10 Tips For Getting Vintage Guitar Sounds

In the world of music making, what's old is always new. So it shouldn't be a surprise that vintage tones are once again in vogue.

Ultimate Guitar

In the world of music making, what's old is always new. So it shouldn't be a surprise that vintage tones are once again in vogue. Turn on the radio or TV and there's Dan Auerbach's fat fuzztone, Marc Ribot's wicked trash-can vibe, JEFF the Brotherhood's alt-rock hypnotics and on the list goes.

Here are 10 things to consider if you're interested in shaking up your own guitar sound by tapping into the past (as arranged by Gibson):

  • Strings: There are plenty of great strings available to guitarists, with amazing formulations designed to give them more brilliance, a longer life and other positive attributes. But if you're looking for old-school sounds and approaches, forget about the fancy stuff. Buy cheap strings in a heavy gauge at least .11s or maybe try sets with round wound G-strings. Nobody was playing sweep arpeggios when Chuck Berry was cutting "Maybelline", you dig? Fat, dead sounding strings will make you play differently slower and alter your sound just enough to alter your thinking as well. Or take a tip from blues great Jimmy Vaughan, who strings his axes with flat wounds, reasoning that until the mid-'60s those were the most popular commercially available guitar strings. Vaughan says flat wounds help him dial in his awesome vintage tones.

  • Picking: Toss that plectrum and start old schooling with your fingers, like everybody from Pete Townshend to Lightnin' Hopkins used to do. Finger picking will warm up your sound and dampen your attack. The bonus is that finger picking also provides more control over dynamics and, with practice, allows for dexterous moves a pick can't negotiate. Also try playing with thicker picks or, if you're looking for a particular sound for a song or two, picks made of felt or other soft-attack material. For recording, a guitar with the tone pots rolled back and played with a felt pick can produce a tone straight from a funky Louisiana basement studio in the early '50s.

  • Amps: Go with low gain settings and amps. Before the late '60s, amplifiers did not have gain controls, so distortion had to be produced by turning amps up loud. Laying off the gain produces warmer tones, with rich low-mids and other desirable qualities. Rolling back the amp's crunch and getting overdriven distortion via a pedal preserves natural harmonics, too. For a truly classic example of the latter check out James Gurley's playing with Big Brother & the Holding Company, where he developed the tone of "San Francisco's Summer Of Love".

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  • Pedals: A selection of classic stomp boxes will greatly increase your tonal arsenal and, when it comes to distortion, keep your amp at harmonically rich for the reasons above. Here's another way of looking at the equation: Dan Auerbach + Big Muff = fuzztone bismillah.

  • Tone: Use your tone pots. They may be the most underutilized element in the electric guitar's construction. Roll back the pots and roll back the years to get into the Chuck Berry or T-Bone Walker zone (or, skipping a few decades ahead, David Gilmour), and keep things bright to approximate the snappy sound of Lightnin' Hopkins or Freddie King. Listen to the variety of guitar sounds on Jimi Hendrix's records. He was an expert at getting everything tone pots offer.

  • Miking: Until the '60s it was common to record an entire band on one, two or three microphones with all instruments and a vocalist performing at once. So it you want to go old school, feel free to experiment, especially with ambient placement. And to get really cool sounds, mike quality is often over-rated. Old crystal mikes like traditional cab dispatchers' talkies can be had cheaply and have an awesome way of blunting and sharpening sounds. Green bullets, the typical harmonica mikes of choice, can also yield gnarly guitar recordings.

  • Acoustic Instruments: If you normally play plugged, unplug. You've likely noticed there's an acoustic renaissance going on, even in pop music, with bands like Mumford And Sons and the Avett Brothers leading the pack. Don't be left behind.

  • Arrangements: Think about allowing more space in your arrangements and paring down the amount of notes you play. Two great examples of this are the Black Keys recordings and the high profile production work of T-Bone Burnett. The Keys keep their melody lines simple and bold, and that really pleases listeners. Starting with his 2006 solo album "The True False Identity", Burnett has been pursuing warm low sounds as the dominant instrumental voices in his recordings to the extent that on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's mega-selling "Raising Sand", he asked the drummers to remove cymbals from their kits.

  • Guitars: We've already talked about tone pots, but when it comes to instrument selection, seriously consider playing semi-hollow and hollow body guitars to get old school tones. The cavities in their design cut down on sustain and enhance natural acoustic qualities. Besides, every guitar played on an album pre-1950 was a hollowbody.

