The world of electric guitar tone changed and changed fast after the first wave of rock ’n’ rollers laid down the template for the modern beat combo.
The first wave was four beats to the bar, loud guitars, a little spring reverb and maybe some echo if the engineer had the moves. It was Berry, Wray, Eddy et al. It was electric and it was exciting.
But a big part of that excitement was wondering where the sound would go next. Where could you take Chuck Berry’s all-action double-stop guitar style? What would the Ventures 2.0 sound like?
The answer came in the '60s, a revolutionary era in which a febrile popular culture restyled rock for its own ends. Players began coloring outside the lines. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, then Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton, each setting the table for the big beasts of '70s rock and the excess of the '80s.
This list draws from that era and through to the '80s – the classic rock era, if you will – and it is a list that sees players put overdrive into new uses, finding expression in volume. As such, it could never be exhaustive.
Now, before we get down to business, a word of apology for any omissions, and explanation for some notable absentees. Players such as Peter Green, who was considered a blues guitarist for our purposes, and Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi, who both appear in our 25 best metal guitar tones of all time.
The list is almost exclusively male, which is a sign of the times – a list from '90s to the present day would look very different. But as it stands, this shows how guitar players – often using similar equipment – chased a new sound and made it their own. It was a golden era for tone that still exerts an enormous influence on today’s players and gear manufacturers alike.
- Best electric guitars: top electric guitars for all styles, abilities and budgets
- Best guitar amps: the top tube, solid-state and modeling amplifiers for all levels and budgets
- Best multi-effects pedals for guitarists: top do-it-all guitar effects units
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1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Voodoo Child
Guitarist: Jimi Hendrix
When used effectively, the wah pedal can give the electric guitar the gift of speech. Many players have made the guitar talk and yet none give it the language and vocabulary that Hendrix does here. He gives it grammar and syntax in the richness of the wah’s sweep, the throaty exhortations. It’s as though it’s willing the dead to life.
Of course, the wah is just one aspect of the tone, working in concert with Hendrix’s high-voltage vibrato, before he pulls it all out from under you and rewires rock guitar tone for a new generation.
Among Hendrix’s abundant gifts was the ability to house-train noise and chaos and make them play nice. Don’t underestimate the importance of volume; that’s where the refrigerator-sized Marshall Super Lead Stacks came in.
Replicating this? Err, take a Strat and work its blade pickup selector hard, add a splash of the Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face’s vinegar-in-wound silicon sting and run it through a dimed Marshall and Hendrix’s galaxy brain. So, y’know, impossible, but fun trying.
2. Van Halen – Unchained
Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen
Pretty much all of the Van Halen catalog should be taught as a source material at Guitar Rock Tone 101. It’s funny that there were so many Eddie Van Halen imitators and still none of them managed to nail the phrasing, and while we can get close to the tone with gear it never quite gets there.
Does that testify to the axiom “Tone is in the fingers” or is it down to EVH’s MacGyver’d rig? It’s both. Van Halen’s creativity did not stop when his amp was placed on standby. He helped develop the hot-rodded S-style, popularizing the Floyd Rose for harmonic dive-bombs and scoops, and the little things like low-friction volume controls for volume swells.
Unchained rolls out all of his tricks; here you have got the jet engine harmonics, that BBQ-hot crunch rhythm tone, and the phaser. The phaser? That’s a difficult effect to incorporate in rock guitar tone because it can soften the attack, yet in Van Halen’s signal path it sounds monstrous and exhilarating – the audio equivalent of seeing the Death Star blow up for the first time.
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3. Mountain – Mississippi Queen
Guitarist: Leslie West
Speaking to Guitar Player (opens in new tab), Leslie West described the Mississippi Queen guitar tone as “a big, thick milkshake. It’s rich and chocolatey. Who doesn’t love that?” Well, the secret to making a great chocolate milkshake is to use the best ingredients and hold them in equilibrium, much like what West does with this one.
Here you’ve got a Gibson Les Paul Junior going into a 50-watt Marshall that’s feeding a Sunn 12-inch cabinet, and that’s it. The song is simple, too. But it is how you play it.
