Guitarist help: I want a twangy/jazzy sound!

Hello all,

I’m a long-time saxophone player, but I used to noodle around with a guitar when I was in high school, and even took lessons a long time back. I actually owned a Fender Strat at one time, but I was never good enough to “deserve” such a nice instrument. I eventually sold it to a roommate because it was so frustrating. I had a tiny Squier practice amp, and I think that led to my frustration because I could never get the guitar sounds I wanted, and thus I could never sound like the guitarists I admired and play the musical styles I loved. I never sounded like more than a kid with a too-good guitar and a crummy amp.

So let’s say today I’m going to buy a guitar, an amp, and maybe a pedal… nothing too fancy, preferably nothing too expensive. What would you recommend I get to be able to play rockabilly, surf music, jazz, swing, “lounge music,” stuff that sounds like spy movie or spaghetti western soundtrack music? Needless to say, I like that twangy reverby sound, and also a nice clean tone for jazz. I’m not too interested in “hard” or “fuzzy” effects, although it might be nice to have the option. I know Brian Setzer, one of my musical heroes, plays hollow-body Gretsch guitars, and Dick Dale, the king of the reverb-drenched surf guitar, plays Fender Strats. Does the guitar really matter that much, or is it all in the amp and the effects pedals?

I would be so appreciative of any advice. Keep in mind I’d love to get tones like the twang on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” the sexy noir sound of Portishead, or any self-respecting surf/rockabilly/“garage rock” player. And how much would all this stuff set me back?

No single guitar can do everything well that you want it to do. For example, a Gibson ES175 works well for warm, round, humbucker jazz-tones, but sucks for twangy surf-music, while a Stratocaster works great for surf music but not, generally speaking, for jazz.

Be that as it may, I think a Telecaster is probably the most versatile guitar, all-in-all: it does the twangy, edgy, single-coil thing well, and its neck-pickup offers a more rounded tone than does a Stratocaster. In particular, the '72 Telecaster Custom Reissue has a humbucker-pickup in the neck-position and a single-coil pickup in the bridge-position, offering an even wider variety of tones. Musician’s Friend sells them for $699.99. A good, versatile, and inexpensive amplifier is the Fender Blues Jr. It comes with reverb, which you definitely want for surf-music and rockabilly. You might also consider a chorus pedal or, for more money, a multi-effects unit.

Only the Variax can be every guitar you want. Check out the Pod, and the multi-style amps and GuitarPort where you can learn online from real guitarists. Very cool stuff.

Yes the guitar does matter, though some are more versatile than others.

Dunno about chorus, not really apropriate for the styles mentioned but for rockabilly how about a delay pedal for slapback echo.

A Tele is a good suggestion try a thinline model too it’s partially hollow-bodied and may work better for jazz.

No idea what it sounds like but the variax looks blowfull - ugh.

Actually a lot of what defines a guitar is what it feels like and a Tele [ducks]doesn’t feel like a jazz guitar[/ducks] one of the PRS semi-accoustic models would probably do the trick - though it sort of doesn’t fit the not-too-expensive criteria.

BBVLou - first of all: You have wonderful musical taste, in terms of loving Brian Setzer and all the styles of music you mention.

Second of all: In terms of my credentials - play in a working band, have played 25 years, mostly rock, blues and a little jazz, and have owned most varieties of guitar worthy of consideration for this discussion. And beaten them to shit - I am a physical player who demands a lot from the instrument. In other words, I am not big on gorgeous guitars, I want a workingman’s guitar that takes a beating and sounds great.

Some basic thoughts:

  1. The guitar matters a ton. Yes, you can take a crappy-to-decent guitar and have it sound excellent through a great amp, but you can NOT take a great guitar and have it sound excellent through a crappy amp, so amps are crucial, but your style and tone all begin with guitar. It is what you are touching and your hands and fingers are the majority of what defines your “sound”.

  2. Small Clanger has a point - different guitars have a different feel - either through basic layout and feel, or just by reputation, certain guitars immediately feel suited to certain types of music, although exceptions abound, so you can’t let this limit you. I have never heard of a Variax, but it sounds scary - keep it simple and stick with the basics. Don’t expect a guitar to be everything - they can’t.

