I have been asked many times throughout my career about how I got some of my sounds back in the 1970s. First off, there weren’t a lot of options. It was basically: “Plug one end of the cable into the guitar and the other into an amp.” But there were some variables that allowed for quite a variety of tonal possibilities.
We have all heard that tone comes from your fingers and left and right hands, and that is absolutely true. I did a lot of practicing in my early days with the guitar unplugged, and it worked for me, because I could hear exactly what was coming off the guitar before it hit an amplifier. Now, if you can make it sound good on the guitar acoustically, then it should sound fab through an amp.
Another variable was the gauge of your strings. Through all of the Alice Cooper and Lou Reed albums in the ’70s, I used .008s. I preferred them for the bending possibilities, but also because they had a certain “twang” that made them sing when you soloed. I found that slightly larger gauge strings lost that for me. Of course, the guitar and its pickups also had an impact. I believe Seymour Duncan and Larry DiMarzio may have been dabbling with rewinding coils and changing magnets, but there wasn’t a lot going on with custom pickups back then. So we’d pick a guitar with stock pickups that sounded good to us. I leaned towards Gibsons with either PAFs or P90s, and I still like the sound of those pickups today.
But the real nitty gritty of the tones we got came down to how the amp and guitar worked together. For example, I almost never cranked up a Marshall all the way. In the studio with [Alice Cooper and Lou Reed producer] Bob Ezrin—and depending on whether we were doing a rhythm part or a solo—we would make little adjustments between the amp’s volume and the guitar’s volume. On rhythm parts, we would often turn the amp up to about 6 or 7, but then roll back the guitar’s volume to around 8. That always seemed to work best for a solid and powerful rhythm sound with just the right amount of distortion. Tracking solos was usually the time I’d crank the guitar up all the way—although not always—and I tended to prefer the neck pickup. For the solos I did on the first half of Aerosmith’s “Train Kept A Rollin,” I used a Les Paul TV Special with one P90 straight into an ancient, tweed Fender Twin that was cranked. I still love that sound, and I was very sad when I heard that amp had blown up.
By the way, the four-input configuration of the ’70s-era Marshalls produced some great tones. Channel one was a little brighter and channel two was a little warmer, and, of course, we occasionally used the jumper technique Jimi Hendrix used to route channel one into channel two. I really liked that sound—a little more so with the 50-watt Marshalls I preferred to use in the studio, as they had a sweeter all-around tone than the 100-watt Marshalls (which were great for live performance).
As you can see, the tones we got back in the day were basically a dance between the volume of the amp and the volume of the guitar. The rest came from how you played—how much you would dig in, whether you played close to the bridge or close to the neck, the kind of pick you used, and so on. I love the infinite variety of sounds technology makes possible these days, but there is still something to be said for those “simple” tones of the ’70s.