Is There A “Pop Sound”?

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.

Many pop acts move towards rock when playing live. Here, Katy Perry brandishes a Les Paul.
Many pop acts move towards rock when playing live. Here, Katy Perry brandishes a Les Paul.

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?

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  1. The real secret, a good pairing of your effects board to your guitar, then for them to have a good relationship with your amp; mine has been a Boss GT-8 Multi-Effects Processor with a Digitech Digidelay and a Digitech Screamin’ Blues Overdrive pedal (set as a crunch boost for solos in the clean channel) in it’s external effects loop, a Dunlop Crybaby Wah in front of the processor’s input (sounds better than the built in wah 10 fold), a couple of sub control buttons for ease of use on the GT-8, and a Line6 G50 Relay Wireless Receiver (not really necessary for tone but I prefer wireless on stage), all running into the power stage of a good tube amp (or pair of amps for true stereo chorus and delay). Now as fancy as this all seems, it’s all based around two main channels I use for 98% of the music I perform: A Clean channel (Simulating a Fender TWIN combo’s preamp) with a switchable chorus (I like my cleans to have a subtle chorus, just my preference, works well for pop), It is with this channel that most of the effects are used depending on the song at least, but solos in this channel are boosted with a solid bluesy crunch drive that really sounds nice if you leave the guitar on the neck pickup(s), the other channel is of course, a main overdrive simulating a ’59 Marshall and my choice of a Proco RAT Overdrive, producing a thick distortion without too much gain, with an across-the-board volume (and a small touch of gain to the virtual preamp) booster, providing a distortion versatile for anything from blues leads to metal, add the crunch and you’ll have a thick, Big Muff sounding fuzz, (even though I have a separate channel with a Fuzz Face for those Hendrix tunes). It all runs back into a Kustom TRT100H atop a matching 2-12 Jensen-Loaded cab to produce a fabulous sound. All for about $1,500 and some elbow grease (not to mention finding all this stuff to begin with). I have been the lead guitarist of a jazz band and the frontman of a three-piece rock band using this same setup and the same channels, she hasn’t failed me yet…

  2. Pop doesnt use real instruments often times. Whens the last time you heard a guitar track in a pop song?

    1. Somebody That I Used To Know was pretty much straight up guitar
      Any acoustic based radio friendly pop song is acoustic guitar
      All country pop has guitar
      Avril Lavigne’s Stuff
      AAR’s Gives You Hell might as well be considered a pop song with guitar
      need I go on?

  3. POP has given American music a bad name and it has caused the listening public to become less knowledgeable about what music is, in the greater sense. It has completely killed the grand direction of Soul and classical production of all Black American music. We have entered a decades long period of junk techno junk that young folks use for background noise when there are no low flying jets going over. Don’t we have enough white noise in our lives already?

  4. I use what Ive always used, a good pedal array, phaser, chorus, echo, OD, distortion, tremelo and a wah, got me through every duo and pop band gig ive ever done. I fitted an All axe set to my strat and up until recently drove them into a 69 super reverb or a Hotrod deluxe, but my current amp is a Egnater Rebel 30

  5. What about midi guitars like the ones that use the Roland hexaphonic pickups, and what about stuff like the Variax guitars? I realize tone purists aren’t into that stuff, but for pop, I’m thinking it’s a good way to go.

  6. I remember this tipe of questions are disqused in my childood of course, in this times the most pop musicians uses the clean channel and some of reberb, fuzz(a bit), and delay, today the “pop sound” is amorphous and anybody can make it, because it’s no only sound, you need play a poor technique or simulate that , because in the pop the most important than music is the cute-face illuminated for a zenithal light.

    1. Not sure that poor technique qualifies as pop. Most pop artists are backed by guitarists instead of playing themselves, but that said, there are a variety of pop influenced styles, which includes a modern version of pop rock(which has been around since the 50s in one form or another).

  7. I use a strat with HSS pickups, currently with another brand. In the process of buildng a second one which wil have SD’s again. Humbucker will be a JB, not sure off the singles yet (why is there no Blackouts HSS set available?) Had a HSH set with the Alnico II Pro in the neck loved it but needed a real good single coil sound.
    Four overdrive/distortions and a Line6 M13. Into a good clean channel amp.

  8. I know this is an old article, but couldn’t be more timely for me. My music tends to blend pop and rock elements mainly, so the kind of sound I am going for tends to be more along the lines of a classic rock sound from the early to mid 80s, but includes melodic elements from pop music as well, while still remaining firmly rock. Has given me a lot to think about.

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