  3. You mention a few different types of music - “rockabilly, surf music, jazz, swing, “lounge music,” stuff that sounds like spy movie or spaghetti western soundtrack music” - all of these styles are defined by a clean tone - it may have reverb, it may have some twang, but you aren’t a Les Paul-and-a-Marshall Stack guy - that narrows the options considerably.

  4. The two main choices, to my mind, are either a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins (the one Setzer uses and now has his version of; or, as rmbnxs suggests, a Telecaster - here’s why:

Gretsch - rockabilly twang, used by Duane Eddy, Setzer and George Harrison (yeah, he used a Country Gentleman, but it was still a Gretsch hollowbody). Typically not used for jazz - don’t know of any jazz player who does use one…

Tele - also great for rockabilly, the essential guitar for country twang - although not the same as a Strat, can get very close for surf style. Also, used by some jazz musicians - I think they roll off the tone control or something - as well as rock/fusion giants like Danny Gattan and Roy Buchanan, who are playing very jazzy stuff. James Calvin Wilsey (or something close to that name) was Chris Isaak’s guitarist for Wicked Game and he is a Strat man - but again, a Tele can do great justice to that tone.

Based on that quickee analysis, I would agree with the Tele as the way to go. Now, a few more thoughts:

  1. for brightness, the tele should have a maple neck - the rosewood necks tend to be a little mellower in tone, but it is all a matter of degrees. The tones you seem to want are bright.

  2. you do NOT want a thinline, or deluxe semi-hollow tele - leads to a woodier, mellower tone, completely wrong for surf and spaghetti western tones. They are great guitars, just not right for what you are describing.

  3. You might consider a Nashville Tele - they are Teles made by Fender to be like the ones customized by Nashville session players. Here is the Nashville Tele Deluxe, and here is the Nashville Power Tele - I didn’t look close to understand the differences, but you get the idea. What is key about these guitars is that they sounds like Teles - yay! - but by also having the middle pickup, you can choose pickup combinations like bridge/middle or middle/neck, like a Strat, which enables the all-important Out of Phase tone - Knopfler lives on that tone - which is critical for some rockabilly, twangy, Chris Isaak-type songs…

  4. You MUST get a tube amp that has reverb and potentially Vibrato or Tremolo (although there are specific musical definitions of the terms, amp makers don’t use them correctly - what you want is something that, in addition to reverb, pulses the sound for some surf and spaghetti tones). You should assume you want a Fender amp, since they provide the signature tone you seem to want - there are other boutique makers (Alessandro, Top Hat, Mesa/Boogie, Budda, to name a very few) that make amazing amps that build on the Fender design, but they are hella pricey…

  5. Use as few effects, other than the ones mentioned above on the amp, as possible. The tones you want depend on a clear, crisp clean tone - the more crap like chorus (yuck), flangers and other hooey like that between your guitar and the amp dirties up your signal and kills your tone. Avoid them like the plague - as a rule, most players use them to cover up inadequecies in their technique anyway…

I am sure there is more, but this should get you started…

Hope it helps.

Thank you all, this is fantastic advice and I’ll take it all to heart. I’m not springing for the guitar and amp until next year at the earliest, but a Telecaster is sounding good to me. It’ll be empowering to walk into Guitar Center with actual information, because I usually feel out of place in there (and the in-your-face sales staff doesn’t help).

About the Telecasters, though, how versatile are they? WordMan, you seemed to nail exactly what I was talking about with the “bright tones” and the twang I want, but would I still be able to play Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” or White Stripes or Weezer songs in a garage band with a Tele? Would that guitar lend itself to playing clean ska upstrokes? I know that’s not what I discussed earlier, but it would be nice to have those options as well. Is that where amps or pedals come in more?

What about Stratocasters? I’m considering a purchase in the near future as well and I’m curious what you all think. I’m fairly certain that the Strat will be the guitar for me considering its versatility. But there’s a tremendous variety of Strats to choose from.

Is there that much of a difference some of the higher end Strats and the low end? I’m not planning on buying a $4000 Dick Dale Strat or anything but I’m curious if there really is that much of a difference in sound and performance if you’re just paying for a name or a specific production technique. What about between a $600 or $700 Strat and a $350 or $400 model? What about the various production locations of the guitar? Does it matter if the Strat is made in Mexico or anywhere else? I saw one version that had a humbucker at the bridge. What kind of sound does that accomplish and/or why’d someone go for that?

