Guitar in rock music
Rock has dominated popular music and influenced culture worldwide over the course of its 80-odd year existence. It was the natural evolution to blues and country, and made an instant impact with the help of the first modern electric guitars and amps created at the same time. Each generation has brought a new twist to the genre, with the likes of blues rock, prog rock, glam rock, punk, alternative, indie and many, many more iterations forming devout groups of followers.
The phenomenon is simple at its core, despite the incredible reach into varying subgenres. Rock music very often focuses on a few integral elements: drums, bass, vocals and of course, guitars.
What makes a great rock guitar tone?
Putting your finger on one ultimate rock tone is almost impossible because of the diversity within the genre. You've got your classic screaming drive tones from the likes of Guns N' Roses, Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters and Green Day. On the flip side, you've got far more delicate cuts from The Beatles, Radiohead and Fleetwood Mac.
What most rock bands have in common when it comes to the electric guitar, however, is gain. A large portion of rock music relies on crunchy tube amp tones at the edge of breakup or pushed even beyond. Once you have that core foundation, you can colour your tone with your own unique settings and playing style.
But it doesn't end there. Lots of musicians utilise completely clean tones and acoustic guitars in rock. There have been plenty of occassions when bands you'd usually assocaite with the heav side of the genre like Nirvana, Biffy Clyro or Muse have come out with a softer ballad. Incorporating clean guitar into your music is just as vital as crushing overdrive.
Guitar gear you need to play rock music
Both electric and acoustic guitars are regularly used in rock music. We're going to cover what features you need on your guitar to achieve a great rock sound, as well as all the amps, accessories and effects to help you on your way.
Let's start with your base sound. Electric guitars are equally adept at pushing massive distortion and smooth cleans. You'll want a guitar versatile enough to match what you want to play. Although there are hundreds of different electric guitars designed for rock, there are two models in particular that continue to stand the test of time.
Arguably the guitar that covers the most ground of those is the Fender Stratocaster. You can't go wrong with a Strat, as this iconic instrument is renowned for its universal playing comfort and two types of pickup configurations. You have a variety of chimey tones at your disposal using three single coil pickups, while an HSH (humbucker bridge, single coil middle and humbucker neck position) Strat can deal with higher gain.
Fender and offshoot company Squier cover ever price range for any level or budget. There's a large variety in specifications and these come down to the individual player; fretboard radius, neck size, pickups, woods and finish just to name a few. What we can assure however, is that any style of Strat is perfectly suitable for rock and its history is intertwined with the genre.
If you're after a guitar that excels when hooked up with devastating overdrive, the Les Paul is the answer. Most Gibson and Epiphone-made Les Paul guitars are equipped with legendary PAF humbucker pickups, which produce a thick, direct tone. The alternate is the '50s style LP, which contains raw-sounding soapbar P90 pickups.
A key feature of a Les Paul is its 24.75-inch scale length neck. It has three key effects: it means there's a smaller gap in between frets and is therefore suited to fast playing, it makes big string bends easier and it results in a more aggressive tone. The 12-inch standard fretboard radius also lends itself well to legato runs and tremolo picking.
Some Les Paul models are geared towards contemporary players. The likes of the Epiphone Modern and Muse, as well as Gibson Studio and Modern guitars not only look the part but sound it too, thanks to their hotrodded pickups and latest in hardware design.
There are so many great alternatives to the two most popular guitar shapes in the form of PRS, Chapman, Ibanez, G&L and Music Man, just to name just a few. A handful of important features key to rock include:
Both fixed and floating bridges are great for rock. The former allows for quicker tuning tweaks and for fast alternative tuning switches, while retaining good string stability. The latter provides another creative option of vibrato and is used extensively in rock – if not slightly more in heavy metal.
Most types of guitar pickup are completely viable for rock as you can always balance an overdriven tone using the volume and tone on your guitar, or with EQ adjustment. Clean tones, however, generally require more musically dynamic pickups. Each pickup has its own unique properties depending on the type of magnets it uses (alnico or ceramic) and how many coils are in the wire. An alnico II pickups with fewer windings is not as “hot” as an alnico V pickup with more windings.
Strat style single coils, PAF humbuckers and P90 soapbar pickups are always reliable choices. But if you fancy exploring other options, Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Fishman and Bare Knuckle are all great brands with a wide variety of versatile pickups to choose from.
Neck and Fretboard
Guitars are extremely personal instruments and one might fit a certain player more than another. Neck shapes are subjective to the player, but in general, a lot of rock music requires some fast-played single-note passages – and that calls for a wider fretboard with larger string spacing and a thinner “C”-shape type neck profile. Sometimes you'll come across guitars with 21, 22 or 24 frets. Pick the higher number if you need the extra notes to play. Simple!
We're not forgetting the acoustics when it comes to rock. Acoustic guitars are the driving force behind some of the greatest records ever made in the genre, with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Yes, Rush and even Metallica relying on the old faithful.
