Rock Out at Home: 5 of The Greatest Ever Clean Tones
Published on 03 September 2020
In previous blogs, we've dove into the terrifying depths of the heaviest guitar sounds ever recorded, so we thought this week we might dial it back a notch. As great as bone crushingly heavy riffs are, (no arguing or you'll be sentenced to a lifetime of Mastodon!), there's something so special about nailing the perfect clean sound. Now, this may seem like a simple task but finding that sweet spot is easier said than done. It's an art to not only find that perfect sound but to play in a way that accentuates it and brings it to life. We've put together a list of 5 examples that we think do that so well and it's no surprise they come from some of the most respected players in the game. As we said, it's an art really! Check out our favourites below and let us know some of your own:
Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing
Mark Knopfler is a true master of the clean tone, creating a sound that's not only pristine but also totally one of a kind. As soon as he starts playing, you know exactly who you're listening to and that is a rare talent indeed. This track is an absolute standout with gorgeous licks from start to finish and just the right amount of swagger. What sells it though is that stunning tone, smooth but with enough bite to make you sit up and pay attention. Knopfler initially wrote the track on an open-tuned National Steel guitar but stated himself that it didn't come to life until he started playing it on his Strat. The now-iconic recording features his '61 Strat in the middle pickup position running into a Fender Twin amp. A simple setup but one that's still as popular today, Fender guitars and Fender amps will give you all the sparkle you'll ever need! Tones don't come much more satisfying than this...
Jimi Hendrix - Hey Joe
When you think of Hendrix, it's easy to picture a whirlwind of chaos, dripping in spiky fuzz and wah but let's not forget, Jimi was a master of his instrument and understood every tiny nuance of his gear. Tracks such as Little Wing, Castles Made of Sand among many others demonstrated a softer, more soulful side to his playing inspired by the gospel players he grew up listening to. We've chosen Hey Joe as a standout from his catalogue 'cause of its lovely sharp, bright tone, showing that you don't need to be dripping in drive to cut through a mix. There's a richness to this tone that is just stunning and although Hendrix was more of a Strat man, it's rumoured he used a Tele for the recording which would explain the bite he manages to get. It sounds to us like his Marshall JTM45 amp is cranked to just about breakup point and there may even be a fuzz pedal in the mix when it comes to the solo but it's hard to tell. Jimi was not only a fantastic player but he was also so good at making his gear work for him. No matter what he used, it sounds incredible. Have a listen above.
RHCP - Scar Tissue
Drawing inspiration from Hendrix, John Frusciante embraced those glistening cleans and totally made them his own. His playing throughout the Chili's Californication album, in particular, is just breathtaking with these lovely, chimey, glassy cleans that are subtle, often simple and never less than beautiful. The fingerpicked Scar Tissue is one of our favourite examples of this, totally adding to the laid back vibe of the song and matching Flea's grooving bass licks perfectly. Frusciante tends to follow Jimi's timeless Strat to Marshall sound, often using vintage-inspired 50's style pickups to get that lovely crisp chime. This sounds as simple as letting those pickups sing with a touch of reverb but aw man, does it not just sound gorgeous? To be honest, there are so many of his tracks we could've looked at but Scar Tissue has always been a favourite, pure California vibes right here, zone out and play along.
John Mayer - Slow Dancing in a Burning Room
Not unlike Frusciante, John Mayer has become something of a modern master of the clean tone. His rhythmic lead playing is flawless with a ton of guitar parts that sing without him ever overdoing it. SDIABR has some gorgeous chordal parts that we've always loved and that tone is just the cherry on top. Mayer has always been a Strat man, well until PRS came along and created the familiarly shaped Silver Sky that is... This tune really shows off his control over the classic S type guitar and to the best of our knowledge a seriously pricey line up of amps! Mayer tends to play through both Dumble and Two Rock amps, along with Fenders from time to time and while most of us don't have the thousands to invest in his live or studio setup, the results speak for themselves. The tone is a little less sharp than some of the others on this list with a lovely warmth to it so we're guessing he switched to his neck pickup to give it that thickness. This is a really cool track to learn as it puts some interesting shapes together, have a go if you're feeling adventurous!
SRV - Lenny
Ah Stevie, of course, we had to end the list with you... Stevie knew a thing or two about clean tones, crafting that classic southern Strat sound in such a beautiful and individual way that he's rightfully earned himself a place among the greatest of all time. Lenny is one of our favourite tracks, not only for the masterful guitar playing and those lovely harmonics but for that special sound. Plenty of reverb, just a little bit of bite and there you have it, a tone as timeless as the track itself. Again, the Strat is king here, and totally sings, omitting that glassiness that works so well with SRVs vibrato and what is most likely a 60s Fender Blackface pushed to the point just before breakup. Remember, just because it's clean doesn't mean it has to be CLEAN! You can add a little sparkle to your sound with a touch of drive or as these guys have done, by simply cranking your amp to the point just before it starts to get messy. It sounds like he switches pickup during the track to dial in a more trebly tone but for the most part, it's got a neck pickup vibe all over, possibly moving into a middle position? It's hard to tell but if you have a mess about you can let us know how close you get! Have a listen to an absolutely glorious bit of playing above and see what you think.
Believe it or not, we didn't set out here to write a list of awesome clean Strat tones... It just kind of happened! Like it or not, Fender are tough to beat when it comes to cleans and the legends on this list are all the proof you need! Now, that's not to say there aren't a ton of other examples we could've selected but it certainly speaks for the versatility and timelessness of the Strat. Even after all these years, it's still tough to top. We'd love to hear your thoughts so drop a comment below and let us know what tracks stand out for you and what setup you use for cleans, you never know, we just might learn something!