AS LONG AS I CAN remember I have loved the sound of an electric guitar. One of my earliest memories is from the start of the movie Back to the Future, where Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, plugs into a huge guitar amp and turns everything up to 11. He hits his guitar and – BANG – is thrown into the air and hits the shelves behind him. Wow! He turns a knob labeled “Overdrive”, something I was just starting to develop a lifelong love affair with. That’s what you wanted – overdrive, and lots of it!
After my first childhood idols – (legendary Finnish band) The Hurriganes and The Beatles – my true passion became Hard Rock. This was at the beginning of the Eighties, and I was about ten years old. I was sure for a long time that the crunchy sounds I enjoyed so much on my records were just that “overdrive” I had heard of. Randy Rhoads (with Ozzy) and Vinnie Campbell (Dio) sure played lots of chunky riffs, but there was one guitar wizard who stood head and shoulders above all others, in my opinion. Jake E. Lee’s playing on Ozzy Osbourne’s classic "Bark at the Moon", managed to sum up the whole Hard Rock scene of the early 80s. I still think that this is a great track. (Example starting at 0:00)
As I listen to the track now I notice how crunchy it sounds. In my memory it sounded to my young ears a lot gainier, more distorted and more “electric”. There wasn’t anything like this back then, nothing to compare the sounds to. With 20/20 hindsight you could say that the guitars sounded very dynamic. Even though – back in ’83 – I thought “Wow, these are very distorted guitar sounds”, in truth this was only the beginning. There was more to come, much, much more…
A few years down the road the paradigm had already shifted. Speed Metal had come to stay, and Hard Rock started to feel a bit wimpy by comparison. This young guitarist was thirsty for much more gain. Anthrax’ Scott Ian was my next hero. His sound and his rhythm playing were a deadly combination. (Example starting at 0:12)
Ian and Metallica’s James Hetfield managed to define the whole Metal genre’s sound and playing techniques for the rest of the decade. Their tones were very saturated and big. Right hand damping was accentuated by turning down the amp’s midrange frequencies. This is how the scooped Metal sound was born. (Example starting at 0:00)
You could achieve this tone using different gain stages. Modern high gain amps and clipping transistors can easily get you there. Pedal makers and experienced players these days know that the mid-band frequencies play an important role in electric guitar sounds. It’s a fact that most of the vital “chunk” and “grit” can be found in the middle frequencies. Still, my young self loved scooped guitar sounds back then, and so be it. I felt that the midrange sounded very honky and unpleasant. By using the loudness effect of the scooped settings you could play very loud, while still pleasing the ear. The downside was, though, that it was hard to make yourself heard in a band context.
Tastes in guitar sounds changed so quickly that the riffs I had previously admired as distorted and dangerous started sounding almost like Classic Rock. Only a few years prior, Mick Mars’ (Mötley Crue) sound was the best thing I knew, now it seemed boring and stale. (Example starting at 0:00)
Mick Mars’ abilities as a player were in a bit of doubt, gauging from the polls in many guitar magazines back then. Young guitarists always want to learn from the best. This hasn’t changed over the years.
Yngwie J. Malmsteen was something else altogether. He was widely admired for his speed, his technique and his classical influences. My young self wasn’t very fond of Malmsteen’s tone, though, because I found it too clean. I loved guitarists who fuelled their technique with fat and fluid distortion. I first latched onto Joe Satriani. He had been Kirk Hammett’s (Metallica) and Steve Vai’s (David Lee Roth) guitar teacher. Back then his tone sounded inspiring, but nowadays it can seem somewhat sugary. (Example starting at 0:24)
In the end, Steve Vai really upped the ante. He was a phenomenon right from the get-go. His guitar tones preached the gospel of distortion. When this track came out I wanted to sound like Vai, now I’m not so sure anymore. In a best-case scenario a super-chunky and saturated sound can be fun and easy to play, and you cannot deny that there’s a certain wow-factor attached to it. (As this clip is mastered lower than previous ones, please turn up your speakers just a little bit. Example starting at 0:00)
The Metal scene continued evolving steadily. The playing got faster and faster, and valves weren’t seen as the only road to distortion anymore. Tubes tend to have a slightly softer attack. Many guitarists thought that the popular Mesa/Boogie Rectifier sounded way better, when its rectification was transistor-based instead of using valves. While Speed Metal may have relied on heavily boosted Marshall-type distortion, the new generation of players were looking for a far tighter and more aggressive sound.
