Have you ever tried to play like one of your guitar heroes, but weren’t able to get your tone quite right? Allow us to lend a hand. Straight from the Gibson archives, “Gibson’s Classic Tone Tip” can help you sound just like some of music’s biggest stars and greatest legends. In this installment we feature the Godfather of Grunge in all his ragged glory. These pointers will help you achieve Neil Young’s famously distorted crunch – just as if you were playing “Old Black.”
Viewed from the perspective of 1972, Neil Young would have seemed an unlikely candidate to found a heavy rock movement. His roots were deep in the country rock and folk rock movements established in two seminal groups in their respective genres—Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—and with a self-titled 1968 solo debut, 1970’s After the Gold Rush, and a new album, Harvest. Of course his extended electric workouts had been foreshadowed in songs like “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” from the album that fell between them, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, a set that hinted at a more raw and unhinged breed of rock and roll than was ever touched upon by Buffalo Springfield. Not until Tonight’s the Night, however, did Young’s stinging, slightly venomous musical persona—both sonic and thematic—rise to the surface. Recorded in 1973 in the wake of the deaths from drug overdoses of both original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie/friend Bruce Berry, Tonight’s the Night was not released until 1975, having been withheld by a record label fearful of alienating the fans won by Young’s mellower, acoustic-laced outings, and indeed the album expressed a dark, visceral power that hinted at heavy things to come.
Where, however, in its unfettered expression of grief, Tonight’s the Night presented a rather desolate musical experience, Young’s watershed rock moment to end out the decade, Rust Never Sleeps, sounded a defiant, even uplifting note. Expressing the refusal of a melodic-rock icon to get stuck in a rut and inspired by the punk movement of the late 1970s, this 1979 album is where the Neil Young electric rock guitar tone really catalyzed. In turns thundering and eviscerating, with extended solo workouts that navigate between wiry and jagged—all with a cutting, uber-distorted tone—this is the sound that earned Young the honorary title “Godfather of Grunge.” Never one to stick with a formula, Young deviated from the Rust sound radically, but returned in the early days of the grunge movement proper, as if to remind us of his status, with 1990’s thumpingly, crunchingly heavy Ragged Glory, an album that manages to remain surprisingly playful amid the screaming solos and rabid riff-fests of songs like “Country Home,” “Over and Over,” “Love to Burn,” and “Love and Only Love.”
Ever since the post-Buffalo Springfield days, when Young really wants to rock, he does it on a Gibson Les Paul. Namely, one particular Les Paul known as “Old Black,” a battered, modified guitar that started life as a 1953 Goldtop with P-90 pickups, but now wears a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece, Firebird mini-humbucker in the bridge position, aluminum pickguard and neck pickup cover (still the P-90 there), and a heavily scuffed layer of matte black paint over its original gold finish. While singlecoiled P-90s are themselves no strangers to rockin’ out, the Gibson Firebird pickup that Young frequently selects for the more slicing solo expeditions has a character entirely its own.
The Firebird mini-humbucker appears outwardly like the mini-humbucker used on other Gibson guitars such as the Les Paul Deluxe, except for its solid cover. Underneath, however, critical differences are revealed. Whereas the standard, Epiphone-derived mini-humbucker is designed like a PAF-type humbucker but narrower, with a bar magnet placed beneath the two coils and in contact with the individual steel pole pieces running through them, the Firebird pickup is constructed with two alnico bar magnets, positioned one each within the two coils, in a dual-blade-styled design. Using magnetic material within the coil helps to increase a pickup’s definition and treble response; the Firebird pickup is, therefore, a little weaker than the standard PAF-style humbucker or mini-humbucker, and also a lot brighter than either. As heard in Young’s playing, it’s also a very lively pickup, with a certain amount of microphony contributing to the dimension of the sound, and also easing the way to feedback, a tool that Young exploits like few other players. (For a shortcut to Neil Young’s feedback zone, check out the 1991 release Arc, a montage of feedback segments at the beginnings and ends of songs from the Ragged Glory tour, the full songs themselves released on the live Weld album.)
A relatively simple mechanical device, the Bigsby vibrato added to Neil Young’s Les Paul (also occasionally available as a factory extra on a Les Paul) makes a very real contribution to his tone. Used to give lead lines anything from a jagged, angular irregularity to a bouncing, wobbly vibe, Young’s Bigsby also functions as a trigger into feedback, and is used to bend decaying notes to nail down the howl zone.
Of course, truly effective use of feedback is enabled by the right amp and the right amp settings. The first part of the equation is achieved by a surprisingly simple, petite piece of gear: a late-1950s tweed Fender Deluxe. This little beastie, with just two volume controls and a single, shared tone control, puts out a mere 15 watts from two 6V6GT output tubes, and carries just a single 12” speaker, but has powered Neil Young’s rock sound in stadiums and arenas around the world since he acquired it in 1967 (although the sound is fed through other, larger amps and its own monitoring system in order to be heard on large stages). A raw, hot little amp, the tweed Deluxe breaks up early, with a lot of tube-induced compression at most volume levels. Up past around 11 o’clock on the dial these amps really don’t get much louder, they just saturate more, issuing increasing levels of distortion tone. (Young’s Deluxe is reported as being rebiased to use larger 6L6 output tubes; the change wouldn’t increase its volume all that much, but would most likely fatten up the lows some and give the sound more body.)
The Deluxe’s hot, hotter, and hottest gain structure brings us to the second part of Young’s lead/feedback tone equation: the settings. In order to access the Deluxe’s varying degrees of overdrive, Young uses a custom-made amp-control switching device known simply as “the Whizzer.” Consisting of two parts, the foot controller and the mechanical automated switching device that physically turns the amps knobs, the Whizzer allows Young to stomp a footswitch on the floor to command the unit to twist the Deluxe’s volume and tone controls to any of a number of carefully determined preset positions. As such, and rather incredibly—if you’re familiar with the Neil Young overdrive sound—he uses no booster, overdrive, or distortion pedals to achieve his unhinged tone; just the little 50-year-old tweed Deluxe, and the Whizzer.
Young does, however, use a range of pedals and devices to create effects sounds in and of themselves. He relies heavily on a particular vintage Fender tube reverb unit, which is set up with a separate spring pan mounted to the top of a microphone stand that is anchored on the cement floor below the stage he is playing on (often with a hole drilled through the floor to bring springs and tube-reverb chassis close enough together!). The convoluted arrangement is undertaken in order to avoid the disruptive, wet “sproing” sound that ensues when you stomp on a stage with a lively spring reverb unit sitting on it. Young also makes use of an analog delay, an octave divider, a flanger, and a digital delay.
Neil Young’s electric guitar tone stems from relatively basic piece of equipment, although his means of achieving his desired sounds and settings are fairly complex. Short of modifying two pieces of prized vintage gear and building your own Whizzer, run a bright but powerful guitar into a simple, low-output tube amp and give it all the gusto and emotion you can muster. That, in the end, is what’s at the heart of the Neil Young guitar solo after all.