Hit the Tone! Indie & Alternative

Hit the Tone! Indie & Alternative

Dirty your guitar and embrace the intoxicating essence of indie (or alternative rock, whatever)

What do you mean INDIE can mean a lot of things?

Few terms have caused as many rivers of ink as indie. Is it simply a way of doing things? Does it become a genre? Did it start out as one thing and now it’s another? What’s indie and what’s alternative? Will indie solve the climate crisis? Is it dead or is it neither created nor destroyed and only transformed? I’m afraid, dear reader, you’ll have to look elsewhere for those answers. Here we have it more or less clear, we are referring to a very concrete sound: the one that was created by (mostly American) bands since the mid ’80s around small independent labels that had relative levels of popularity (Matador, K, Merge) and that has one foot in the (Velvet) Underground, another in the second wave of American punk and the ears set in the “4 Bs” (Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Big Star). We are talking, of course, about bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Yo La Tengo and The Pixies. Pristine melodies and certainly naive and lo-fi sentiments, but also distortion, speed and force. This mixture of calm and storm is surely the most characteristic feature of the sound we are looking for. A sound that, speaking of guitars, you will have to generate especially from the pedals and the amplifier. But, well, by now you know: even the way you wear your guitar counts. So take out your plaid shirts, don’t bother combing your hair and sing like Lou Barlow: Gimme indie rock!


Without a proper guitar you’re not going anywhere

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If there is a guitar that is characteristic of the sound we are looking for, it is the Fender Jazzmaster, used by people like Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo (video above), Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth or J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., who, by the way, developed with Fender one of the most celebrated signature models. But it is not the only one: there was Peter Buck (from REM ) with a Rickenbacker, D Boon (from Minutemen) with a Telecaster, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) with a hybrid of Jaguar and Mustang, Joey Santiago (The Pixies) with a Gibson Les Paul, Frank Black (also from The Pixies) with a Mustang. What we mean is that, given the breadth of references covered by this type of sound, it can be reached through practically any guitar. However, there are certain details that are worth taking into account.

Although it is usually recommended to set the pitch and volume potentiometers to 10, we have to take into account that the sound we are after is often based on changes in intensity (something that was taken from a combination of Hüsker Dü and The Pixies, referring to THIS), which will force us, once we have found our distortion, to use the volume potentiometer, since it is the one we have closest to us while playing. Finally, when choosing your guitar you have to take into account, obviously, what kind of sound you have in mind. Mainly because of the pickups.

The single coil pickups are the oldest in history and are characterized by a bright, round and warm sound. The problem is that they can causes a constant buzz when you play at high volumes. We must resort to them when looking for a clean and smoothly distorted sound. A sound like the one we find in the less noisy songs of Yo La Tengo, for example THIS.

To correct this buzz, humbuckers (or double-wound pickups) were developed. When two single coils are connected in a particular way, the hum disappears. And not just the sound: a certain brightness of sound disappears as well, which turns into something more full and powerful. Plugged into the amplifier with the same volume as the single coil, the humbucker sounds much louder. That’s why we’ll use them when we want to make a good racket. Something like THIS.

Another option to get the variety of intensities we mentioned before would be to have a guitar with both types of pickups and to play with the selector. Because, friends, in indie rock there are many different styles meshed into one.


Pedals will lead the way

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Let’s be honest: there is no element in your gear that will determine your approach to the sound we are looking for more than the pedals. But is a fuzz or a distortion the same as an overdrive? What do I use each one for? Well, let’s take it one step at a time.

If we’re talking about saturation pedals, the oldest ones are fuzz. Their sound, rich in harmonics, resembles the buzzing of a hornet, and is characteristic of psychedelic rock (another of the sources from which alternative rock drinks, reminiscent, for example, of Screaming Trees). The fuzz reproduces the sound of a defective amplifier and allows us to lengthen and give presence to single notes or chords. There are dozens of models, but the ones we put up here are sure options: the Electro Harmonix Green Russian Big Muff Fuzz, the Electro Harmonix Big Muff PI USA or the Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Fuzz Face. Having said that, tell me: would you like to sound like this?