On a vintage Les Paul Junior, the pickup is mounted right up close to the bridge, perfect for when you want some bite, but this is – to stick with the theme – a milkshake, so you want it thicker. West plays the riff with his picking hand closer to the neck, somewhere in the middle position, and it sounds so sweet.
Get the tone today: Gibson Les Paul Junior (opens in new tab)
4. Aerosmith – Walk This Way
Guitarists: Joe Perry, Brad Whitford
If the guitar tone on Toys in the Attic were a magazine it would be placed on the top shelf, out of the reach of minors. This is an album of front-to-back six-string raunch, with Joe Perry and Brad Whitford trading licentious riffs and embracing their burgeoning rep as a next-gen Rolling Stones.
We could have gone for Sweet Emotion here, Perry using the talk box as an auxiliary diaphragm for guitar, but Walk This Way distills the duo’s tone down to its quintessence. Besides, in '70s live performances, Perry would use the Talk Box on the Walk This Way riff, which is something to consider once you’ve nailed the recorded version’s tone.
Now, when these cats descended upon The Record Plant to track an album, they plugged into everything. We don’t know exactly what Whitford was using but Perry plugged a Junior into an Ampeg V-2 60-watt head with an active midrange section with a choice of shelving frequencies – again, a no-master-volume Ampeg was very Rolling Stones. He dialed the mids in at 1000Hz and boosted them so all the musical information was right there, adding a Maestro FZ-1S Fuzz-Tone on the solo.
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5. The Who – Won’t Get Fooled Again
Guitarist: Pete Townshend
Pete Townshend’s guitar tones on Who’s Next have a physique unto themselves. Most of it is in his wrist and elbow, what we often refer to as “digging in,” but the difference here is that when Townshend hits a chord, it is as though he is trying to put Tyson on his backside.
Townshend is a Strat man, and you could play this on one, but he's played Rickenbackers, too, and who can forget those shots of him with his SG Special in front of his Hiwatt DR103 as backline?
In the video above he plays a ferocious rendition of the track through his 1976 Les Paul Deluxe, which the Gibson Custom Shop released as a signature model in 2005. But most of Who’s Next was tracked with a 1959 Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins going into a 1959 Fender Bandmaster. Joe Walsh, a veritable Zelig when it comes to classic gear stories, gave both to him.
The story goes that the Bandmaster’s Tweed tone was augmented by the Edwards pedal steel volume pedal in front of it and Townshend’s Whirlwind cable – both somehow working that smoothed off the ice-pick treble. Perhaps owing to the extra capacitance from the volume pedal and cable, which can steal some top end to good effect. What’s next? Size up your strings and smash those chords like you mean it.
Get the tone today: Gretsch G6120T-59 Vintage Select 1959 Chet Atkins (opens in new tab)
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6. James Gang – #49 Funk
Guitarist: Joe Walsh
Having supplied the gear for at least two of the tones on this list, it's only fair that Joe Walsh makes the cut. Heck, he could have been in for an Eagles track (take your pick), talk box showcase Rocky Mountain Way, the quasi-doom Turn to Stone or Life’s Been Good but this James Gang classic it is.
What we’ve got here is a '50s Tele, by all accounts modded, going into a mid-'60s “Blackface" Fender Champ combo for that ever-so-scooped tone that just bounces along in this groove. It’s perfect for the track, but to get inside the tone you’ve got to approach it like Walsh, and that’s the difficult part. he used light nylon picks so maybe grab some Dunlop 449Ps in .73 or .60mm to help you on your way.
Get the tone today: Fender Blues Junior IV (opens in new tab)
7. The Beatles – Taxman
Guitarists: Paul McCartney, George Harrison
Written by George Harrison and famous for Paul McCartney’s crazy solo, Taxman was further evidence that rock was changing. The Beatles’ adventurism was insatiable. Harrison’s travels to India further expanded his musical vocabulary, and this was something McCartney surely pickup on in his phrasing for the solo.
By all accounts, McCartney used his 1962 Epiphone Casino for the solo and played it through his Elpico AC-55, a '50s amplifier he had since he was 14. Originally designed for amplifying record players – “anything but guitars,” joked McCartney in a tour of his home studio – it nonetheless was used by the likes of McCartney and Dave Davies of the Kinks, the latter slashing it for his You Really Got Me tone.
