Basic guitar tones: Clean, Crunch, and Lead - 132

Figuring out your own signature tone is difficult for all levels of guitarists. Getting your core tones down first before you start experimenting gives you a starting point for success. 

Finding a good guitar tone that makes you happy isn't as easy as you would think. Most guitarists start out buying gear that looks good and is in their price range. But, we quickly find out, that doesn't guarantee success.

Then it becomes a quest. A search for the ultimate guitar tone for you. Well, at least the best tone that you can afford. Soon the frustration sets in as you spend a huge chunk of money and are less than satisfied with your tone.

What you need is a process. A place to start. A good platform that you can build many great tones from.

Today I'm going over the concept of having your three core tones and the best way to build them.


What makes a good clean tone? This is a question that I got from my friend David in my Saturday YouTube show: Guitar Talk. And it's a good question to ask.
Depending on the style, it can be the sound that you build everything else upon.
This is your ground floor tone from your amp or modeler. Everything that you put before it (your guitar, pedals, or amp drive) is affected by it. It shapes everything. Clean tones don't sound so boring when you think of it that way.

What make's it clean? Easy, it's the lack of overdrive. It's giving you a very good idea of how your tone controls are set, what your speakers sound like, and what your guitar pickups sound like.

Now, some like to push the boundaries a bit and set their clean tone to the edge of breakup. What that means is you raise the drive so you get a very small bit of overdrive when you hit your chords hard. That is a taste thing and that brings me back to the question: What makes a good clean tone?

Well, that depends. It's very much style dependent. A great Blues clean tone is very different from a great Jazz clean tone and a great heavy metal clean tone. Getting familiar with the leading players in a certain style of music, or your favorite guitarist's setup can give you a ton of great information on the gear needed for a great clean tone.

Always start at the amp. A good clean tone is very amp dependent. Let's take a look as some of the classic clean tones. Every amp has a clean tone, even high gain amplifiers.

The most popular clean tone by far is the Fender blackface clean tone. It's bright but not too bright. It doesn't have a lot of mid-range so it sits well in a mix with other instruments, and it has a nice solid low end. It's usually a tube based amplifier which gives it a warm and pleasing sound. It always works, never fails. In Blues, Rock, Country, and Jazz, you've heard the pros use this sound.

Another clean sound that may be overlooked is the Marshall amp clean. Marshall amps are based off the older fender tweed circuit that has a more defined mid-range. Even though Marshall is known for their heavier crunch sound, they have a clean sound that is perfect for rock and even blues music.

The Vox amplifier clean sound is a great choice for rock, blues, and country music as well. Made popular by the Beatles, Queen, and Tom Petty, it's jangly top end is very different than the standard blackface sound and is a great alternative.

These are all tube amplifiers so far. But, what if you didn't want to deal with the maintenance and weight of tube amplifiers. What if you wanted to go solid state.

The clean solid state sound has been around for years. the Roland jc120 is a staple for jazz players as well as the clean tone of choice for heavier bands as well. It has a bad reputation for sounding "sterile" because of a lot of terrible amps that were put out early on in the process. Solid state amps can also have modeling technology built in to give you many different choices of simulated tube amp sound. this is great for new guitarists who are just learning about the differences between amps and what they would like to sound like.

The final clean amp choice is to use no amp at all. For years, guitarists have recorded (and performed) with direct boxes plugging straight into a recording console or pa system. This lets you know exactly what your pickups sound like without being changed by the preamp of the amplifier. It's a very different sound than you are probably used to but a good learning experience to try out. Nile Rodgers, Prince, Billy Gibbons, and Eddie Van Halen are all known to get some very cool clean tones from going direct. As for as getting a simulated amp sound by going direct, Tech21 for analogue and Line6 (and a lot of others) for modeling are great ways to get a amp like clean sound by going direct.

A big thing that plagues players who set up their clean (and other) tone at home and then bring that sound to the stage, expecting it to sound great, is that it rarely works out well.

Just the fact that you aren't pushing your speaker to gig level levels can cause the amp to respond differently. And when your amp responds differently, your choice of settings will have to be adjusted accordingly. Here are some of the common problems that happen when you move your clean tone to the stage.

First, it can get lost. If you have a lot of bass and super sucked out mids, it will be easy for the other instruments of the band to drown you out. Finding your place in the sonic space of a loud band can be difficult. I've found that I have to up the mid range a good bit in a band setting to stand out.

