You hear Mark Knopfler play, and you know its him. Slash, Angus Young, the Edge, any number of others, they all have a distinctive way they play. What makes it so? Is it a specific setup of pedals and instrument? I have no idea about guitars at all, I’m just curious.
Part of it’s the make and model of guitar they choose – a Les Paul has a different sound from a Stratocaster, for example.
But, a lot is also about their amplifiers, effects pedals, and other equipment, as well. Plus, of course, their playing styles are a part of it.
For example, Brian May, of Queen, has a very distinctive, distorted style on many Queen songs – it’s probably, in large part, a function of his guitar: the custom-built “Red Special,” which May and his father built themselves, and his amp, the “Deacy,” which was built by Queen bassist John Deacon, using spare parts.
Listen to his work on “Killer Queen” (starting at 0:50 in this clip, and the solo at about 1:40) – there’s a distinctive sound, which I sometimes (lovingly) call “angry bees,” and which is May’s archetypical sound.
You mentioned The Edge – part of his signature sound is that he frequently uses a delay pedal to create a precisely-timed echo to his playing. Another factor is that he uses a particular style of pick (made by German company Herdim) which has a ridged area for better grip – he plays with the pick essentially being held backwards, with the ridged grip being the part that’s strummed against the strings, and which also adds to a distinctive sound.
I don’t know shit about guitars, really, but I’ve always been amazed at the thoroughly different sounds that different talented people can produce from them. Not just the amplified electrics, by the way. Compare Leo Kottke to Alex de Grassi:
Both incredibly talented but a different take on how to make those instruments talk.
The fact that Kottke is using a bottleneck slide and De Grassi is wearing finger picks are huge contributors to that difference. It‘s really like they are playing different instruments.
They are probably also using strings made of different materials.
A lot of what makes Knopfler’s playing distinctive is the fact that he doesn’t use a pick. He plays with bare fingers and he uses only three fingers on his right hand for the most part. That makes his playing very distinctive. He also uses a lot of “pops” or incompletely stopped notes.
Choice of effects & electronics is a factor, yeah, but the biggest variable is the player.
There are a million different combinations of picking, fingering, attack, bending, phrasing etc., which make up for unique, or signature voices on the instrument.
Tony Iommi’s signature, low-tuned, sludgy impending-doom sound was the result of an accident he suffered working in a sheet metal factory as a teenager, in which he sawed off the tips of his right ring and middle fingers. He wore a pair of prosthetic fingertips (originally homemade by melting down plastic soap bottles), and strung his guitar with banjo strings to compensate for his inability to feel the strings when fretting and subsequent habit of pressing down on them too hard.
On-point examples of acoustic guitarists.
One difference between their sounds is the influence of the “boom-chuck” style that Merle Travis and Chet Atkins made popular. It’s obvious in Leo’s case, although he’s spent all or most of his career reworking the rote patterns of that style to use his thumb with greater independece. Alex’s playing is completely different, although I remember seeing a video a few years ago of him playing in a straight-up, alternating-bass style.
The influence of classical guitar is also responsible for the distinctive sound of other acoustic guitarists, and some modern fingerstylists seem to be hell-bent on eschewing every standard technique in order to sound original. Like this kid:
Bill Nelson describes how he got the “voice” for the solo on his homage to Jimi Hendrix, Crying To The Sky
“…it was my Gibson 345, plugged into a Watkins Copycat tape echo with the input volume turned up to overdrive the Carlsbro 100 watt head and 4x12 cabinet, plus a Univibe pedal, the entire rig turned up to the max and close miked and the big room at Abbey Road ambient miked up too. I stood at the opposite end of the room so as not to get any microphonic feedback, just natural saturated feedback. Then that sound was recorded on tape through Abbey Road’s ‘Beatle’ era desk and eventually the track was mixed with eq adjustments and old, (now much sought after,) valve compressors. Can’t recall which pickup was used on the guitar but probably the bridge pickup with a bit of a treble roll off. So, an awful lot going into achieving the sound you hear on the album.”
