written a huge chunk of the metal rulebook when he cranked out this detuned masterpiece in 1991. Simpler in form than most of his jackhammer rhythm lines, the riff to “Sad but True” has enough breathing room to knock the wind right out of you. Post–Master of Puppets, Hetfield typically employed ESP guitars and Mesa/Boogie amps to get his unmistakable crunch.
“Three Sheets to the Wind”
Allan Holdsworth—Road Games
Like Eric Johnson, Allan Holdsworth typically gets several unbelievable tones in a song, and this offering from 1983’s Road Games is no exception. His lead tone—created by a Charvel and a solid-state Hartley Thompson amp—is incredibly good, but it’s the volume-swell clean tones that begin the tune that get the nod here. Fading in his tendon-destroying voicings with a volume pedal, Holdsworth kicked every guitarist’s ass with these unearthly timbres.
“Cliffs of Dover”
Ah Via Musicom
Few guitarists are more closely associated with tone than Eric Johnson. When he did “Cliffs of Dover,” Johnson had a monstrous rig that consisted of two Fender Twins (for clean sounds), a Dumble Overdrive Special (for crunch tones) and a 100-watt Marshall (for solos). The sustainy, violin-like tone on this tune was a product of Johnson’s mid-Fifties Fender Strat and a B.K. Butler–designed Tube Driver into the Marshall. This sound does the impossible, remaining clear and articulate despite being fiercely overdriven and saturated.
Born Under a Bad Sign
Possessing one of the meanest blues tones ever, Albert King would help shape the styles and sounds of Clapton, SRV and a bunch of other guitar greats. He got his killing tone with a Gibson Flying V and a solid-state Acoustic amp. King tuned (low to high) C F C F A D and played left-handed, even though his guitars were strung righty. On “Crosscut Saw,” his guitar cries, sings and screams. That ain’t no lie.
“Sultans of Swing”
Dire Straits—Dire Straits
In the Sixties and early Seventies, guitarists such as Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale exploited the dual-pickup Strat tones first popularized by Buddy Guy. But it was Mark Knopfler’s bridge-and-middle-pickups tour de force “Sultans of Swing” that truly seared that guitar-sound into the public consciousness. Cut in 1978 with Knopfler’s fingers plucking a Fender Strat plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb and a Roland JC-120, “Sultans of Swing” is the clean Strat tone by which all other clean Strat tones are measured.
“All Right Now”
Free—Fire and Water
The snotty, stabbing cacophony of Paul Kossoff’s intro rhythm on this Free classic from 1970 is a testament to he primordial violence capable with the Les Paul-Marshall combination. A big part of the snap, spittle and bite was due to Kossoff’s penchant for letting open strings ring inside his chords, but you also can’t discount his primitive approach to the guitar. The twist is Kossoff’s solo tone, which is fat and sexy and characterized by an almost liquid sustain and one of the most sensual vibratos in rock.
“Shooting for the Moon”
South of I-10
Most slide players are content to lay a glass or metal tube across their strings and let it do the dirty work. But Sony Landreth adds fretted notes behind his quivering Dunlop bottleneck to create tones that swoop, snarl and shimmer like the mutant offspring of a fiddle, button accordion and wailing blues harp. Known for mixing Cajun sounds with R&B, the Louisiana native is both a successful solo artist and a hot session and touring guitarist. Landreth lays down the law on a 1964 Gibson Firebird, a pair of late-Eighties Fender Strats equipped with DiMarzio Virtual Vintage pickups and a Gibson Les Paul Classic sporting a TransPerformance motorized tuning system. Onstage, he’ll wail through an early Seventies 50-watt Marshall head and a beat-up Fender bandmaster cab loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s, or switch between Matchless DC-30 and Dumble Overdrive Special heads driving a single Matchless 2x12 cab.
Yngwie Malmsteen plays so many damn notes that people forget how good his tone is. Time for a refresher course. On this track from his smoking solo debut, he lulls us into a false sense of security with an incredible clean Strat tone before stabbing us in the Bach with his dirty tone for the superhuman harmonized lines and solo. This overdriven sound (Strat into DOD 250 Overdrive into many “Plexi” Marshalls) does it all—it’s sharp but never shrill, and at the same time thick and rich without ever getting muddy. Malmsteen inspired a million guitarists to play a billion notes, but not one of them got as cool a sound.
“How Soon Is Now”
The Smiths—Meat Is Murder
It’s hard to decide which guitar tone in this 1984 Smiths song is the coolest. You could make a case for the recurring moaning slide part, or the freaky whammified fills. But neither of those tones can hang with an intro that features a meaty, throbbing tremolo that pulses in time with the music—despite the fact that it’s backwards. Marr flipped the tape reels and played the part in reverse, so that on playback the listener is treated to one of the most amazingly hypnotic guitar sounds ever.
