Best Lead-Guitar Tones of All Time

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The list of songs with perfect guitar tones is endless, and singling out any single song as the best is, of course, subjective. The most memorable guitar melodies don’t require attention; instead, they pull on the melody and traverse the space created by the rhythm section without being too showy, rude or predictable.

In a way, a great tone conveys something about the songs without using words. A great example is John Lennon’s introduction to the song I Feel Fine on rhythm guitar, as well as Carlos Santana’s solo on Black Magic Woman and Mick Ronson’s work on David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust”, although none of them got here. Instead, we tried to choose songs from different genres that talk about something indescribable and primitive and that can start a conversation.

Top Lead-Guitar Tones

Please note that these songs are presented in no particular order, and we hope to expand this list in the near future. On that note, enjoy!

1. Back In Black – AC/DC (Angus Young)

Much like punk rock, the sound of AC/DCs Back In Black (the album and the song) launched a million garage bands.

It’s the sound of an SG through a Marshall stack, unadorned by effects. What could be simpler? Yet Angus Young’s signature riff – and particularly his serrated solo – is impossible to replicate.

Chances are you know the song by heart. So maybe just scroll to 1:52 (and again at 3:36) and watch Young attack his Gibson with gusto while maintaining impeccable vibrato and tone. Classic.

2. Sunshine of Your Love – Cream (Eric Clapton)

Clapton’s tone on his solo in Cream’s 1967 breakout hit Sunshine of Your Love was so unique, so unlike anything else on the charts at the time, it demanded a name. He called it his ‘woman tone’. Clapton used it throughout his tenure in Cream, and fans always love and give each other a wink when he’s pulled it out since.

Any player will tell you the woman tone is as simple as putting an SG in the neck pickup, turning the volume all the way up and the tone all the way down. But it’s not. The ‘woman’ tone is as much in Clapton’s hands and attack as anything else, and this track is the perfect example of how hard it is to replicate.

Here’s a clip of Clapton demonstrating his woman tone for a BBC film crew (on his psychedelic ‘Fool’ SG):

3. In Memory of Elizabeth Reed – The Allman Brothers Band (Duane Allman/Dickey Betts)

The twin guitar attack of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts is legendary, not just because Allman died before his time or because their performance together on the Allmans’ 1971 album Live at the Fillmore East sounded like two parts of a whole, but because the tone and attack of the pair is unparalleled.

There are plenty of examples from Allman and Betts’ short time together that are a masterclass in dueling guitar work – Whipping Post, also from Live at the Fillmore East springs to mind – but nowhere do they lock horns and push each other to greater heights than here.

4. The Fly – U2 (the Edge)

Like Clapton’s woman tone, getting the Edge’s sound is hardly as simple as using a Les Paul through a Vox AC30 with Alnico Blue speakers and a couple of effects.

As with all the best U2 songs, the Edge’s guitar work in The Fly leaves lots of space. It also seems simple, but his choices (and tone) are unique and play to the strengths of the song. That way, when he takes off, the sound truly reaches the stratosphere. Throw in a little wah on the solo and the magic really happens.

5. Free As a Bird – The Beatles (George Harrison)

Considering his notoriety, George Harrison is still probably one of the most underrated guitar players in recorded history.

But as Bob Geldof said upon Harrison’s passing in 2001, he’s also probably the only lead guitarist that if you asked 10 strangers on the street to hum one of his solos they could do it without hesitation.

There’s a long list of great tones from Harrison, both in the Beatles and as a solo artist.

The stunning, heart-wrenching lead on Something, the fuzzed-up riff on What Is Life? from All Things Must Pass or the strident slide on the 1973 hit Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) from Living in the Material World are all George, and each one employs a tone that perfectly pushes and pulls at the song and the listener.

Say what you will about the ‘reunion’ recordings the Beatles released in the mid-’90s, but Harrison’s stunning slide solo completes John Lennon’s demo in ways no one else could have ever conceived. And that tone!

“That was all George,” engineer Geoff Emerick told me in 2006 of the sessions. “He plugged in and there it was. All I had to do was put up a microphone.”

6. Mary Jane’s Last Dance – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell)

Tom Petty often refers to guitarist Mike Campbell as his secret weapon.

Not only has Campbell co-written some of the band’s most enduring songs, like his hero (George Harrison), he’s consistently delivered guitar parts that are instantly recognizable and tuneful over more than 30 years as the Heartbreakers’ co-captain.

While his Telecaster guitar lines on Refugee are biting and warm, sitting perfectly in a perfect recording, his riffs and soloing on 1993’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance convey the confidence of a player who knows exactly where he wants to take the song and the listener.

