A few days ago I was watching ‘80s videos on cable - something I tend to do a lot lately - and something kinda interesting struck me. But before I get to it, let me flash forward a little bit to the ‘90s. I was a teenager in the ‘90s, which was of course the era of grunge. Mostly I hated grunge, apart from Alice In Chains of course. And maybe Soundgarden. And Pearl Jam. And …okay, I guess I liked more grunge than I let on at the time. But publicly, I hated grunge because it had made it uncool to like the kind of some of the music that I found myself gravitating towards at the time: Steve Vai, Def Leppard, Whitesnake, Joe Satriani… and suddenly ‘80s music sounded very dated. The production style for grunge was very earthy, organic and direct, whereas ‘80s rock production was all about emphasizing the hugeness and flash of the era. The spandex, the hairspray, the fluorescence. And so, just as with ‘80s fashion, ‘80s production sounded really different and almost plastic in comparison with the style of the ‘90s.
But here's the thing that struck me the other day while watching ‘80s music videos. It was while Whitesnake's Here I Go Again was playing: the guitar tones and production styles of the ‘80s sound rather current now. Fifteen years ago, Def Leppard's Hysteria sounded old. Van Halen's 5150 sounded kinda sparkly in an artificial way. And Black Sabbath's Tony Martin-era output sounded unnaturally huge with a reverberous sheen. But now, a lot of those same tricks are replicated in modern production techniques. Whereas in the ‘80s the drums were heavily compressed and smeared in digital reverb from a rack unit, now they might be replaced with triggered samples and treated with various plugins, but the effect on the dynamics is the same. And while ‘90s guitar tones were naturalistic and messy, modern tones often seem to fit perfectly in the mix, sometimes with intricate layering of tones or of multiple parts. So in some ways, if you wish to dial in a great modern rock guitar tone, you can look back to the ‘80s for a little inspiration. So with that in mind, here are a few of my favorite ‘80s-inspired guitar tone tips. These are things that have worked for me, and they might not be exactly how all the sounds on all your favorite ‘80s albums were made, but they're good ways of at least getting the same vibe.
During the ‘80s, amps with dedicated preamp distortion rose to prominence after a few decades of fuzz and treble booster pedals. But at the same time, overdrive and distortion pedals were also becoming pretty big. And some bands like Def Leppard were experimenting with recording direct via tiny little headphone amps. So, just like today, there's no one way to get a great ‘80s-inspired tone. But no matter how you approach it, make sure you've got plenty of midrange. The typical ‘80s drum sound is rather scooped in the mids, and the vocals and cymbals occupy a lot of the treble, so the midrange is where the guitar really gets to speak. To emphasize the pick attack and enhance the 'woody' tone of your guitar, boost the upper mids. For a rounded, flutey lead tone, boost the central region of the mids and reduce the treble. And for great sustain, try cascading several gain stages. In other words, use several distortion-generating devices together, each set for lower levels of distortion but adding up to a whole different, otherwise-unattainable voice.
The secret to a great ‘80s-sounding delay is to combine two different delay types: one that is timed to sync up with the tempo of the song and another that's dialed as more of a doubling or thickening device rather than as an actual delay repeat. Some delay units allow you to set up two totally separate delay types at the same time, so if you have the gear to do it, try this: one very short delay of about 40-80 milliseconds, and another synced to the tempo in quarter notes with two repeats. The short delay really thickens up the note itself while the tempo-synced repeats …well, they just sound cool!
The Shrapnel Lead Sound
Remember all those shred albums released by the great Shrapnel Records? There was a lead tone that was popular during that era which was partly based on digital distortion pedals (through clean amps) and partly on a very short delay, much like the one described above but without the second, longer delay. This adds an almost double tracked vibe, and I suspect that it was also a way of extracting more tone out of the early Floyd Rose-loaded guitars of the day, when players and guitar companies alike were still figuring out exactly what steps, if any, they needed to take to compensate for what some perceived as a slight reduction in dynamics in guitars with Floyds.
A lot of great ‘80s guitar tones benefitted from a slightly distant mic used to pick up a little bit of depth and to roll back a little bit of treble in a natural way - usually (but not always) in combination with a close mic. Traditional logic would dictate that you would try to eliminate any phase cancellation issues which might cause a weird honky, hollow tone, but some ‘80s guitarists would take this sound and run with it intentionally, and it can be really great as an effect.
And The Most Important Thing...
All of these approaches will help you to get a little closer to those ‘80s guitar tones - and give you a springboard to create modern updates which are more applicable to your own songwriting style - but perhaps the most important thing in sounding like an ‘80s player is to …play like an ‘80s player! Palm-muting, pinch harmonics, whammy bar tricks, double-stop riffs, spinning the guitar around your neck… all of these things were also crucial to what we think of as the ‘80s guitar sound. So if you want to add some ‘80s vibe to your 2013 rock tracks, spend some time studying the players who really epitomized that tone. Some of my favorites are the interplay between Phil Collen and Steve Clark on Def Leppard's Hysteria (and similarly, Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo on Queensryche's 1990 album Empire), pretty much anything by Mick Mars (who admitted that the chorusy, slapback-like sound on early Crue albums was the result of playing sloppy rather than by any particular design), and of course anything from Whitesnake's self-titled 1987 album featuring John Sykes and Adrian Vandenberg on guitar.