How to Get Great Tone from your Electric Guitar

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Ken Morton - Morton Guitars
Ever wondered how the great players of the 60s and 70s got such GREAT TONE?  Think of all the great players: Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Peter Green, Carlos Santana, Paul Kossoff, Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore etc.... They all have one thing in common - They all played through Valve Guitar Amps (Americans call them Tube Amps).  

I have been playing Rock, Blues and Ballads since 1970 and have played in many Rock / Blues bands and build electric guitars so I know a thing our two about what it takes to get great tone.

In the 60s and 70s players (generally) plugged straight into their Valve Amps and were able to get superb Clean and Overdrive/Crunch tones without using pedals and only using the Volume and Tone Controls of their guitars. It is true that some players added pedals for effects such as a Wah Wah or Fuzz but they were to accentuate great basic tone that totally cut through the band mix.  How did they do that?

Look at a Gibson Les Paul and you will see that it has two Pickups: Neck and Bridge, A Volume and Tone control for each pick-up and a 3-Way switch marked "Rhythm (Neck Pick-up) and Treble (Bridge Pick-up).

OK, this will get a little technical but stay with me... In the early days of Guitar Amps they were all powered by Valves (Valves were used in amps, radios before they were replaced in the 60's by Transistors which were cheaper and more reliable).  Early electric guitar players would always play clean though they sometimes added amp effects like tremolo - classic 60's sound.  However along comes a player like Eric Clapton who found that, with everything maximised on the guitar and amp, it produced a cool distorted sound - this was Overdrive/Crunch.  Originally this was seen as undesirable but Clapton liked the sound and went to visit a certain Mr Jim Marshall in London to ask him to build an amp to help nail that tone. So Marshall Amps was born and soon Hendrix, Beck and others were getting into this new tone.

So what was happening? Well, in basic terms, the Pre Amp Valves have a FINITE Volume Limit - they cannot go any 'louder' so they start to 'overdrive' and change the out put signal from a smooth curve to a clipped square distorted curve - this distorts the signal going into the Power Valve section of the amp - which produces the tone we call Overdrive/Crunch.  So when the player set the amp right they would get maximum clean volume at, say Volume 6 on their guitars and when they turned the guitar volume up to 10 (or 11 in Spinal Tap) the amp would not get any 'louder' but the Pre Amp would overdrive to produce great overdrive tone for creamy lead solos.  

So, at guitar volume 7 the player gets maximum Clean Tone and at 10 the player gets maximum Overdrive Tone - at the same perceived volume levels!  So the player gets Clean and Overdrive JUST BY USING THE VOLUME CONTROL.  This (generally) only works on Valve Amps (though some transistor amps emulate this) This is the MAIN reason that top players STILL use Valve Amps to this day.  Nothing gives that same tone (though some would argue otherwise, valve amps still rule).

Back to the Gibson Les Paul - By setting the Neck (Rhythm) pick-up to Volume 6 the player would get clean rhythm tone but when the 3 Way switch was flicked over Bridge (Treble) the Volume would be on 10 for instant over-driven creamy lead solos. Everything controlled from the guitar, no pedals.

Nowadays players tend to have all their guitar Volume and Tone controls on 10 (Full) and work with multi effects and pedal boards - and how does it sound? Muddy, Buzzing, Processed, Indistinct, Lost in the Band Mix???  That is a common complaint. 

Look up "Pro Rock Guitar Tip: How Professional Guitarists Use The Volume Knob For Distortion Gain" on your favourite on-line video channel for some great advice.

Watch Paul Kossoff play his Les Paul through a Marshall Amp at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 cutting through the band mix to play stunning guitar in front of 250,000 people: look up "FREE - MR.BIG(LIVE 1970)" on your favourite online video channel (yes that is Paul Rodgers on vocals)

So please go out and try this in your guitar store and buy a valve amp - even a 5 Watt will blow your socks off!

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