This article is, as the title suggests, all about how to get a nice clean tone. It can be seen as a companion to my previous article Nice Chord Voicings. Both can be read individually or together – whatever suits you.
Amp and guitar
It’s important to realise that everything starts with these two things. I’d start with an amp with a good clean tone (surprise) and a guitar with either low-output humbuckers, or preferably single-coils.
The Classic American Clean Tone™
For me, the starting point for all clean tones are what I call The Classic American Clean Tone. This means a Fender Stratocaster into a blackface Fender Twin. Mine is a reissue from 2009.
For the really glassy, shimmering clean tones, you’ll want to use either of the strat’s in-between pickup alternatives. This connects either the neck/middle pickups or the middle/bridge pickups in parallel, and gives a very bright, clear tone with attenuated mids. These settings are often erroneously referred to as «out of phase», but they’re actually in phase. Regardless, this is the starting point. I’ll be using the middle/bridge combination.
The blackface Fender Twin is in my opinion the gold standard of clean amplifiers. It’s a high-wattage amp, with minimal preamp gain and oversized power- and output transformers. It’ll start compressing at a volume of about 6, but at that point you’re so loud that a drum kit has no chance of keeping up with you volume-wise, unless it’s miked and run through a PA system. You won’t get any real overdrive from it unless you put a pedal in front. That being said, it can be an excellent pedal platform, for those who like to get overdrive/distortion solely from pedals, but you’ll have to try out different pedals to find one that’ll be a good match for the Twin’s sparkle. However, I digress…
One thing that’s really effective when you want a glassy, crystalline clean tone from a Twin, is to use the bright switch. This does two things: Firstly, it adds a type of high end that’s not available from the treble knob; secondly, it doesn’t render the rest of your EQ useless, like the regular treble knob would. The tone controls (also called the tone stack) on a Twin (and lots of other amps) have a peculiarity in that the treble knob, when turned up fully, actually bypasses the rest of the tone controls, thereby making them unusable. As a consequence, if you want to turn up treble and midrange, you’ll find that as you turn up the treble, the mid knob’s effect diminishes. With the bright switch, however, you can keep the treble knob at, say, five-ish, and get the rest of the brightness from the bright switch – which should be ample – without neutering the rest of the tone stack.
As I mentioned earlier, the Twin with its 85 watts, high-headroom and massive weight, is not an amp that can easily be bullied into
submission compression. This is the basic character of a blackface Twin. What you might find is that it can feel unforgiving and stiff to a certain extent, and with a band or in a mix it’s either way too loud, or nowhere near loud enough. What you’re experiencing is the huge dynamic range fighting you, because deep down you’d like it to be a little less, uh, dynamic. Enter our friend, the compressor.
A compressor basically reduces the volume difference between the loud and the soft signals, so it can feel like it turns the volume down when you’re playing hard, and turning it up when you’re playing soft. This, incidentally is pretty close to what it actually does. I have a Keeley two-knob compressor, which I’m told is based on an old Ross compressor circuit. On various gear-related forums on the interwebs you’ll find highly opinionated people who disagree forcefully with each other about which compressors are good, and which are
Satan’s work not. Me, I don’t care. I’m used to this one, and I like it quite a bit. Feel free to use whatever suits you. A minor caveat: For the sounds we’re after here, I avoid the more extreme settings. The controls are set in the middle somewhere – you need to fine tune this by ear with your kit.
At this juncture I should point out that the basic premise for this article is that you actually like the clean tone I’m getting. It is a highly stylised tone, with quite a bit of effects. It works well in some musical contexts, but not at all in others. The naturalistic approach is guitar into amp – done! This, however, is not what I’m aiming for. The point of this text is to try and dissect a sound that’s constructed with several different factors working together. I should also mention that for me, a perfectly clean sound is almost like a special effect. I feel that the natural state of an electric guitar sound is overdriven to a lesser or larger degree. So, with that out of the way, let’s continue:
We’ve shaped the basic tone and response, and now we need to add the top coat lacquer. This comes in the form of a delay, or actually two delay lines, playing in sync with the tempo of the song. I use the Eventide Timefactor, but any delay unit with multiple delay lines should work. I’m running the Timefactor in front of the amp, but it’s also possible to run it in an effects loop, in stereo or mono – as I am.
The repeats of delay line number one is in quarter notes, and delay line number two is in quarter note triplets. I have filtered off quite a bit of low end, and boosted the high end slightly on the repeats. In addition the delay is mixed in quite loud, with a few repeats. This works well for the medium slow tempo of 99 BPM. If the song had a faster tempo, chances are I’d have to adjust these to fit, but for now I like them as they are. An important detail is that the repeats are modulated, so the differ slightly in pitch as the fade out. This is very important, as it just doesn’t sound the same with straight delays.
If you want even more saccharine in your coffee, you can add a little (or a lot) of chorus in front of the repeats. I’m using the JHS Emperor analogue chorus, with a low speed and medium depth. Personally I like having the signal going into the modulated delay being modulated already – the final result being a kind of «cloud» of clean-toned guitar. I also have a slight sprinkle of the amp’s spring reverb.
So, what does all that sound like? Well, something like this – enjoy:
That was my recipe for getting a nice clean tone. I should add that what you play and how you play it obviously has a huge impact on the end result. Dialling in this sort of sound and then playing like you were strumming cowboy chords around the camp fire on a cheap, second-hand acoustic, would surely ruin the effect. Hopefully this is demonstrated in the video. I’d also like to mention that the companion article Nice Chord Voicings demonstrates some chord voicings and a playing style that fits the tone and use of effects demonstrated here.
Did you enjoy this article? Do you have suggestions for improvement, or points that you’d like to make? Well, don’t keep it to yourself – write a comment below.
Thanks for reading and watching.