Dimebag Darrell was the guitar god of his generation, and with good reason. He shaped a new type of Metal tone by forsaking valves in favour of solid state clipping. Speed Metal was superseded by Thrash Metal on the highway to the Death Metal genre of the early Nineties. (Example starting at 0:32)
Metal guitarists also zoned in on Florida for a moment. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner was a technically advanced guitarist, who, just like Dimebag, got his ultra-tight sound from using only transistor-based distortion. The notes had to come like machine gun fire, which made an extremely tight attack paramount. (Example starting at 0:00)
But Death Metal was alive and kicking on the other side of our own little pond, too. A wave of Death Metal bands in Stockholm was taking things even further. For my own part, I can remember that in terms of distortion and aggressive speed, the Swedish brand of Death Metal went over the limit. Remember, the Hurriganes and the Beatles originally set me on my way, so I was still looking for melodies and cleanly executed playing. Neither could be found in Sweden. Swedish Death meant a Boss HM-2 turned to eleven – a sound making your ears bleed. (Example starting at 0:00)
The more polished Floridian brand of Death Metal was much more to my taste, even though much of the music was also very raw. The pinnacle of that scene, to me, were Deicide’s first records, whose sound was so much more pleasing than what the Swedes were dishing out. Maybe it was down to bilingual teenage angst? I couldn’t say. But I do remember listening to Deicide on my Walkman, enjoying band's satanic lyrics, while mowing the lawn at my local church on summer. (Example starting at 0:00)
I seemed to have reached the end of the line in my search for maximum distortion. The Metal world kept turning and evolving, though. The next new genre was Black Metal, which wasn’t my cup of tea at all. I also started to get fed up of the Metal Hard and Heavy crowd’s narrow view on music. It felt like people were looking at the world only through Metal genre and disregared everything else. I started to feel a strong thirst for all types of different genres from all over the world. I might have given my proverbial finger to the devil, but I was determined to keep the rest of my hand. (Example starting at 0:00)
One of the coolest things for art lovers is to find the next big thing, while it still isn’t part of the mainstream. At school one of my classmates had already introduced me to Punk and Hardcore. Now he had found a new band, and I made a cassette copy of their latest record. Nirvana’s big breakthrough came almost a year later. What a great band. Kurt Cobain’s approach to guitar playing was refreshingly innovative. His Fender Mustang was plugged into a distortion pedal, and he was hitting all six strings with his left hand. Even though he was using the same pedal that some of my guitar heroes were using, he did use it in a different way.
Precision and a scholarly approach to guitar-playing went right out of the window. For me this was just the right music at precisely the right time. Hard Rock had been rocking on in the background, but I had only followed the scene with superficial interest. Back then, current bands like Winger, Warrant and Poison were complete rubbish, as far as I was concerned. Kurt’s band came and wiped the floor with their music, killing the whole pretentious LA Glam Metal scene.
I found many new and interesting bands through my mates. The study of music theory also got me interested in playing the electric bass, which in turn made me aware of Flea, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their guitarist John Frusciante. I simply love this band’s music. They made me aware of the great sounds you could glean from singlecoil pickups and sparingly applied overdrive. Frusciante’s playing had enough of a Rock attitude, which meant he never sounded clinical. The band were always flying by the seat of their pants, it seemed, making the ride very exciting and interesting. (Example starting at 0:00)
I started to immerse myself in all kinds of music, and I learned a lot about different guitar sounds. One of my favourite guitarists at that time was Mike Campbell (Tom Petty). His tones had just the right amount of dirt and soul that I was craving at that moment. Despite the high production values his guitar-playing always stood out as very soulful and organic. (Example starting at 0:00)
One important turning point happened just after my military service. I got to know a genuine Blues aficionado, who played a Stratocaster through a Fender amp. Up to that point, I had always thought of Blues as acoustic stuff in the style of Robert Johnson. But now I was open to new influences and letting my friend’s favourite style of music flow through me. Unknowingly that time would prove to be the most critical few years in my life. My new friend introduced me to a bona fide musical icon, whose music he worshipped with almost manic intensity. (Example starting at 0:09)
Stevie Ray Vaughan – known to his fans as SRV – is a genuine guitar icon. You could almost claim that the sheer endless popularity of all types of overdrive pedals is down to the fact, that so many guitarists want to capture SRV’s tone. The man had an extremely dynamic touch, meaning that the amount of break-up was in direct correlation to how hard SRV hit the strings. This was in direct contrast to most Metal music, where notes tended to sound the same, regardless of how hard or soft you played.
