We spend a lot of time talking about guitars here at Mixdown, and this week we've been discussing one question in particular: which musician has the best guitar tone? It's not an easy question to answer, but we've managed to compile a list of our favourite guitar tones for this week's edition of Mixdown's Best.
Name: Luke Shields
Guitar tone: Thom Yorke
For the longest time it was trite to the point of obvious to list Radiohead among your band’s key influences. Whether you like them or not, they are by far one of the most restlessly searching bands in modern music and their undimmed creative fervor and unwillingness to do the same thing twice means that the river of their impact has more tributaries than the Mississippi. When I first tore open my copy of their 2003 masterpiece Hail To The Thief, I was blissfully unaware of how important that record would be to me in the time since. Easily my favourite cut from that record is the effortless yet driving ‘There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere).’
Aside from being an achingly simple yet deceptively poetic song in its own right, Thom Yorke’s guitar tone on this song has been something that I’ve chased constantly since that first spin. Yorke has often talked about the influence of ancient blues artists like Robert Johnson and Skip James on his songwriting but the greasy, wooden mumbling of his Gibson ES-125T feels ripped right out of the ‘30s. That one dog-ear P90 pickup driving the fear out of some relic of a tube amp is understated yet completely characteristic and speaks to the mood of Orwellian bewilderment about the song and indeed the album as a whole. In the film clip, a stop-motion rendering of Yorke runs desperately through a wooded nightmare past suspicious flora and fauna. To me, the sound emanating from his fingers is exactly what he would have heard in the crackle of leaves beneath his feet and the moan of the wind through those very trees.
Name: Eddy Lim
Guitar tone: John Mayer
Hate him or love him, but either way you’ve got to admit that the guy can play. While the PRS Silver Sky currently stands as John Mayer’s weapon of choice, his most famous guitar tones stem from the music he made with his Fender Stratocaster, “The Black One”. Continuum has perhaps some of the most beautiful guitar tones ever captured on an album, and often substitutes as the holy grail for many tone chasers around the world.
Guitar tone: Stevie Ray Vaughan
The absolute embodiment of the Ibanez TS808 Tube Screamer. With a multitude of timeless blues numbers under his belt, the late Stevie Ray Vaughan was an incredible guitar icon through and through. He’s most famous for his use of the neck and neck/middle positions of his Stratocaster, “Number One”, usually combined with a Fender Vibroverb, ’68 Twin Reverb or Bassman dripping with reverb. Stevie was also known to run .013 strings with a medium/high action – absolutely ridiculous. My fingers hurt just thinking about it.
Name: Will Brewster
Guitar tone: John Frusciante
Sure, the Red Hot Chili Peppers aren't everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to deny the brilliance of John Frusciante - arguably the catalyst for the band's success and surely one of the most influential players of the last 25 years. Whether it's the raw, slinky funk of 'Sir Psycho Sexy’, the sombre fingerpicking of 'Scar Tissue’, the smooth Hendrix-esque tones of 'Snow (Hey Oh)' and 'Under The Bridge' or the face-melting Funkadelia of his playing on Stadium Arcadium, it's incredibly hard to pinpoint a perfect tonal moment for Frusciante; and that's what makes him so good. While his tone may be simply emblematic of a Fender Stratocaster and Marshall stack, Frusciante's playing is further highlighted both by his impeccable technique and raw emotion, as well as his penchant for whacky effects and experiments with reverse tape guitars, volume swells, and guitar synthesis on later albums. Watch any live video from 2007 to see and hear John at his absolute prime - and cry because you'll never witness the Chili Peppers at the height of their prime ever again.
Name: Nicholas Simonsen
Guitar tone: Kurt Ballou
You ever have those things that are almost so bad that they’re good? Kurt Ballou’s guitar tone is so fucking ugly that it is utterly beautiful. Take ‘Concubine’, the opening track to Converge’s classic album Jane Doe, for example. The guitar tone is an absolute assault on the eardrums from the get-go, but for some reason I can just never turn it off. The mixture of Ballou’s quirky and off kilter playing style, mixed with his knife’s edge, fuzzy tone is something that still inspires me and my approach to guitar daily.
Guitar tone: Stephen Carpenter
I never really cared about seven-string guitars when they hit the market. It just seemed like this stupid fad that was going to pass with the wind. That was until I heard ‘Hexagram’ and ‘Bloody Cape’ from Deftones’ eponymous album and realised that seven-string guitars actually allow the player to have an even larger dynamic range than usual. Stef’s style of playing is quite basic, but that’s why his tone is so important. It just has so much impact and character, and makes the simplest of ideas sound enormous.
Feature image via Matthew Baker / Getty Images.