You can work any style of acoustic into rock music, but one shape stands out among the rest: the dreadnought. This large body guitar lends itself to rock because of its loud, engulfing projection, which can certainly hold its own in a band setting. Naturally, thanks to the large size, a dreadnought guitar produces a well-blended warm tone that many bands have used to great effect.
Two of the biggest names in acoustic production are Martin and Taylor. Both are famous worldwide for their incredible quality instruments and outstanding tone. Both have also made their mark on the construction of acoustics, with the Martin the first to mass produce X bracing and the dreadsnought body shape, while Taylor continues to impress with the new V bracing architecture. Great affordable alternatives are made by Sire, Alvarez and Fender.
Arguably the most important piece of gear in you guitar setup, a good amp is where you're going to tap into all the legendary tones of the past, as well as explore a plethora of new options with the increasing amount of technolical advancement and choices. Amps nowadays are divided into three sub-sections: valve, solid-state and modelling.
One of rock music's most notable affiliations. Marshall are the kings of valve amps. They are renowned for their classic crunch tone and are a staple on rock records stretching right back to the sixties up to modern day.
The plexi style JVM range offers the quintessential British Marshall rock tone. Saturated goodness, super high gain if that's your thing and underrated cleans. The Origin amp range is a great way to get real Marshall tube tone on a budget. Other brands you'll want to check out which produce a similar British rock tone include Victory, Blackstar and Friedman.
Look no further than Fender if you're after outstanding clean tones. Not only do Fender make some of the most popular guitars in the world, but also the most famous amps too. They excel at cleans and edge-of-breakup tone and you'll find one wherever a top quality amp is required. All the big names in the business will happily back them up. The Blues Junior is a great midrange choice, producing pure unadulterated American warmth. Further up the range you'll find the Fender Hot Rod, Princeton and Twin Reverb, all offering their own slice of clean heaven.
Rock musicians rely heavily on pedals to bring their sound to life and give them a unique edge. Some pedals are so integral to a famous guitarist's sound, that as soon as you hear it you'd know who's used it. This might be a simple fuzz or distortion utilised extensively throughout rock history by the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Steve Vai, or something more experimental utilised by My Bloody Valentine or Incubus.
Here are just a few common rock guitar pedal effects you should consider adding to your setup to expand on your sound:
An overdrive takes your amp's gain settings to the next level - or if you're lacking a good dirty channel does all the work for you. Overdrive pedals are used by almost every rock guitarist and is an essential part of your tone.
There are three popular types of drive pedals: a mid boost such as an Ibanez Tube Screamer, which sharpens up your attack and harmonics, a transparent overdrive like a Klon Centaur used to thicken up and layer your tone with new dynamics, and finally a distortion, which differs slightly in the circuitry department to an overdrive but is ideal when used on top of a base clean tone because of its immense crunch. The ProCo Rat is a classic example.
Fuzz pedals belong in the same family as overdrive and distortion, but produce a woollier, fatter tone. The first fuzzes were created in the sixties and used germanium transistors giving them a warm mid-to-low heavy quality. Newer silicon transistor fuzzes are the norm these days and provide glistening brightness, as well as more gain and saturation on tap.
Two excellent fuzz options are boutique brands ZVEX and JHS Pedals. Both specialise in the matter at hand and always look to push the boundaries of new tonal horizons. If you're looking to make your first steps into fuzzy territory, look no further than mini pedal designer Tone City or – the most famous of all – Electro Harmonix with the Big Muff.
Electric guitar tone can sound very dry without reverb. Sometimes that's a quality you'll want to have, especially to emphasise heavier parts, but a reverb goes a long way to filling out your complete sound.
Reverb leaves an ambient trail after your playing like if you were playing in a large echoey room. Three famous types of reverb include hall, spring and plate. The former is as described; a natural airy tone. Spring reverb meanwhile gives you a bouncy feel because of the vibrating springs (or the digitally reproduced effect in most cases). Plate has a much smoother, padded out feel.
The biggest names in reverb production include high-tech geniuses Strymon with the Blue Sky and Big Sky, TC Electronic serving up the flexible Hall of Fame and plenty other such as Fender and Keeley Electronics.
Delay pedals are used in a similar way to reverb in order to soften up your sound, letting each note ring through. The room is also there with delay to get even more experimental. Delay reproduces and rings out exactly what you play – think of the intro to Welcome To The Jungle by Guns N' Roses. Most delay pedals allow you to divide repeates into half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes and triplets, with the ability to set how long they repeat after you stop playing.
Wah is not as widely used as the aforementioned guitar pedals, but is no doubt synonymous with rock music. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were the pioneers of this onomatopoeic effect and it later came hand-in-hand with GNRs' Slash and Metallica's Kirk Hammett. Wah pedals filter the frequencies of your signal to create a voice-like tone and when used well, adds expression and emotion to your music.
Dunlop is by far the most popular and widely recognised producer of the wah wah pedal. Their Crybaby is the go-to for any guitarist looking for a premium version of the effect. Its origins go way back to 1966 and has been used by the very best, with several musicians inheriting signature wah models.
Want To Learn More?
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