What's That Tone? Clean and Low Gain Lead Tones.

What's That Tone? Clean and Low Gain Lead Tones.

That sparkly, glassy, full yet clean tone…found in the playing of Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, John Frusciante, Jimi Hendrix, SRV, John Mayer and more.
It is almost a clean tone, and certainly by some standards it is, but has plenty of body and sustain.
At home in so many genres and sits well in a mix or a band in so many songs, this is a great tone to have at your disposal.
So how do we get it?


The Guitar

The Fender Stratocaster or similar is an excellent place to start, as shown by the aforementioned players and the many others who have built their careers on this instrument.
Perhaps the most imitated guitar design in the history of the electric, the Strat introduced completely new concepts in the nascent electric guitar manufacturing process.
The body shape, three single-coil pickups and a whammy bar were revolutionary.

Fender Squier Classic Vibe StratThe Strat is renowned for:|
1. It’s neck pickup. Glassy, round, rings like a bell. Insert your own superlative in here. Think SRV blues or Nile Rogers funk.
2. The 2nd and 4th positions on the 5-way pickup selector. The Strat is synonymous with ‘quack’. Mark Knopler is often heralded as the epitome of these Strat guitar tones.
3. The other 2 positions may not be as celebrated, but David Gilmour has used the middle position to great effect for lead playing, while the lead tone of Eric Johnson with the bridge pickup is the stuff of legend.

The Fender Squier Classic Vibe 60's Stratocaster will take you a long way towards achieving this, but a Yamaha Pacifica with single coil pickups is also a great option. 

The Amp

A Fender tweed amp (or something based off this design) is the starting point. The idea is to use an amp that retains a very clean element in its tone, but it might add a little bit of grit when the player digs in. The use of the master volume is important here. Turn that up and keep the input gain down. This will add body and sustain to the notes without the fizz. 
A good place to start with the controls is to bring the bass up, lower the mids, and then adjust the treble to taste. Depending on the guitar and pickup selected, you may wish to other roll the treble on or off.
A Vox amp is a great alternative to a Fender for this. The Vox is different but in a very good way and it excels at clean yet just breaking up tones. This amp is very popular in country circles for this very reason, but it is also a fine rock and blues amp.
As modelling has come so far, these sorts of tones are also achievable with a very high degree of realism from digital amps from companies such as Line 6, Fender, and BOSS. 
I actually used my Line 6 Helix Stomp with the US Double Norm model selected as the amp model in the video, but the other Line 6 amp linked above, as well as the Fender Mustang and Boss Katana amps, will have similar small valve amp simulations available within.


Any effects used are to merely enhance the amp’s basic tone, not to alter it significantly. 
First in line is a compressor. 

A compressor is one of the least understood effects available. This effect normalises the signal. making the softer notes louder and the louder notes softer. This makes for a more consistent sound. The effects can range from barely there to quite extreme.
In the recorded example I used an MXR Studio Compressor pedal set for a very transparent effect. It adds an element of body and sustain to the notes but does not overly change the original signal.
Following the compressor was a Mad Professor Twimble Drive pedalThe pre drive effect was selected to add a subtle boost and some EQ enhancement.

In Cubase I added in some delay and reverb to add some dimension to the tone. Live this will come from my pedalboard in the form of a BOSS DD-500 and an MXR Reverb pedal.

I used a subtle dual delay setting I found in the playing of Andy Timmons and Joe Satriani. This adds more depth to the signal but the delay effect is not obvious and works at any tempo. For this one delay is set to 375 ms with 3 or 4 repeats but a low overall effect level, which in turn is fed into another delay set to 500ms with 1 repeat and higher overall level. The delays play off against one another in a very musical fashion. 
This then goes into a reverb, once again designed to be subtle and add some dimension to the signal to give it the effect of being in an acoustic space. I use the MXR Reverb set to plate live, so in Cubase I used a plate reverb setting to achieve something similar.
And that’s about it. The neck pickup was used on my strat, but classic low gain and clean lead tones have been achieved with all pickup positions.

Have fun trying this out.
And feel free to ask any questions.
Until next time.

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