Discussions about how to get “that” tone are usually centred around a particular genre. It’s easy to discuss rock, jazz, metal or country tones, because the genre itself carries an implication about a rough tonal ballpark. When we talk about rock, we immediately bring to mind various overdrive and distortion sounds. Jazz makes us think of that warm, articulate clean tone. Metal is all about crushing distortion, and country musicians can’t get enough twang.
We hardly ever hear people talking about trying to get a good tone for pop. Why not? It’s because pop doesn’t have such an identifiable sound associated with it. In fact, when we talk about “pop” we’re talking more about a feel than we are a sound. Pop music uses sounds from other genres of music to create the desired feel at any given moment.
Perhaps mentioning pop music brings to mind that clean, compressed, chorusy Strat and Tele sound used so much in the 80s – but that was decades ago now, and it’s not what pop sounds like any more. In a given pop song, you could hear any guitar sound from a sparklingly clean sound reminiscent of 70s disco, through country and jazz, up to classic-rock-style distorted guitars. And you may well hear several of those sounds in different parts of the same song.
Thus the challenges of being in a pop band are similar to those of being in a covers band with a wide-ranging repertoire – perhaps a band that takes requests. You can’t stick to one tone and change it slightly throughout each song – you have to have access to tones from many genres.
In the studio, getting all these different sounds is simply a case of using a bunch of different guitars and amps, recording each part separately and then combining them during production. While expensive, it’s not particularly difficult.
When it comes to live playing, there are a couple of different routes that can be followed. The first (and it’s not uncommon) is to just play tapes of the recorded guitar parts – perhaps new recordings with a more “live” feel – and stand on stage with your guitar, finger-syncing to those parts. This is of course a bit dishonest, but more than that, it’s just not very much fun.
So if you’re not using tapes, you have two options. Firstly, you can re-arrange the songs and change the live experience to match up with the band you have. This might be your preferred option even when you have a gigantic budget, as it allows you to play more like a normal band. This is why some acts that are most definitely “pop” on their albums seem to morph into rock bands on tour (Haim, from our home state of California, are a great example of this, so much so that it seems perfectly natural when they cover Oh Well). Instead of four layers of synths and three layers of different guitars, you might have one guy on keyboards and another with a Les Paul. Of course, if the live focus of the band has more of a jazz feel, that would affect the songs differently.
In this video, pop songwriting giant Bonnie McKee breaks down a medley of pop number ones she has written into a simple piano/guitar/vocal arrangement and still manages to keep the “pop” vibe (and is it just me, or does that guitarist’s soundhole pickup look familiar?):
Alternatively, you can just bring all that gear with you. You will just have to switch guitars throughout the set. It doesn’t help if you find you need to change several times during a song though. Perhaps hire another guitarist and some more techs? This is obviously an option that gets expensive fast, making it available to only the bigger acts.
Of course, these days you wouldn’t need lots of amps – just profile all your recorded amps on to your faithful Kemper unit and you’re set.
If you wanted to try and minimise the number of guitars you were taking and still get a good range of sounds, how would you do it? You certainly wouldn’t go for pickups that were specifically designed for a certain genre – the Invaders are not much use for jangly pop sounds, for instance. Here are a few ways you could approach the problem.
1. Go for a classic sound
This first option would mean going for PAF-style humbuckers (like the 59 Model, the Seth Lover and the Alnico II Pro), or vintage-output single coils (like the SSL-1 or the Five-Two). These types of pickups have been used in pop recording for years and can do good sounds from jangling clean tones through to classic rock distortion. They work quite well through EQ and effects, and their sound is already well-known to audience ears through 60 years of exposure. This last factor can be very useful – if the sound of the guitar isn’t different enough from the norm to make a listener sit up and take notice, then it’s less important to nail the sound exactly.
2. Go for versatility
It’s possible to configure a guitar to create huge numbers of different sounds. I suspect this is a big part of the reason we see Monte Pittman using P-Rails equipped guitars up on stage with Madonna – the range of sounds from those is impressive (he matches the P-Rails neck up with a Vintage Hot Stack Plus and a Dimebucker, while Madonna uses two pickups from our Custom Shop in her Les Paul: the 78 and the Greenie). It could also mean switching the bridge pickup in a Strat to a humbucker, or perhaps wiring up lots of switches to change relationships between the pickups. The Jimmy Page wiring scheme for a Les Paul (diagram here) is a good example of this. Just remember that getting all your switches in the right place at the right times becomes a part of the rehearsal process that’s every bit as important as getting the notes right.
3. Go for neutrality
I know that sounds like the most boring option, but don’t worry. What I mean is that if you get a smooth, neutral sound coming from your guitar, it’s ripe for manipulation through EQ and effects. A great strategy for this is to go with active pickups. A pair of Blackout humbuckers would, perhaps surprisingly, be good – and a Strat set of Blackout singles even better. Active pickups are usually praised for their high output and low noise, but another great thing about them is that they drive long effects and EQ chains beautifully. You could have some active EQ control on the guitar, or use a programmable external EQ processor. Then you just need a decent multi-fx unit and a good modelling or profiling amp, and you have a huge tonal palette from a rig that will fit in the trunk of your car.
If this last rig sounds a lot like an ideal metal rig then, well, yes, it is. However, my advice to you is not to tell your metal-loving friends that their rig absolutely nails the tone you need for that latest Selena Gomez song. They might never let you touch it again.
Finally, as any player knows: however much of a pop star you are, sometimes you just gotta bust out the Pantera:
Do you play pop? What kind of rig do you use?