7. Soul Man – Sam & Dave (Steve Cropper)

That’s what you hear just before the solo on 1967s Stax Records mega-hit by Sam & Dave. And play it guitarist Steve Cropper does.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the late-’60s R&B/soul boom is that the band that delivered the grooves on the most enduring of those records included some of the most lily-white guys you might stumble on. But boy did Cropper and his bandmates in Booker T. & the MGs (not to mention the Mar-Keys Horns) have soul!

Cropper delivered the goods on countless hits from the era. He co-wrote and played on Eddie Floyd’s Knock On Wood, Otis Redding’s (Sittin’ On) The Dock of The Bay, Wilson Pickett’s In The Midnight Hour and countless others. His tone and licks always hold his signature, but nowhere is his tone and style better encapsulated, and featured, than on Soul Man.

8. Champagne Supernova – Oasis (Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher)

In his days with the Jam, Paul Weller took a bit of Pete Townshend and a pinch of Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson and stirred them up into a potent mix, delivering serrated, staccato riffs with, as the band’s legend goes, fire and skill.

Just listen to the band’s cover of the Who’s Disguises and you’ll get the idea.

After the Jam’s 1982 split, a new crop of guitarists who’d been raised on Weller’s licks as much as anyone else stormed the charts. The Stone Roses’ John Squire and the Smiths’ Johnny Marr paved the way for Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Graham Coxon of Blur and Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

By 1995, Weller was in the midst of a career resurgence and Britpop was ascendant. And no one was riding higher than Oasis.

On Champagne Supernova, the final track from the band’s international smash (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, the master joined the student and magic transpired. Weller took the lead, with Gallagher in a supporting role, and delivered a glorious, tone-drenched solo that took a really good song into the stratosphere.

The secret? Weller played a white Gibson SG through a Vox AC30, so nothing special there. But the warmth and vibrato he coaxes from his strings evoke the past and the future all at once.

Britpop never reached higher.

9. Voodoo Chile – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Jimi Hendrix)

If you were to put an example of Jimi Hendrix’s writing, recording and playing into a time capsule you’d probably have to choose Electric Ladyland’s Voodoo Chile.

Hendrix’s longest studio recording tells the history of the blues and points to where Hendrix was heading. Billed as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix is in fact supported by Traffic’s Steve Winwood on organ, Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums. It’s a loose and sprawling jam, and its live nature showcases Hendrix’s virtuosity in a way that probably no other studio recording of his can match.

But mostly it showcases just how unbelievably perfect Hendrix’s tone was. Guitar lovers can argue about Clapton or Beck or Vaughan or whomever. But here, in 18 cathartic minutes, Hendrix lays claim to the past, the present and the future of the electric guitar. If no one ever tops Voodoo Chile – and no one probably ever will – we will still have this wonderful, intimate recording forever.

10. Enter Sandman – Metallica (Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield)

Whether it be Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine or Metallica, the 1990s were full of monster riffs and monster tone.

But the undisputed kings of the most over-the-top of those gargantuan sounds were surely Metallica. And the band’s Enter Sandman, which propelled the band’s 1991 self-titled album to 30 million-plus sales, is a case in point.

Metallica had been known before 1991 for their complex songs, but Enter Sandman is relatively straightforward. Building toward Kirk Hammett’s wah wah-laden solo, the real tone is in Hammett and James Hetfield’s larger-then-life and irresistible dueling rhythm guitars.

11. Bargain – The Who (Pete Townshend)

“When I hit on doubling an acoustic guitar with an electric guitar, a whole new palate of sounds was suddenly at my disposal,” the Who’s Pete Townshend once told me of the signature sound that adorns the band’s landmark album Who’s Next.

While some may argue that Townshend’s ‘tone moment’ was his solo on Heaven and Hell during the band’s circa-1970 live shows (Check out the expanded Live at Leeds reissue, Live at Hull or Live at the Isle of Wight), and in a career filled with signature sounds, the twin guitar, rhythm/lead attack – combining a Gretsch 6120 Joe Walsh had given him with a Gibson J-200 – that he employed on Who’s Next is probably Townshend’s most enduring signature sound.

In fact, every track on Who’s Next is great and has bucketloads of tone.

Baba O’Reilly, Goin’ Mobile, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Behind Blue Eyes…. Considering it came from the ashes of the aborted Lifehouse project, it’s a remarkable accomplishment.

