Listen to enough of the work of any truly great guitar player through the course of their career and you soon enough learn that they have the ability to stamp their tonal signature on their performances no matter what gear they are using; that said, many legendary guitarists are most associated with particular guitar/amp/effects set-ups, and often have other stylistic traits that influence their sound.
The great blues artist Muddy Waters was no exception. From guitar playing, to voice, to songwriting style, he embodied a sound that was all his own, and which has become associated with a timeless breed of electric blues. Early in his career, Waters played a range of acoustic and semi-acoustic electric guitars, including models by Gretsch, Stella, and Harmony, and was famously photographed in the early 1950s with a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups. He is far and away most associated, however, with the red Fender Telecaster that became his mainstay from the late 1950s until his death in 1983. Distinguished by the amplifier control knobs with which he replaced his guitar’s original volume and tone controls, and the extra screws that he added to the thin plastic pickguard to prevent it from buckling, Muddy Waters’ Telecaster is one of the most distinctive guitars of all time.
Thought of more as a country or early rock and roll instrument, the basic, slab-bodied Tele isn’t associated with the blues as much today as instruments such as the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson ES-335 or Les Paul, but in the hands of Muddy Waters this simple, two-pickup, bolt-neck guitar with alder body finished in candy apple red and maple neck with slab rosewood fingerboard epitomized the raw, wiry, and emotive voice of this artist’s trenchant, moving music. (Note that another blues originator, Albert Collins, also played a Telecaster, and Mike Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck all played Telecasters or Esquires at various times in their careers.) The real magic in the Tele sound occurs at the bridge pickup, where a fat but bright sounding singlecoil pickup is suspended in a thin, stamped-steel bridge plate to which (in the vintage models) three two-string saddles are mounted. This entire bridge assembly becomes a resonating, honking, microphonic tone machine¬—for better or worse—which gives the Tele a blend of sizzle, twang, and strident highs that really aren’t achieved by any other type of electric guitar. This is the definitive country lead guitar sound, but played aggressively with the raw, unique stylings of a master such as Muddy Waters, it also yields an unforgettable blues tone.
Waters played through a range of amplifiers early on, but from the mid ’60s he most often blasted his mojo to the masses through a Fender Super Reverb combo. This 40-watt tube amp uses two 6L6GC output tubes in fixed bias, and carries a large output transformer to present a bold, punchy tone to its four 10” speakers. Crank one up, with all knobs on “9” as Muddy liked to play his, and inject a hot, spanking Telecaster, and you’ve got a gnarly, eviscerating blues tone that will cut through any mix.
Of course there’s more to the Muddy tone than just the guitar-amp combination. Waters had an unusual playing style that has become a benchmark for a particular genre of electric blues. He picked the bass notes on the lower three strings with a thumb pick, while strumming upwards with bare fingers on the three treble strings for his melody and lead lines, which he frequently executed with a small steel pinky slide. Waters strung his Tele with heavy .012-.056 gauge strings, but often played in open G tuning, which—because it involves dropping the low E to D, the A to G, and the high E to D—takes a little of the tension off the strings, compared to standard tuning.
To hear the best of Muddy Waters’ fluid yet frenetic electric style, seek out live recordings of his great tunes such as “Mannish Boy,” “Rollin’ And Tumblin,’” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Rock Me,” and “Got My Mojo Workin’.” Using the simplest of ingredients, this master produced a tone that was entirely his own.