Five Essential Guitar Tones

Need to produce great guitar tones for your tracks, or someone else’s? Here are the five you can’t afford not to know about.

Guitar tone is an enigmatic thing. It can be taught up to a point. Get the same gear as your favorite player and you can grab a little bit of their sonic magic. The thing is, most really great guitarists sound the same no matter what gear they use, which is beautiful and frustrating at the same time. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use amp simulator software to explore and dissect tone, and there’s no better place to start than with the players profiled here. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s out there in toneland, but it covers a variety of styles and is a great starter palette for your tonal canvas. These are the benchmarks of how great a six-string can sound, from squeaky clean to filthy-dirty. Enjoy.


Montgomery owns the classic clean jazz tone. To get in his smooth ballpark, plug a hollow-body electric (on the neck pickup) into a warm-sounding Fender amp or simulation, set totally clean with not too much treble. Montgomery also used a solid-state Standel amp with a 15" speaker, so a model of that or a Polytone will do the trick as well. Check out “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” for recorded evidence.


“Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits is the “clean Strat” tone by which all other clean Strat tones are measured. Knopfler played a Fender Stratocaster on the bridge and middle pickups into Fender Twin Reverb and a Roland JC-120 with the chorus off. He plucks with his fingers, but that setup will sound glorious no matter how you hit the strings.


Moving us into the “slightly dirty” realm is the late, great SRV. Another Strat cat, typically favoring the neck pickup, Stevie would plug into a host of amps: Fender Vibroverbs, Twins, and Super Reverbs, Marshall Super Leads and JCM-800s, and Dumble Steel String Singers. He favored 15" speakers in many of his cabs, but the key to his tone was having his amps just on the verge of breaking up, so if he hit his guitar hard the tone was dirty, but if he picked lightly, it was clean and bell-like. He’d use an Ibanez Tube Screamer effect, but set for more of a clean boost, with the gain low and the volume high. Anything he recorded has his amazing tone, but “Couldn’t Stand the Weather” is tough to beat.


Still the king of humbucker-into-Marshall magic, Eddie took his homebuilt Strat-style guitar, put an old Gibson PAF pickup in the bridge position, and plugged into an old plexi Marshall. In so doing, he changed the world. The mistake most people make when chasing his tone is that they run way too much distortion based on preamp gain (the “drive” or “pre-gain” control to which Craig Anderton sometimes refers in this issue’s amp simulator roundup). Instead, Eddie Van Halen’s sound was predicated on power amp gain, which is what made it so dynamic and touch sensitive. Start with a simulation of the Marshall JCM-800, and keep its master volume higher than you might think so as not to sacrifice headroom and dynamics. If you want the swirl that accompanied Van Halen’s awesome tone on the first six records, use software that’s good at emulating the MXR Phase 90 stompbox.


Metallica’s rhythm ace defined heavy, aggro-distorted tone in the post-Van Halen era. The tone he got on the heavy-as-hell song “Sad but True” is emblematic of his main rig, which became the de facto metal setup: a Gibson-style solid-body (in his case an ESP Explorer-style) loaded with EMG active pickups, into a Mesa/Boogie amp. He would notch out most of the midrange and hype the bass and treble frequencies for an even deadlier tone. Any amp modeler that has some version of the word “Rectifier” will get you most of the way there. To truly nail that tone, you’ll need a vicious right-hand attack, impeccable timing, and an attitude that’s just plain mean.