Many guitarists still hunt for SRV’s sound in the same way as others look for the Holy Grail. At first I was puzzled – this guitar sound seemed almost clean. Where was the distortion? By listening more closely, I found a fascinating array of different layers of grit and dirt in a highly enticing mixture. I’m still searching for some of the magic ingredients.
This is the sound that equipment manufacturers are calling “overdrive”. It seems I had been cheated by Michael J. Fox! Overdrive meant rather mild, only slightly saturated tones. Originally, this is achieved by setting an all-tube amp so that playing your guitar softly will result in crystal clean sounds. More aggressive pick hand work would result in the combination of the pedal effect and amplifier to break up the sound. SRV used an overdrive pedal in front of his combo, which resulted in a fluid, singing dose of dirt that would even please the ladies in the audience. His sound was a real breadwinner, paving the way for a whole swathe of adult-oriented Blues players. The sounds popularised by SRV can be heard daily on Pop and Rock radios all over the globe. His influence on the popularity of the electric guitar is immeasurable.
I also found another master guitarist with the help of this same friend. Carlos Santana could be classified as the father of the singing lead sound. His sound, too, is classified as an overdrive sound. Even though there is a mild amount of drive and dirt in his tone, Santana can sound quite vulnerable in places. I have played the following song very often. It isn’t difficult to find the right notes, but I have to concede, that I can’t even come close to the magic sound of the original track. (Example starting at 0:00)
The Blues fanatic’s brother was a huge Jethro Tull fan. The guys were living in the same house, but on different floors. There was Blues ringing from above, while below you could hear the sound of many great British bands from the 1960s and 70s. Without realising it, I got acquainted with the precursor to the overdrive pedal – the booster.
Back in the 50s and 60s amplifier companies tried to build their guitar amps to sound as clean as possible. Distortion was an unwanted byproduct of the valve amp, and the optimal sound of the electric guitar at the start of the 60s was totally clean. Back then guitarists started using external reverbs and tape echoes to spruce up their live sound. The preamplifiers used in these “prehistoric” effect units tended to boost the level of the input signal going into the guitar amp, resulting in a saturated precursor to overdrive. The added warmth and slight cello-like timbre of these saturated tones made playing lead lines easier and helped the guitar stand out above the band. It didn’t take long for guitarists to demand an easy-to-use solution to achieve this sound.
Back then, British amps tended to sound less brilliant than most American counterparts. This problem was solved by the invention of the treble booster. In actual fact this device doesn’t boost the treble, instead it attenuates bass frequencies. When you turn up most amps you will get a boost in bass frequency output. Treble boosters now made it possible to cut boomy bass frequencies, while helping you to boost the input signal into creamy saturation. Like many other British guitarists, Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre used a treble booster to spruce up his sound. (Example starting at 0:00)
Barre was no doubt influenced by Eric Clapton, who had managed to update the sound of British Blues. The same gritty top end can easily be heard in the following track, too. This is a true gem in the realm of guitar music, with many guitarists still trying to emulate Clapton’s tone. (Example starting at 0:20)
A third British player of note, who utilised the treble booster was Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. His sound contains the same gnarly and nasty top end snarl you can hear in Clapton’s playing. True, Iommi’s sound is much darker, but he uses the booster to add a good deal of harmonics to his pick attack. The result is a classic sound that paved the way for many bands over the next decades. (Example starting at 0:05)
My friend’s brother also liked to listen to Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, and many other great bands from decades past. I had heard a lot of people mentioning Jimi Hendrix’ fuzz sound as trend-setting. To my inexperienced ears the sound seemed a bit scruffy and edgy, especially compared to overdrive and distortion sounds, which usually are “easier” on your ears. I still had to “find” my way into the world of fuzz, back then. As with foreign cooking, it is easiest to approach new sounds through an easy-to-digest piece of music. But once you’ve got your taste of the new tones, you’re bound to come back for more. You’re hooked.