The Shadows—The Very Best of the Shadows
As the lead guitarist for the Shadows, Hank Marvin was a hero to budding guitarists such as Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. A great example of Marvin’s Strat-into-AC30 tone can be heard on this early Sixties instrumental smash, “Apache.” The echo-and-reverb-drenched sustained lines and the double-picked low-string figures as still inspiring today.
Queen—Sheer Heart Attack
One of the most singular stylists in guitar history, May created one of his great solos in this tune off 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack. His unmistakable tone—produced by his homemade Red Special guitar plugged into a treble booster and a Vox AC30—is dripping with midrange-heavy sustain. The harmony guitars that lead into the solo’s second half sound as if they were tracked with May’s small, solid-state Deacy amp. What’s unique about he second half of the “Killer Queen” solo is that there are three different guitar solos going on, starting and intersecting at different points. It was May’s attempt to get a cascading, “Mantovani-type of sound,” and it produces gorgeous unexpected counterpoint lines.
“Meeting of the Spirits”
Mahavishnu Orchestra—The Inner Mounting Flame
The combination of blistering distortion and clinically precise picking technique on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s first album, The Inner Mounting Flame, resulted in a tone that was simultaneously ultra compressed and razor sharp. McLaughlin had previously experimented with some nasty overdriven sounds, but by pushing a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead into meltdown mode with Gibson EDS-1275 Double 12 and Les Paul Custom guitars, he ignited the sonic fuse of fusion.—BC
It’s all to easy to attach a stereotypical label—like “smooth jazz”—to a song or a player, and then dismiss them out of hand. This Pat Metheny tune has undoubtedly suffered from this tendency, but a listen to “James” quickly reveals a unique, beautiful tone. To get his signature sound—which at times seems to have an almost trumpet-like quality—Metheny played a Gibson ES-175 into a solid-state Acoustic 134 amp. For the subtle chorus effect (which he swears is not chorusing), he employed two Lexicon Prime Time delays—one set to 14ms and one to 26ms, with a slight pitch bend on each. It adds up to a truly original, instantly recognizable tone that might be smooth, but it sure isn’t light.
“Bulls on Parade”
Rage Against the Machine—Evil Empire
With a fairly limited collection of pedals, Tom Morello can create an unlimited amount of cool tones, and he showcases several of them on this 1996 Rage Against the Machine cut: a slamming octave intro, some freaky wah work, and grinding verse single-note lines. But Morello’s greatest guitar sound occurs in the song’s DJ-approved “solo,” where he turns the tables on the turntablists with the wildest Whammy Pedal part ever.
“Eight Miles High”
The Byrds—Fifth Dimension
Roger McGuinn’s tone is so inextricably linked to the Rickenbacker 12-string that it’s almost impossible to play that instrument without someone instantly saying, “That sounds like the Byrds.” Compared to McGuinn, the Beatles and everyone else merely dabbled with the jingle jangle of the 12-string. McGuinn would employ the Rickenbacker on many Byrds hits, but on “Eight Miles High,” after playing a very cool verse and chorus, he positively strangles the guitar on the mid-expanding solo.
“Workin’ Man Blues” (live)
Merle Haggard—Okie from Muskogee
For years, the debated raged—who played the solo on Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues”? Was it session man extraordinaire James Burton or Haggard’s personal twang king, Roy Nichols? Well, the amazing studio version was indeed Burton, who graced many Haggard sides in the Sixties. But when the Hag hit the road, Nichols was the man, buffing out Haggard’s Strangers until his 1987 retirement. Recorded live in 1969, Okie from Muskogee finds the string-stretchin’ Nichols at his prime. Plugging his late-Sixties Telecaster into a Fender Twin Reverb, Nichols for the most part sticks to Burton’s “Working” solo. But his snarling twang—replete with a tough midrange—takes it somewhere else entirely. Simply put, this is honky-tonk tone 101.—DF
Les Paul with Mary Ford—The Best of the Capitol Masters
When Les Paul unleashed the first example of his “New Sound” in early 1948, people were stunned. The layered guitars on “Lover” were recorded by bouncing between acetate discs, with some parts playing back at double speed to create glistening high-octave harmonies. Paul’s characteristically warm-yet-bright clean tone was produced using a prototype solidbody, the Log, and he performed the high parts on a modified Epiphone. Both guitars featured his “secret” pickups and were played through a tweed Fender combo or directly into a homemade mixer. Paul modified the basic tones further by using tape delay and, he claims, “phasing.”—BC
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
The song that signaled the return of Yes in the early Eighties features a zillion amazing guitar tones: huge power chords in the intro, chiming clean arpeggios in the breakdown, and freaky acoustic stabs, just to name a few. But the most incredible tone—and the one for which Trevor Rabin will forever be known—is the wild harmonized solo. Rabin plugged a battered 1962 Strat into a 100-watt Marshall miked with a pair of E-V RE-20s. He then sent the miked signal to an MXR Pitch Transposer—set to a fifth—to get the unique sound. The solo is mixed loud enough to blow minds more than 30 years later.