But what about the bass. Because you are playing at home at such a low volume, the low end of your tone may suffer. That will cause you to crank the bass. But, when you are live and at full volume, your speakers are capable of a lot more bass. If you keep your same low level settings, you tone will have way too much bass, sound muddy, and get lost in the mix. So, at the gig, make sure you adjust your lows and mids for your clean tone.


What is a crunch tone? This is a tone that has been pushed into overdrive. Classic Rock songs use crunch tones as their main rhythm sound. This is best described as a distorted rhythm.
A crunch tone will have more sustain than a clean tone but less than an all out lead or distortion sound.

Although you can get a crunch tone with pedals, it came about by running an amp hard and pushing it past it's happy clean sound.

The first way to achieve a crunch tone is by pushing the amp with pedals. A boost pedal does just what the name implies. It boosts the signal coming from the guitar. When your amplifier gets this super hot signal from your guitar it starts to clip. You can adjust the level of the boos to get more or less crunch.

An overdrive pedal can do some boosting as well, but it does something else as well. It has the sound of a clipped amp built in. So you can run an amplifier quietly and still get the crunch sound that you are after. Is it as good as cranking your amp, probably not. But overdrives have been getting better all of the time and can be very convincing.

Another way that you can achieve crunch tones is by rolling back the guitar volume when you are playing into a highly distorted amp. - The volume knob is your friend! The less input the the amp receives from your guitar, the less distortion gets through. This makes your volume knob a very important tone tool.

If you set up your lead tone first as distorted and loud as you are going to use it. Just by rolling back your guitar's volume knob, you can experiment with many different tones as you roll back, even all of the way to clean sounds if you have the right amp.
The Allman Brothers, Hendrix, and many other Classic rock and Blues players use this technique with wonderful results. With a roll of the knob you can go from clean to crunch and beyond without floor tapdancing and minimal effort.


Let's talk about your lead or heavy Distortion tone. Like clean it's very style dependent. A blues lead tone will most likely use a lot less gain than a hard rock tone. A jazz lead tone will mostly deal with volume rather than gain.

The most important part is the need to be heard. This tone will have some sort of volume jump. If you are a lead guitar player, during your solo, you are the main melody of the band. You are temporarily replacing the lead singer, so you need to be able to rise to a volume that is similar.

If you are a rhythm player and not concerned about lead guitar, depending on your style, you may still need a loud or distorted sound for certain types of songs.
The main problem with these sounds is that a lot of players go too far. When you add a ton of distortion on (depending on the style of course) it's easy to lose the tone of your guitar itself. Remember volume and distortion are not the same thing.
If you are a lead guitarist, a very important thing to think about is the vocal quality of your lead tone. Think about what tone will sound full and grab attention. If you lead tone has scooped mids, it will struggle to cut through the band, even with a lot of volume.

How do we get a lead tone?

Like Crunch, the easiest way is to use pedals. In the same way as the overdrive pedals can add clipping, there are pedals that are made to add a lot of distortion, saturation, and volume to your Clean tone. Also, pushing your already driven crunch tone with another pedal (stacking) can add a very pleasing lead tone from a clean amp. You would have a clean amp, an overdrive pedal for crunch, and another pedal (boost, another overdrive, or distortion) for lead. All of them pushing the others and the amp.

I also talked about setting your amp up for a great lead tone first and rolling back your volume for your other sounds. If you have a high gain amp that is easy to get a distorted lead sound from, give this a try. Not having to fool with pedals and having your volume and tone knobs on your guitar to control everything can lead to very cool tones.

Notice I haven't talked about reverb, delay, chorus, and other cool ambient or modulation sounds. Those are all dependent on your core tones. Taking the time to get these three core tones dialed in first will give you the tools you need to build many many cool tones with all sorts of other effects. Tune in next week for more on that.

If you didn't get a chance to listen to last week's podcast, we are in the middle of our summer guitar tone challenge. This is where we are all taking some of the free time we have and work on our tones. The members of the community are sharing all of their tones in the Play Guitar Facebook Group. If you would like to join the challenge or just be nosey and check out the other guitar tones, head over to and sign up. We would love to have you there!

Well that is my overview of the three basic guitar tones electric player should have to build a solid usable group of tones. I went over what clean, crunch, and lead tones are, and several different ways to get them for your style of music. 


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