It was like a scene from a movie: I stepped into Helsinki’s largest music store, and I heard a record playing that gripped me instantly. I hadn’t heard better singing since John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but in this case the guitar sound was very dirty. The contrast worked like a dream – catchy American melodies and great harmony singing, but the guitar sounds were really raw. (Example starting at 0:00)
The Jayhawks’ guitarist, and second vocalist, Gary Louris turned out to be my guide into the secrets of fuzz guitar. His weapon of choice was a battered Fuzz Face, his guitar a Gibson SG, and his amp an old Fender. I got a chance to actually meet him, when his band were playing in Helsinki. Gary told me his secret for his lead sound was to pick the strings as softly as possible, which would trigger the fuzz pedal in the right way. This guitar solo left an indelible impression in my mind. Once again, it had a great mix of boldness and danger. (Example starting at 1:48)
Lenny Kravitz is another artist who bases a lot of his oeuvre on vintage sounds, like fuzz guitar. His retro-styled world of sound baffled me, right from the start. I listen to his music a lot, always trying to understand what his vintage tones were made of. This song was a hit, its riff still a fine example of a vintage-style fuzz sound. (Example starting at 0:00)
Once you’ve become fascinated by fuzz you can’t seem to get enough. The Grunge movement that Nirvana had started rang in a musical revolution, with many bands naming artists from the 1970s as their influences. Black Sabbath was an influence on many of them. Their sound laid the foundation for what was to become Stoner Rock. So I decided to give another finger to the devil. This riff served as an easy entrance into the world of more fuzzier sounds, becoming a classic in the Stoner genre. The basic sound was rather dark and distorted, which was underlined by playing the riff high up the neck with a lot of finger vibrato, similar to Tony Iommi. (Example starting at 0:00)
I wanted more. My next step was probably the most crucial. Kyuss and Desert Rock landed in Finland a little later from rest of the world, but still made a huge impact in Helsinki’s music scene. (Example starting at 0:00)
The band tuned down, just like Sabbath did. Their guitarist Josh Homme used Ampeg bass amplifier heads driven by different fuzz pedals. This was a band for a new generation and many similar bands sprang up in their wake, even over here in Finland. A young producer named Hiili Hiilesmaa got hold of a Kyuss record, which inspired him to bring a new wave of hard-hitting guitars sounds to guitarists. (Example starting at 0:00)
Some of the tools used were the simultaneous use of different fuzz pedals, deliberately damaged speakers, and semiacoustic guitars, which would react to the tons of gain in very unpredictable ways. There were small amps, turned up full, regardless of whether the combo would start burning, even before the riff was played to the end. I just couldn’t get enough of the dirt and the grit. Stoner bands were on heavy rotation in my bedsitter, until the postman dropped off an album that would leave a lasting impression in my life. (Example starting at 0:00)
This riff, these guitar sounds, and the whole record would define the Stoner genre in my mind. I had never heard something so hard and raw, and I was sure this feat couldn’t be repeated. Matt Pike rung in doomsday sounds like nobody had before him – everything else seemed lame in comparison. Nebula, Fu Manchu, Goatsnake and even Electric Wizard seemed like watered down versions. Released by a British label Rise Above, Sleep's Jerusalem was the hardest record I had ever encountered. I’m still as enthralled by it now, as I was when I first heard it. At the same time, this seemed like the end of an era. Where would the music scene evolve next?
