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Cheap easy ways to get great vintage electric guitar tone

You don't need expensive gear to get great vintage tone. Instead you just need to know a few tricks and use the right effects, and you'll be sounding vintage-awesome in no time.

1. Sixties Mud

Many recordings of the "hippie era" of music were very dirty and ugly, and what many guitar players did was simply crank up huge amounts of gain and turned the guitar's tone control to zero. This resulted in a seriously muddy sound, but they were almost forced to do that because if the tone was up, the "clack" of the guitar would have overpowered the singer.

To achieve this tone is easy. Crank up huge amounts of gain/overdrive/distortion, switch to the neck pickup on your guitar, then turn the guitar's tone control to zero. Yes, it will be muddy and take a while to figure out how to work with it. My advice here is simple, let it be muddy and work with it as best you can. You can basically only do simple solos and power chords with this type of sound, but that's fine.

It is true more often than not that using a neck-position humbucker (such as with guitars with the HH pickup configuration) work better for that zero-tone mud sound, but you can use a single-coil and get away with it.

2. Surf

Surf music is something that is for all intents and purposes "a Fender thing". You want the surf, you need a Strat, Jag or Jazzmaster.

With any of those 3 guitars, go to the bridge position pickup, crank the volume and tone all the way to 10.

You'll need reverb at this point. If you have a Fender amplifier with its own spring reverb, you're good to go. Crank that up to 10. If you don't, you'll need a reverb pedal.

Ordinarily I am very against reverb pedals because I think they all sound terrible, but, if you want the surf sound and you have no spring reverb, yeah you need it.


The only reverb pedal I recommend is the DigiTech DigiVerb, for the reason it has a "Hall" setting, and that's the closest thing to a Fender natural spring reverb.

Again, it's better if you have the real-deal Fender spring reverb for surf music. Fender still puts this in many of their amplifier heads, even on the lower-priced models.

As far as the compressor is concerned, you only need light compression. Add too much and it will stick out too much.


The compressor to get is the MXR Dyna Comp. Very easy to operate (there's only 2 knobs), very easy to get just the right amount of punch you need. It may not look like much, but believe me, these things are awesome.

You will really like having a compressor pedal in your setup. Compressors aren't just for surf as they can be applied to many different types of tones - even for metal.

If you ever wanted to know how certain guitar players get that unbelievable sustain, chances are they're using a compressor. Some guitar snobs call using a compressor "cheating". It isn't. Compressors have been used for many decades, and it's only the snobs who believe otherwise.

When you first start using a compressor, you'll probably think, "This pedal really doesn't do much.." Wait until you start playing notes and chords on the higher frets. All of a sudden you finally have the sustain you were looking for and realize you didn't need better pickups, you needed a compressor.

3. James Bond

If you've ever watched any of the old Sean Connery-era James Bond movies like Dr. No, Goldfinger and the like, the guitar sound that you hear in the main theme is incredible. What a sound!

But how do you get it?

The James Bond tone is actually very similar to surf tone, but with only a few minor changes.

First, the reverb is turned down somewhat. Whereas with surf music the reverb is all the way up to 10, a James Bond sound is around 5 to 7. You will need reverb as mentioned above in the surf music section.

Second, instead of using the bridge position pickup, the middle position is used. It doesn't matter what pickup configuration you have be it SSS, HSS or HH, go for the middle.

Third, light compression is used (you will need the compressor as mentioned in surf above).

Fourth, you have to adjust your playing style slightly to get that James Bond sound, which is really easy to do once you know how to do it. Change your picking position. Normally, most people strum strings half-way between where the bridge ends and the neck begins. Pick closer to the bridge, which will result in a sound that has more of a "bite" to it. Yes, your strings will buzz slightly when you do this, but if you listen to the recording, the strings are buzzing in there too.

For example, on a Stratocaster guitar, when picking you're probably strumming over the middle pickup like most people do. For the James Bond sound, strum over the bridge pickup. For right-handed players (which most are) that means moving your picking hand, as in your right hand, back a few inches where you're playing closer to the bridge. You will notice the difference in tone immediately. Combine that with a middle-position pickup setting, some reverb and a compressor, and you've got the James Bond tone.

4. AC/DC from the 1980s

The first thing to know about how AC/DC got that unbelievably awesome rock guitar sound they did in the 1980s is that you're always hearing two guitars. If you've ever played AC/DC songs by yourself and thought, "I'm close to that sound, but just can't seem to get it...", that's because you're only playing one guitar. The doubling-up of two guitars is the exact reason why AC/DC sounds as full as it does.

AC/DC's tone is best described as "full-stack Marshall", as in a Gibson guitar plugged into a tube-type Marshall head with Marshall cabinets, all cranked up.

While it's true you can play AC/DC songs on a Strat, a guitar with a humbucker in the bridge position does a much better job. Does it matter what kind of guitar it is? Not really. As long as you're using a humbucker on the bridge, that's really all that matters.

I will list a trick you can use to get AC/DC tone on a Strat in a moment. Keep reading.

Assuming you have a guitar with a humbucker on the bridge, getting the AC/DC tone is easy.

  1. Use the bridge setting on your guitar where the humbucker is.
  2. Turn your volume and tone all the way up on the guitar.
  3. Use a moderate overdrive or distortion level. Remember, this is AC/DC which is more of a rock tone than metal. What this means is to not turn your distortion or overdrive all the way up. If you have settings 0 through 10 for example for distortion, you would use somewhere between 5 and 7.

