Guitar Tone Series Part 1: Clean and Bluesy

How many times have you listened to a favorite guitarist and wondered what they did to achieve their signature sound? In most cases, it’s a combination of equipment, accessories, technique, and technical knowledge. In this series, we will review the work of many of the best guitarists of the last 50 years and what they did to create their sound.

This article, the first in the series, reviews the work of several renowned blues guitarists. Although their tones differ from each other, these greats have one thing in common: A bluesy, “clean” sound that dominates their work.

Eric Clapton

At the top of almost everyone’s list of World’s Greatest Guitar Players is Old Slowhand himself. He has been revered for both his group and solo projects, including Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and The Dominos, Bluesbreakers, and The Yardbirds. In his early days, he simply plugged his Les Paul into a Marshall amp and cranked it. He uses mostly Fenders now, and with more sophisticated sound equipment. What has really kept his tone consistent is his expert fingering technique. His finger vibrato has set the standard for blues-rock guitar for 50 years and led to many labeling Clapton as a guitar god.

Recommended Recordings: JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS, DIREALI GEARS-Cream; LAYLA-Derek and the Dominos; SLOWHAND and FROM THE CRADLE-Eric Clapton

Keith Richards

Before Mick Jagger even opens his mouth, you know a Stones song when you hear Keef’s guitar. Against all odds, the “Human Riff” has chalked up a 50 year career as the guitarist and de facto bandleader of The Rolling Stones. He has played multiple guitars throughout his career, but he says it all boils down to matching the right guitar with the right amp to fit the song being played. He prefers using an open-tuned guitar, using 5 strings in GDGBD, leaving the sixth (largest) string removed. His interplay with fellow Stone, Ron Wood, has created a number of classics.

Recommended Recordings: TALK IS CHEAP-Keith Richards; GRRR!, BEGGAR’S BANQUET, and EXILE ON MAIN STREET-The Rolling Stones

BB King

The King of Blues Guitar has always kept things simple. By and large, his fingers determine his tone. He has used his beloved Gibson ES-355, known affectionately as “Lucille,” for decades. Although he has slowed down considerably from earlier days, he still continues to record and make occasional live appearances. He has used Lab Series amps for years with his own signature Gibson strings.

Recommended Recordings: BLUES IS KING, LIVE AT THE REGAL

Jonny Lang

This “young old” man was already a blues great at the tender age of 14 when he self-released his debut album. He has gone on to multi-platinum status with several acclaimed albums on the A&M label. After a conversion to Christianity in 2000, he also released several acclaimed gospel albums. Among several other guitars, he uses a Telecaster with Seymour Duncan and Bill Lawrence pickups, several effects pedals, and Fender Deluxe reverb amps.

Recommended Recordings: LIE TO ME, WALK THIS WORLD

Every renowned player has a tone that you can achieve. With a bit of research, you can find out what he or she uses to get their signature sound, and work towards achieving it. Read on to Part 2: Experimentalists for a peek into another style that started in blues.


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