But probably nowhere does Townshend’s inimitable strumming and combination of lead and rhythm playing shine more than on Bargain. Using a Fender amp and a volume pedal with that Gretsch/Gibson combo creates a warm bed that – against the volcanic Keith Moon/John Entwistle rhythm section – is unbeatable.

12. Midnight Rambler – The Rolling Stones (Mick Taylor)

Arguing the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones are the ultimate lineup is always a losing cause. Without alienating millions of early Stones fans, suffice to say the band didn’t truly take off as a first rate musical unit until guitarist Mick Taylor joined the band.

While Keith Richards always laid down distinctive and rich acoustic (and even electric) parts that propelled the band, it wasn’t till he teamed up with Taylor for what he always calls their ‘ancient art of weaving’ that things got really interesting.

By the time the band hit the road in 1972, they were in full flight, and Midnight Rambler on the live release Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out! is the ultimate example. While Mick Jagger wails on harmonica, and Keef lays down a comfy bed, Taylor wails on top. Up, down and sideways, it’s a masterclass in where a great rock band can take the blues.

13. Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)

Comfortably Numb, Wish You Were Here, even On An Island: the list of songs that are lifted from great to astonishing by David Gilmour’s signature tone is a long one. Both instantly recognizable and impossible to imitate, Gilmour in many ways is the sound of post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd.

Nowhere is that more evident then on this ode to Barrett and the madness he succumbed to, from the band’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here. Long and adventurous, but never boring, this track epitomizes everything that was great about the band, who were stretching their progressive muscles in the mid-’70s. Meanwhile, Gilmour charms an irresistible tone out of his Fender Stratocaster.

Rumor is that Gilmour records his parts at staggering volume. While most players can’t coax more than a croak out of their rig at that level, Gilmour clearly has a remarkable touch beyond mere mortals.

Normally broken into parts, the link below includes parts 1 to 9 – the whole shebang- for your listening pleasure.

The Ways to Get the Perfect Lead Guitar Tone

Some of us spend our whole lives doing this. We carefully study each note with painstaking detail and look at our guitar heroes with divine admiration. In most cases, the ideal tone is the goal of the highest echelon, which we only dream of achieving.

Most people are of the opinion that the ideal tone is a way of thinking. Indeed, confidence and discipline are fundamental to excellent sound and technique. But a good tone can become a great tone with the help of other small tips and settings. There may not be a universal formula for an amazing tone, but here are helpful tips on how to improve the tone of your lead guitar to cut through the rest of the sound.

9 Ways to Improve the Tone of a Solo Guitar:

  • Get a good starting point with your settings
  • Sort your gain and volume
  • Get a balance of high, medium and low frequencies
  • Select the bridge pickup
  • Use the effects pedals
  • Check the intonation of your guitar
  • Change your guitar strings
  • Take care of your drilling rig
  • Use Quality Cables

Start From Scratch

The first thing you need to do when you determine your solo guitar tone is to start from scratch. If you start messing around too much with a lot of different settings at the same time, it will be difficult for you to type exactly the sound you want and how to adjust it so that it is correct.

Start by setting all your controls for 12 hours.

This gives you the best place to start to figure out what kind of leading tone you want. Remember, when you make any adjustments from this position, change only one thing at a time. So now let’s move on to the controls and how you should configure them.

Sort the Volume and Gain

Starting with gain and volume is a good place to start. Of course, the gain setting will mostly depend on what style you are playing. If you play in a metal band, then obviously your winnings will be higher. However, if you strive for a pure sound, this does not mean that you should not have any amplification at all. You’ll want to start by increasing the gain until you start hearing a crunchy sound. Then reduce it to the moment you heard it.

Determine the Balance

Timbre controls are present on most decent amplifiers and are important for the correct tone set of your solo guitar. There are usually at least three tone controls:

  1. High frequencies: this refers to the amount of high-quality sound produced by your amplifier. The higher the high frequencies, the sharper the sound.
  2. Average values: it’s pretty obvious. It controls the average frequency of your sound. A low medium setting sounds “scooped”, while a higher setting will be more saturated.
  3. Bass: This refers to a low sound. The lower the bass, the thinner the sound will be.

There are also a few other tone controls that you may have, depending on which amp you are using. The equalizer control will affect the tone of your solo guitar. There may also be a loop or filter setting, which is a universal treb-bass-mid setting, and the effect varies depending on your amp.

Now you know what all the tone settings mean, how do you use them to improve the tone of your lead guitar? Well, first let’s talk about averages. Usually you want to turn it on about 4-6. Much lower than that, and you won’t get such a strong hit in your tone, and much higher can sometimes work, but it can confuse the tone a bit.