Again, I’m interested in versatility for now and want a solid guitar I can get a variety of sounds out of. Things from a garage sound to pop to jazzy. I know a lot may have to do with amps and pedals as Lou infers but I’d love to know more about the variations so I can make a more informed purchase. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

I hadn’t seen this thread in a bit, so I didn’t realize there were follow up questions. Let me give it a shot and others can chime in…

BBVLou -

  • When in doubt, follow this rule: A guitar with a brighter tone can be made to sound fatter a lot easier than a guitar with a fatter tone can be made to sound bright. Or, put it another way, you can make a Tele sound like a Les Paul a lot easier than you can make a Les Paul sound like a Tele. Heck, just roll off the tone control for a start. And you know Led Zep’s album, the one that made a Les Paul and Marshall stack famous? Yup, recorded by Mr. Page on a Tele and a small Fender tube amp. He used the LP & M combo for touring because of the sheer volume needed. So, yeah, you can easily get an Iggy/White Stripes punky tone out of a Tele.

  • And as for clean ska upstrokes - that is a Tele’s middle name. For reggae, I normally think of Bob Marley’s Les Paul Special (they make a reissue you can check out on Gibson’t site) but LP Specials come with P-90’s, not humbuckers - a single coil pickup that is rude (I love my LPSpecial) and is more like a Tele than a LP in tone anyway. And that Nashville Tele, with the ability to do out of phase tones like a Strat, should provide and even wider variety of clean ska tones. Definitely a great choice…

  • Again, get a well-made tube amp and stay away from effects pedals. The only pedals I use are a graphic EQ (which I don’t even use to modify the tone - I leave those controls alone; I use it to get a clean volume boost when I am playing a clean lead) and a quality fuzz box (which can go a long way to beefing up your sound and getting a Tele or any single coil p’up to sound like a Gibson humbucking pickup. Opinions vary, but I swear by my Rat Vintage pedal - I have a 25 year old one and I just got a new one to fill in for it. In researching it, I just found out that Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Radiohead are big fans of the pedal…)

Hope this helps.

UncleMarcellus -

Strats rock - I am a Strat man myself. Some thoughts:

  1. Asian Strats - recently made in Indonesia and now in China - are the cheapest and are incredibly inconsistent - I’d stay away from them, especially the Chinese ones…

  2. Mexi-Strats - can be great - biggest issue is inconsistency. You really need to try a bunch out - or have someone who knows guitars well to check them out. Also, as a rule, Mexi-Strats have thinner frets than American made Strats; shouldn’t be a big deal for a beginner, but when I play leads, I like a medium or so fret to get up underneath for bends. Also, Mexi-Strats typically come with single coil pickups - great for tone, but single coils are noisy. US Strats often have “Vintage Noiseless” or other hum-cancelling p’ups. Since many people don’t like VNoiseless - they call them Vintage Toneless - that isn’t a bad thing. Just replace whatever pickups you get with aftermarket - I did with Bill Lawrence L280S’ and the freakin’ rock.

  3. US Strats are more expensive, of which about 50% of the added cost is parts and more consistent quality, and about 50% is the US Fender “mystique”. You can beat this, if you are open to risk, by buying either a used US Fender at your local store (a great idea) or over eBay (you really should know guitars well and know what to ask).

  4. A Fender with a humbucking two-coil pickup in the bridge is called a “Fat Strat”. It is for when you want to play harder rock or even metal. It’s output is much higher than the two single coils, so you have an appreciable volume boost when you select that pickup - can be a pain, or no big deal, depending. I play harder rock and find my single coil (Lawrence) pickup does great, but YMMV.

  5. Strats come with a whammy bar/tremolo stock. If you want to use it - great. Know that they make the guitar much harder to tune and you do sacrifice some tone because the strings aren’t anchored solidly to the body at the bridge end. My solution, since I am not a whammy bar guy, is I got mine blocked - you have them wedge a piece of something into the trem so it locks against the body. Clapton and others do this - it is very common.

My suggestion? Try out a bunch of Strats - preferably with someone who knows guitars and learn how the various kinds feel and sound. Try out rosewood vs. maple necks, different pickup types - and try them through a good Fender tube amp, to stay as consistent as possible. Then, when you have a feel, start trying out used US Fenders and a bunch of Mexi-Strats. One of them will speak to you and you are set.

