In the world of music making, what’s old is always new. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that vintage tones are once again in vogue. Turn on the radio or TV and there’s Dan Auerbach’s fat fuzztone, Marc Ribot’s wicked trash-can vibe, JEFF the Brotherhood’s alt-rock hypnotics and on the list goes.
Here are 10 things to consider if you’re interested in shaking up your own guitar sound by tapping into the past:
• Strings: There are plenty of great strings available to guitarists, with amazing formulations designed to give them more brilliance, a longer life and other positive attributes. But if you’re looking for old-school sounds and approaches, forget about the fancy stuff. Buy cheap strings in a heavy gauge — at least .11s — or maybe try sets with round wound G-strings. Nobody was playing sweep arpeggios when Chuck Berry was cutting “Maybelline,” you dig? Fat, dead sounding strings will make you play differently — slower — and alter your sound just enough to alter your thinking as well. Or take a tip from blues great Jimmy Vaughan, who strings his axes with flat wounds, reasoning that until the mid-’60s those were the most popular commercially available guitar strings. Vaughan says flat wounds help him dial in his awesome vintage tones.
• Picking: Toss that plectrum and start old schooling with your fingers, like everybody from Pete Townshend to Lightnin’ Hopkins used to do. Finger picking will warm up your sound and dampen your attack. The bonus is that finger picking also provides more control over dynamics and, with practice, allows for dexterous moves a pick can’t negotiate. Also try playing with thicker picks or, if you’re looking for a particular sound for a song or two, picks made of felt or other soft-attack material. For recording, a guitar with the tone pots rolled back and played with a felt pick can produce a tone straight from a funky Louisiana basement studio in the early ’50s.
• Amps: Go with low gain settings and amps. Before the late ’60s, amplifiers did not have gain controls, so distortion had to be produced by turning amps up loud. Laying off the gain produces warmer tones, with rich low-mids and other desirable qualities. Rolling back the amp’s crunch and getting overdriven distortion via a pedal preserves natural harmonics, too. For a truly classic example of the latter check out James Gurley’s playing with Big Brother & the Holding Company, where he developed the tone of San Francisco’s Summer of Love.
• Pedals: A selection of classic stomp boxes will greatly increase your tonal arsenal and, when it comes to distortion, keep your amp at harmonically rich for the reasons above. Here’s another way of looking at the equation: Dan Auerbach + Big Muff = fuzztone bismillah.
• Tone: Use your tone pots. They may be the most underutilized element in the electric guitar’s construction. Roll back the pots and roll back the years to get into the Chuck Berry or T-Bone Walker zone (or, skipping a few decades ahead, David Gilmour), and keep things bright to approximate the snappy sound of Lightnin’ Hopkins or Freddie King. Listen to the variety of guitar sounds on Jimi Hendrix’s records. He was an expert at getting everything tone pots offer.
• Miking: Until the ’60s it was common to record an entire band on one, two or three microphones with all instruments and a vocalist performing at once. So it you want to go old school, feel free to experiment, especially with ambient placement. And to get really cool sounds, mike quality is often over-rated. Old crystal mikes like traditional cab dispatchers’ talkies can be had cheaply and have an awesome way of blunting and sharpening sounds. Green bullets, the typical harmonica mikes of choice, can also yield gnarly guitar recordings.
• Acoustic Instruments: If you normally play plugged, unplug. You’ve likely noticed there’s an acoustic renaissance going on, even in pop music, with bands like Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers leading the pack. Don’t be left behind.
• Arrangements: Think about allowing more space in your arrangements and paring down the amount of notes you play. Two great examples of this are the Black Keys recordings and the high profile production work of T-Bone Burnett. The Keys keep their melody lines simple and bold, and that really pleases listeners. Starting with his 2006 solo album The True False Identity, Burnett has been pursuing warm low sounds as the dominant instrumental voices in his recordings — to the extent that on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s mega-selling Raising Sand, he asked the drummers to remove cymbals from their kits.
• Guitars: We’ve already talked about tone pots, but when it comes to instrument selection, seriously consider playing semi-hollow and hollow body guitars to get old school tones. The cavities in their design cut down on sustain and enhance natural acoustic qualities. Besides, every guitar played on an album pre-1950 was a hollowbody.
• Reverb and Tremolo. Before stomp boxes were marketed there were only two easily available effects – tremolo and reverb, and both came built into amplifiers. If you really want to go old school, consider a non-master volume amp with tremolo and reverb and just plug straight in. For an extreme example of this sound – remember, when recording extreme is often very good — check out the Smiths’ 1984 hit “How Soon Is Now,” where guitarist Johnny Marr employed four amps with tremolo to create the distinctive-yet-classic rhythm guitar tracks.