Put together, McCartney’s skronky, super-aggressive solo is the perfect foil for the staccato rhythmic stabs of Harrison’s guitar, a tone that presaged so much to come in rock’s evolution. Play this in the early '80s and it’d be post-punk.
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8. Prince – Bambi
Of his abundant musical gifts was the ability to harness a wild and crazy guitar tone and make it bend and yield to the groove. Bambi is case in point. It’s a killer riff, an irresistible rhythm, and with what sounds like Prince’s MadCat Hohner Telecaster copy going into some stacked overdrive and distortion fuzz.
The key is not to lose control of the detail, and the MadCat’s Strat single coils help with that. As an aficionado of Boss pedals, you can bet your bottom dollar that Prince has a Blues Driver or Overdrive in the mix here, with a touch-sensitive fuzz to scuzz things up a little.
Though Prince’s pedalboard has been known to run a Blues Driver into a Turbo Distortion in mode 2 when Bambi has been on the setlist. Perhaps therein lies the gain cocktail we need.
9. Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)
Guitarists: Neil Young, Frank "Poncho" Sampedro
A monstrous rocker that closes out Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s peerless live recording Rust Never Sleeps with an otherworldly level of low end fuzz, Hey, Hey, My, My… has a stop-it-and-rewind it guitar tone that still sounds groundbreaking today.
For guitars, Young played Old Black, a Bigsby-equipped 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop that has seen a lot of action, refinished in black and housing a P-90 in the neck and a microphonic Firebird humbucker in the neck.
This goes through his Whizzer, a custom-built switching system for changing gain and volume on his 1959 Fender Tweed Deluxe, and a Mu-Tron octave divider. The combination of an old Tweed being hit hard by a volatile pickup and the octave down effect is so heavy, and a great example of how far you can take guitar tone without it being metal.
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10. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts – I Love Rock ’n’ Roll
Guitarist: Joan Jett
A record to have put shares in Wurlitzer through the roof, Joan Jett’s jukebox anthem lives and dies by a rhythm guitar tone that has a three dimensional, surround-sound quality that levels everything in its path – except Jett’s voice.
Jett is a player who doesn’t put too much between herself and her tone. Her setup is simple: a Gibson Melody Maker with a single Red Rhodes Velvet Hammer humbucker, a Tube Screamer and a Music Man HD-130 2x12 combo. Then, turn it it all up and hit it hard.
Replicating this tone isn’t easy. The Velvet Hammer pickups are as rare as hen’s teeth. If you are lucky you might find one on Reverb where it will cost you over 300 bucks. You might have better luck finding the HD-130; Jett’s is loaded with Electro-Voice speakers and EL34 power tubes.
Max out the rhythm channel and you’re halfway there. Jett uses the serrated side of a shark-fin pick to augment her attack. Like Townshend, a lot of this tone is in how you hit the strings. Gently won’t cut it.
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11. The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Guitarist: Keith Richards
The idea of fuzz had been kicking around for some time. In 1961, Grady Martin was playing bass on Marty Robbins’ hit Don’t Worry when his bass guitar went through a faulty preamp, distorting, and creating a eureka moment for electrified tone.
How could it be replicated? The Ventures had Orville "Red" Rhodes build them a fuzz box and recorded The 2,000 Pound Bee, a 1962 instrumental with a nasty fuzz underneath the bright spring reverb chime of clean guitars. The possibilities were tantalizing.
But it wasn’t until Glenn Snoddy took his fuzz box design to Gibson, resulting in the Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, that fuzz was commercially available. Who better than Keith Richards to inaugurate it in 1965 when tracking Satisfaction’s opening motif? He never grew to love pedals. But his electrified brass tone marked a paradigm shift in how rock guitarists would find their sounds.
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12. Queen – Keep Yourself Alive
Guitarist: Brian May
Brian May’s guitar tone over the ages is a law unto itself, often evolving within a single song as he backs off his volume control to clean it up or switches pickup settings for an all-new sound. You could pick his most essential tones out of a hat and not be wrong, but we're taking it back to Queen’s debut album, back to the start.
