Four Iconic Guitarists and How They Achieve Their Sound

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but it runs deeper than that. Imitation is a form of skill development: it involves using observation to attain competency. If you’re a budding guitarist aspiring to be one of the greats — or at least to perform at eminent local festivals like Waking Windows — a solid strategy to reach your goals is to copy those you admire.

Wondering where to start? Here are four iconic guitarists, and how you can imitate their sound.

John Mayer

Credit: @johnmayer on Instagram

Known for his adult-oriented alternative rock sound and his novel approach of incorporating the blues into his musical technique, Grammy-favorite John Mayer is one of the most versatile guitarists on the scene today. A significant aspect of Mayer’s sound is his bluesy riffs — his masterful use of repeated musical phrases to show off his skill via spontaneous, spectacular additions. When you’re trying to emulate him, don’t be afraid to improvise.

His music involves using Dumble amplifiers, which produce an excellent range of sound that can cultivate rich, clear lows and defined stellar highs. Mayer also uses an Ibanez TS 808 guitar pedal to achieve his famous versatility. Ibanez is known for producing one of the most copied and modified overdrive pedals of all time. The TS 808 particularly stands out because of its durable Zine die-cast construction and its JRC4558 chip, which emanates warm, low-pitched frequencies. You can use this gear to hone your improvisational skills and fully recreate Mayer’s unique sound.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Credit: James J. Kriegsmann under Public Domain – no changes were made to the image]

Queer Black artist, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is known for her superstar gospel music performances that eventually cross over to the secular. This grandmother of rock and roll mixed together delta blues, New Orleans jazz, and gospel swing music to create her own distinctive style. Some famous musicians who cite her as an influence include Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash.

Tharpe’s signature guitar was a white Les Paul Custom, a powerhouse instrument with a mahogany body and fine ebony keyboard. This model is still available today, so you can take capturing Tharpe’s sound even further and procure one of your own. However, the true key to emulating Tharpe lies in how you perform. Tharpe was bold, assertive, and unafraid to take risks with her sound. To take after her, don’t hesitate to display your confidence as you play.

Kurt Cobain

Credit: Adam Jones under CC BY-SA 4.0 – no changes were made to the image

Kurt Cobain was the legendary vocalist and guitarist of the grunge band, Nirvana, an iconic ’90s band that recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy. If you want to be able to play his repertoire, one of his fundamental techniques was using the two-note power chord. Though simple, what made Cobain stand out was how his hands could fly around the fretboard while still maintaining a rhythm, demonstrating his complete mastery of the craft. By honing your own skills, you can emulate his ability to enhance simple techniques and create outstanding music.

Cobain’s authentic and deliberate sound also often alternated between two different guitar tones: clean and distorted. To play his catalog, you need a good amplifier to give you that same flexibility. Cobain’s preferred model was the 1960s Fender Twin Reverb, which he used for both In Utero and MTV Unplugged for its ability to produce clean sounds and vintage-style breakups.

Erica Dawn Lyle

Credit: @kyaniteeye on Instagram]

Erica Dawn Lyle is a trans artist whose practice encompasses more than one medium — when she first joined the band Bikini Kill, she had just finished a week of guerrilla film-making in Miami. An improvising experimental guitarist, her singular style is flowing, intuitive, and rather difficult to imitate. For example, in Bass Magazine’s 2022 article “Kim Gordon, Erica Dawn Lyle & Vice Cooler Release Single ‘Debt Collector,’” she explained the achievement of her desired sound by grabbing a L’Oreal all-day lipstick and jamming it under the strings of her guitar.

To emulate her sound, the one equipment piece that Lyle recommends is the Earthquaker guitar pedals, known for their aural innovation. She appreciates the new sounds and possible directions the pedals open up. For example, you can play with the Avalanche Run model’s quirky features like the lo-fi looping mode and adjustable decay for the reverb. To sound like Lyle, be open to using such tools for out-of-the-box approaches to music.

Imitating brilliant artists is both a fun and insightful stepping stone to finding your own style as a guitarist. Follow these tips to get started on your musical journey.

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