We’re running a masterclass on getting awesome electric guitar tones this weekend, so I thought I’d share some of the secrets I’ll be sharing with you a little early!

Most of the time, if I’m going for a particular guitar tone, I’m after one of three “types” of tones:

  1. A bright, chime-y clean tone
  2. A heavy, high-gain distorted tone
  3. A warm, blues-y soloing or rock riffing tone

Even if I’m going for a variation on these three tones, these are the three “tone types” I would either use for reference or as a starting point.

The easiest (but least educational) secret is simple – buy the right amp for the job and dial in the recommended settings.

But don’t worry – I’m well aware you probably don’t have a spare $15k lying around to buy yourself one of each amp to get these three tones.

So instead, I’ll show you some basic tips, tricks, settings and amps to emulate, whether you’re using a 10W practice amp at home, an amp simulator or a full-blown 100W tube amp!

If you need some help on the fundamentals of tone chasing, check out this article first.

Mark Knopfler is a master of the clean strat sound.


Clean Guitar Tone

Best Guitar for the job: Fender Start (super bright) or any Alder body guitar

Best Pickup for the job: Single-coil, most commonly the bridge

Best Amp for the job: Fender Twin Reverb

Best Pedals for the job: Delay, maybe with a chorus

Best Genres for it: Basically anything that you don’t want distortion for! Can sometimes be swapped for an acoustic guitar.

Bright, chime-y clean tones are great for giving your playing lots of clarity.

Go easy on the gain, because any distortion will lead to too much harsh high frequency distortion, but be sure to give it enough that it sounds nice and full.

You’re going to want to turn up your high frequencies to make sure the attack (the sound of the pick hitting the strings) comes through, but if it’s painful on your ears, don’t be afraid to dial it back – especially if you are using a Fender Twin Reverb or any other amp designed for this type of tone.

My big secret to this one is: don’t neglect the mids. Some people like to turn down the middle frequencies to give it a super bright sound, but you’ll lose the body of the guitar. Keep the mids at at least 12 o’clock on your amp unless it’s sounding way too muddy!

Clean Tone Troubleshooting

If your playing sounds a bit flat and sterile, use a delay pedal (or a delay on your amp) to give yourself a bigger sound. You can pair this with a chorus, but don’t go overboard here.

You can also try a different pickup, as it will make a very noticeable difference to the overall tone you’ll get here.

If your playing sounds too boomy, you can pretty much ditch all the low frequencies. Again, switching pickups may help in this regard.

Finally, if your playing is sounding too harsh, dial back the gain, dial back the highs and if your amp has a presence knob, experiment with its position (75% of the time, I’d turn it anti-clockwise, but it does depend on the amp a bit).

Michael Keene (The Faceless) has a great, understated high-gain tone that’s not as high-gain as it seems.

High Gain Distorted Guitar Tone

Best Guitar for the job: Les Paul – the heavier and denser the better!

Best Pickup for the job: Humbuckers, most commonly on the bridge.

Best Amp for the job: ENGL Powerball, Mesa Boogie Mk IV or Dual Rectifier.

Best Pedals for the job: For me personally, nothing. But many guitarists get a lot of success out of Tube Screamers or other boost pedals, NS-2 Noise Gates and maybe an EQ if you’re having trouble getting a nice balance.

Best Genres for it: Metal and hard rock.

High-gain tones are perfect for getting a big, heavy guitar tone, but they can be pretty tricky to master.

Despite the name, don’t turn up the gain any higher than you need to. By that, I mean start with a tone that is breaking up a bit, get that sounding good first, and THEN slowly increase the gain until you get a level of distortion you’re happy with.

In recordings, it’s common to scoop the mids by leaving out a lot of midrange, but remember that many high gain amps already do this by default, so don’t go overboard here either.

EQ is not going to help you too much with distortion, but you can use it to cut out any frequencies that are causing trouble (I usually get rid of all the very low frequencies, from about 120hz down, which on an ENGL is the Depth Punch knob – I just turn it to 0) as they aren’t very musical and are hard to control. Similarly, if you’re finding the tone a bit too bite-y or too muffled, you can try little adjustments to the higher frequencies.