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Besides a reverb and an overdrive (which we will see later), the key to that wall-of-sound that J Mascis builds is in his fuzz. To do this, we must set the volume potentiometer to two o’clock, the tone to one o’clock and the sustain (time that a note, played only once, can continue to sound until it stops being audible) to full blast. With this predominance of the sustain we will create a wall of distortion, configured by the different notes when stacked together. For a sound like the one achieved by John Frusciante in Wet Sand’s solo we would keep the sustain at full power and lower the volume and tone even more (around 11 o’clock), to turn down the sound a little bit.

The overdrive pedal, on the other hand, emulates the overdrive effect of a tube amplifier at maximum volume: the amplified signal exceeds the capacity of the tubes and that deforms the sound wave, in a smoother way than the fuzz and the distortion pedal. It is clear, then, that we will use it to provide different degrees of distortion. These three examples you have above are three very interesting models: the Wampler Plexi Drive Deluxe, for example, is often used by J Mascis; the Alexander Pedals Jubilee Silver is often used by John Frusciante with both Red Hot Chili Peppers and solo, and the Fulltone OCD Overdrive V2, you can often hear it with Thurston Moore. Let’s take this last pedal as a reference. In Bull in the Heather, for example, there is a second guitar with an overdrive that we can get by setting the volume and drive (the amount of signal to which the effect is applied) to 11 o’clock and the tone a little stronger, to two-three o’clock. By adding a compressor pedal, it creates the perfect counterpoint to the first guitar. In the famous opening track of Dinosaur Jr.‘s Feel the Pain, for example, we can hear the smoothness of an overdrive, in this case with the tone at full throttle (to generate presence) and with the gain and volume between the two and three o’clock. One more thing before finishing with the distortion pedals: there is another possibility to raise the signal and saturate the amplifier. We are talking about the booster.

And now we come to the distortion pedals. They are, so to speak, between the overdrive and the fuzz. Although modern tube amplifiers can easily distort, a pedal will help us to achieve a specific sound and to manipulate it more easily. About the sound we are looking for, the distortion pedal is used when we are looking for more aggressiveness and intensity, and that’s what the four beasts up here are about. Let us introduce you (although you probably know most of them already): the Boss DS-2, the DS-1, the Proco Rat 2 and the MXR Distortion +. And if we’re talking about aggression, intensity, and alternative rock that’s a little harder… we’re clearly talking about Nirvana. The DS-1, for example, owes much of its popularity to the fact that Cobain (and also Novoselic, who used it to dirty his bass) carried it around with him everywhere. There’s the riff of In Bloom. To get that nuance, we’ll have to set the tone and level to half and the distortion potentiometer to full. On the In Utero tour, Cobain gave the DS-2 a lot of attention. Some proof can be found in the guitar of Heart Shaped Box, with a rawness that we will get by placing the level and tone at 11 o’clock, the distortion at full and the turbo in the middle. The Proco Rat is one of the most used pedals in grunge, but curiously Cobain only used it in Territorial Pissings. How? Well, it’s very easy: set the filter and volume between 9 and 11 o’clock and, of course, set the distortion at full throttle. See? That’s why they said Nirvana songs could be played by anyone.

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Well, that’s it with the pedals, right?

Err…no. You’ve got the basics, it’s true, but I say you haven’t got this far if you only want the basics, have you? Come on, let’s be thorough.

