By Dave Hunter

As important as striving for your own sound as a guitarist is, you often make your way there via the tones of other great players, past and present. Here, you explore the elements behind the signature sounds of ten of the world’s most distinctive guitarists.

Jazz incarnate: Wes Montgomery

Although jazz legend Wes Montgomery owned several different archtop guitars during his career, he is probably best known for the following setup:

  • Guitar: Gibson L-5CES: A hollowbody electric with a carved arched solid-spruce top and solid maple back and sides, maple neck with an ebony fingerboard, floating bridge and trapeze tailpiece, and one humbucking pickup in the neck position.

  • Amp:Medium-to-large Fender tube model: A relatively powerful tube amp with a preamp designed for clean, clear tone but which would distort just a little (often in a very pleasing way) when pushed hard.

Classic rock’n’roll: Eddie Cochran

Eddie Cochran epitomized 1950s rock’n’roll in his performance style, his look, and his sound. He used the following setup:

  • Guitar: Gretsch 6120: A fully hollow electric archtop, though designed without great regard for its acoustic properties. Built with a laminated maple top, back, and sides; maple neck with ebony fingerboard; dual single-coil pickups; and Bigsby vibrato and rocker bridge.

  • Amp: Fender tweed combo: Cochran was usually seen using one of Fender’s mid-sized tweed combos, which were full, rich-sounding tube amps that gained a little grit and compression when pushed into overdrive.

Early blues: Hubert Sumlin

Hubert Sumlin was lead guitarist for the legendary blues belter Howlin’ Wolf for some 25 years, and he established himself as one of the tastiest, most moving blues guitarists on the scene in the process. Here’s his famed setup:

  • Guitar: 1954 and 1956 Gibson Les Paul Model Goldtop: These early evolutions of the original incarnation of the solidbody Les Paul both had hot single-coil P-90 pickups, with the solid mahogany body, carved maple top, glued-in mahogany neck, and rosewood fingerboard that define the breed. The 1953 model had a wraparound bridge, whereas the ’56 had a tune-o-matic bridge with stopbar tailpiece.

  • Amp: More affordable Valco or Danelectro combos: These medium-sized tube amps were popular with players on the Chicago scene and gave out a creamy, slightly raw tone when pushed into overdrive.

Surf guitar: Dick Dale

Dick Dale has long been known as the King of Surf Guitar, a title he earned right at the birth of the genre when, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he packed ballrooms in southern California with thousands of churning surf fans every weekend. He used the following guitar, amp, and effects:

  • Guitar: Fender Stratocaster: A solidbody electric guitar made from alder with a bolt-on maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, 25-1/2 -inch scale length, three single-coil pickups, and Fender’s Synchronized Tremolo (vibrato) unit.

  • Amp: Fender Showman head and cab: A big, powerful 100-watt tube amp designed for a loud, punchy sound; built-in tremolo; large oversized speaker cabinets that eventually carried as many as two whopping 15-inch JBL speakers each.

  • Effects: Fender Reverb Unit and amp-based tremolo: Tube-driven tremolo circuit on the Fender amps; post-1962, Fender’s new Reverb Unit, a stand-alone, tube-powered spring reverb effect.

’60s blues-rock: Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is the most famous and enduring proponent of British blues-rock. He has played several different guitars and amps over the years, but his most groundbreaking setup is arguably that which he used in the mid-1960s to produce a fat, creamy lead tone on iconic recordings with John Mayall’s band the Blues Breakers, which included this guitar, amp, and pedal:

  • Guitar: 1959-’60 sunburst Gibson Les Paul: A solidbody electric guitar made from mahogany body with a carved maple top, glued-in neck with rosewood fingerboard, 24-3/4 -inch scale length, two humbucking pickups, tune-o-matic bridge, and a stopbar tailpiece.

  • Amp: Marshall Model 1962 Bluesbreaker combo: An early 45-watt Marshall combo (the 1962 is a model number, not a year) with two KT66 output tubes — a British cousin of the American 6L6 — and two 12-inch Celestion speakers.

  • Effects: Dallas Range Master Treble Booster: Germanium-transistor-powered booster pedal, used to kick the amp into heavier overdrive when needed.

Late ’60s heavy rock: Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix’s gear evolved over the short span of his career as a solo artist, but this is probably the rig he is most famous for using:

  • Guitar: Typically late ’60s Fender Stratocasters: Solidbody electric guitar made from alder (sometimes ash) with a bolt-on maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, 25-1/2 -inch scale length, three single-coil pickups, and Fender’s Synchronized Tremolo (vibrato) unit.

  • Amp: Marshall Super Lead full stacks: Powerful tube heads based on an output stage with four EL34s, on top two closed-back 4-x-12-inch Marshall cabs, often carrying Celestion G12H bass speakers.

