Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

In pursuit of vintage tone

I’ve been thinking about guitar tone recently, in connection with the research I’m engaged with about the English guitarist / songwriter Marc Bolan. I’m interested in particular in some of the electric guitar tones he recorded with in 1969 and 1970. This was the period when he acquired an electric guitar after an 18 month period when he was only playing acoustically. Sometime in the spring of 1969 he bought a Fender Stratocaster (one of his musical heroes was Hendrix) and a couple of effects pedals.

The Tyrannosaurus Rex single ‘King of the Rumbling Spires’ (July 1969) has him using the Strat with a Shatterbox fuzz unit. I recently acquired a clone of this unit and the tone is pretty much there. Bolan then used the Strat throughout the album Beard of Stars (released March 1970), preceded by the single taken from it ‘By the Light of a Magical Moon’ which has some wonderful fluid lead fills. Around this time he acquired a Gibson Les Paul which he was photographed with on the cover of the T Rex album recorded that June-July and released December 1970. The guitar tones on that album are superb, but very far from classic rock. I suspect he may have invested in a couple more pedals or was chaining them together.

Bolan is an example of a guitarist whose guitar tones cannot easily be replicated by modern pedals, simulation devices or multi-effects. You can buy units that emulate a variety of guitar tones but his are never there. This type of thing has led to an explosion of boutique vintage pedal clones for players seeling a 60s or 70s sound. These pedals can be very expensive, in contrast to the originals which would have been very cheap but now command high prices. I knew for years that one of the devices Bolan relied on was a Rangemaster Treble Booster. About 300 were made from 1966-1968. I was amazed to discover recently that Vintage Guitar magazine have the Rangemaster at no.1 on their ‘chart’ of most desirable vintage guitar effects and in 2011 they had a price estimate of several thousand dollars.

The pursuit of tone does interesting things to one’s ears – which get sensitized to various sound effects and frequencies. Over the past few months I’ve been able to clearly distinguish the famous early 70s mid-range boost effect used by Bolan and by Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. But it is important to keep perspective – for there are so many factors that were lined up to create a certain guitar tone during a specific recording session half a century ago that replicating it is almost impossible – though with a bit of technique, imagination and cash for those clone units, the results can sometimes be close enough.

I will describe the Bolan project in more detail another time; I hope it might turn into a book.

Sad to see the demise of International Record Review, a magazine of thoughtful and detailed reviews of classical releases, caused by the death of its owner. In the UK that means the reviewing will be provided by BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone.

The symphonies I listened to in March were: Brahms 2 and 3; Bruckner 4; Holmboe 1-9, 12 and 13; Kalinnikov 2; Nielsen 5; Prokoviev 1, 2 and 6; Rissager 2; Rubbra 8; Svendsen 2; Sumera 1-6; Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and Symphony in C; Tansman 7; Vaughan Williams 4 and 9; and Walton 2 on a new SACD.

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4 responses

  1. Steve

    There isn’t much for me to say about tone. I’m still trying to figure out the basics of playing guitar beyond open chords. I just wanted to thank Rikky for his books. I’ve got most of them and they are the most informative books I’ve found when it comes to understanding how music works and how to proceed with creating my own music. Thanks!

    April 6, 2015 at 6:20 pm

    • Hello Steve, thanks for your comment about the books. I’m glad they’ve been helpful. If you want to take the tuition a step further I do help people out by teaching at a distance.

      April 7, 2015 at 3:11 pm

  2. My guitar history is I was given a black dreadnought, swapped it for a poacher’s jacket, bought a Hohner, traded it for a mandolin, sold the mandolin (kept the case). Bought a Gretsch Jimmy Rogers and a tele copy. Sold the lot bought an Ernie Ball. Sold the lot and bought a Takamine – the hardest working guitar in showbusiness!

    April 6, 2015 at 7:19 pm

    • Thanks Dan. I’ve got rid of a few guitars in my time – an acoustic 12-string, an Epiphone Flying V, a not very good classical which I first took lessons on, and in the past few weeks an Aria superstrat which my students sometimes used. It will need to be replaced with something I like. Today I tried out a Squier Telecaster vintage sunburst – very nice slim neck.

      April 7, 2015 at 3:13 pm

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