From grunge to classic rock: a look at some genre-defining electric guitar tones.
Tone is serious business for electric guitarists and the great classic rock axes all possess their own, distinct tonal personalities.
For your consideration, here are five classic guitar-centric songs that feature five very different electric guitars. In each, the musician exploits their instrument’s tonal personalities to shape sounds that have become permanently embedded in our collective rock ‘n’ roll consciousness.
The Strat/LP dance in “Layla”
For us, “Layla” is among the most heart-wrenching songs about unrequited love ever recorded. Eric Clapton’s tribute to Pattie Boyd—the wife of his pal George Harrison—has become a staple of classic rock radio. The track feature two giants of electric guitar —Clapton and Duane Allman—and the towering riff that has become the song’s signature.
According to iconic producer Tom Dowd who mixed the several sessions that comprise the finished “Layla,” there are six tracks of overlapping guitar parts with Clapton’s Stratocaster and Allman’s Les Paul writhing around and playing off each other. Dowd recalled,
“There had to be some sort of telepathy going on because I’ve never seen spontaneous inspiration happen at that rate and level. One of them would play something, and the other reacted instantaneously. Never once did either of them have to say, ‘Could you play that again, please?’ It was like two hands in a glove. And they got tremendously off on playing with each other.”
A third electric guitar part makes its appearance roughly midway through the song playing through a rotating Leslie organ speaker that Clapton controlled with a foot pedal to create its swirling, head-spinning sounds. When released in 1970, the double-LP Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs received lackluster critical and commercial response. Since then, listeners and critics alike have radically revised their opinions. The track “Layla” itself enjoyed a revival when Clapton rearranged it for his 1992 live album, Unplugged. And the electric version is of course insisted upon by fans at every Clapton show.
The Fender Super-Champ X2 Tube Combo shares the same tube-amp DNA as the Champ Clapton cut “Layla”with. But the updated version wins for sheer versatility.
For those of you who aspire to Clapton’s epic Strat mastery, the Fender Custom Shop makes an Artist Series Eric Clapton Stratocaster that has all the mojo of the original “Blackie” Strat.
An exact replica of Clapton’s beloved “Blackie,” it’s built by the same Fender Custom Shop luthiers who build for EC himself.
BC Rich Metal Master: “Raining Blood”
Our second entry is also the product of two guitarists sympatico performances. First heard in Slayer’s seminal thrash metal album, Reign in Blood, the now iconic, 10-note guitar riff in “Raining Blood” was created by guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. It’s since been featured on South Park and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City making it among the recognizable metal songs ever. And “Raining Blood” has continued to be a fixture in Slayer’s live sets ever since Reign in Blood was released in 1986.
Kerry King’s B.C. Rich Metal Master, a more wallet friendly version of the guitar King used on “Raining Blood”, is perfectly suited for such sonic assaults on sanity. Equipped to handle the ferocious technical precision of King’s plectrum strikes, as well as the thunderous distortion intrinsic to Slayer’s sound.
The Telecaster that caused a “Communication Breakdown”
Led Zeppelin’s music has proven to be among the most durable rock on the planet: their first four albums receive incessant airplay to this day. Jimmy Page’s consistently inventive approach to recording guitar is a big part of that.
The band cut “Communication Breakdown,” a track that would also appear on their self-titled debut album, as the B-side of their first single, “Good Times Bad Times.” Looking for a unique sound, Page plugged his 1959 Telecaster, which was a gift from his former Yardbirds bandmate Jeff Beck, into a small Supro amplifier and locked a Vox Wah pedal in the fully closed position to generate what’s been called the “guitar in a shoebox” sound. The guitar does indeed seem to be coming from a tiny enclosure within the mix.The closed wah coupled with Page’s furious downpicking creates a sound like no other.
The Vox V845 Classic Wah Wah, built using 1960s specs, is essentially the same pedal Page used to create his one-of-a-kind “Communication Breakdown” sound.
Fender of course still makes the Telecaster, and with dozens of different models available today, there’s one to match most budgets and musical missions.
Check out the full range of Teles with our Telecaster Buying Guide.
A Fender Mustang that “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Grunge rock. You either love it or hate it, but what better way to capture the angsty sound of Gen X than with a wildly overdriven guitar?
While Kurt Cobain was never known as a guitar virtuoso, his emotionally resonant themes and lyrics became the musical flagship of an entire subculture. Instead of technically complex compositions or arrangements, Nirvana gave voice to a generation through their loud, anarchic brand of rock, helping create a whole new subgenre.
For most of his career Cobain was a staunch advocate of the Fender Mustang, using it live, in the studio, and most notably on “Smells Like Teen Spirit. The grunge-y, powerful, overdriven Mustang coupled with the generous use of a chorus pedal on the solo (not to mention Dave Grohl’s impeccable drumming)—helped create what many see as the defining rock song of the ‘90s.
Originally introduced as a student-model electric guitar, the Fender Mustang has proven its mettle not just in the realms of grunge. Pointing to its versatility, David Byrne, John Frusciante, Todd Rundgren and Adrian Belew have all saddled up Mustangs.
The LP/Epiphone Casino crunch that sparked a ”Revolution”
Here’s a double helping of guitar greatness for you: George Harrison, one of rock’s most respected guitarists and John Lennon, one of its greatest songwriters (and a solid guitarist in his own right) came together (with two other guys, of course) to sound the opening shot in the coming pop revolution. John’s buzz-saw, fuzzed-out Epiphone Casino on “Revolution” was a shot heard ‘round the world.
The twinned, severely distorted onslaught of Harrison’s LP and Lennon’s Casino gave the Beatles’ one of their biggest in-your-face sounds.
While both Harrison’s Les Paul (a gift from Eric Clapton) and Lennon’s Casino are featured prominently in the track, it’s that deeply distorted crunch from Harrison’s Les Paul that stands out in the mix. The filthy tone was achieved by going direct into the mixing console.
One of The Beatles’ more rocking efforts, the crunchy mash of guitars propelled by Paul’s bassline with a little modern compression would make “Revolution sound sound totally contemporary. Equally as timeless, the Gibson Les Paul and Epiphone Casino continue to be built in a wide range of models.
Become an LP expert—dig into the Les Paul Buying Guide.
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