The answer was provided by the man, who started it all. Josh Homme founded another band, called Queens of the Stone Age. Their sound was still gritty and raw, but also more refined. The tracks also were noticeably faster than Stoner Rock’s traditionally phlegmatic tempos. Homme managed to reinvent himself, again inspiring countless guitarists. (Example starting at 0:00)
With time, I started picking out additional sounds from fuzz-imbued tracks. Jimi Hendrix had used a device back in the Sixties that added an upper octave to the fuzzed up sound. These tones hadn’t been used much after Jimi’s untimely death, but what goes around comes around, and fashion latches on to old things. Jimi knew how to use the octafuzz, playing some fantastic lines, and finding new and exciting sounds. (Example starting at 7:20)
In my mind most innovations in guitar sounds in the Noughties were down to two guitarists. Josh Homme continued to break down barriers, but the really persistent work in the proverbial trenches was down to the White Stripes’ Jack White. In the beginning, I didn’t like the band’s first albums, but over time my opinion started changing, until I was completely sold on their concept. Jack White managed to bring a sense of danger and excitement back into the mainstream, which I really liked. Here’s a great example of how to use an octaver in tandem with a fuzz pedal. (Example starting at 0:06)
In contrast to Hendrix’ music, here the octaver is a digital effect, which, nevertheless, sounds very organic when distorted. As a fuzz alone can already produce quite synth-like sounds, adding an octaver can work brilliantly. Here’s another fine example, with Josh Homme sprucing up his solo with a digital octaver. (Example starting at 2:00)
A few years later Homme played a melodic line in his second band; this time he used an analogue octaver. Both sounds are quite similar, even if this example is maybe a little less over-the-top. To me, both tracks sound amazing, and the playing has a lot of grit and character. A certain Hendrix influence is easy to spot. (Example starting at 0:52)
Like your tastes in food, your ear, too, will develop with age. Known tastes will stick with you, but new ones will be added along the way. I always felt a bit stupid, when some older guys talked about certain sounds or timbres I hadn’t come across, yet. The sound of compressors, for example, was a sheer mystery to me for a very long time. I did understand, why you would want to use a compressor in the studio to record a drum set, a bass guitar, or even a country guitar. In these cases a compressor was used to smooth dynamic peaks, by making quiet parts louder and loud parts quieter. That was compression.
Over time I realised that compressors were far more widely used than I’d imagined. In the end, I got a real grip on the way a compressor adds to the sound from an unexpected source. If you use a compressor after an overdrive pedal, it will work as a type of booster, adding a distinct, slightly nasal component to the guitar sound. If you add a lot of compression it will bite and pump. Here’s an example of heavy compression that almost goes overboard. (Example starting at 0:15)
Albert Järvinen (of legendary Finnish band the Hurriganes) was very into using compression, often using a compressor to boost his overdrive pedal, for example during solos. In Country music compressors were mostly placed directly after the guitar, but here Järvinen was using it behind his overdrive. This meant I had known what a compressed guitar sounds like for almost all my life – it’s almost in the DNA of Finns of a certain age. I only had to realise this fact and find that sound again. (Example starting at 0:15)
Used like this, a compressor will compress the guitar signal to make it cut through the mix. Just like a distortion pedal, a compressor makes the dynamic range of the guitar signal narrower. This effect is used by many fingerpickers. Your fingers won’t always hit the strings in the exact same manner, but the compressor will even out dynamic and tonal changes considerably. Just imagine what this prime example would sound like without the compressor! (Example starting at 4:59)
Once you learn to spot the sound of a compressor, you will be able to find it in all manner of places. It’s like some spices, say thyme, for example. Once you’ve tasted thyme, and recognised its taste, you will be able to taste it in many dishes, regardless of the other ingredients. I had listened to this intro hundreds of times, without ever noticing that the magic ingredient was a compressor. These days I can spot it in an instant, even without giving thought to the rest of the signal chain. (Example starting at 0:00)
Or how about this track? These days I find it hard not to listen to the cluck of the compressor working. (Example starting at 0:04)
Can you over-compress a guitar signal? If you ask the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn the answer would surely be no. He loved the sound so much, he had a compressor installed directly into his 12-string electric guitar. The Sixties would be much poorer without the sound of a well-compressed electric guitar. (Example starting at 0:00)
McGuinn had been influenced by none other than Beatle George Harrison, my childhood idol. Harrison played his 12-string electric on many classic tracks, live and in the studio, during the 1964-1966 period. On Beatle records compression was a very important part of the band’s overall sound. So, I have known compression almost from day one, it only took me a couple of decades to unearth this fact, and to learn how to spot its sound. And I’m still learning. (Example starting at 0:47)
My Inner ear is continuing to get more attuned to different guitar sounds. I slowly seem to become one of the “old guys”, who know a thing or two about how to spot different guitar effects off of a record. Still, the road never ends, which feels great.
3.9.2020 Kimmo Aroluoma
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.