Here, May gives the Keep Yourself Alive rhythm motif some steely crunch, the vertigo-inducing swirl of phaser, and yet there is some clarity and elasticity to his tone. How does he do it? Partly by taking ownership over his signal path and building his own guitar, the Red Special.
- How to get Brian May's Red Special tones from a Strat or Les Paul
- Brian May’s guitar gear: how to sound like the iconic Queen guitarist
Loaded with a trio of Burns Tri-Sonic pickups and a plethora of switching options that access to in-phase and out-of-phase tones on the fly, nothing sounds quite like it – not a Strat, not a Les Paul.
On this track, both bridge and neck pickups are engaged out of phase, then, using the old English sixpence as a pick, he has a unique metallic attack on a unique guitar. Feed this through a treble booster, with the vertigo-inducing whirl of vintage fOXX phaser a splash of something extra fill out the frequencies, and into a Vox AC30, et voila!
Get the tone today: Brian May Guitars Brian May Signature (opens in new tab)
13. AC/DC – Down Payment Blues
Guitarists: Angus and Malcolm Young
The Young brothers’ tone is like the crystalline acme of natural overdrive. It is the current that juices the AC/DC discography with its relentless forward motion, and as such, you can dip into it at nearly any point in the band’s history and their crunch will still be there – magnetic north for any rock players who want to maintain a sense of purity in their tone.
That said, there is something about the way Malcolm’s Gretsch Jet Firebird and Angus’ Gibson SG are captured in the Powerage era; there’s a little more clank to the crunch.
Was it because they had been using Marshall 2203 100-watt master volume heads in the studio? Either way, there is a rawness to Harry Vanda and George Young’s production that captures the danger inherent in both player’s tone, a sound so elemental that it resists easy description.
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14. Led Zeppelin – Whole Lotta Love
Guitarist: Jimmy Page
Great tone was the bedrock of Jimmy Page’s work with Led Zeppelin but his sound was also a textbook study in production. Close and distant mic’ing enhanced the sense of space his guitar took up.
Reverse echo with slide guitar, theremin, experimental percussion… Page used all kinds of tricks to give the irresistible groove of Whole Lotta Love a transcendent feel. Guitar-wise, of course, Page had switched to the Gibson Les Paul and this inspired a switch from the Supro Coronado that he tracked Led Zeppelin’s debut with.
As Page revealed in an interview with Total Guitar, he used his Les Paul through a solid-state Vox Super Beatle and Rickenbacker Transonic cabinets, with presumably his trusty Tone Bender in front of it.
As for replicating this tone, it pays to minutely study the phrasing and the feel. Page has the uncanny gift for keeping his playing instinctive and just on the right side of tight.
Get the tone today: JHS Bender Fuzz (opens in new tab)
15. Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
Guitarist: Eric Clapton
If the running theme in this list has been each guitarist’s marshaling of overdrive, here, on what is the ne plus ultra of minor key groovers, Clapton dials back the treble and rounding off the sharp edges on what he calls his “woman tone” – a tone with a certain nasal midrange and vocal quality.
There are contrary reports as to what he actually used in the studio for this. Most say it was “Fool,” his 1964 Gibson SG Standard that was refinished by and named after the Dutch design collective of the same name, with his Black Beauty as backup.
But what’s really crucial here is Clapton’s two Marshall Super Lead and 4x12 cabinets, which were maxed out, only for his guitar’s volume control to keep things sane. You can imagine the volume.
But rolling back the treble, or selecting the mix position with the treble down on the bridge pickup, should help you nail this tone, just so long as you can hold your nerve in front of a Marshall being driven to the brink.
Get the tone today: Epiphone SG Standard '61 (opens in new tab)
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16. Guns N’ Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
Guitarists: Slash and Izzy Stradlin
Okay, one more, and here we have what can only be a direct influence of Clapton on a coltish Slash who was just hitting his straps in the hedonistic Sunset Strip '80s rock scene.
This is another “woman tone” song, if you like, where the tone was rolled back on Slash’s 1959 Les Paul Standard replica – built by Kris Derrig – and played through a hard-driven Marshall.
