Dialing In Indie Rock & Emo Guitar Tones

Getting the perfect tone for indie rock, emo, folk rock & similar genres can be a difficult task. While you might think that’s true of just about any genre, these styles walk a fine line between clean and gritty tones more than any other. It can be quite a bit of a balancing act for them.

In the world of low-gain, edge-of-breakup tone, you need to find stability. For many artists, this means making room for the shimmering, warbled leads while still achieving enough dirt in their rhythms to keep the whole mix sounding full. The art of blending your tones together is as much a contributing factor to how your guitars ultimately sound in the mix as the individual tones themselves.

It’s a lot to keep track of, but breaking it down into smaller pieces and learning how they build on each other is the perfect way to get those indie rock and emo tones you hear on all of your favorite records.

Clean Tones, Then Dirty Tones 

Have you ever noticed that some of the biggest hits in these genres always take a dynamic approach to their song structure? These bands stick to a very particular formula of soft, then loud, then soft again. It’s a classic songwriting and production technique used all the time in music, but these genres usually double down by matching their tones to those same dynamics.

Take “MakeDamnSure” by Taking Back Sunday – one of the band’s biggest hits that found huge mainstream success on the Billboard Hot 100 and Alternative charts. The song starts with little more than a clean guitar part with the notes left to ring out alongside the vocal and a hi hat to keep time.

As the song progresses, more guitars and instrumentation find their way in. Each guitar added gradually builds in overdrive, with the palm-muted rhythms coming in part way through the verse and full distortion in the chorus.

This formula has been iterated thousands of times, but the pairing of tone to dynamic buildup is a core part of most emo and indie rock tone structures. Because of this, it’s great to start with your clean tones whenever possible – get them sounding right first and the dirtier rhythms and leads that come later will be easier to shape.

Focus On The Sum, Not The Individual

As anyone who’s ever multi-tracked guitars can attest – frequency build-up happens quickly. Each guitar you add to the session builds the harmonic content in the mix and distortion/overdrive multiplies the complexity of each layer.

With indie rock and emo, you’re often not going to have a lot of either effect on any individual track. Most of the time, you won’t have much more than the natural breakup of your amp as the gain is pushed a bit harder. But what you’ll find is that even minimal amounts of low-gain distortion will stack to a fully driven sound.

Just check out this example using Toneforge Ben Bruce from Jude Limus:

See how the multiple rhythm layers stack to create a much more distorted sound than any individual track? This is the mindset you need to have when dialing in each track’s tone. Record and mix with your focus on the sum of all your guitar parts rather than the separate performances and it’s easy to achieve a professional sounding mix. 

Amp & Pedal Settings 

The settings you choose to use as you dial in your tone are going to vary, but there are a few starting points that can help you achieve your goal faster.

For clean guitar parts, you’ll want to keep your EQ relatively flat, and may even want to boost the low-end a bit for parts that play without a bass track reinforcing them. Many engineers will take this approach right on the amp and adjust for the extra bass with EQ or filtering in-the-box while mixing. 

Other than that, low gain & effects are really the two major components of your clean tone. For a present, upfront tone, there’s little more that you need than your amp and possibly some compression. The effects really start to come into play as you move more toward a clean layer stacked with your rhythm parts…

Use modulation effects like chorus and phase to create movement in your tone and time-based effects like reverb and delay for depth. As your guitar mix starts to fill out, these effects can make for awesome layers.

For heavier tones, try to stay away from all-out distortion and focus more on overdrive. Many guitars in these genres benefit from a thinner, buzzier style tone instead of the big headroom tube distortion you’ll find in rock and metal. To get there, you just need to drop the gain and start pushing the Master Output instead.

It’s that easy!

Seeking The Ultimate Guitar Tone?

While indie rock & emo guitar tones aren’t rocket science, they’re just one of many styles you should be able to achieve in the studio. Each sound requires a specific approach, both on the amp and in the mix.

If you’re looking to expand your tonal options and master guitar tone once and for all, our eBook, The Ultimate Tone Bible, can help you get there. It includes over 50 pages of guidance for everything from string and pick selection to impulse response usage.

Get your copy now!