Why You Can’t Sound Like Your Guitar Hero

In the early days of modern popular music, the mid-to-late 1950s, the guitarist had his guitar, a cable, and his amp.  Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore had their Gibsons, Buddy Holly and Buck Owens had their Fenders, and the amplifier of choice was a Fender, usually a Twin or a Bassman.  It was easy to get the sound, if not the style, of the guitar playing on the popular recordings – the double-stop triplets of Chuck Berry, the fast rhythms of Buddy Holly, or the bright country picking of Buck Owens on his Telecaster.  Duane Eddy was the first one to popularizing effects with his rousing instrumental hits, a style he called twang, played on the bass strings of the guitar using tremolo and reverb.

As the 1960s rolled on into the 1970s, these fathers of electric lead guitar gave way to guitar heroes such as Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jimi Hendrix among many others.  They were well known for playing live with stacks of amps and speakers on the stage.  Many young guitarists bought a Gibson SG or Les Paul or a Fender Stratocaster to sound like their hero.  Finding a good amp was a more difficult task.  A Marshall Stack or Fender Dual Showman was too pricy for most, and way overkill for playing in a garage or small club in the mid 1960s.  Small amps were considered student or beginner models and cheap substitutes.  What many guitarists and listeners didn’t know at the time was that the gear these guys used on stage was not the same gear they used in the studio.  Live sound was primitive compared to what we know in the 21st Century.  Often, your amp had to fill the concert hall, and so a stack of amps was appropriate.  Studios at the time, recording on 4-track or 8-track tape, were designed for a standup bass and a few other instruments, and the microphones and consoles were also designed around certain ideas about volume levels.  While an amp stack might have sounded great on stage, in the studio it was the opposite, and could usually not be turned up past 2.  You certainly couldn’t play at concert levels in the studio.

The famous guitar solo on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was played on a Fender Telecaster using a small Supro amp, as was much of Page’s studio work.  Likewise, most of Eric Clapton’s early famous work was played through a small Fender Champ.  These amps were considered practice, student, or home amps, and not “professional” amps intended for stage work.  In the studio, however, a small amp, cranked wide open and miked, gave a nice big sound.  So the guy who bought a Les Paul and a Marshall, wanting to sound like Jimmy Page, couldn’t duplicate the sound of a Telecaster played through a cranked Supro amp.  While Jimi Hendrix played through stacks of amps on stage – Marshall or Sunn or Dual Showman – in the studio it was a black-faced Fender combo.  Wind Cries Mary is the classic Fender blackface amp tone.

The iconic hit song Layla, featuring both Eric Clapton and Duane Allman on electric guitar, also featured small amps, but with a twist.  Using a 16-track tape recorder, six of those tracks were used for the guitars alone in the first section of the song, with five guitar tracks in the second section.  The famous intro and lead sections of Layla used track 3 for Clapton and Allman solo duplication, track 4 for Allman’s solo, track 5 for Clapton’s rhythm part, track 9, 11 & 12 for Clapton’s harmony parts.  Clapton played lead guitar on one track, and harmonized with his guitar lead on three other tracks.  Now you know why you can’t sound like Derek and The Dominos on Layla when you play at your local club.

In 1978, Mark Knopfler did what no one expected, he created a whole new sound, a new voice, for the electric guitar. At first glance it seems simple. Take a Strat, balance the switch in between notches, and play through a Fender amp, in this case a brown-faced Vibrolux Reverb.  Of course, he also used an Aphex Aural Exciter and an Orange Squeezer compressor, and he didn’t use picks, just his fingers, and he had a style on its own.  Even with a Strat and a Fender combo amp, the best you can hope for is to come close.

U2’s Edge made a career out of playing simple parts through a bank of effects, creating a wall of sound using a myriad of signal processing equipment.  If you’ve got the money and the time…

So let’s say you want to sound like one of your guitar heroes.

Perhaps you liked Jeff Beck’s tone in 1993’s Crazy Legs album.  For that record, he used three amps- a Fender Tremolux and a Fender Bassman in parallel, in a dry wood-paneled room, with two microphones on each amp, a Shure SM-57 dynamic mic and a Neumann U47 tube mic.  At the same time he also ran his guitar through a Fender Concert 2×12” amp, laid on its back pointing upwards in a stone room, with a mic on the ceiling.  The output from the Concert amp was also fed into the speakers of a Fender Twin, which was in an echo chamber. You probably can’t get that tone in your local club, or in your garage.

Maybe you liked Stevie Ray Vaughan’s tone on In Step. He had thirty-something amps in the studio for that one, including a ’59 Bassman, a Dumble Steel String Singer, and a couple of 200W Marshall stacks. Try duplicating that in your music room.

Eric Clapton’s touring gear in the 2005 Cream reunion included two tweed Fender Twin reissue amps, and a Leslie cabinet, a far cry from the triple Marshall stacks of the 1960s.  But once Eric was an unannounced guest at a Little Feat show and the guitar tech was having a fit because the only amp they had for Clapton to play through was a crummy little practice amp. So, for the Little Feat encore, Clapton walks on stage, grabs a spare guitar from the rack, and the tech is bummed because that junky amp is the only amp available and he’s going to sound horrible. Eric Clapton plugged in, goes plink, plink twice, twiddles the knobs, and turns around and sounds like… well, he sounded exactly like Eric Clapton.  Billy Gibbons sounds like ZZ Top whether he’s playing on stage through a 100 Watt Marshall Stack or using a Lead 12 practice amp backstage.

The epitome of the guitar to cable to amp goes back to the early guitar heroes, and to the too long gone Telecaster players such as Buck Owens, Don Rich, and Roy Buchanan, who played their Fender Telecasters straight into their Fender amps, and to the guitar heroes of the ‘60s and 70s who played their guitars through small tube combo amps, and it continues today with blues, jazz, and Indie rock guitarists.

So get yourself a Fender Tele or Strat, or a Les Paul or SG or 335, and plug into a small tube combo amp – a Fender Champ, Deluxe, or Vibrolux, or a Texas Tone 12. Crank it up and you can sound just like… yourself.

After all, as Carlos Santana, a guitarist with a well known distinctive sound, said, “You’re not supposed to sound like anyone else; you’re supposed to sound like you.”

Your tone is in your fingers, in your heart, and in your soul, and played out through your guitar and amp.

Happy New Year.