One of the things that stand out to me from being one of the younger guys in a given situation is that I always hear those old music veterans talk about how great things were back in the “good old days.” No internet, stuffed-crust pizza or Adriana Lima? I’ll pass, but I do have to hand it to the “old days” in one regard – their signature tones truly rock, even to this day. Yes, there are fewer sounds as familiar in the world of rock as the sound of a Marshall Bluesbreaker amp, a Les Paul guitar with a set of P-90 pickups or that Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face pedal made famous by one Jimi Hendrix. Although there are plenty of staples out there readily available, I still find myself bumping in to the occasional younger player who claims to be searching for that famous vintage sound but for some reason is buying a digital delay pedal and looking at solid state amps. Sure, some digital pedals out there can mimic analog pretty good and with the use of amp modeling software, you can recreate the sound of most famous amplifiers, but all that will cost you more cash and effort than simply looking for the real deal instead of things that are merely trying to emulate it.
But when it comes to getting that vintage sound, it’s not all simply about buying a whole lot of vintage equipment , a bottle of aged wine and dressing up like your favorite Beatle (although, that is an idea). Yes, the equipment is a big part of it, but as any professional can tell you, there’s a whole lot more than just gear that goes into one’s signature tone. While there are far too many different routes one can take to get a vintage tone (because there are PLENTY of varied vintage tones), read on for a few helpful guidelines on what to look for, what to avoid and a few tips that can get you that much closer to your own signature vintage tone. And as always, you can take a look at our artist gear section for tons of info on what your favorite players use for their own signature sound.
Guitars and Pickups
As with anything else involving gear, a good way to know what kind of end result in sound you are looking for is by working off of your favorite guitar player and go from there. Once you have one in mind, you can slightly build around it and modify until you have a vintage sound that is uniquely your own. Sure, you can try to recreate your player’s sound exactly, but that’s more or less impossible so I’d suggest going the other route. What kind of guitar do they tend to play? What about the pickups? Although most players don’t stick to simply one type, there is a very good chance that your favorite player had a certain main axe for most of their songs since different body types will yield much different tones. Clapton preferred solid bodies such as the Stratocaster or a Les Paul, John Lennon made the Epiphone Casino hollow body signature to the Beatles and there is simply no way Jimi Hendrix can be pictured without his cream white ‘Woodstock’ Strat (Stratocasters are a very popular choice if you can’t already tell). In case you’re not sure what kind of guitar was used by your favorite guitarist, you can head over to our artist profile section for individual information on their gear.
Alright, now that you have the right guitar type in mind, we can go on to the finer details of what sets apart those old vintage and reissue guitars from their modern standard variants. While purchasing an actual vintage model guitar will be best (and most expensive probably), there are plenty of reissued models for many of rock’s most famous guitars such as the Gibson Les Paul or Fender’s Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars that do a pretty good job at staying faithful to the originals. You can also use a regular model guitar but you will have to do a few more things in order to compensate for the differences between the modern and vintage models, but nothing that huge namely, getting different pickups and strings.
If any of you out there had ever had a chance to take a look at a vintage model Telecaster or Stratocaster, you might have noticed that the poles of the pickups directly below the B and high E strings are far lower than they would be on a normal model. The reason for this is because when thicker string gauges are used (.11+), the B and E strings would become far too dominant if all the pole pieces were leveled out the same. Also, Telecasters back then came with fretboards having a radius of 7.5 inches (very round) so the pickups shipped with them had to be staggered accordingly for string balance. I know what you’re thinking; pickups today also come staggered, what made these add to that vintage sound? The thicker strings mentioned were far more prevalent back then than they are today, which is why the pickups where shipped with thicker strings in mind, unlike most of today’s guitar’s which more or less conform to a more light to medium gauge (depending on the manufacturer of course). And seeing as how they were more common back then than today, you’d be correct if you guessed these strings added to the tone. This means that even if you buy vintage styled pickups, you will not get that signature vintage tone unless you get the correct gauge strings. Trust me, once you get those thicker strings in there (.11+ for me), you’ll love that thick, ballsy tone with plenty of that old school feel. Not only that, they stay in tune much better too. But don’t forget, if you are moving to a thicker set of strings, you will need to adjust the truss rod on your guitar’s neck to avoid warping and neck bending. It's not too difficult but if you are unfamiliar with the procedure, it's best you let a pro fix that up for you since excessive tightening can break the entire neck. Not hard, but messing up will break you guitar.
Alright, this is far more straight-forward than selecting the right guitar since there are far less variations between vintage amps than there are between vintage electric guitars. First of all, all amps prior to the introduction of the solid state amplifier during the ‘70s used valves. These valve amplifiers – also known as tube amplifiers – contribute a lot to a player’s tone, so much so that there are innumerable guitarists out there who still swear by the warm, natural sound of valve. The reason for this is because much of the gain and distortion coloration is directly contributed by the valves on these amps, giving them a warm, colorful and far more natural sound than your standard solid state. Simply put, if you want an amplifier with a true vintage sound, get yourself a valve amplifier. Although a valve amplifier will run you a bit more than your entry level solid state, they are definitely worth it if that vintage sound is what you are after. Depending on the certain guitarist’s tone that you are looking for, you might want to check out a few of their favorite amps until you start seeing the pattern in their equipment choice. Again, you can take a look at our artist gear page for what type of amps they used. Check out some early Fender amps such as the Twin Reverb or the Bassman for some popular choices, or you can simply get a Marshall with Celestion Greenbacks (another very popular vintage choice).
Remember, back during the days of Cream, Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles there was no digital. Every effect had to be done manually through in studio manipulation and trickery. Echoes, delays, reverb and flange all had to be done in their own meticulous way. Nowadays, all of that is as easy as stomping an effects pedal or adding a plug-in on a certain music software. Although I’m not going as far as to suggest that you try getting those vintage sounds through similar means, there are plenty of effects pedals out there that remain true to their analog roots. It doesn’t take much time to find out either, and since there are far too many different effects out there, rather than simply giving off a list of good vintage sounding pedals, it is a good rule of thumb is to simply stay away from anything digital based. Also, remember the sound that you are going for and the type of effects prevalent in that genre. Distortion, fuzz and overdrive and absolutely a must for any kind if ‘60s rock and if you are into those screaming solos by the likes of Clapton, a Dunlop Crybaby Wah is your best bet.
Essentially, the best way to start looking for that signature vintage tone is by studying the gear used by your favorite old-school players along with avoiding anything that sounds too modern, such as solid state amps and digital effects. Also, think about what the player had to work with back in their time, the prevalent characteristics in their genre as well as certain effects or tricks synonymous with their sound, such as Clapton and his famous “woman tone” setting on his Marshall Bluesbreaker amp. And don’t forget that it’s never a bad idea to add a little bit of your own style in there as well, because the only thing better than a great vintage tone is an original one!