Trick to using a Strat for the AC/DC sound

A Stratocaster is usually way too bright-sounding to get that AC/DC sound, but there is something you can do to get close to it.

The volume control on a Strat is a "natural" EQ. You would use the bridge position pickup setting like you would on a guitar with a humbucker, but the difference is that instead of turning the guitar's volume to 10, you use 6 or 7. This will cut out just enough brightness to be much more AC/DC-sounding.

"But I lose sustain when I do that!"

Yes, you do. But you can compensate for it using the compressor pedal as mentioned above. Remember how I said that you'd really like owning a compressor pedal and find a whole bunch of uses for it? This is yet again another reason to own one.

Trick to getting close to the fullness of the two-guitar sound

When trying to get that two-guitar sound on a single guitar, the effect to use here is a chorus pedal, but in a very specific way.

As I mentioned in my top 6 recommended guitar pedals article, the chorus pedal to get is the MXR M234 Analog Chorus pedal.

Remember, chorus literally means "a group of singers", meaning the effect is supposed to simulate more-than-one.

When applying chorus to get the AC/DC rock tone, apply it very lightly. You want only a very small amount of chorus to simulate two guitars when playing. It will take some experimentation to accomplish this, but it can be done.

And yes this applies whether using a Strat or a humbucker-equipped guitar.

5. Metallica from the 1980s

This sound is actually very similar to the AC/DC tone. The same two-guitar thing is heard, the same "full-stack Marshall" sound is there, and like with the AC/DC sound, the Metallica tone is best achieved with a bridge-position humbucker (although you can use the same trick to get Metallica tone with a Strat as mentioned with the AC/DC sound above).

Getting the early-1980s Metallica tone is done by doing the following:

  1. Follow the same instructions for the AC/DC tone listed above.
  2. Don't use overdrive, use distortion. And yes there is a difference.
  3. Use a lot more distortion gain, and as much as you can without the pickups buzzing all over the place.
  4. Remember that while AC/DC uses a lot of open chords, Metallica uses a lot of palm-muting, otherwise known as "chugging". This is an essential technique to learn to truly get that early-80s Metallica sound.

6. 1980s R&B

Fun fact: Did you know Stevie Ray Vaughn (yes, THAT Stevie Ray Vaughn) is featured on the studio recording of Let's Dance by David Bowie? It's true.

1980s-era Rhythm & Blues/Dance tracks feature basically only one guitar - the Stratocaster. You hear Strats everywhere on R&B/Dance of the 80s, and they're usually drowned in effects, but that was the style back then.

Strat guitars in the majority of R&B/Dance songs of the 80s feature three effects more than any other: Compressor, chorus and delay - but no reverb.

The way to get that R&B/Dance tone is to do the following:

  1. On your Stratocaster or Strat-like guitar, turn the volume and tone all the way to 10.
  2. Select the 2 or 4 position on the pickup selector to get the "quack" tone.
  3. On your compressor pedal, crank that up. Many 80s recordings are over-compressed beyond belief, so it's appropriate.
  4. On your delay pedal, it's best to set it to a heavy "slap" sound, meaning a short delay that can be heard very easily.
  5. On your chorus pedal, use a setting that isn't "warbly" sounding, and turn it up.

(Again, see my recommended pedals if you need any of the effects above.)

There is usually very little distortion/overdrive for 80s R&B/Dance music because guitars aren't supposed to be "dirty" in songs like those.

Remember that the tone is supposed to sound very non-guitar like. Why? Because in the 80s, dance music was all about synthesizers, which you may know as keyboards. Producers of the time were trying to get guitars to sound like more electronic than organic.

Alternative Dance/R&B tone

There is another flavor of the Dance/R&B sound, and that's an absolutely bone dry (meaning no distortion, delay or reverb) Stratocaster on the 2 or 4 position using nothing but chorus and heavy compression.

A prime example of this is P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) by Michael Jackson. The Stratocaster is VERY obvious there and in many other R&B/Dance songs. Very dry, very compressed. It is amazing how in-your-face the Strat sticks out in R&B/Dance songs of the 80s.

"I'll never be playing even half of these styles, and some of this stuff isn't even vintage"

Personally, I didn't really start getting good at guitar until I learned to appreciate other styles. And remember, anything over 25 years old is considered vintage. It's 2012, and that means anything from 1987 or earlier is real vintage.

Guitar snobs think vintage means a very specific thing when it comes to guitars, amps and effects. In the snob's mind, only rock music from the 60s and 70s is all that matters for vintage. Obviously, that's completely wrong. Vintage is determined by age first and not by style. In fact, one of the definitions for vintage is, "the year in which something is produced".

You will discover that as a guitar player, you'll find a lot more joy in playing if you learn as many styles as you can. If you purposely put yourself in a box and say, "I ONLY PLAY METAL" or something like that, break out of that box and try different things - even if it's just on your own in your bedroom.

If you're worried about your friends making fun of you for playing softer stuff, ask yourself a question. Who determines what you play on your guitar - you, or your friends? The answer is you, of course. Play what you want. It's your guitar, after all.

And if that doesn't convince you, you know from watching my videos that I bounce around with a whole bunch of different styles. A bunch of people see those videos and think, "Wow, I like all these different sounds". Well, getting different sounds means learning different styles, and that's how I learned them.

Learn all you can, and have fun. That's what it's all about, and that's why you play.


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