Amps, Effects and Getting Your Guitar Sound

“Getting a good sound is a vast topic for electric guitarists, who essentially have to consider everything in the signal chain from the guitar, through the effects, to the amplifier—it’s all part of the instrument,” says Berklee guitar professor Dan Bowden. With that in mind, he designed Amps, Effects, and Getting Your Guitar Sound to help guitarists develop their own distinctive sound, whether for live performance or for home recording. “We find in the Guitar Department at Berklee that guitar sound is talked about continually, from the instruments and amps being used, the differences between makes and models, the vast range of effects...all those details. Sound is on the forefront of any serious guitarist’s mind.”

Amps, Effects, and Getting Your Guitar Sound includes comprehensive online lesson content with many listening examples, lively discussion forums, and interactive activities that provide the hands-on experience for guitarists to define and get the sound they are looking for. Students work extensively with the amp modeling software from IK Multimedia, AmpliTube, that comes at an educational discount with the course. AmpliTube allows guitarists to virtually play through, and work the controls of a variety of classic and modern amp models that have been closely patterned after legendary models manufactured by Vox, Fender, Marshall, and many others.

Because Bowden considers electric guitars to be acoustic instruments in and of themselves, his course stresses recognizing that overall sound is determined by a variety of factors. “Since great tone originates with the guitar, we first cover how body style, woods, pickups, and other factors affect tone—why a Telecaster sounds different from a Stratocaster, Les Paul, or a Ibanez JSM 100.” Audio examples give students a chance to hear the sound characteristics of specific models in the hands of top players from many genres. After learning what factors into the sound of a guitar, students design their own custom “dream axe” that would best suit their musical goals. Ultimately, this allows them to both maximize the strengths of their own instrument and be better able to coax out different tones.

Next comes an under-the-hood look at amplifiers. “We learn how amps work by seeing what happens to the guitar signal at each stage of amplification,” said Bowden. The lesson also demystifies some of the ”buzzwords” surrounding amps by covering terms like Class A, single-ended, push-pull, sag, and other frequently heard yet widely misunderstood terms. Then specific amp models are closely studied and compared. This carries over to the next lesson, when students use and submit recorded assignments using AmpliTube’s software models of the Vox AC30, Fender Super Reverb, Marshall JCM800, Mesa Boogie, and others. Fellow students and the course instructor give feedback, with suggestions of how they might fine-tune their sound. Bowden states, “Amp-savvy guitarists know what amp can best serve their musical goals and how to get the most from devices such as the Line 6 Pod, and software amp modelers like AmpliTube.”

“Weeks 4 and 5 delve into the wide world of guitar effects,” said Bowden. “We categorize effects into four basic types and learn how each individual pedal works to change your sound.” AmpliTube provides the means for students to work with effects from each category. The course provides many examples of classic recordings that showcase each effect, then students again record themselves with specific effect and sounds in mind. They also learn the standard order to connect effects in. “But of course, rules are made to be broken, so the course also looks at alternative setups,” Bowden said. ”For example, it’s typical to put a distortion pedal before a phase pedal. But you can actually get a more pronounced modulation if you put the phase first...the point is to learn how to break the rules effectively.”

While assignments cover the typical use of individual and multiple effect combinations, Bowden says he is continually surprised by students’ creativity. “The course always has a nice mix of people...we might have a hard rock guy, someone more experimental, jazz fusion, and an alternative person. There’s lots of cross pollination among genres.”

Popular topics in the class so far have focused on compression and delay. Bowden provides students with the technical parameters of compression for commonly used applications, that they might have difficulty finding themselves. Guitarists work with delay and learn how to get slapback and doubling effects—and how to use delay more musically by setting repeats to rhythms that relate to the tempo of a song. Bowden provides recorded examples for each, and shows students how to properly calculate repeat times in milliseconds so they can create the particular effect themselves. “They also learn how to create each delay effect by ear—a necessity when working with stomp-box delay units.” And for added interest, a few special “tricks of the trade” are included for students to try out and master.

The final lesson in the six-week course begins by demystifying equalization, helping guitarists to effectively use EQ. “We learn, for example, what is 100 Hz, and how it relates musically. I aim to clarify all this engineering jargon that gets thrown around, so that students learn exactly what a boost or cut at 2k does, in relation to their tone. This is the knowledge they’ll need to effectively EQ their sound live and when recording.”

Finally, the course covers typical setups in various styles, including country, blues, jazz/fusion, progressive, classic, alternative rock and metal, with a graphical look at a typical guitar and pedal board and amp combinations. They also listen to sound files so that they can hear things in action.

For the final project, students define and record a set of sounds for a specific musical situation. They work with backing tracks and develop three separate guitar parts: a rhythm part, a secondary part, and a melody/solo. “The idea is that the parts and tones are contrasting but complementary—each should be distinctive while working together with the others. This is a great opportunity for the students to apply all things they’ve learned for the last six weeks.”

The course is great for all guitarists, no matter what level. “What makes this course special is that it gives guitarists the rare opportunity to take six weeks out of their lives and really focus on their sound and learn to create what they hear in their heads.“