What gives a band their "sound"?

This might be more GQ or GD material, but what exactly is it that gives certain bands their “sound”? Obviously, in the case of an act like The Beach Boys, it’s the voices that give them away, but I’m talking more instrumentally. To use the Beach boys again, for example, you could play me an instrumental version of Pet Sounds and I’d still know who it was (assuming, of course, I didn’t already know the songs by heart). But there are many bands like this - for a few more examples, I’d say I could recognize a song by The B-52s, R.E.M., Husker Du or Gang of Four within a few bars and with no vocal aid. Similarly, I can hear another artist and say they sound like the B-52s, R.E.M., etc.

Now, these groups all use the same instruments, basically (as do, say, Devo and A Flock of Seagulls and Kraftwerk, who also have their own sounds). And they’re all drawing from the same stock of chords and chord progressions for their songs. So what makes them distinctive? Is it something as simple as the equipment they use, or is it something harder to categorize, like the way they write melodies, or rhythmic similarities, or what? Can such a thing even be quantified?

It can be something like the tuning or their particular instruments. Queen, for instance, has Brian May’s guitar, which sounds like nothing else.

The Who has the strong bass line, but mostly the inimitable drums of Keith Moon.

Sometimes the songwriter has a distinct type of sound. I remember years ago hearing this song for the first time on the radio. It sounded to me like Meat Loaf, but the vocalist was clearly not Meat Loaf. I said, “I bet that’s Jim Steinman,” and I was right (it was his solo album).

There is an enormous palette of tones available from different amps, different guitars, effects pedals, rack setups, you name it. Even though they all may use electric guitars, all electric guitars do not sound the same.

Chemistry, at least partially. Whole greater that the sum of the parts, and all that.

What about when it’s not necessarily the same guys? I’m thinking of where a producer hires studio musicians. A lot of them are the same people but on a given day there might be substitutions. I’m thinking of examples like Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound or Motown–though with Motown there was a somewhat regular group of musicians.

I’ve heard guitarists talk about “bone tone”: the distinctive way a person picks and bends or holds notes. This of course combines with the type of guitar used and the effects and tuning, and you get a trademark sound.

They often get into this in a deep way. I was reading Slash’s autobiography, and he thinks he’s never replicated the sound of the solos on “Appetite for Destruction”, even though I can’t tell the difference. Apparently he can, and says that even though he has the same guitar and strings, and people have built him “exact” replicas of the amps he was using, and his effects are his, the placement of the PA and the tone of the room can never be replicated.

I remember reading about John Entwistle working with the engineers at his favorite string company because he wasn’t entirely happy with the tone he was getting. If people are getting that far into the arcane points of their sound, I don’t doubt they can tweak their overall interactions to match their previous stuff. They usually chose that sound very purposefully, like E. Van Halen’s “brown sound”. Then throw in the songwriting, and you’ve got a good shot at something unique. I remember my friend saying, “Triplets. I bet this is Pete Townshend”, and it was The Who.

Reality Chuck, I turned to my friend and said, “Why does 'I Would Do Anything For Love” make me think of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart?’"

As for hiring studio musicians, I would place that on a level of getting a graduate art student to paint you a Rembrandt. It might match, and you’re very free to enjoy it, but copying someone else’s sound is more of a craft than an art, and the copier gets little credit. The guitarist for Atomic Punks was taken on tour by DLR because he knew all the early Van Halen stuff very well, but then he went back to relative obscurity.

I would say a few things, in terms of our experience listening to them:

  • Instrumentation choice and Techniques - Brian May’s Red Special through a Vox amp; Slash’s Les Paul (replicas) through a modded Marshall. Pete Buck of R.E.M.'s right-hand picking style on a Rickenbacker (heck, Roger McGuinn on a 12-string Ric for the Byrds). That’s barely scratching the surface for guitar alone. Look Chicago being based around a horn section, or a bluegrass band’s instrumentation vs. Jethro Tull with Ian Andersen’s Flute

  • The mucic’s components - melody, harmony and rhythm structure - a style of music favoring minors and modal scales in waltz time will sound different vs. a major-key based song in 4/4. Gaelic toons have a different combination of melodies, harmonic choices and rhythms vs. a reggae song vs. a punk song vs. a tribal chant.