In most cases you will want your bass to be set higher, try to dial around 7 and work from there. You may even have to set this value higher if you are using smaller speakers.

Finally, you’ll probably want to keep the treble at around 5. If you raise the treble too high, the sound may be too harsh. Too low, and it will start to sound weak and indistinct.

Adjust the Grip Height

Pickups are an important element of excellent tone. We can’t always change their character without changing them completely, but adjusting their height is a great way to quickly and easily adjust the output level of your guitar. All that is required is a suitable screwdriver, a ruler, and a few careful experiments.

So on most guitars you will have three pickup settings: neck, bridge and both. The general rule is that you will want to use a bridge pickup for solo guitar. The bridge pickup will produce a sharper sound, while the neck pickup is usually more “bass”. Think of it the same way as the bass, midrange, and treble controls.

  • Neck pickup: High bass, low treble
  • Bridge pickup: Low bass, high treble
  • Both pickups: more mid-range

Typically, your amp’s settings will favor higher basses and lower treble frequencies, and your pickup will pay more attention to high frequencies. This usually creates a nice balanced sound. But it’s all just preferences. Using both pickups may sound better to you. It is unlikely that you should use a neck pickup, although, as a rule, it also does not allow you to cut through the sound.

Add Some Effects

One of the best ways to improve the tone of your lead guitar and develop your own sound is to use pedals to add some effects to the mix. Effects pedals are a terrific way to develop your own tonal identity. One basic thing to keep in mind when turning a pedal board into a sound playground is that certain types of effects sound best when they are arranged in a certain order. While there is no strictly “correct” way to position your pedals, many frequency-shifting effects can disrupt the signal path, discolor the tone, or cause cropping when placed in certain sequences with other kinds of effects. Consider these general guidelines when deciding which effects pedals go where.

If you are new to using pedals, it is best to start with one or two pedals and deal with them properly. It may be very easy to get carried away with pedal boards, they can be very addictive! But you don’t need to complicate things too much, especially at the beginning, to get a great solo guitar tone. Here are some of the main types of pedals that should be considered.

Distortion Pedals

This is the most popular type of pedals in the world. It adds a bit of crunch, volume and sustain to your sound to enhance the sound of your lead guitars. If you have a limited budget, then the Boss DS-1 is a great distortion pedal to start with. But if you are looking for something more upscale, then choose Ibanez Tube Screamer. This is one of the most famous pedals, and it was used by such famous players as Noel Gallagher.

Reverb Pedals

Sometimes amps come with built-in reverb, but in most cases you can’t turn it off without changing the controls on the amp. It’s useless when you’re trying to give your sound a solo boost. Reverb pedals create an echo effect that sounds great on solo guitars. If you want to splash out, then the MRX M300 is a great choice. But if you’re looking for something less flashy and expensive, then the EX Digital Reverb Pedal Mini is a great option.

Gain Pedals

This allows you to quickly increase the volume of your guitar without adding any distortion. This is a valuable pedal that can be added to your board if you are playing songs that require a more noticeable solo guitar sound in some parts and a quieter sound in others. For example, in verses compared to solos. The TC Electronic Spark Line is a good budget option to achieve this effect, and the Xotic AC amplifier pedal is a good choice if you want to spend a little more.

Delay Pedals

These pedals do what it says on the tin. This allows the sound you have produced to continue repeating after you have stopped strumming. It can be a great addition to the tone of your lead guitar and has been known to be used in many classic songs such as “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Run Like Hell”. The Boss DD-500 is a popular high-end option, and the Electro-Harmonix Canyon is a great choice if you want something less expensive.

Check the Intonation of your Guitar

One of the main things that can hold back your lead guitar tone, is the guitar itself. Now I don’t mean that you need to go and purchase a super expensive Gibson or Fender model to be able to sound good when playing lead guitar. I mean that you need to make sure that your guitar’s intonation is correct and there aren’t any issues with any part of your instrument.

Here are some things to consider to check your guitar is correct:

  • High action or extreme relief indicating the need for truss rod adjustment
  • Bridge and saddle height that needs readjusting
  • Worn frets

If you’re not sure how to check the intonation of your guitar, here are some steps you can try.

  • Play a note on the 12th fret
  • Play the 12th fret harmonic of the same note
  • Compare the pitch of the two sounds.

Now if you know your way around guitars, you may have some experience making adjustments to improve the intonation. But if you don’t have a clue what’s going on, then take your guitar to a well-renowned repair shop and ask them to check it and make any adjustments if necessary.

Change the Strings

How often you should be changing your guitar strings will depend on a few things.

