4 Ways To Get A Great Rock Tone From Any Amp
Ok, first off - we need to acknowledge that those eye wateringly expensive amps and custom pedal boards used by your heroes are always gonna sound great and, unless you have a rockstar sized budget, we can only do our best to replicate that tone as best we can. With that said, there are some tried and tested ways of getting the best out of your amp without remortgaging your house to build a vintage gear collection!
1. Go steady on the Gain!
The more you add, the more you rock, right? That gain dial is often seen as the instant answer to getting that driven, hard rockin tone! But too much can often lead to a fuzzy/fizzy un-dynamic sound which is anything but rock n roll!
The truth is that many of the big rock tones you aspire to copy are actually not very gain heavy. That luscious, saturated tone you hear live or on recordings is more often than not the product of volume rather than lots of amp dialled drive, distortion or gain. This knowledge is somewhat unhelpful though if you can’t crank your amp up to 11! But starting with a good base gain setting is often the key to building the best tone.
An ideal starting point is to give yourself some headroom and set your amp to breaking point. What does that mean? Well, it is widely accepted that the sweet spot, where gain is concerned, occurs when you can achieve both a clean sound and a dirty sound on the same setting dependent on how hard you strike the strings (more on this later). Try this for yourself - starting with a pure clean tone - strike an open chord hard (really dig in with your picking hand), then turn your gain up in increments until authoritively strumming that chord results in a satisfying crunch; whilst a soft attack still gives you a chime clean chord. This is also the perfect basic tone on which to add gain based effects.
2. Mids are you friend!
Another guitar tone truth is that the sound with which you practise and the tone you need to perform to a track, or with a band, are quite different. Isolated guitar parts from famous recordings always sounding shockingly different when taken out of the mix and distinctly less ‘meaty’ than you would think. When a valve amp is cranked through a speaker cabinet, the result is a really great bass response or ‘thump’ as its known.
The temptation, in trying to get that low end response, is to turn up your bass and dial back the middle. This scooped tone sounds really good when playing unaccompanied, but turn on a jam track or record and suddenly your guitar becomes indistinct and hard to hear amongst the bass and drums. The reason for this is that the bass and treble frequencies belong to the other guys in the band; when we boost our bass or treble too much, we are often competing with the bass player, singer or keyboards.
In short - the middle frequency is where we make our mark and will give your tone that delicious crunch and definition! So be brave and push that 2nd dial past 12 o’clock, you won’t regret it!
3. Give yourself a Boost!
So, you’ve taken your gain down but lost that raging, drive soaked, monster sound! If you are used to something more than a gnarly Angus Young bite, and need more juice in the tank, your answer could be boosting your signal before it hits your amp.
Ok, I know we are talking pedals here but, as one of the most inexpensive stomps you can buy, a boost pedal is the unsung hero of the rock guitar world. You can even use a ‘run of the mill’ overdrive pedal to the same end.
Why boost your signal? As we mentioned earlier, that dream guitar tone is often achieved by the natural compression and spongey tone produced from a very loud amp - namely the sound of those pre amp valves being worked hard. One trade secret to replicating this is to heat things up a bit before your amp gets to work. And this is what a boost pedal does - rather than adding lots of artificial drive, it thickens things up and gives you a more natural driven tone.
If you have an overdrive pedal lying around simply tame back the drive control and turn up the volume. Placed before your amp, this will transform your amp’s tone in brand new ways.
Many classic recordings wouldn’t have sounded the same without the trusty boost pedal - Number Of The Beast and British Steel to name but a few!
4. Its all you!!
You know that cliche - ‘tone is in the fingers’! Well, in this case, tone is in your picking hand. The best thing about approaching tone in the ways we have discussed is the dynamic responsive this kind of sound gives us - the subtleties of your picking are more defined - the louds are loud, and the quiets are quiet; giving you a rich, organic guitar tone.
This really is the threshold of great rock guitar tone but, when you are riffing hard, this sound and set up requires you to dig in that little bit harder to get more dirt; so be sure to hit harder when you want the crunch and bite, but also experiment with accenting and making some notes/chords ‘jump out’.
As a final thought - another, perhaps difficult, truth is that the best all-out rock guitar tones don’t always equate to the most forgiving and easy to play. Lots of gain, delay and bass heavy settings can feel really easy under your fingers and put up very little ‘fight’ but, in the pursuit of tone, this is worth the sacrifice!
If you want some extra tips on creating the perfect tone at home using pedals in addition to your amp, plus more detail in setting up your gear, check out these lessons from the master of tone himself, Michael Casswell: