15 icons of electric guitar tone – and how they can inspire your playing

Eric Clapton, Brian May, Jimi Hendrix
(Image credit: Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel; Michael Putland/Getty Images)

GUITAR SHOWCASE 2023: Welcome to our Icons of Tone lesson, in which we set sail on an odyssey of exploration, taking in the sounds and techniques of the most legendary guitarists in the history of rock and pop. 

We’ve created 15 tab examples that take inspiration from each of our chosen guitarists’ work. Learning our riffs and licks will provide you with technical insight into how they play and give you a vehicle to experiment with your own tone creation.

Don’t worry too much about your gear, however. Your main goal should be to hone your touch and feel as you emulate the style of each guitarist. It’s a key part of tone – and often somewhat underrated! 

Not convinced? Don’t take our word for it. As Brian May told Total Guitar in 2020 when discussing his experience of playing Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstein guitar during the making of their collaborative Star Fleet Project mini-album: “I sounded like me on his guitar and he sounded like him on my guitar, which reassured us that it’s basically all in the fingers.”

So, plug in and get ready to rock. The examples are in no particular order, so let’s get cracking…

And if you want more background on some of these sounds, check out our guide to 13 of the best guitar tones of all time.

Example 1. Greeny humbucker tone

(Image credit: Future)

Peter Green’s 1959 Gibson Les Paul is an iconic instrument with a great history. Its famously ‘nasal’ tone comes from an out-of-phase neck position PAF humbucker, which is evident when the pickup selector is in the middle position. Our short lick is inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s classic Need Your Love So Bad.

Example 2. ’80s pop-funk single coils

(Image credit: Future)

The David Williams brand of funky R ’n’ B guitar made him an in demand session guitarist and his playing has graced some of the biggest-selling records of all time, such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Our example combines a light palm mute with alternate picking. 

Example 3. Floydian cleans

(Image credit: Future)

David Gilmour’s clean tone soloing is iconic, and our example is inspired by tracks like Shine On You Crazy Diamond and Echoes. The trick is to dial in a sparkling clean tone with a neck single-coil pickup and to increase the sustain with the use of a compressor pedal.

Example 4. Derek Trucks-style fingerstyle slide

(Image credit: Future)

Derek Trucks is one of the finest players ever to pick up a bottleneck guitar slide, employing fingerstyle to coax the most expressive tones from his Gibson SG. The lines between the tab numbers indicate how to phrase our Trucks-style lick. Aim to accurately position your slide directly over each fret, not behind. 

Example 5. Country Gent

(Image credit: Future)

Chet Atkins’ trademark country stylings come courtesy of his Gretsch G6120 equipped with Filter’Tron humbuckers. He was a master of Travis picking and, as such, our example combines a bassline with melody notes to create one big fingerpicking sound.

Example 6. Master Of Metal

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This Metallica-style riff is inspired by songs like Through The Never, showcasing Hetfield trademarks such as sliding powerchords and palm-muted bass notes. The tone on the ‘Black Album’ is the combination of many layered guitars through modified Mesa/Boogie Mark II and Marshall JCM800 amps – and is basically impossible to recreate! 

Example 7. Young At Heart

(Image credit: Future)

AC/DC rhythm machine Malcolm Young created the band’s unrelenting groove with Gretsch Jet Firebird and White Falcon guitars. Our example is inspired by songs like Hells Bells and combines open position powerchords with a tight feel. A bridge pickup through a loud but fairly clean Marshall tube amp are the tonal secret sauce. 

Example 8. Edgy Delays

(Image credit: Future)

Here, we’re taking our inspiration from U2’s classic With Or Without You – a track that epitomises The Edge’s iconic delay tones. Ideally, you need two delays: one set to a dotted semiquaver repeat, and another with a crotchet setting. The use of a dimpled grip guitar pick like the blue 88mm Herdim sharpens the attack. 

Example 9. Heartbreaking sound

(Image credit: Future)

Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the heartbreakers fame is one of the unsung heroes of great guitar tone. Our example is inspired by songs like Refugee and combines a bridge pickup tone with a dynamic overdrive setting.

Example 10. Clapton’s ‘woman’ tone 

(Image credit: Future)

Eric Clapton’s legendary ‘woman tone’ is a created by selecting a neck humbucker and rolling off the tone knob almost to zero. This provides that distinctive nasal tone was a feature of Clapton’s early work with Cream. Our example is inspired by songs like SWLABR and includes string bending and finger vibrato.

Example 11. Warm Wes tones

(Image credit: Future)

Jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery used an idiosyncratic thumbing technique for both picking and strumming, the soft flesh coaxing warm, round tones from his Gibson L-5 (set up with super-heavy 0.014-gauge flatwound strings). 

It can take a bit of practice to play melodies and articulate finger slides in octaves, but you can use down-strums of the thumb exclusively for playing our Tequila-inspired part.

Example 12. May you rock!

(Image credit: Future)

Brian May’s iconic tone is the product of several factors. Most important is his home-built Red Special guitar, equipped with Burns single-coil pickups and an innovative switching system that allows him to dial in humbucker-like tones. 

Add to that a Vox AC-30 with Dallas Rangemaster treble booster plus the all-important sixpence piece for a pick. Our example is inspired by Queen’s Brighton Rock.

Example 13. Eddie Van Halen-style ‘brown sound’

(Image credit: Future)

Eddie Van Halen’s early signature ‘brown sound’ was the product of his Frankenstein guitar (essentially a single-humbucker loaded Strat) running into late-’60s Marshall Superlead amps.

These were essentially un-modded but were used with a variable transformer and dummy load box to control the voltage the amps would run at and the level they’d output to the Celestion-loaded Marshall cabs. 

He augmented his sound with MXR Phase 90 and flanger pedals. Our riff here is inspired by Little Dreamer from Van Halen’s 1978 debut, but there are plenty of Eddie-isms for you to try out.

Example 14. Stevie Ray Vaughan-style Texas tones

(Image credit: Future)

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s supercharged Texas blues tone is one of the most emulated guitar tones of all time, and has inspired a raft of imitators. Stevie combined high-output, single-coil pickups on his Fender Strats (set up with gauge .013 strings) with the Ibanez Tube Screamer through Fender and Dumble amplifiers. 

Our example is inspired by songs like Pride And Joy and compiles some of those tried-and-tested blues shuffle licks into a short solo.

Example 15. Jimi Hendrix-style effects exploitation

(Image credit: Future)

Jimi Hendrix changed everything with his inventive exploitation of effects and the electric guitar's controls and features. 

Our example is inspired by songs like Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), and exploits one of Jimi’s favorite chords: the E7#9, often referred to as the ‘Hendrix chord’. A Uni-Vibe effect works particularly well with these Hendrix-style wigouts, as does a Fuzz Face (or similar) pedal.

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Jon Bishop

Jon Bishop is a UK-based guitarist and freelance musician, and a longtime contributor to Guitar Techniques and Total Guitar. He's a graduate of the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford and is touring and recording guitarist for British rock 'n' roll royalty Shakin’ Stevens.