  • The space the band occupies + their groove - songs like Walking on the Moon by The Police have a whole lot of space in their mix - quiet parts and clear, distinct instrumentation where you are meant to hear how they move independently and interplay - very different than, say, Springsteen, where all the instruments are meant to merge into a big, single-purpose sound. Also, the groove is everything - some bands have a militaristically precise, on-beat sound, like Metallica; others lay back and play “behind the beat” and use syncopation - most blues and funk. And some bands are like the Rolling Stones, where they tend to define a space for the beat but the different instruments contribute to making the groove happen almost in sequence - if they don’t line up right, it’s a trainwreck; when they do, it’s, well, it’s the Stones.

  • Production - production of a record - or the quality of a live recording is as important as the source music itself. The fact that Jimmy Page placed his guitar where it did in the mix, and pushed the volume of his amps and the signal in the mix, mic placement, etc. - that is why we hear Jimmy’s Tele and Les Paul the way we do and ended up making it the archetypal guitar sound it is today. Jeez, find the studio version of Cheap Trick’s I Want You to Want Me and then go back to the Live Version from Budokan - the studio version sucks!! Twee pop compared to the more muscular guitar from Rick Nielsen on Budokan…

My $.02

I know hardly anything about the technical details, but I’d be interested to learn why Def Leppard sounds the way it does – I know something is theirs literally on the very first note.

Production - you’re hearing Mutt Lange.

Pretty much all of this. It’s basically “the sum of all of these parts” - bands tend to have all of their little component tropes that come together and that they repeat over and over whether they like it or not.

Like the Huskers for example; Mould playing intricate arpeggios of minor 7ths or playing hyper-fast, ringing major 7ths (both atypical for a hardcore band of that era) through that nasally, solid-state fuzz, Grant Hart’s slight timing weirdness on the drums - both things automatically just ring the Husker Du alarm in my brain whenever I hear them together, usually within about three seconds…and this is to say nothing of the types of chord progressions that both guys favor, or the sorts of vocal melodies and harmonies they write, or Spot’s unmistakable production, or etc. etc. etc.

The latest albums from Steve Miller and Tom Petty are worth noting here because of how they were recorded.

For Bingo!, Miller went to ILM studios and set up a wall of amps to get the “big guitar” sound he wanted. Steve said it was so loud, “We had to leave the room to record it properly…I’d be in the other room with my hair blowing back.”

Petty went “old school” on his new album. The band recorded Mojo live with everyone playing together in the same room. There’s a definite feel to it comes through in the finished product.

I’m kind of surprised by this question, because it makes it all seem a lot more mystical than it really all is.

Every group has what’s known as “signature sound.” A signature sound is something they do that’s particular to them. So as soon as you hear a song of theirs, you go, “Ah! That’s so and so.”

So what makes a signature sound?

1) Mood. Some bands have a particular mood to their music-- like upbeat, downbeat, sexy, romantic, childlike, whimsical, melancholy, laid back, peaceful, agitated, etc…

Example: Sugar Ray. It’s so easy to identify the music because there’s a very distinctive, “mellow,” laid back feel to it that so few other bands have.

2) Style of playing. Some bands may have played the same instruments, but not all of them played them the same way. In fact, some played their instruments in such a unique way that it’s the style of playing that automatically identifies them. For example: George Harrison. His guitar in his earlier work had this distinctive “wah wah” where as soon as you hear it you think, “Oh, that’s definitely Harrison.”

The Doors are another example. The keyboard playing was just distinctively “Doors-ish.”

More modern day example: Coldplay. What other band plays piano like that? Only Coldplay.

**3) Chord and chord progressions. **I’m not even going to pretend that I’m a major scholar on this, but my gut instinct tells me that there was a particular way that groups used chords and progressions that’s a large part of the “signature sound.” One article I came across said that what made The Beatles sound so distinctive at the time they debuted was that their chord progressions were a lot more sophisticated than what was common at the time. Another argued that they threw in a lot of “odd keys” in the middle of the new ones. Argument aside, there seems to be a consensus that they were doing something with chords and progressions that disinguished them musically and made them sound “Beatles-esque”.