Thank you all for the insights. It’s something I have wondered about for years. Please keep 'em coming.
A lot of Mark Knopfler’s sound comes from his fairly unique finger-picking style. The rest of it, according to Knopfler himself, comes from just fiddling around with the various knobs on his amplifier. Knopfler usually plays a Fender Stratocaster.
Jimi Hendrix created his sound using distortion and wah pedals, plus a bit of experimentation with his amplifier. He also played a Fender Stratocaster.
Eddie Van Halen’s sound came from fairly inexpensive distortion, phaser, and flanger pedals, cranked through a specific Marshall amplifier with the volume turned up to the point where, according to Eddie, you could feel the sound through the hair on your arms. Eddie’s distinct guitar “paint” scheme came out of him using electrical tape to attach effects pedals to the back of his guitar.
Angus Young’s sound comes from a Gibson SG guitar through a Marshall amplifier. The distortion doesn’t come from an effects pedal, only from cranking the sound up through the amp, plus some signal distortion caused by the particular wireless setup he uses. He intentionally uses a particular older wireless system because of how it distorts the sound to his liking.
Brian May’s sound has a lot to do with the custom guitar that he and his father made (out of some wood from an old fireplace mantle, IIRC), plus some custom wiring with the 3 pickups that Brian himself came up with.
Incidentally, the Andertons Music Co channel on YouTube has a series of “How to sound like (x) without breaking the bank” videos that show you how to reproduce the sound of various guitarists. They use modern equipment to reproduce the sounds, since you can’t exactly just go down to ye ol local guitar shop and buy all of the antique effects pedals and amplifiers that Hendrix used, for example.
The Red Special, and the story behind it, is pretty awesome.
- As you note, the neck was made from a piece of lumber from a 100-year-old fireplace mantel
- The mother-of-pearl dots on the fretboard are made from buttons from one of Brian’s mother’s coats
- The body is made from several different types of wood, including oak from an old table, and mahogany veneer
- The tremolo is made from an old knife blade, and two springs from a motorcycle engine
I was listening to Tom Morrello’s (Rage Against The Machine, Audio Slave, countless other projects) Sirius show and he said something to the effect of , “This track was recorded on the same amp, with the same BLAH BLAH BLAH that every Rage record was recorded on.” indicating he didn’t ever change anything.Ever.
He has a very recognizable sound. Now I know why.
Nobody’s mentioned Tom Scholz yet? Hard to mistake the Boston sound.
Really, it’s the guitarist brain and hands that makes their “voice”. I could set you up with a particular guitarist’s equipment, even go so far as tweaking the settings for you. If you don’t know how to imitate what their hands do, your chances for imitating their sound are pretty small.
Same here - great responses, especially the fact they are worded so as to be accessible to non-guitar players like me, thanks.
Richard Thompson plays with a hybrid style of simultaneously using a pick on the bass notes and rhythm, and the remaining three fingers for picking. He’s also fond of exotic tunings (one of many reasons why “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is such a nightmare to learn) and I think he uses humbucker pickups rather than whatever kind are typically built into a Strat.
I remember an anecdote from, IIRC, Ted Nugent who was on a tour with VH before (or right when) VH was getting big. Ted picks up Eddie’s guitar and thinks he is going to sound like EVH… but he played (and sounded) just like Ted Nugent. He said it was a moment for him, that he realized that talent was the divide between him and the truly great.
Fascinating thread for a non guitar player like me. Two guitarists who haven’t been mentioned yet with very characteristic tones are Carlos Santana and Frank Zappa. I can identify them from only a single note. I’ve never seen Zappa playing another guitar than his Gibson SG, and he often played with a wah-wah pedal, but that’s not it, it’s his unique tone.
Heheh, I’ve always associated him with Stratocasters. But yeah, it’s his hands and brain that made him sound like Zappa.