The Holy Grail of Guitar Tone

It’s a lofty claim, I know. “But Joey, there’s no way one guitar tone is going to work all the time” you’re probably thinking to yourself. And I agree, 100%.

Crafting the greatest tone isn’t about making every guitar in your session sound the same; variations in tone are what make guitar mixes sound massive. It’s not even about having a lead guitar that sounds the same in every session you work on.

The number one reason I think this signal chain is useful for producers and engineers alike is that it gives you the PERFECT baseline sound that you can get immediate results from. Once you’ve got the baseline, you can tweak, replace & edit to your heart’s content knowing that you’ve got a killer sound right from the start.

Start With Compression

When working with DI guitars, it’s easy to forget that you can put anything you want between that dry signal and the virtual rig you’re running it into. We get anxious about making our guitar sound amplified, and we end up skipping one of the best forms of control: compression.

By using a compressor before your amp sim, you can really wrangle in some of the transients and dynamics just like you would with a compressor pedal in front of a live amp. You get a smoothed out consistent tone fed into your amp, which makes your job setting the amp to the right tone ten times easier.

Set your compressor’s threshold to a level that catches just a bit of the pick attack on each note. This catches those few peaks while leaving the majority of your track unaffected. I usually set my ratio to about 3:1, enough to pull down those peaks without completely killing the natural feel of the performance.

When all is said and done, you’ve got a more consistent track dynamically capable of driving your amp a bit harder for in-your-face lead guitar tone.

Picking The Right Amp

The amp is probably the biggest part of your tone by the time you’ve reached the mixing stage. A compressor or EQ can apply strokes of color to the sound, but your amp will make or break the sound.

For this reason, it’s imperative you find a great go-to amp that doesn’t require a bunch of tweaking just to get to a useable sound. I’m partial to Toneforge Menace for this exact reason. When Toneforge Menace is loaded onto a lead guitar track, it just sounds right without the need for dialing in Presence, EQ or Gain. Depending on the track, I’ve also found myself reaching for Toneforge Guitar Pleasure for something a little more gain.

Check out what Nick’s able to do with Toneforge Menace on a lead guitar with almost no adjustment in the video below:

While he made a few extra tweaks to get the perfect tone for the song, the majority of his sound came from simply loading up the plugin!

Help Your Guitar Take Flight

When you think of over-the-top superstar guitar solos dripping in tone, I’m sure you’re not hearing a guitar in isolation in your head. Even if you’re not hearing instruments with it, you’re most certainly hearing the room around it. There’s no avoiding the impact a room (or lack thereof) affects your tone. For this reason, time-based effects are a necessity to drive your lead guitar tone home.

Load up a reverb that fits the size of the space around your guitar. By using the Mix knob, you can quickly and easily blend that guitar with reverb, placing it in the room. If you’re looking for the fastest fix, presets for small, medium & large rooms and halls are available in almost every reverb plugin.

For the icing on the cake, a multi-head tape delay can add complexity and depth to a lead guitar for the ultimate tone. Using a plugin like JST SOAR, making this happen is as simple as loading up the plugin and flipping it to multi-head mode.

Find Perfection In Imperfections

The perfect lead tone will depend so much on the song, it’s not worth your time to dive into the gritty details as soon as you start working on guitars. You’ll burn yourself out quickly and lose inspiration to work on other parts of the mix.

Instead, you should be focused on building a process that gets you to a useable guitar tone as quickly as possible and tweak from there. The greatness of this approach isn’t in the final tone itself, but how fast you can get there. Once you’ve got something that works, making intentional mix decisions and edits becomes so much easier.

Do you have any other shortcuts you’re taking to give you quick, clean tracks in your mix? Whether it’s rolling off low end or starting from a template, there are hundreds of ways engineers and producers are speeding up their workflows all the time.

Come share your best shortcuts with our community in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook. You might just find a few new ones to add to your approach!