The search for the ultimate clean guitar tone can be a voyage much like that of a thrilling sci-fi series, you’re always left wondering where it will take you next. Endless exploration of amp brands, American or British voicing, scooped or humped, and the list continues. No matter how much convoluted, onomatopoeic jargon is thrown at you, you’re likely to feel lost.
We’re going to look at a couple of distinguishing clean amp tones, listing some attached artists to these tones and hopefully leaving you with some distinguishing features to look out for as to what type of clean tone might be right for you.
Distinctly Different Cleans
To start things off we’re going to rewind the clocks to the 1960s were two iconic bands, “across the pond” from each other were defining the sounds of the time. Yes, we’re talking The Beach Boys in the USA and The Beatles in the UK. Aside from the defining voices of Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney respectively, both guitar tones were distinctly clean but distinctly different. One of the distinguishing factors between these two iconic guitar sounds comes down to the amps each band were using at the time (and guitars of course, but for the sake of this article we’ll steer clear of that discussion). For The Beach Boys it was Fender and The Beatles, Vox Amplification.
Without going into aeons of detail, there are design principles at work here that make these two clean tones so distinct and uniquely different. Firstly, Fender designs tended to utilize 6L6 tubes in the power sections of their amplifiers, known for their high headroom, rich low end and sparkling tops. They also utilized something in their circuit design known as ‘negative feedback,’ which in short yields less breakup at the output. The Vox designs ran on EL84 valves for their power amps, known for a more mid-range focused response and character. Unlike Fender, Vox amps didn’t incorporate negative feedback into their design, giving a barkier mid-range bite, whilst still retaining clean headroom and top-end chime.
What are we Hearing?
So by now, you might be wondering what this design stuff means to the sound of an amp and is that sound what I’m looking for? What should I be hearing?
When listening to a classic Fender amp, especially a higher-powered one such as the Twin Reverb words like “glassy”, “sparkly” and “scooped” are often thrown about. What these (at times annoying) adjectives are trying to describe are the tonal characteristics of the amp. Glassy and sparkly, it’s fair to assume is referring to the top-end or treble being extended, pronounced and clear. But user beware! Pushing these frequencies too far can very quickly feel like shards of glass being smooched into your ears, as opposed to crystal clear top-end presence.
As for “scooped”, this refers to the mid-range. A lot of frequency information of the guitar is located here but when sculpted and shaped tastefully, allows for the low and top-ends of a guitar’s voice to shine through more pronounced. Think around 500Hz to about 1.5 – 2kHz.
To now flip over to the “barkier”, more “vocal” and “humped” voicing of the Vox, perhaps a classic AC30. Again, what’s with these words you may be exclaiming!
Let’s start with humped, which, to put it simply is really the opposite of scooped. So where our Fender example had less emphasis in the mid-range, the Vox has a healthy dose. Like the guitar, human voice and yes, (you guessed it) a dog’s bark has an emphasis in this frequency area, it’s fair to assume why barky and vocal are words chosen to describe this tonal characteristic, they just jump out at you. An example of this would be cupping your hands over your mouth when talking. Whilst it may not sound fantastic on its own when dialled in with the upper-harmonic content of a guitar yields very pleasing results. You certainly won’t struggle being heard in a dense band mix either, very desirable for guitarists it must be said.
Endless Options: Break it down now
Aside from the aforementioned brands, there are, what can feel like endless other options out there, all being offered in a tube, solid-state or digital modelling options from brands like Marshall, Blackstar and Roland just to name a few. Yep, entanglement is one way to put it, but a simple breakdown can help you wade through the marshes.
Knowing your budget will help eliminate some options, as many tubes amps can jump up in price range quite quickly. Size is another factor to consider, as many of these higher headroom amps are bulky and can weigh a ton! Although we love it LOUD, the volume can be a restriction, especially when practising at home or playing smaller stages – so factor in how much your amp really needs to flap your pants when trying out different options. And lastly, the tube doesn’t necessarily mean best. Tube snobbery can be fatal and is to be taken with a (healthy) grain of salt. If it sounds right to you, that’s what’s best.
Whether it’s the jangle that helped shape the sound of the “British Invasion” or the glistening surf sounds of the USA, it’s your personal favourites and what you hear in your head that will guide you to becoming a true clean tone master. It’s a journey worth exploring, and for many, an enthralling endless voyage.