10 Iconic Tone Recordings
Many great guitarists of the past have established guitar tones, in a wide range of genres, that have become iconic as examples of their type. Exploring recordings of some of these makes a great quick-hit method of familiarizing yourself with what experienced players often consider to be the standards of tone.
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”
For many people, the 1958 hit single “Johnny B. Goode” absolutely epitomizes classic ’50s rock’n’roll. Chuck Berry punctuates his vocals with staccato unison bends and his trademark double-stops, all in a tone that’s somewhat cleaner than you may expect from his thinline Gibson semi-acoustic guitar and Gibson amplifier.
Kenny Burrell, “Midnight Blue”
The 1963 recording “Midnight Blue” from the album of the same name finds jazz great Kenny Burrell purring with archetypal jazz tone. Far from dull, his sound — on a big Gibson archtop with neck pickup and an old Gibson tube amp — has warmth aplenty, sure, but enough bite to help it cut through, too.
Albert King, “Born Under a Bad Sign”
One of the “Three Kings of the Blues” (alongside Freddie and B. B.), Albert King arguably had the most swagger of the bunch, and the big lefty’s hot, stinging tone on a Gibson Flying V doesn’t dampen that verdict much. The 1967 recording “Born Under a Bad Sign” shows him at his best, nailing lithe, wiry fills in a classic electric-blues idiom.
The Beatles, “I Saw Her Standing There”
Lookin’ for the sound of the British invasion? Here it is in one great song: The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” a raw, mostly-live studio recording from 1963 that is totally exemplary of the Fab Four’s early days. The guitars are George Harrison’s 1957 Gretsch Duo Jet and John Lennon’s 1958 Rickenbacker 325, through Vox AC30s that are still pretty clean but with plenty of bite.
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, “Act Naturally”
Although Buck Owens was the headliner — and one of the great country voices of all time — his guitarist Don Rich is the real star of the 1963 hit “Act Naturally.” Listen to his iconic big-twang Telecaster tone, and that classic Bakersfield sound in general, and you can hear where later artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and Brad Paisley got much of their inspiration.
Van Halen, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love”
On Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” the standout single from the band’s 1978 eponymous debut album, Eddie Van Halen introduced a dark, edgy mood into his high-octane guitar playing and launched a sound that influenced a thousand heavy rock bands to come.
The tone comes courtesy of Van Halen’s famous “Frankenstrat” (Charvell body and neck, Gibson humbucking pickup) through a cranked late ’60s Marshall plexi dirtied up further by way of a Variac voltage regulator used to starve it of some voltage (feeding it a lower mains AC voltage than the standard 120 from the wall outlet).
AC/DC, “Highway to Hell”
Every time you revisit “Highway to Hell” —or anything from the album of the same name (or any early AC/DC, for that matter) — you should gain a renewed appreciation for how thick, solid, juicy, and utterly drippingly delectable the Young brothers’ guitar tones are.
Recorded in 1979 for what turned out to be the band’s last album with original vocalist Bon Scott, this is about as good as no-nonsense ’70s rock gets. Malcolm’s modified Gretsch Jet Firebird and Angus’s Gibson SG, both through Marshall stacks, couldn’t have sounded any better.
Neil Young, “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) (Live)”
Found on Neil Young’s Live Rust album, recorded during his tour to support 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, the song “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” was born out of garage rock but clearly prefigured (and influenced) the grunge movement of half a decade later. Neil Young goes wild in his modified early ’50s Gibson Les Paul with Bigsby through a cranked tweed Deluxe, and six shades of sonic mayhem ensue.
Metallica, “Master of Puppets”
Culled from the 1986 album of the same name, Metallica’s second, the song “Master of Puppets” is definitive new-metal. From the chunky, crunchy “scooped” (that is, midrange-attenuated) rhythm sound, to the scorching, soaring lead guitar — James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, respectively — this sound virtually defined the genre and has stood as the gold standard for going on three decades.
Dinosaur Jr., “Start Choppin’”
Right here where Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (undeniably a classic) was about to be slotted in this list, it seemed apropos to slide a little sideways and give a nod to a guy who is arguably the most inspired guitarist of the entire indie-grunge genre.
By lurching so seamlessly through the essential quiet/loud and mellow/wild dichotomies that so often define this breed of rock, and doing it with one of the sleaziest, greasiest, fuzziest guitar sounds ever committed to record (and not just on the 1993 release “Start Choppin’,” but all over the place), Dinosaur Jr.’s guitarist J Mascis established himself as an artist to be reckoned with, for all time.
Oh yeah: Fender Jazzmaster, Marshall amps, lots of fuzz pedals.