This is the first in a series of regular columns highlighting some of my favorite guitarists and the tones that made them famous. Rock & roll largely gave birth to the guitar tone fetish, so it’s only appropriate that this first post put a spotlight on some of my favorite sounds in the genre.
Jimi Hendrix: “All Along the Watchtower” from Electric Ladyland.
It would be wrong to discuss rock guitar tone without at least one nod to Hendrix, who probably helped define monster guitar tone more than any other player. Besides being (in my opinion) the greatest piece of recorded pop music to come out of the 20th century, Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower is a tour de force of great guitar tones; each solo fill stands out as a miniature tone poem study in rock lead. Electric leads are layered over acoustic rhythm; clean fills punctuate each verse; panning wah-wah, funky scratching, and distorted bends are precisely and economically employed to give Dylan’s apocalyptic lyrics a sense of urgency. Brilliant.
Bruce Springsteen: “Adam Raised a Cain” from Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Bruce’s lead playing may not be virtuosic, but what’s lacking in technique is more than compensated for by his visceral approach. The solos on Darkness on the Edge Town are probably my favorite of any Springsteen album. It’s hard to find detailed info on the Boss’s rig throughout the years, but the core of his lead sound on this album — an other-worldy treble bridge pickup scream — is almost certainly his battered Fender Esquire through a cranked Fender tube amp.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” from Couldn’t Stand the Weather.
I spent countless hours of my youth chasing SRV’s tone on this superb cover of a Hendrix standard. The fundamentals of his sound are legendary and well-known — Fender Strat, heavy strings, cranked amp, Ibanez Tube Screamer, and a ton of soul. From the wah-wah intro, to the open-string Eb rhythm line, to the velvety leads, this tune is still a rock tone benchmark for me as a player.
Jeff Beck: “Cause We’re Ended as Lovers” from Blow by Blow.
This album is still a high-water mark for instrumental rock guitar; every shredder worth his/her weight in arpeggiated 32nd notes should take in what Beck manages to convey with a single sustained bend. Jeff’s rig has always been pretty spartan (his 70s tone usually coming from humbuckers through a Marshall, with an occasional fuzz pedal between), demonstrating in no uncertain terms that great tone is in the hands of the player.
Keith Richards: “Honky Tonk Women” from Singles Collection: The London Years.
It’s hard to pick only one Stones tune that highlights Keef’s signature rhythm tone — clean and crunchy at the same time, letting his tasty rhythmic hooks come through loud and clear. My inclusion of “Honky Tonk Women” is just as much about the riff as the tone. It’s not clear what rig he was playing on this track; during that era, the guitar could easily have been a Fender or a Gibson through any number of classic amps. Keith always sounds like Keith regardless of the instrument.