Best of luck…

Thank you so much, once again!

And UncleMarsellus, welcome to the Straight Dope! :slight_smile:

Telecaster is the obvious choice here and probably the best one. IMO, you only need two guitars: A tele and a 335.

Thank you, Wordman! I was definitely going to be playing everything before buying but I feel much more ready to take on the dreaded music store staff! Thanks again!

Kid - glad you agree with the Tele recommendation. I argue that there are four major Rock Guitar Food Groups - the Les Paul group (with Paul Reed Smiths, Explorers, V’s, etc.) the Strat Group, the Tele Group and the 335 group.

  • Of these, I think the LP is least critical - you can get the tone from a 335 or an overdriven Strat or Tele, and the things weigh a ton!

  • I love my Strat - its versatility, playability and look IS rock to me.

  • I am getting a deeper appreciation for Teles every day. As Keith Richards said “it’s amazing how right Leo Fender got it the first time”

  • I have a Lawsuit Ibanez 335, and sold my 1984 Custom Shop Gibson. My Ibanez rocks and gives me a deeper appreciation for the 335 group - I just wish I could play jazzier stuff like off Steeley Dan CD’s

I am finding that I want to add a new group, because it is distinct and worthy - the Les Paul Junior/Special group - anything with P90 pickups. They are so rock and roll - they are basically planks with ancient pickups screwed on them. You can and should beat the crap out of them and they howl with midrange and bite. I just got my LP Special double cutaway and it rocks and is really different that my Strat and 335…

Now I gotta buy the right Tele…

I’m with you on the “food groups.” Had I not been called for dinner I would have spent the time agreeing with your analysis on the telecaster as well, particularly the part about the maple neck and the solid body. For some reason, I’ve never liked the sound of a Strat unless played in the hands of SRV or Hendrix. When I hear Robert Cray play a clean lead in the fourth switch position I just cringe. Can’t stand those beepy tones. I really only dislike Strats when played clean but I play clean with no reverb pretty often. Hate reverb.

Whoops meant to say something to the guitar buyers out there. Try and keep as “controlled” an experiment as possible. To a relatively untrained ear, the guitar that’s being played with the loudest will sound the best. Keep your volume levels, amps, and effects as constant as possible and change one variable at a time.

You and I lean in the same direction, Kid. While I respect Cray as a Bluesman, in general, the out of phase positions on a Strat (positions 2 and 4) - especially when used with chorus - sound cliche beyond cliche. Even Mark Knopfler has trouble making them sound distinct and interesting, and he practically invented that tone. (note to new or non-players - positions 2 and 4 on a Strat puts two pickups out of phase with one another, leading to a unique tone, often called “quacky” or “notchy” because the out of phase wiring cancels certain frequencies, so you end up with a thinner, quackier tone - Knopfler on Brothers in Arms and Sultans of Swing used this tone quite a bit. Used sparingly during leads, it can be effective - Hendrix was a master - but used too much and it can be like the penny whistle from the Titanic song - sounded good and emotional the first time, but gets incredibly tired sounding with a few listenings…).

I also agree with using reverb - I don’t. Again, the fewer effects the better - a dryer sound (less reverb, chorus, flange or echo - all of which are part of the same Time Delay Effect Group) makes you stay honest with your technique and leads to a more distinctive tone, since you aren’t using Time Delay to even out your sound…

And regarding the “controlled experiment” - I agree. When you go to a music store, BBVLou and UncleMarcellus, find a good tube Fender or other tube amp and try every guitar out on the same amp. That way you can hold that variable constant when checking out the guitars…

Oh, and before I cause confusion, I don’t think there is a contradiction between what I said in my first post - about how a Nashville Tele is great because it’s middle pickup enables those out of phase tones, and then saying I find those tones tiring at times. The key point is “at times” - when used for some funk rhythms, or when doing '80’s New Wave rhythms, some ska and a bunch of other things, the out of phase tones are wonderful - I can’t imagine not having them available. It’s just when they are used exclusively for lead work with chorus that I cringe…

Oh yea, gotta add him to those few who can bring out the best of a Strat’s unique sound. I also wanna give props to Jon Frusciante in that regard. Some may say he just rips off Hendrix; I say I like listening to his music.