“Loud and fast with no guitar solos” is how Johnny Ramone described his band’s approach to music. While true, that description doesn’t do justice to his contribution to the power-chording lexicon. Throughout his career, Johnny employed a Mosrite Ventures II model, a 100-watt Marshall stack, and a gazillion downstrokes to achieve the awesome blitzkrieg that inspired the Sex Pistols, Green Day and just about every other punk outfit. Ramone was, by his own admission, a one-trick pony—but what a pony!
“Reeling in the Years”
Steely Dan—Can’t Buy a Thrill
If placing out-of-the-ordinary—even downright nasty—tones on mainstream radio were an Olympic event, Steely Dan would be jazz-rock’s version of an Olympic champion. On their 1972 debut, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker recruited a young New York session cat named Elliott Randall for the cut “Reeling in the Years.” Randall’s tone is corpulent and singing, with a touch of fuzz, and he simply dazzles over a two-chord vamp that still raises goose bumps. “I used my 1963 Fender Stratocaster set on the front pickup, which was a 1960s Gibson PAF humbucker,” Randall says. “I didn’t use any pedals at all. I just turned the volume on my Ampeg SVT all the way up. That was the sound, and it was very, very loud. There was only one mic used—an AKG C414—and we recorded the whole performance in one take. The moment was just so right. Now and again you just hook into the musical cosmos.” —DF
“Flying High Again”
Ozzy Osbourne—Diary of a Madman
No one ever made as big an impact with so few records as Randy Rhoads. What we know of Rhoads is encapsulated on two studio records (not counting two forgettable Quiet Riot imports) and one scorching live album. But in 1980, he did the impossible: he became a bona fide guitar hero—with a style and sound al his own—in Van Halen–dominated Southern California. Rhoads got a very distinct midrange-heavy tone on his first record with Ozzy Osbourne, but he truly crushed on this tune from their sophomore collaboration. Thick but articulate distortion and expert layering created one of the heaviest rhythm tones to date, and the triple-tracked solo tore the heads off guitarists worldwide, sending them back to the woodshed for hours upon hours of practice. Although he has inspired and influenced gaggles of guitarists, no one has ever sounded like Randy Rhoads.
With the tone he got on this 1978 smash hit, Nile Rodgers proved that disco didn’t suck—it rocked. Using a 1959 hardtail Strat, Rodgers plugged into a Fender Vibrolux—and also ran a direct line into a Neve board—to create a sound he described as “bright, but not brittle.” His strong attack and impeccable right-hand work make this tone jump right out at you. Trés chic.
David Bowie—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
You’d have to be dead for at least a decade to not get a woody when Mick Ronson’s nasty, wah-filtered intro to this glam anthem hits your eardrums. Wielding a Les Paul with a finish sanded down to the natural wood, a Dunlop Cry Baby and a 200-wat Marshall Major that he nicknamed the Pig, Ronson channeled his Byronic machismo through his heart and fingers to craft snarls, wails, cries and low-end riffs packing a prizefighter’s punch. It all got brutally noisy, but hey mate, if you can’t take it, check out Gordon Lightfoot.—Michael Molenda
UFO—Strangers in the Night
Using a black-and-white Gibson Flying V into a half-cocked Cry Baby wah feeding a 50-watt “Plexi” Marshall, UFO’s Michael Schenker raised the hard rock bar for chops, melody and tone in the late Seventies. Nowhere was his mid-heavy voice in better form than on “Rock Bottom,” from the band’s live album, Strangers in the Night. Schenker’s cutting rhythm tone sets the stage for his amazing extended solo, where he uses the wah to bring out the best in every note. Never pumping the wah in the conventional manner, he continually finds the pedal’s sweet spots to wring beautiful sustain and crisp articulation from each phrase. For melodic hard rock, Schenker is still in a class by himself.
“Peace of Mind”
Studio whiz Tom Scholz got his unique guitar tone all over the radio in the late Seventies with a series of hits. His guitar sound was characterized by a penetrating midrange, thick distortion, and amazing sustain, all of which were in full force on the smash hit “Peace of Mind.” To get his tone, he would plug a Gibson Les Paul into a homemade preamp that fed an MXR six-band EQ and a wah pedal, and then go into a 100-watt Marshall Super Lead. He also used a device of his own design called a “doubler” to make his lead tone sound bigger. “It approximates the sound of an overdub by adding a pitch change to the time delay,” he told Guitar Player in August 1977. Scholz would create sustain with the wah in a fixed position or with the EQ. He would later bring this tone to the masses with his Rockman line of products.
