“Despite all the computations, you know you could just dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station,” Lou Reed sang in 1970. But as right as he was, creating a good rock sound is actually a bit of an equation. Don’t worry — there’s not going to be a math test later. These kinds of computations can be done with your guitar in hand.
Crafting the perfect guitar sound isn’t an accident. It requires a great deal of both patience and experimentation, but luckily, it’s fun to play around before you get there. The most fundamental tool of any successful rock band is the guitar (and the guitar effect pedals that accompany it), so here are its five key parts you need to know:
You might think of guitars as either acoustic or electric. But actually, there’s an in-between option known as a hollow body (or its little brother, the semi-hollow body) which allows for greater resonance than a typical electric would. Either way, almost every guitar body is made out of wood in order to evoke that natural, warm sound you get with each strum. Even sounds filtered through guitar effect pedals begin as simple wooden tones.
Whether you’re playing with medium-gauge DR or Dunlop guitar strings, the end result is more or less the same. But when you experiment with low-gauge strings, you find more of a metal or hard rock sound in the vein of Black Sabbath. Higher-gauge strings are perfect for jangly pop or bright, chipper rock a la The Byrds or R.E.M. Anything in between is incredibly versatile for different styles and genres.
If you’ve ever stared at a guitar and wondered what those metal strips underneath the strings are, they’re pickups. Pickups literally pick up the vibrations that ring out when you strum or pluck the strings, converting them into an electrical signal that gets sounded in a nearby amplifier. EMG pickups are a great brand to get started with, and for more recommendations, ask somebody in your local music shop.
Garage bands might need professional sound equipment, but live acts certainly do. Luckily, a good amp is only bound to run you around $200, depending on which features you opt into. Why not just stick with your 10-inch starter kit? One word: power. Even if you’re playing quiet music, you still want to be heard, and if you’re into loud, raucous punk, a better amp will do wonders to intensify your sound.
Here’s a pro tip: invest in guitar effect pedals, and lots of them. Delay pedals, distortion pedals, loopers — anything you can find to beef up your sound and deliver a unique tone. It’s a slow process trying to amass an entire pedalboard, but once you’ve got one, you have the capability for stellar live shows as well as serious studio sessions. The best way to learn which pedals are right for you? Plug in and start trying them all out.
You can think of your guitar as the precise, strategic communion of several interlocking parts. Or you can think of it as the thing you make the loud rock sounds with. Either way, the end result is always the same — pure rock ‘n’ roll.