Slash’s heavy but accurate picking and perfect intonation did the rest, creating a pseudo-siren call guitar riff that gave GNR an FM radio hit. After such discipline through the verses, who could blame im for cutting lose with the Cry Baby on the solo?
Heavy strings, a perfectly in-tune and intonated Les Paul, and a Marshall amplifier will do the rest. There is some debate as to which Marshall Slash used on Appetite for Destruction, but it was most definitely modded. Slash soon moved to the Silver Jubilee line in '87.
17. Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb
Guitarist: David Gilmour
The cult of David Gilmour was built on tones such as this, specifically the solo but the avant-garde pedal steel intro and acoustic guitar sound is choice, too.
Gilmour’s exquisite sensibility for melodic bends would stand out in any context, but here his black 1969 Fender Strat run parallel through a 100-watt Hiwatt half stack and a Yamaha RA-200 rotating speaker system lends him a magisterial set of wings to float them right on out into the ether.
Nowadays we often talk about boutique tone, but what is Gilmour if not boutique? If he were an amp, he’d be hand-wired with some NOS transformer thingummy, he’d be the ghost in the machine making the notes sustain.
18. Free – All Right Now
Guitarist: Paul Kossoff
It isn’t easy choosing Kossoff’s best tone on record. Arguably, he had perfected the Les Paul through Marshall power move on the band’s debut, Tons of Sobs, the throttled Super Lead putting plenty of sting into that formidable vibrato and giving his blues-rock riffs some bark. Just listen to the groove on Worry.
But, that said, All Right Now was the hit, and it remains fresh as a daisy today. This was most surely recorded with Kossoff’s “stripped back” ’59 Les Paul and a Marshall. Maybe – others would say a Selmer Treble-N-Bass 50.
Either way, if you’ve got a ‘Burst to hand, a Marshall stack will get the job done. This is gourmet overdrive crunch played by the master chef.
19. The Guess Who – American Woman
Guitarist: Randy Bachman
Randy Bachman was onstage in Canada and had just broken a string on his Bigsby-equipped Les Paul Custom when the idea for American Woman came to him. This being 1969 and everything being a little more loosey-goosey, he kept playing the melody line, the band joined in, the audience dug it and it was almost written live on the spot. They played it over the next few shows and eventually Burton Cummings came up with the lyrics.
“I got the sound with my Les Paul plugged into what I called the Herzog: two Garnet amps made by [Garnet founder] Gar Gillies, with one used as a preamp,” Bachman told Guitar Player (opens in new tab). “I did the melody line and the middle solo in one pass.” He doubled the solo, and for the rhythm part he ran his LP through a Fender Concert 4x10 combo.
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20. The Jeff Beck Group – Shapes of Things
Guitarist: Jeff Beck
Originally recorded with the Yardbirds, Beck rerecorded Shapes of Things a couple of years later with Rod Stewart on vocals, Ronnie Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums. Hugely influential, showing the potential for noise and feedback to tear at the fabric of rock ’n’ roll lest it got too buttoned up for its own good, Shapes of Things is an early indication that Beck would have an almost supernatural hold over his instrument.
Latterly, that would be evidenced in how he would work a Strat’s whammy bar – here it's about marshaling fuzz and dirt, sculpting with unpredictable frequencies. This was Beck’s ’59 Les Paul Standard era, most probably played through a Vox AC30 with a Tone Bender MkII in front of it.
Get the tone today: JHS Bender Fuzz (opens in new tab)
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21. David Bowie – Moonage Daydream
Guitarist: Mick Ronson
Mick Ronson was the perfect foil for David Bowie’s adventurist take on glam-rock. Bowie was high-concept genius, Ronson provided the practical magic that only great guitar tone can.
Throughout the Ziggy Stardust era, Ronson would run his ’68 Les Paul Custom – stripped of its finish and open-coils to enhance the tone – through a Marshall head, with a MKI Tone Bender for fuzz and, crucially, a cocked wah.
Where Ronson would park the wah set the tone, allowing for some nasally honk or to brew up some magic in the midrange. Life on Mars, Ziggy Stardust, Moonage Daydream… That tone, Bowie’s voice, those songs.
