80s guitar sounds are in our ears and our mind now. In fact, they’re dripping right out of ’em. It was a decade when audio and music production technologies made a rather big leap. I’m not saying a forward leap, because for some people, the general sound of this era is as annoying as a constantly farting dog. None the less, it was a leap, and it affected all kinds of music genres and all kinds of instruments. Including guitars. So let’s talk some of the magical guitar sound of the eighties.
80s – a long lasting decade
It’s a well known thing that the 80s took place from 1978 to 1991. No surprise there. The fucker needed some extra room to spread out. With that in mind, we can take even the first EVH album, and call that lead guitar sound the epitome of 80s guitar. At least as far as distorted sounds go. While the actual timbre can show quite some variety, the turned up Marshall amp defined the era. Sometimes on its own, other times with boost/gain pedals. Sometimes close miked, sometimes with lots of room sound. You will rarely find guitar sounds from this decade that are overly creamy and mellow. That touch of high end is usually there. Think Hendrix on steroids. Or coke.
Too clean – no such thing
For clean ’80s guitar tones, the cleaner, the better. Roland Jazz Chorus amps were used and abused a lot, as well as Fender Twins or their Music Man equivalents. If an amp was used at all. The signature Nile Rodgers tone is a DI strat. It doesn’t get much thinner and twangier than that. For semi-clean and distorted, Marshall and Mesa/Boogie ruled the field. The then new JCM 800 had all the shrill treble and aggression available if that’s what you were after. Boogie’s Mark series provided tones ranging from Fender cleans to fluid, sustaining lead tones.
The (usually digital) effects were added either from the amp, pedals, or later in the mix, with the help of all kinds of Lexicon, Yamaha or AMS devices, among others. These were very often used in racks even on stage. For example, Jamie West-Oram (The Fixx) used two Allison Research studio compressors in his guitar rack. Yeah, that was the 80s, man. Chorus and flanger were used very often, on both dirty and clean sounds, often in stereo. Don’t be afraid to tweak these kind of units to get an obnoxiously detuned tone. You want to make an impact, not just pee in the wind aimlessly.
Clouded by reverb
The final part of the recipe is to submerge the whole thing into a large pool of bright reverb and delay. So the story goes. The truth is, there are some better sounding examples as well. The keyword though are “bright” and “large”. For those bigger than life solos, digital delays were the things to use, with clean, accurate repeats, and long delay time settings. Big, bright hall reverbs were also used, to make the whole thing sound like a fukken arena. And man, it did sound like it. Do you have a favorite guitar tone from the eighties? Leave a comment about it below.