How to Get a Great Blues Tone on Guitar
Mostly featuring songs with simple structure, blues music is quite often guitar-focused, giving a lot of room to players of this fine instrument to express themselves. What's more, the genre is also responsible for inspiring the creation of rock, hard rock, and even heavy metal music.
But since it's usually guitar-oriented and very expressive, this means that guitar players also need to know how to create a good tone. And this is where most of the troubles begin. While it may seem simple, it's usually really hard to get a good blues guitar tone. Sure, you're free to experiment, but there are a few tips that can help you in this search for better guitar sound.
So let's start with the pickups. In almost all cases, low-output pickups should have an advantage. You need to have a very controlled tone in blues, and high-output and active pickups are usually not the best solutions. Of course, both single-coil and humbucking pickups are useful, as well as the classic P90-style pickups.
In case you notice a lot of brightness or high-ends, feel free to implement your tone knobs to smoothen things out a little. In case you prefer that sharp "ice pick" kind of tone, then keep the tone knobs at the maximum level. And in case your pickups feel that they're giving a lot of output, you can always try and adjust their height and take them further away from the strings.
Tube Amps (or Tube-Driven Pedals) Have an Advantage
Blues setups shouldn't be too complicated. However, it's always advisable to go with tube-driven amps over solid-state ones. One of the main reasons for this is the dynamic response that tube amps provide.
Of course, we also have the "warmth" of the tone that no regular solid-state amp can ever fully replicate. It's the lower-mid part of the audible spectrum that usually makes the tone really pleasing with tube amps. What's more, many blues players prefer to go straight into very simple tube amps and just drive their clean channels over the edge and achieving that "organic" distortion.
In case tube amps are too expensive for you, you can always try to get your hands on a tube-driven distortion pedal or a tube-driven preamp. Having just one preamp tube (12AX7 or ECC83) can completely change your tone and give you dynamic response.
Working With Distortion and Your Amp
Looking through different distortion types, overdrive is usually the most practical one for blues music. However, you can also use classic distortion or fuzz pedals, although you'll need to be careful with the setup.
The perfect solution for most blues players is to go with your overdrive pedal directly into a tube-driven amp's clean channel. This is probably the most "balanced" and effective way of driving your tube amps into some warm and natural-sounding distortion territories. And here is where you get a lot of warmth and dynamic response, which is crucial for a good blues tone.
It's hard to make a good blues tone with solid-state amps, although it's not impossible. For this, you'll either need a tube-driven pedal or a preamp, or a very smooth-sounding solid-state overdrive pedal. Soft clipping of overdrive pedals will help you get that tube-like tone. Just bear in mind that the dynamic response is almost unnoticeable with most solid-state amps.
Don't Add Too Many Effects
One of the most important things to know is that you shouldn't add a lot of effects if you want to play blues. Unless, of course, we're talking about some very specific songs or song sections. In most cases, reverb works better than delay, since it makes things sound more vintage-oriented. Additionally, you'll also want something that resembles the classic spring reverb over those modern-sounding atmospheric ones.
Adding in modulation effects is usually not recommended in blues music. The tone is usually kept really "clean," and in case you need to add something to it, it should be done in moderation.
Simplicity Is the Key
Just like the music itself, good blues guitar setups are usually pretty simple. Some even prefer to go directly into a tube-driven amp with no effects and just rely on the room acoustics. And if they decide to add in some effects, it's usually just one overdrive or even a clean boost pedal driving the amp over its edge.
Of course, you're free to experiment, but you shouldn't make things too complex if you want to play the blues. Interestingly enough, making things simple and effective is not as easy as one might think.