Jazz Guitar Thoughts by Chris Standring

How To Get A Great Clean Jazz Guitar Sound

I get many emails from people asking me how to get a great clean jazz guitar tone. I'm always a little perplexed when I hear this because a good jazz guitar sound is simply the cleanest setting you can get on an amp. Now if someone said to me, "how do you get a great overdrive guitar sound", that might be more challenging as there seem to be a million different distortion tones to choose from. However, the more I think about the clean jazz guitar sound question, the more I think I understand the problem.

The issue is usually much bigger than getting a good tone from the amp. The issue is usually more about the ability of the player in question. How much technique he or she has, and exactly what sound they are hearing in their head.

Good tone is a combination of things. First, it has to do with having a pretty good technique, a certain degree of fluency if you will. If you are clamming every chord or you trip up every phrase you play, no matter what amp you are playing through, there are going to be problems.

Second, and I believe the most important thing is your "tonal frame of reference". Most advanced players, if not all, have a tone in their head that they hear and strive to reproduce. This 'virtual tone' I believe harks back to that player's musical influences. Personally, I listened a great deal to Pat Martino and it was his tone that I loved so much, and after listening to so many of his recordings that tone got in my brain. I also listened to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, George Benson and Pat Metheny. All of these players prefer to play with a clean tone. They all have impeccable technique too. So maybe a combination of those players along with my own personal experiences created the tone that I now get. Back in the day I also listened to Robben Ford and Larry Carlton, specifically for their soulful tone. So if I happen to be playing in a more contemporary idiom with a little edge, something that I have recorded many times, those tones that got in my head from so much listening will tend to come out.

Thirdly, the guitar you play will have an influence on how your tone is reproduced and lastly of course, the amp you are playing.

But make no mistake, the tone is indeed in the fingers. There is an easy way to prove this. Have three different players who play in different styles all play through your rig, one after another. Every player (especially if they are an advanced player) will sound nothing like the last.

A better experiment and one that is almost impossible to pull off, would be to have five world class players all playing through the same rig. And when I say rig, I mean the exact same amp, same amp settings and same guitar. No player gets to change a thing. So have John Scofield play, followed by Mike Stern, followed by Pat Metheny, followed by Pat Martino, followed by John Mclaughlin. Not only will each player play completely differently, but each player will reproduce a different tone, different dynamics, different loudness, and a different fullness of body.

So to answer the question of "how do I get a good jazz guitar tone?" I would say, I can only help recommend a good guitar, and a good amp and the other 70% is practice.

Solid body electric guitars are of course built more for Rock 'N Roll, but it is quite possible to get a good clean tone from them. I have played Fender Strats for some time and love them, but I do tend to EQ the tone if I want to play jazz on them. A Fender Strat has a very slinky thin tone so, for me, I like to run it through an overdrive pedal but have the overdrive set to zero. This way you simply get a boost of mids and bass, making for a nice soulful clean jazz tone. I then back off the volume on the guitar a couple of notches. I would experiment with this idea for any solid body electric guitar.

The ideal guitar to play to get a great clean jazz tone is of course an archtop jazz guitar. These instruments are an entirely different animal than solid bodies though. To play an archtop guitar requires a completely different technique than solid bodies. The reason is that an archtop guitar has no sustain or 'creaminess' so you have to attack each note with a good amount of force in order for it to speak. This presents the question of how you might articulate each note with the pick. Do you use hammer-ons or more of a traditional 'pick-every-note' approach. For me, it simply has to be the latter.

Also, an archtop requires the player to play a constant flow of notes in order to create forward motion. To keep movement in a phrase you have to keep playing, and this can be quiet a challenge. You need to work the instrument more. Conversely, a solid body guitar like a Strat or Les Paul allows the player to sit on a note and sustain through a bar, whether the player is using a clean sound or overdrive. The guitar lends itself to playing phrases with less notes.

So for me, switching between a solid body guitar and an archtop is a little bit like playing a violin and then picking up a cello. Entirely different animals. My archtop of choice is Benedetto but they are not the cheapest. But you get what you pay for. There are many great archtops on the market, but other than Benedetto I might recommend Eastman guitars as they are quality affordable instruments. I also love a Gibson 175. Or even a Gibson 335 or 345. All good solid quality clean jazz sounding guitars.

Finally, there are plenty of great clean sounding amps. Again, there are super high end amps and quality, affordable amps too. If I had little cash to play with I would probably look at Peavey. You can pick up an old Peavey Backstage 75 for a song and they are just wonderful sounding clean amps. The Peavey Classic 30 is also great quality.

Fender Twin Reverbs are also fantastic. A newer black face reissue model would be better than an older vintage version, if you want a super clean sound. Although the older ones certainly have their tone too. I just can't tell you how clean they might sound. Fender make many great clean sounding amps. Their Hot Rod Deluxe sounds great too. I hear their Jazz King amp is good too. And pretty affordable.

Polytone are probably the most famous clean sounding jazz guitar amps and I would say that for solo, duo or trio gigs, these are great amps. Look particularly at the Polytone Mini Brutes.

A higher end jazz guitar amp is Acoustic Image, which I personally use and love. They are almost like mini PA systems rather than guitar amps. And this is the optimum sound for an archtop as you don't want anything to colour the tone of the guitar.

Other high end jazz guitar amps are Evans, Jazzkat and Henriksen. All super great quality and designed for the clean sounding jazz guitarist.

Obviously the more rock oriented amps aren't to be recommended, although it is often still possible to get a clean sound out of them, it just wouldn't necessarily be ideal. So I would probably steer clear of Marshall, Crate, Soldano, Blackstar, Laney, Mesa Boogie, Hughes & Kettner and so on.

With a good clean amp, your settings can pretty much be up to you. I can tell you that when I do festival shows I have the promoters rent me new Fender Twins. I always use the same settings. Bass on 4 or 5 (depending on room etc) mid on 5 and treble on 3.

Other than that I personally like a little reverb and a just a little delay to help inspire me to play.

But of course the journey and quest for tone is yours and it's not a journey that ever really ends. Especially when all of a sudden you start hearing a different tone, and of course this may be due to some new music that got in your head. It can be torturous, but it's all part of the process.

Have fun on your journey!

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Read all about the great jazz guitarists here:

Bill Frisell Charlie Christian Django Reinhardt George Benson George Van Eps Grant Green Jim Hall John Mclaughlin Joe Pass John Scofield Kenny Burrell Larry Carlton Lee Ritenour Pat Martino Pat Metheny Tal Farlow Wes Montgomery