Get the tone today: British Pedal Company MKI Tone Bender (opens in new tab)
22. ZZ Top – La Grange
Guitarist: Billy F. Gibbons
The commander-in-chief of hot Texas sizzle has a whole catalog of great tones. His ’59 Les Paul Standard – Miss Pearly Gates – is in many people’s estimations the best-sounding of all the Bursts. Indeed, it was a coin toss between Tush, from 1975’s Fandango!, and La Grange from 1973’s Tres Hombres. The setup for both was nigh-on identical.
Both were recorded at Robin Hood Studios, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Dallas. Both deployed Gibbon’s 1969 Marshall Super Lead 100, an amp introduced to him by Jeff Beck’s guitar tech at the time.
But where he used the Les Paul on Tush and a Cooper Time Cube delay for a doubling effect, La Grange is just a ’55 Strat straight through the Marshall.
“That fuzz sound in the lead and in the front and back end of the composition is just pure tube distortion,” Gibbons told Guitar World in 2009.
“The opening part was played on what we used to call ‘the mystery setting’ in the dark days before the existence of the five-way toggle switch, when finding that perfect ’tweener [in-between setting of a three-way pickup selector] required dedication.”
And, said Gibbons, it was Hendrix who showed him how to find those settings, unscrewing the pickguard to remove the springs under the blade selector. It’s true what they say: talent borrows, genius steals.
23. Girlschool – Tush
Guitarist: Kelly Johnson, Kim McAuliffe
A sublime ZZ Top cover on which Kelly Johnson adopts a similar approach to Billy Gibsons, plugging her Les Paul straight into a Marshall stack, to prove that tone is more a product of your playing style over gear.
Sure, there’s a similar temperature here, tubes maxed out, but Johnson and rhythm guitarist Kim McAuliffe hammered their instruments. Little wonder the British rockers would partner Motörhead on tour and in the studio.
Check out the whole of Hit and Run, though. Girlschool either get overlooked or lumped in with NWOBHM but, like Motörhead, that’s down to the company they keep. Ultimately, it’s rock ’n’ roll, just maxed out as far as the amp will take it.
Often you’ll find that if you are allowed to turn the amplifier all the way up and know how to tame it, there’s little you’ll need from pedals. That’s the lesson to take here. Johnson used a Goldtop with uncovered DiMarzio pickups, Marshall amps, the rest was volume.
Get the tone today: Gibson Les Paul '50s Goldtop (opens in new tab)
24. Rush – La Villa Strangiato
Guitarist: Alex Lifeson
Speaking to Guitar World in 1996, Alex Lifeson described Hemispheres (1978) as the first of Rush’s “many chorus albums”. Lifeson would come to use a Boss Chorus Ensemble but on La Villa Strangiato – a track cut in one take, with only the solo overdubbed – he used a Roland JC-120.
“By that time I had my ES-355, and my acoustics were a Gibson Dove, J-55 and a B-45 12-string,” he said. “I had my Marshall in the studio. I had the Twin and two Hiwatts, which I was also using live, but the Marshall was my real workhorse.”
The evolution of Lifeson’s tone ran in lock-step with Rush’s ever-expanding musical vision. In the early days of Fly by Night, Lifeson would run his ES-335 through a Fender Twin or 50-watt Marshall half-stack, an Echoplex the only effect. By the late-'70s the sky was the limit.
25. Blue Öyster Cult – (Don't Fear) The Reaper
Guitarist: Buck Dharma
Casting aside his trusty ’69 SG, Buck Dharma picked up an ES-175 for the haunting jangle of Blue Öyster Cult’s ever-green hit. That arpeggiated rhythm part sets the nerves on edge, especially at Halloween, when this one always seems to finagle its way onto the stereo.
Dharma played the old jazz box through a room mic’d Music Man 410-65. As is so often the case with these classic rock tones, which predate the pedalboard abundance we see today, details such as mic position are critical factors in how they show up on tape.
That said, there was an EMT plate reverb and a neat tape delay trick on here too. The solo brought the SG back in the game, the 410-65 dimed so it cut through the mix.
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