Trying to cop your favorite artist’s tone is not a byproduct of the age of amp modeling in which we live. People have been trying to nail tones off records for years. The prevalence of amp modeling has only made it easier. “How do I get _____’s guitar tone?” has got to be the most frequently asked question in the modeling community. I have made a serious hobby (including this website) out of copping the sounds from famous recordings. This article is covers my approach to answering that question.
Research the gear
The first thing to do is try to find out what gear the musician used on the original recording. Try to find out as much as you can. The guitar, the pickups, the string guage, the amp, stompboxes, and even what effects and treatment may have been added during the mixing process. You won’t be able to duplicate it all but it will help you make some informed decisions. For instance, even though you don’t have a 1958 Les Paul like was used on the recording but you do know that the pickups (if stock) are not ultra modern high ouitput humbuckers. Choose your guitar that most closely approximates that of the original recording. I don’t own a Strat, but if I’m looking for the sound of a Stratocaster recording I will grab my Variax or my Ibanez with the coil split switch so I can go full single coil mode.
Google is your friend during this process. Search for everything you can about the guitarist’s gear. You can usually find some pages about gear used over the years on stage or in the studio. Information on a particular song’s gear choices is not always available but if you found that the guitarist has been using a Vox AC-30 on stage for twenty years, then the AC-30 is probably a good place to start your tweaking.
Do your homework.
Duplicate it or get close
Try to duplicate as much of the signal path as possible in your setup. A comprehensive modeler like the POD X3 has quite a few options and can duplicate most standard signal paths with accuracy. Simpler units like Behringer V-Amp will require a bit more judgment in choosing amp and effects models and have more limited routing. Just get as close as you can and don’t sweat it. Becoming an amp historian can help but you don’t have to spend late nights learning about every amp. Searching for an Yngwie Malmsteen tone, you might discover he prefers the sound of a particular 1978 Marshall head that isn’t in your modeler. At this point you have to do a listening test between the 80s Marshall amp models and late 60s Marshall models that might be in your amp modeler. Pick the one that sound closest. Same goes for chorus, delay, and other effects.
Match the gear.
Play the riffs
The most important part of trying to match a favorite guitar tone is playing the correct riffs while tweaking. It isn’t as simple as not playing a Beatles tune while tweaking a Slayer tone. You don’t even want to play a Metallica riff while tweaking that Slayer tone. If a Slayer tone is what you seek, then Slayer riffs are what you must play while tweaking. I once had someone comment, “I used your Joe Satriani POD patch on that recording but it doesn’t sound like Satriani at all!” To which I replied, “No duh Sherlock. That is one of your songs, unless your name is Joe Satriani then I’m not surprised.”
Play the right stuff.
Compare the original track
Queue up the original recording in your cd player, iPod, computer, or anything else that allows you to listen side by side with your actual playing. Do plenty of back and forth comparisons with the song your are tweaking a tone for. It is not unusual for me to listen to a few seconds of the original recording at least every two or three minutes while tweaking. The longer I go while tweaking and not referencing the original recording, the more likely I am to get off base. There is a natural tendency to tweak toward what sounds great with your playing instead of what sounds like the original recording. There is nothing wrong with tweaking for what sounds great with your playing but if you are looking for accuracy to an artist’s tone then you want to avoid that during this process.
Listen. Play. Then listen again.
The three T’s…
The three T’s are tweak, tweak and tweak. It is not unusual for me to spend an hour tweaking the tone for one song. For a more detailed POD patch like my Ride the Lightning era Metallica patch, I sometimes spend up to three or four hours. People ask me how I make such great patches. The answer is I don’t stop turning knobs until I get there, no matter how long it takes. The other part of the answer is the hundreds of crappy patches I’ve made that I don’t ever release to the public because I feel they aren’t up to snuff. While “tweaking until you get there” it can be important to be able to realize after some length of time that your gear just doesn’t have what it takes to get there. Don’t get discouraged too soon, though.
Build on a strong foundation
I think of building a guitar tone much like building a house. Start with a strong foundation, then add the main structure, and finish it off with all the little flourishes that make it shine. This same principle applies to creating a guitar tone.
Start with choosing the correct amp model. This can involve lots of toggling back and forth between different amp models trying to find the one that best captures the vibe on the recording. Amp selection will take even longer if your research did not yield any convincing evidence on where to start. The amp model you choose has the largest influence on the final sound. Choosing your amp model should get you 50% to the tone you are looking for.
The next step is the speaker cabinet which complicates the process even more. As you try different modeled speaker cabinets you will find they can change the tone quite a bit. If you come down to two or three amp models that you can’t decide on, try them each with different speaker cabinet models. This will help you decide which amp model/speaker cab combination works best. Choosing the correct amp speaker cabinet models will put you about 75% of the final tone.
If there is a distortion stompbox on the recording then this is the time to add it. A distortion stompbox will alter the sound of the amp quite a bit and add lots of its own character. It is important to get this element in early in the process.
Now it’s time to tweak the amp controls. I like to tweak the gain first. I start with the gain dimed (full on) and keep playing the riffs over and over while backing it off a little bit at a time. You may find that Steve Vai tone sounded like it was all the way to 11 on the recording but you nail the clarity better with the drive around half. It was probably around half on the original recording too. Amps are usually not as gained out as we think they are in our heads. After tweaking the drive you can start messing with the rest of the tone controls. Some amps (and amp models) are highly interactive so you will find yourself tweaking the drive and all the controls every time you make a tweak to one of them. Once you’ve tweaked in your amp controls you are almost at the finish line. I’d say the amp plus speaker cabinet and tweaked tone controls gets you 90% of the sound you were looking for.
The final element is tweaking in the effects. Most guitar recordings don’t have a lot of effects going on them. You will usually have some reverb and maybe a chorus and/or delay. It is also normal for the recordings to have very typical settings on the effects. I like to add effects in the order of modulation, then delay, and finally reverb. That is the order I find gives me the best chance to approximate the recorded guitar tone.
Remember to keep doing the A/B comparisons with your target recording!
Tweaking in summary
- Research the gear
- Choose amp models that match or get close
- Tweak while playing the right song
- Always compare with the original recording
- Remember the three T’s
- Build on a strong foundation
- choose the amp model is first
- pick a speaker cabinet model
- add a distortion stompbox if needed
- tweak the amp’s tone controls
- add modulation effects
- add delay effects
- add reverb