My big secret for distorted tones is to use less of everything than you think you need. Instead of turning a knob by two levels, turn it by 1.

Watch out for ear fatigue too – otherwise you’ll keep turning up the high frequencies and gain the longer you play and will end up with a very harsh tone.

High Gain Tone Troubleshooting

If you want more ‘balls’ to your guitar tone, first try turning up the mids a little. If that doesn’t work, reset the mids and try a bit more highs. If that doesn’t work, reset the highs and turn up the gain a little. Keep repeating until you get to the right level of heaviness. Remember to use a hum bucking pickup, not a single coil pickup, as that will make a big difference in this regard.

If you can’t hear any note definition, try a different pickup or turn back the gain. If you’re still not hearing any note definition, chances are you’ve gone overboard on the EQ. Reset it to 0 and try again!

Finally, if your playing is sounding too harsh, dial back the gain, dial back the highs and if your amp has a presence knob, experiment with its position (75% of the time, I’d turn it anti-clockwise, but it does depend on the amp a bit).

Slash has a very distinct, warm lead tone that’s instantly recognizable.

Warm, Bluesy Guitar Tone

Best Guitar for the job: Les Paul, Telecaster or even a semi-hollow body.

Best Pickup for the job: Usually humbuckers, most commonly on the neck.

Best Amp for the job: Vox AC30, Marshall JCM800

Best Pedals for the job: Chorus, delay, fuzz, drive, wah…you’ve got plenty of options for this one.

Best Genres for it: Blues, rock, lead guitar.

There’s a lot of room for experimentation in getting the ultimate warm, bluesy guitar tone, and it will depend a lot on the gear and your playing style.

That said, there are some fundamentals which, whilst aren’t exactly rules, they should get you going on the right track.

First, you’ll need a decent amount of gain, but it shouldn’t sound too harsh, so if your amp has the option, go for the less intense gain function (e.g. go with ‘Crunch’ rather than ‘Distortion’). You can get some of this from pedals, such as a fuzz or drive pedal.

Next, I’d almost always go with the neck pickup, if you’ve got a humbucker in the neck. If not, let your ears be the judge! If you’d like, experiment with rolling back the tone knob to see if the added warmth (technically, the reduced high frequencies) is something you want.

This tone is all about mids, so feel free to crank the mids to maximum, maybe even dropping off all the lows and highs if you like that sound.

My big secret for this tone is not so much an actual tone trick, but more a listening trick. Play licks with this tone. Play with feeling. If the feeling you’re going for is coming out of the amp, you’re onto a winning tone! It’s much more feel dependant than the other tones, so be sure to play like you mean it.

Bluesy Tone Troubleshooting

If you want a thicker, louder tone, turn up the mids or the gain. If that’s getting too intense sounding, the best option is to use a fuzz or distortion pedal instead. They’ll both effectively ‘compress’ the sound to make it thicker and louder.

If your tone is sounding a bit too plain, try adding some chorus and delay. For this tone, it’s ok to go overboard, but make sure you can still hear the actual notes you’re playing!

Finally, if it sounds pretty much correct but just doesn’t have the right feel, it could be because you’re not using the correct techniques to get the sound you can hear in your head. For example, you may need to use more slides, more hammer-ons and pull-offs or more bends. The gear only gives one part of the tone equation.

What about x tone from x song?

Looking for a tone from a specific recording can be a great goal, but don’t go for exact emulation, because:

  1. A recorded tone is very different to a live tone
  2. Recorded tones have the advantage of being perfectly suited to the rest of the band they are mixed with. Your tone you’re hearing on its own, in isolation!
  3. You’re not the guitarist in the recording. You’re your own guitarist, and have to expect your tone will be slightly different from others.

One more secret – experiment, experiment and learn from other people’s experiments!

Any chance you get to try a different bit of gear, try getting the best tone it can create.

I’ve learnt a LOT more from using bad amps than I have from using good ones. Good amps are easy – set the default setting, play, and make minor adjustments.

Making a 10W practice amp sound good? THAT requires some much more serious tone knowledge!

So, experiment in your lessons, go ask your local music shop to show off some of their gear, hire gear from rehearsal studios or mates and dial in those tones!