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Building your guitar sound

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Whatever style you play, whatever sound you want, there are a few things you're going to need to get a great sound.

Remember that the sounds on your favourite bands' recordings were created in a studio with tens of thousands of pounds worth of outboard effects, dynamics processors and EQ. So don't be too disheartened if you can't quite match it!

But there are a few things you can use to get close.

Firstly, we need to talk about the amp. Valve amps have different qualities and are often associated with particular sounds. However, it's got as much to do with your guitar and its pickups, the way you play, the effects you use and how you set the amp up.

A lot of players opt for a clean, rich tone from their amp and achieve the crunch/fuzz/overdrive/distortion from their pedals. One example of an amp that does this well is the Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb. Others choose an amp that gets them in right ball-park for tone and overdrive characteristics and then tweak and modify the sound with pedals. Try the Orange Thunder 30 for an amp with a good clean sound but a great range of sounds on the distortion channel. 

Modelling amps will give you a wide range of overdrive characteristics from one box, but sometimes they offer too much variety and some don't quite sound natural. The Vox Valvetronix series are worth considering as they have a valve after the digital bits that smoothes the waveforms and adds a more natural feel to the processed sound. The Fender Mustang has a vast library of models (though no valve) and great a speaker that results in very good overall tone. Both of these amps are available from bedroom practice size to gigging power.

     Fender '68 Custom Deluxe Reverb      Orange Thunder 30

Vox Valvetronix VT40+               Fender Mustang III

Now, on to the issue of the pedals. Whatever sound you're after, and whichever amp you've got, there are a couple of things you're going to need.

1. Compressor

This is probably the most important pedal on your board. Listen to any recorded guitar and hear how the level seems so consistent. Of course, the playing style and phrasing will create a dynamic range (soft and loud bits) that make it sound interesting, but there will be some compression holding it together. If you're playing choppy chords it can be difficult to make each chop sound the same level, the compressor will do this for you. For solos without distortion, the compressor will give you much more sustain. If you're using a big valve overdrive sound with the amp gain up high, the valves are doing the compressing for you but you can gain even more sustain with a compressor. The Boss CS-3 and the MXR Super Comp are good examples.

MXR M132 Super Comp Guitar Compressor      Boss Compression Sustainer CS-3

Boss Chorus Ensemble CE-5    MXR M148 Micro Chorus

2. Chorus

You don't need to have this on an extreme setting, but a subtle chorus will thicken your tone nicely without it sounding unnatural. Try the MXR Micro Chorus for simplicity or the Boss CE-3 if you want to have a lot more control of the effect.

3. Delay

Not something you'll have on all the time, but used carefully, it can make the guitar sound big and fill some of the silences! For solos, a few more repeats and a delay time that fits the tempo can turn a simple solo into something with harmony and great depth. I prefer the analogue pedals like the MXR Carbon Copy, but if you want long delay times, a digital delay can be essential. Some of these, like the Boss DD7, have an analogue emulation setting which is useful for a more natural sounding decay.

MXR M169 Carbon Copy Analogue Delay     Boss Stereo Digital Delay DD-7

Boss Blues Driver BD-2       MXR M116 Fullbore Metal Distortion

4. Overdrive

There are so many to choose from, it's hard to say which will suit you best. One reason for having an overdrive (or distortion or whatever) is to give you a volume boost for solos or changes of sound within a number - verse/chorus/middle eight etc. If you're using a clean root sound, then you'll need overdrive pedals to introduce any distortion tones you're going to use. Try a few out to find the one(s) that suit your sound.

Here are a couple to look at - one extreme to the other. The Blues Driver gives you a crunchy, valve-like overdrive while the Fullbore is a screaming, fizzing distortion pedal like no other!

5. EQ

If you're not quite happy with the tone you get having fiddled with the amp tone controls, a simple graphic EQ pedal can help you get the sound you want.

MXR M109 6 Band EQ   Boss 7 Band Graphic EQ GE-7

Boss Digital Reverb RV-5

6. Reverb

Your amp may well have a spring or digital reverb built-in but, if not, you can get a reverb pedal to add some ambience to your sound.

All the other effects you can buy are great for creating something distinctive but not something you should use on all songs unless your band has a trademark sound that depends on the phaser, flanger or weird effect - it can get a bit tedious.
There are no right answers to some of the questions about guitar sound, it's very much down to personal taste and what style of music you want to play, but there are some things that will improve your sound whatever style you like.

I hope this article has helped you work out where to start! If you found it useful, share it with friends!