  • The quality of your guitar strings
  • The age of the guitar strings
  • How often you play your guitar

With that in mind, you should change your guitar strings after around 100 of hours of playing, or every 4-6 months, whichever comes first. If you’re having trouble bending or sliding on your strings, that’s also a sign that you should change your guitar strings.

When playing lead guitar it’s really important to change your guitar strings regularly to make sure you get a good tone. The older and more worn your strings are, the less bright and sharp your sound will sound. Old strings sound less clear which is less of an issue with rhythm guitar but a disaster for lead guitar tone.

Care for your Cables

This might not sound the most important point on this list, but looking after your cables can go a long way to improving your guitar tone.

Make sure you get a well-made and designed cable that’s built to last. Store your cable properly and wind it up when you’re not using it. Avoid kinks and stretching your cable at all costs.

So that’s it! Those are the 8 best ways to improve your lead guitar tone! I hope you’ve found this guide useful and thanks for reading! Here are some other posts you might find useful.

Use Quality Cables

Buying cable TV can be intimidating for those who aren’t armed with the right information. All these styles and prices can be confusing and a little scary. “It’s just a cable,” you say. “Does it really matter?”

Simply put, yes. A well-designed cable can work wonders with your tone. This does not mean that you should spend $100 on it — “good” does not always depend on the cost. In most cases, it’s a matter of capacity or the way your cable handles the signal generated by the sensors. Guitar cables are essentially long capacitors consisting of two conductors separated by an insulator. Generally speaking, the longer the cable, the higher the capacity and the more you will lose.

Think about how much cable you use, especially if you have a lot of pedals. Why invest thousands in this high-end guitar just to have your tone ruined by an extra-long cable? Using a low-capacity cable can help prevent signal loss and keep your high level intact. However, think about the opposite if your sound is too bright and you prefer more noticeable midrange frequencies.

Preventing kinks, turns and deformations in your cable can also help your signal. A cable with more protective shielding — a material that insulates the signal wire in the core of the cable — will prevent noise during operation and help preserve your overall sound.

Of course, the other half of the great tone formula is a great amplifier. Even if you have a well-groomed guitar and the right accessories, proper care of the amplifier can significantly affect your sound. But that’s for another day …

FAQ for Lead-Guitar Tones

What are lead-guitar tones?

The lead guitar tone is a type of electric guitar tone that is typically heard playing chords or soloing. The sound was created by using a tube amplifier such as a Fender amp, so it has a ‘warm’ character, and is often compared with the sound of vintage Fender amplifiers.

What is the history of lead-guitar tones?

Lead-guitar tones are a type of guitar technique that is used to create a particular sound. They are used in a wide variety of genres, including rock, blues, jazz and country.

Lead-guitar tones have been around for centuries. In the early 1800s, the term was first coined by French guitarist Jean Baptiste Lully who was known for his use of this technique in his compositions.

While lead-guitar tones have been around for centuries, they were not widely used until the late 1940s when jazz guitarist Charlie Christian popularized them after he heard Django Reinhardt play them.

The most popular type of lead-guitar tone is the “smooth” sound.

Lead guitarists who want to play a smooth, clear sound typically use a small amp that has a single speaker. The other popular type of lead-guitar tone is the “crunchy” sound, which is typically produced with an overdrive pedal.

What types of lead-guitar tones are there?

There are many types of lead guitar tones. The most common ones are the ones that have a treble sound and a bass sound.

The type of tone you want to use depends on the song you are playing. For example, if you are playing a ballad, you would want to use a softer tone because it will sound more soothing and romantic than if you were playing a faster song.

Lead guitar tones can be found in various genres such as rock, pop, country, jazz, and blues.

What is the difference between a lead tone and a rhythm tone?

A lead tone is the first word or phrase in a sentence that sets the tone for the rest of the paragraph. A rhythm tone is a repetition of words or phrases that are used to add rhythm to a paragraph.

Lead tones:

  • “I’m going to be your lead writer.”

Rhythm tones:

  • “I am going to be your lead writer.”
  • “But I’m going to be your lead writer.”
  • “And I’m going to be your lead writer.”

How can I create my own lead tone?

A lead tone is the first impression of your brand and it can be created by a variety of tones.

One way to create your own lead tone is to start with an emotion that you want to convey. For example, if you want to create a sense of urgency, then think about how you would feel if you were running out of time. You might think about how being late for an important appointment would make you feel anxious or how being stuck in traffic could make you frustrated.

When creating your own lead tone, it’s best to keep it simple and use one emotion or feeling at a time.

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