“Message in a Bottle”
The Police—Reggatta de Blanc
Andy Summers’ reputation as a texture god can be justified with one listen to this 1979 Police standard. His Telecaster and Marshall sound edgy and urgent, and his always-tasteful use of effects lends an ethereal quality to the sustained chords. This is a tone that guitarists of all styles have chased for years. It’s certainly one of the finest tone moments—and Summers’ personal fave—in a career that’s been full of them.
“I Can’t Explain” (live)
The Who—Live at Leeds
This is another guy who has crafted so many mind-boggling tones that it’s hard to pick just one. Because he’s such a master at tone layering in the studio, it’s refreshing to hear him in an unadorned live setting on the Who’s seminal concert disc, Live at Leeds. Townshend gets an absolutely massive tone on “I Can’t Explain” with his P-90-loaded SG and Hiwatt rig. The intro power chords—clean and plunky on the studio version—rage with overdrive here. And both of the solos are mean, nasty and just plain huge.
“Bridge of Sighs”
Robin Trower Band—Bridge of Sighs
Robin Trower’s tone on this 1974 track is spooky, mysterious, tough and cinematically mournful. In fact, it’s one of those sounds that drifts so far above technique and tonecraft that it should be considered an emotion. Trower himself told Guitar Player in July 1980 that “Bridge of Sighs” was the “most soulful, most creative and most powerful piece of guitar playing I’ve ever come up with.” It’s no secret that Trower favored Strats and Marshalls during the period this song was recorded, but the rest of the recipe should simply be detailed as “magic.”—Michael Molenda
Has a P-90 ever screamed with more intensity? Mountain’s Leslie West achieved an impossibly huge tone when he cut “Mississippi Queen” in 1970. Using a Les Paul Jr.—a guitar he once referred to as “a piece of wood with a microphone on it”—driving a Sunn Coliseum P.A. head, West produced a sound that stands up to this day. The song’ s power chords are massive, but West somehow makes the catchy single-note lines sound just an immense. His strong attack and killer vibrato inspired virtuosos such as Randy Rhoads and Michael Schenker, but it was is guitar tone that set the standard for warm, thick overdrive—a tone that has been cited by more rock guitar gods than you can shake a stick at.
“One Thing Leads to Another”
The Fixx—Reach the Beach
To many guitarists, a crystal-clean out-of-phase Stratocaster smothered in chorus and compression is as much a cliché of the Eighties as Pac Man and leg warmers. But the one guy who pulled off this sound without sacrificing an ounce of punch, girth or clarity is the Fixx’s Jamie West-Oram. The best example is his funky track on the British band’s 1983 hit, “One Thing Leads to Another,” an in-your-face, three-string rhythm part inspired by the playing of Nile Rodgers, David Byrne and various reggae guitarists. “It was done in one take on an extremely cheap Ibanez Blazer that had three single-coils, with the bridge and middle pickups engaged,” says West-Oram, who achieved a wonderfully squashed sound from either an MXR Dyna Comp or a Valley People Dyna-Mite limiter. (“I’m not sure which I used, but the compression made the guitar just spit out the chords,” he said.) The massive stereo spread came from an MXR Stereo Chorus, which split the signal into two late-Seventies Marshall JMP 2x12 combos—each of which was set clean and both close- and room-miked. —JG
Rumble! The Best of Link Wray
You can argue about this until your hair falls out and your skeleton starts poking through your rotting flesh, but this is the sound that drop-kicked rock and roll out of its clean, punchy Fifties phase and laid the foundation for metal, punk and every other genre that relies on feral noise to get its point across. In 1958, Wray wrangled a 1953 Les Paul and a Premier amp (with holes punched into the combo’s two 10-inch speakers; the lone 15-inch was left untouched) to cut “Rumble” live in just three takes. The resulting thuggish energy and ragged distortion changed rock and roll forever, and every guitarist who plays it tough should salute Link every time he or she picks up a guitar. —Michael Molenda
Neil Young with Crazy Horse—Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Is this where dropped D detuned riffage originated? Quite possibly. Did this riff give birth to the grunge tones that would follow 20 years later? Definitely. On “Cinnamon Girl,” Neil Young sports a deliciously grindy, swampy tone to play an infectious progression that instantly conjures up images of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A Bigsby-equipped Les Paul and a maxed-out Fender Deluxe are the likely weapons of choice.