Identifiable Rock Guitarists By Their "Sound"?


There are many rock guitar players that I feel pretty confident that I can identify by their sound, tone, whatever you want to call it.

Vai, SRV, Hendrix, Gilmour, Page, Clapton, etc. I hear that “sound” and I know it’s them.

However, inspired by the “BritFloyd” thread, I wonder…

How much of that sound or tone is within the fingers and brain of the guitarist and how much of it is equipment?

In other words, in a world of electronic processing, etc…if an imitator was particularly slick, how would you know the difference?

What defines the rock god’s sound if not the equipment?

B.B. and Albert and Freddie King, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young, Santana, Jerry Garcia, Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and some of their successors in the Allman Brothers Band… some of it is equipment, but a lot of these guys aren’t identified with just one guitar or style of amp. It’s also their their phrasing and their attack, the physical way they hold and play the instrument. A great guitarist’s sound can be surprisingly individual. In a lot of ways it’s not that different from a singing voice: there are lots of singers you could identify almost immediately no matter what they are saying, the amplification, or how far up in the mix they are. Someone with enough skill and determination could do a credible job faking it, sure, at least for a while. But that’s always going to be the case.

For U2’s the Edge, it is mostly equipment-per Wikipedia:

Will Sergeant (of Echo and the Bunnymen fame) also has a pretty unique sound, and uses a series of equipment effects with a lot of reverb and delay to achieve it.

Brian May. It’s almost as though his guitar was one of a kind.

It’s just really interesting to me that with the technology available today that a player can pretty much fool someone.

Marley, that’s a good response and I believe that…that a player (or singer, whatever) is also defined by their style, phrasing, attack, whatever…but that can also be emulated to a high degree by an accomplished player with the right equipment and time on their hands.

I’d be interested to see if there’s some kind of “blind test” out there on the interwebz that would pit a known player with a definable sound up against a crafty imposter and how many of us aficionados would be able to tell the difference.

Well - it’s always in your hands. I sound like me on whatever guitar I am playing.

What do you think Johnny Ramone playing on an acoustic would sound like? :wink:

What’s does EVH sound like on Eruption vs. Spanish Fly?

Jeff Beck’s favorite leave-on-the-couch guitar is a plastic Maccaferri given to him by Jimmy Page.

Or, could somebody with a good enough ear be able to tell something like “That’s Eric Clapton playing George Harrison’s guitar” just by listening to an unfamiliar guitar part?

I’m not one of the experts around here, but apparently sometimes it’s both.

That said a Frank Zappa solo always sounds like a Frank Zappa solo to me, no matter what sort of guitar he was playing. Different between themselves, but always recognizably FZ. And he played a number of different guitars, with what I assume is a variety of equipment over decades and I’ve listened to a bazillion of his solos. I’m not edumacated enough in guitar lore to tell you why, but there it is.

Why, he sounds like EVH on an acoustic!


I know this seems stupid in a way, but…I don’t know. For instance, in the realm of metal, this distinction becomes decidedly blurred outside of a very few players I can readily identify, none of which are considered “modern, cutting edge” guys. Rhoads, Dimebag, Kirk Hammett…I think I have a handle on those guys but when you start to get into the various sub-genres of modern metal, I have a hard time believing that a Lamb Of God fan would notice the difference if one of their guitar players were replaced by another using similar equipment and techniques.

What about Mr. RT?

A guitar player on the interwebs once told something regarding this topic. He played a certain riff on his guitar for another player then handed the guitar to the other guy, who played the same thing and yet had a very different sounding tone/feel.

I’ve also recorded jams where myself and another guitarist would switch back and forth between my two electric guitars and you can always tell who is playing what part throughout the tape no matter which guitar we each are playing.

(Equipment still plays a part in how things sound of course.)

I think this question is fairly indistinguishable from identifiable rock guitarists by their songs.

As proof: Robert Charlebois: Petroleum. Frank Zappa happened to be in the studio when this was recorded, and somehow he ended up playing lead on the track. He played on one of the session musicians’ Strat.

I had a violin teacher that once told me he was part of a group of violinists that were asked to test various instruments. The whole thing didn’t go very well, because all the violinists ended up sounding like themselves regardless of what they were playing on and you could hardly tell the difference between the instruments.

