I think rock guitarists everywhere have a sweet spot in their heart for the full-bodied, wide guitar tones of the 70s & 80s. Rock bands and hair metal bands just knew how to craft larger than life, over the top guitar tones. Today, those tones continue to inspire guitarists everywhere and serve as reference tracks for modern rock engineers and producers looking to replicate their presence.
Today, I want to look at some of the essential parts of those tones and why they’re so massively successful.
Headroom Is Key
Extra headroom on an amp hasn’t always been a luxury available to rock guitarists. Many classic rock tones came from simply pushing an amp to its limits where the tubes start to break up or saturate. The same technique is used today, but with modern tube circuitry, it’s usually done in a stage before the amp’s output leaving plenty of headroom to spare.
Think of headroom on your amp like a valve – leave it wide open and there’s nowhere for the extra dynamics to go when you play a note or chord harder. Engineers and mixers deal with this all the time in the studio, but we look at it from a clipping or compression standpoint instead. Your amp can only saturate so much before it doesn’t sound good anymore.
Fortunately, every modern amp should provide sufficient headroom no matter how hard you push it and virtual rigs are no different. So long as your guitar isn’t clipping the input, you’ve got lots of flexibility to work with inside any Toneforge model or similar plugin.
Delays for Days
Another common way to get a full guitar sound without a ton of effort is through the use of delays with your guitar tracks. Eighth or sixteenth note delays mixed into your signal achieve a feeling of movement and size while completely fitting in time with your production.
Whether you use a delay pedal or a digital delay after the amp is completely up to you – but experiment with the level of those delays to see what works best.
A great delay is going to be almost unnoticeable to your end listener. It’s just going to fit with the feeling and vibe of the song. That’s how you know it’s working.
Delays aren’t complicated. If you don’t know the tempo of your song, use a tap tempo to figure it out. Once you’ve locked in your tempo of the delay, any adjustments based on divisions of that tempo will fit perfectly in time and you're able to focus on how they add to your mix.
Double Track Everything
I’m sure someone will argue with this approach, but trust me and try it out.
Have some palm-muted rhythm parts? Double track them and pan them left and right.
Got a clean alternate-picked lead? Double track it and pan those tracks left and right.
The more you’re able to authentically create a wide guitar mix with hard panned tracks, the less you need to rely on spatial widening tools to create a spread for you. And sure – maybe your guitar solo deserves to stay as a single track panned right down the center, but having double-tracked options to choose from can be a major benefit to filling out your guitar mix, especially if the performances are tight and in-time.
Just check out this example from John Souki:
As you can see, he was able to create a tone of different textures and sounds with his double tracked guitars from the distorted rhythms stacked with clean melodies in the intro to the spacey, delayed harmonies in the second section. These tones sound amazing independently, but the double tracks just take them to a whole new level sonically.
Finding Your Ultimate Tone
Many guitarists think they can just pick up any interface, hook it up to their computer and immediately start recording professional guitar parts, but the reality is that a lot of preparation and studio-specific techniques come into play.
To help you get there faster, we’ve put together The Gigantic Guitar Tracking Guide – an eBook with nearly 60 pages of studio recording and mixing techniques completely focused around guitar tone.