  • Effects: Vox Wah-Wah, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Roger Mayer Octavia: Early incarnations of each, including germanium-transistor fuzz pedals and octave-divider pedals custom-made for Hendrix by technician Roger Mayer.

Contemporary blues: Stevie Ray Vaughan

Okay, so arguably Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rig isn’t exemplary of blues that’s all that contemporary, because he died in a helicopter crash in 1990. But he played such a big part in reintroducing the blues to popular contemporary music that his legacy — and the gear he used — remains extremely influential to this day:

  • Guitar: Early ’60s Fender Stratocasters: Solidbody electric guitar made from alder (sometimes ash) with a bolt-on maple neck with rosewood fingerboard, 25-1/2 -inch scale length, three single-coil pickups, and Fender’s Synchronized Tremolo (vibrato) unit.

  • Amps: Fender Vibroverb, Twin Reverb, Super Reverb; Dumble Steel String Singer; Marshall Town & Country: A variety of powerful vintage and contemporary tube amps, often playing through two or more simultaneously.

  • Effects: Vox Wah-Wah, Ibanez TS9 and TS10 Tube Screamer overdrives, Dallas-Arbiter Fuzz Face, Roger Mayer and Tycobrahe Octavias, Fender Vibratone rotating speaker cabinet: Partly inspired by Jimi Hendrix, partly by his own quest for original tones, SRV often chained together what was a relatively large number of effects for a blues artist.

New country: Brad Paisley

Perhaps more than any other guitarist working today, Brad Paisley is credited with bringing scorching guitar playing back to contemporary country music. On top of that, he has built an unparalleled reputation for outstanding guitar tone, thanks in part to the late ’60s Fender Paisley Telecaster, and also to the range of outstanding tube amps he uses both live and in the studio:

  • Guitar: 1968 Fender Telecaster with Paisley Red finish: Solidbody electric guitar made from alder with a bolt-on maple neck with maple fingerboard, 25-1/2-inch scale length, and two single-coil pickups.

  • Amps: 1962 Vox AC30, Dr Z Stang Ray, and Z-Wreck, Trainwreck: A variety of high-quality vintage and contemporary hand-made amplifiers, with a preference for EL84 output tubes.

  • Effects: Ego Compressor, Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer overdrive, Wampler Analog Echo, Way Huge Aquapuss Delay, Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss TR-2 Tremolo, and Empress Superdelay: Because he generates most of his lead tones at the (very fine) amps themselves and doesn’t use any real heavy distortion anyway, Brad Paisley only has one low-gain overdrive pedal on his board, the Tube Screamer, for boost. Several delays are used to obtain different preset delay times and depths.

Contemporary alternative: Jack White

Jack White’s playing with the White Stripes exemplified a blend of simplicity and extremity: fat, straight-up rock riffs, played with plenty of energy and enough weird, fuzzy sonics to make them stand out big time. Here is one of his setups:

  • Guitar: 1964 Airline Res-O-Glas: Semi-solidbody made from a combination of wood core and fiberglass shell, bolt-on wooden neck, and wide single-coil pickups (which look like humbuckers at a glance).

  • Amp: Mid-1960s Silvertone Model 1485: A powerful 100-watt catalog amp original sold by Sears Roebuck, with a four-6L6 output stage, reverb, and tremolo, played through a cabinet with six 10-inch Jensen speakers.

  • Effects: Electro-Harmonix Big Muff fuzz, Electro-Harmonix POG (Polyphonic Octave Generator), MXR Micro Amp booster, and DigiTech Whammy: Not a vast pedal selection, but effects that offer extreme enough sounds to allow some creative tone generation.

Heavy metal: Dimebag Darrell

Born Darrell Abbott, Dimebag Darrell was originally a guitarist with thrash-metal band Pantera before stepping out into other projects, on his own and with the band Damageplan, with whom he was playing when he was shot and killed in December 2004 at a show in Columbus, Ohio. Following were his tools of choice:

  • Guitar: 1981 Dean ML: Solidbody made from mahogany with a glued-in neck, 24-3/4-inch scale length, two humbucking pickups (one Bill Lawrence, one Dean), and Floyd Rose vibrato unit.

  • Amp: Randall Warhead or Randall Century 200: A powerful high-gain 200-watt solid-state amp for maximum crunch and mayhem, through two high-wattage, closed-back 4-x-12-inch Randall cabs.

  • Effects: DigiTech Whammy, Dunlop Cry Baby Wah-Wah, Boss PS-3 Pitch Shifter/Delay, Boss DS-2 Turbo Distortion, MXR Graphic EQ, and MXR Flanger/Doubler: A selection of effects designed to add depth and body to the extreme high-gain sounds required.