Finding Classic Country Tone on any Guitar or Amp
The first word that gets associated with country guitar tone is twang, a word that evokes both plunky banjos and wailing steel guitars, and usually means bright, clear, and punchy. Gear wise, this means single coil pickups and clean guitar amps.
When most serious guitar fans speak of “country guitar” they have a specific sound in mind, one that evolved gradually over the decades, spurred forward by the innovations of each new generation of pickers and the changing tastes of fans. If you’re country-curious, then here’s a primer on how to get that country sound.
History: The first country guitar heroes were motivated just as much by practical reasons as by tonal reasons. They needed a clean, clear tone that could be heard over the band and above the din of a honky-tonk bar without resulting in feedback, and in the 50s, Leo Fender supplied them with the Telecaster.
Instrument: Beloved for its ruggedly practical design and crisp tone, the Tele became the go-to for early country guitar slingers on the road and on record, codifying the sound that would influence countless budding guitar players for years to come. To this day, the Telecaster is the standard if you want the classic country tone, but you can find your own version of twang using any number of guitars. Single coil pickups make a big difference, as does using the bridge pickup, but as they say, it’s all about the player!
Amplification: Classic country enthusiasts love a clear tone with lots of high end. Once again, Fender amps remain the most popular, but anything with a good clean sound and lots of headroom will do. Opinions on amp EQ vary, but usually you want lots of bass and treble and lower mids. You will have to adjust depending on the guitar you have and the effects you use, so feel free to experiment!
Effects: When it comes to effects, keep it simple. Many guitarists use a compression pedal to even out the attack so you can lose a bit of the brittle sharpness of those chicken pickin’ licks without sacrificing the twang. A subtle overdrive can help for those songs that need a more rock n roll sound, but avoid overdoing the distortion! A delay pedal can add some depth to your playing as well. In fact, in the country-adjacent world of rockabilly, delay of the ‘slapback’ variety is so ubiquitous that you might as well use a pedal with no ‘off’ switch.
Country guitar, like country music in general, can mean any number of things. It might seem simple at first, but there are countless guitar shredders operating under the umbrella of country with vastly different playing styles and tones. To find your own twang, feel free to try these tips, or just put on a cowboy hat and stand in a field for a while, whatever works!
Rob McLaren is a guitarist and lover of all things stringed, you can catch him playing guitar with Union Duke or picking the banjo with his bluegrass outfit the Barrel Boys
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