4) Choice of instruments. I think it’s oversimplifying things a bit to say that all groups use the same instruments. Not every group uses the same standard instruments. In fact, the usage of a particular instrument that no one else is really using plays a large part in creating a “signature” sound that identifies a group. You know it’s Stevie Wonder when you hear the harmonica. You know it’s the Doors when you hear the keyboard. You know it’s one group or another if you hear a flute or a theremin or banjo or a cowbell because only that group tends to use it. Groups use non-standard instruments more than you think.

5) Fluorishes. There are some “personal touches” that groups use that identifies them… Perfect example: Fatboy Slim. DJs were a dime a dozen back in the '90s. But he did this thing with almost every song he made where you instantly knew it was him-- at one point, he would play a thumping bass very slow, then accelerate it rapidly. You heard that and you were like, “Oh, it’s Fatboy Slim.”

Other fluorish examples: using a vocoder, ending or opening a song a particular way, etc…

There’s probably a lot more to the “signature sound” to this (types of rhythm, tempo, etc), but these are the ones that instantly come to mind.

Some characteristics are easier to describe in words others really need to be demonstrated. Examples: Pushing the beat, swing and ‘blue’ notes really need to be heard to understand and bands will tend to either do/use these things or not.

Some of the easier descriptions (and even then you need to know some musical terminology). Two bands from the OP then some others off the top of my head I think are really distinctive.

The B-52s - Ricky Wilson used a really strangely strung/tuned guitar since they had no bass player. So, idiosyncratic guitar parts along with straightforward un-swung drum patterns and cheesy keyboard sounds make early B-52s really recognisable. Later on not so much.

Devo. I only know the first album but they were obviously deliberately trying to be un-rocky and stiff, not surprising they sound distinctive.

Early Beatles. Clean guitars playing dominant sevenths all over the place, George’s rockabilly fills/bass runs, no swing, Ringo never lets off the ride cymbal.

Queen. Covered already but I’ll chuck in Roger Taylor’s drum patterns. He never seems to play a straight rock beat (I’ll check this when I get home but I noticed it ages ago, I’ll come back and apologise if I’m talking bollocks).

The Who. Well it’s just a fucking row really, the rhythm section soloing non-stop leaving the guitar player the job of keeping time. And lots of suspended 4ths.

The Smiths, U2 and to some extent REM. This is too easy, the guitar style is most of it. The rhythm sections are important though they’re not as interchangeable as they may seem. (That sounds like a fun experiment swap the guitar players and see what changes).

The Fall. I think they must actually play having fallen over (they always sound the same even though they never have the same line-up two weeks running so there must be some explanation like this. Maybe Mark E Smiths insists they always play really, really pissed (if you know what the Fall sound like you will surely agree this is a plausible theory)).

I see others are posting (more coherent) descriptions so I’ll just plonk this in and run. Home time.

Regarding The Who’s sound…Pete made this comment in an interview I did with him a couple of months ago:

The the rhythmic and harmonic foundation the bassist provides. Most popular music has a good, steady pulse or beat.

A perfect example is Everclear. Find “Santa Monica,” “Father of Mine,” and “I Will Buy You a New Life” on Youtube. In these songs and many of their other songs, there’s a distinctive rhythm to the guitar playing: da da da da da da - pause - da da da da da da - pause.

The other common feature on those two albums is Todd Rundgren. He produced both albums, arranged most of the songs and it was his band Utopia that formed the core of the musicians on both album (Todd’s bass player Kasim Sulton was Meatloaf’s band leader until very recently). Todd has a very characteristic and recognizable style of recording drums and arranging vocal harmonies.

Definitely. I’ve heard a guitarist friend playing around on a junk acoustic at a friend’s house, and he sounded the same - it was all in his hands, not the guitar or amp.

I agree with this for some artists, there’s something about a signature bass sound that identifies certain bands for me. Within a couple notes I can identify Iron Maiden or Overkill, both of which have a crisp, brick wall kind of sound to me. It could be an artifact of the production, but a unique bass sound is more distictive than most guitar effects.

For Van Halen, it’s not Eddie’s guitar sound that instantly identifies a song for me - it’s the way Alex’s loose high-hat is always right there, dead-center, in the front of the mix. That’s been consistent in every incarnation of Van Halen, and I can tell from the first beat that I’m listening to Van Halen, even a song I’ve never heard before.