I can tell, or I think I can tell, when Les Claypool is playing Geddy Lee’s Rickenbacker, the one Alex Lifeson allegedly gave him. Or one much like it. I don’t have a particularly good ear.

KISS fans certainly didn’t notice, myself included. It’s come out over the years that Ace Frehley didn’t do the solo work on many songs they recorded in the 70’s. Particularly on the studio side of Alive II, Bob Kulick is spot on emulating Ace’s sound and technique.

I saw what you did there.

Well, not to make too fine a point, here, but it would depend on the listener’s ears and familiarity with the playing of the imitated guitarist. Also, the timeframe must be considered: Nowadays, a Van Halen-style solo could be by anyone, but I think he was the only one playing that way in the late 1970s.

Some imitators will sound exactly like the original, and not only because of electronic processing (performing gear and subsequent editing in studio). Some people are born with the ability to detect and reproduce the subtle nuances of others. Not related to music, but I’ll mention that Simon Helberg (Wolowitz on Big Bang Theory) does a helluva imitation of Al Pacino.

Aside from equipment, a musician’s sound comes from (1) his/her head and (2) technique. An example of each: (1) Jimmy Page often chooses unusual notes that give his music a special sound. “Eastern” is the word that comes to mind. IMO, nobody’s done a better job of crafting trippy little melodic lines that “imbue the music with wild, exotic color” (paraphrased from a Guitar Player article) and stand up to repeated listening. (2) Playing without a pick gives Mark Knopfler a characteristic sound, especially when he “pinches” two or more strings with his thumb and another finger. He’s certainly not the only guitarist to do that, but it’s unusual among rock guitarists.

Here’s the proof in the pudding, gentlemen.

In what is - without any doubt - the single weirdest thing to ever happen (certainly in the 80s, possibly ever) Brian May hosted a jam session one day that featured three session guys and Eddie Van Halen. They ended up recording and releasing three songs, including (this is where it gets weird) a cover of the theme song to ‘Star Fleet’…an old japanese sci-fi puppet show that May and his kids were really into at the time.

Star Fleet Project

You want to argue that it’s not weird? Check out that video.

The important takeaway is that May and EVH switched leads back and forth. It is - to me, at least - blatantly obvious which one is playing.

However, the B side of the LP (I still have it) is a 10+ minute blues jam called ‘Bluesbreaker’ that they dedicated to Clapton. In this one, with the styles so different, I can still tell who’s who but it’s more difficult. May’s style translates better to blues that EVH but both do an excellent job.

Bluebreaker Part 1

While I like to think I can pick many guitarists by their sound I wonder how much of this is the fact that when they solo they are making it all up. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic tells this incredible story in The Art of Possibilty.

*The legendary Kolisch Quartet had the singular distinction of playing its entire repertoire from memory, including the impossibly complex modern works of Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok, and Berg. Eugene Lehner was the violist for the quartet in the 1930s. Lehner’s stories about their remarkable performances often included a hair-raising moment when one player or another had a memory slip. Although he relished the rapport that developed between them without the encumbrance of a music stand, he admits there was hardly a concert in which some mistake did not mar the performance. The alertness, presence, and attention required of the players in every performance is hard to fathom, but in one concert an event occurred that surpassed their ordinary brinkmanship.

In the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 95, just before his big solo, Lehner suddenly had an inexplicable memory lapse, in a place where his memory had never failed him before. He literally blacked out. But the audience heard Opus 95 as it was meant to be played, the viola solo sounding in all its richness. Even the first violinist, Rudolph Kolisch, and cellist, Bennar Heifetz, both with their eyes closed and deeply absorbed in the music, were unaware that Lehner had dropped out. The second violinist, Felix Khuner, was playing Lehner’s melody, coming in without missing a beat at the viola’s designated entrance, the notes perfectly in tune and voiced like a viola on an instrument tuned a fifth higher. Lehner was stunned, and offstage after the performance asked Khuner how he could have possibly known to play. Khuner answered with a shrug: “I could see that your third finger was poised over the wrong string, so I knew you must have forgotten what came next.”*

It can be possible in certain cases.
Listen to the outro of “Margaret on a Guillotine” anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of his work would recognise it as Vini Reilly.