  • Reverb And Tremolo. Before stomp boxes were marketed there were only two easily available effects tremolo and reverb, and both came built into amplifiers. If you really want to go old school, consider a non-master volume amp with tremolo and reverb and just plug straight in. For an extreme example of this sound remember, when recording extreme is often very good check out the Smiths' 1984 hit "How Soon Is Now", where guitarist Johnny Marr employed four amps with tremolo to create the distinctive-yet-classic rhythm guitar tracks.

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  • 30 comments sorted by best / new / date

      if you want to play vintage, BUY VINTAGE GEAR!!!!
      However much I like that idea. Not all of us have tons of money to shell out for vintage gear.
      vintage is very often cheaper... I got my 72 hiwatt + cab for 1500euros, and my 57 reissue strat form 85 ( fullerton era) for 1000 euros... a new hiwatt sells for 2500 euros and a 57 reissue for 1700 euros, I almost made a 2000 euros bargain by bying vintage, and my gear sound better than both the newer reissues and hiwatts
      Thats a pretty good deal you got there. Especially considering new "hiwatts" arent even really hiwatts
      Yeah the dude was desperate for money ( lame story about buying a house then getting divorced while the house wasn't even finished) and wasn't using his hiwatt which was sleeping in his attic for more than 10 years, so he was basicly going for the first guy who could deliver the cash right away, and luckily it was me I went there tried the hiwatt, no hiss or anything,checked that he didn't modified it, made sure it was all original with fanes and everything, and brought it home with a 500 miles trip with the amp at the back of my car, driving as cautiously as I could #the story of my life
      Well, you might have saved there, yeah. But I believe the point is that being able to spend thousands on music gear isn't everyone's luxury. Luckily, it has been for me, after lots and lots of saving.
      Good to see Johnny Marr getting some recognition! Interesting read, though I can't help thinking that all the Dan Auerbach arguements should be reworked for Jack White, who did what he does with the Stripes since '97.
      I think the most helpful part of this article for me is the arrangements. I knew it in the back of my head, but I always seem to complicate things when writing. Good article
      So if what's old is new...what's the point of the new when everybody just goes back to old school anyway?
      Because every time we revisit the old, we do it in a new way, and that provides a fresh direction to the new again
      From hip hop to rock and metal, the most popular artists are those that incorporate elements of older styles into new music. Off the top of my head, Kanye West brought soul-sampling to hip hop in a new and fresh way and Guns and Roses took 70's hard rock into the 80's and mixed it with punk and a hint of metal... As Basquiat said, "inspiration isn't truly inspiration, inspiration is seeing an old idea through my NEW eyes." Everything comes from everything.
      Leather Sleeves
      Great one! I think there are still some amps being made that don't have Master Volume. The Peavey Windsor's an old-school one channel all tube amp, at least the old ones. It's supposed to be good and it's cheap as hell, even cheaper than most solid state amps.
      I still don't see how simply NOT having master volume is going to help make your tone more vintage. I can see how having to deal with the restrictions of not having it may force you into some more vintage tones, but if thats really what you're after, wouldn't simply not using your master volume have the same effect?
      I have a tech 21 trademark 60 amp. There's no master volume and it's perfect for playing SRV with my tube screamer. Kickass unknown amp
      Use rusty strings. That seemed to help me
      link no1
      Use rusty strings eh? No...this doesn't even deserve a sarcastic reply...
      Well, it will wear down your frets faster, making it sound like an abused or overused vintage instrument. Not how they sounded when they were new.
      hang on a minute... use pedals tp preserve natural harmonics? I don't think so buddy, best to get a vintage tone out of a vintage recording amp, think Jimmy Page and how he did things
      Hey, you know the best part of this article is? The fact that Gibson Posted the same exact thing about a week ago. And even then it wasn't the bible on getting vintage sounds. heavy gauge strings aren't necessarily the best for vintage tones, flatwounds are better for tones than roundwound, and as according to most people on SD forums, light gauge strings don't sound too far away from heavy gague strings.
      Great article...My advice from my own experiences is a Tube amp in the closet cranked til its near bleedin' and stick a shure 57 infront of it. Some playing around with the mic placement on the speakers cone may be required
      So basically completely ignore the fact you've put it in the closet? Why not play about with placement away from the speaker to get some of that famed closet reverb
      Leather Sleeves
      You're right, I'm just saying if it's vintage tone you're after one channel's probably all you need. Unless you're looking for something with more versatility.