The chorus is based on copying the signal from our guitar and delaying it slightly from the original. To that copied signal, the pedal applies a small detune that oscillates in a cyclical way. We are talking about another of the emblematic pedals of indie and alternative rock. These two models, the Boss CH-1 and the Electro Harmonix Small Clone are among the most characteristic. The first one can be heard on Sonic Youth‘s guitars in Wishing Fulfilment combined with a boost. In this case, the chorus would bring the depth (amount of detuned signal applied) between 11 and 12, the rate (speed of oscillation) to 10 or 11 and the level (portion of signal with effect and without effect) and the EQ to 1. The second one is heard on the guitar of Come as You Are, without further explanation needed except that Cobain would be setting the rate to half.

If we get picky, a little reverb can’t be missing from your pedalboard. Let’s remember: the reverb is in charge of simulating that our sound is produced in a different space (deeper, narrower, higher, etc.) than the one we are really in. It is a fundamental pedal when it comes to adding depth to your sound. These two models could serve as an example: do you remember J Mascis’ guitar in Little Fury Things? Well, among other pedals, he is using the Boss RV-6. Level (signal with effect/signal without effect) at 11, tone (treble and bass level) at 12, time (time it takes for the reverb to disappear) at 9, and the spring reverb (simulates the classic ’50s springs). Its red neighbour, the TC Electronic Hall of Fame 2 is used by John Frusciante in The Sides, selecting the hall reverb, tone, decay (time it takes for the reverb to disappear) and FX level (signal with effect/signal without effect) between 10 and 11.

We finish this review of the pedalboard with two elements that can be the cherry on top of your sound. On the left you have the Dunlop Crybaby GCB95, a pedal with which there is no need for an introduction: few wah-wahs are so well known. An example? Sure, listen to Stephen Malkmus‘ solo in Jo Jo’s Jacket. On the right, the Electro Harmonix Memory Toy, an analog delay. Precisely, in order to round off the sound we are looking for and give it a mark of versatility, the use of analog delays is usually recommended. And if not, tell that to John Frusciante.

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Now seriously: without a proper amplifier… don’t even leave the house

As with guitars, the amplifier is not the crucial element in achieving the sound we are looking for, but having some issues in mind will help us reach our goal without relying entirely on the pedals. As far as it goes. It is often stressed that the older (or more vintage) your amp is, the better it will do. The four models above are classics: Fender Blues Junior, Vox AC15 C1, Fender 65 Princeton Reverb and Fender 68 Custom Twin Reverb. You may have noticed the predominance of Fender. There’s a reason for this: since time immemorial, these amplifiers have been highly valued for the concreteness and cleanliness of their sound, especially the classic blackface and silverface models. In order to favour the crunchy sound, treble is usually boosted over the mids and lows. To find the right distortion, it is advisable to turn up the volume as much as possible and then test the distortion pedal volume until it is sufficiently crisp. Then, if you have to turn something down, make sure it is in the mid range. And now…it’s a question of fiddling around…

Some tricks that don’t involve gadgets

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Here they are:

  • Remember that in indie/alternative rock, there’s no real difference between a rhythm guitarist and a soloist. Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, who is the soloist and who is the rhythmic one? It’s really not that clear! This translates into a greater importance on the riff (more chord based) and rhythm than your typical guitar solo.
  • The chords usually incorporate small variations: whether it is a major or a minor note added, the “changed” chords are characteristic of this sound.
  • The time signature will normally be 4/4. This makes it easier to keep the rhythm, but you have the responsibility to get a catchy chord progression that doesn’t bore anyone.
  • Solo or no solo? It’s one of the big debates. Since this sound comes from a reaction to the dinosaurs of rock, masturbatory solos have no place. So, if there are any, they have another meaning. Compare this one to any of Slash‘s. See?
  • Less is more: Always. Remember you’re a guitarist in an alternative indie/rock band, you’re not (nor do you want to be) Matt Bellamy.

Conclusion

Most of the bands referenced above emerged as a reaction to sleaze and to what we might call the people-who-didn’t-understand-that-Spinal-Tap-was-a-joke. That’s where the supposed laziness and “normality” that embraces the members of Yo La Tengo or Pavement comes from. It’s important to point this out because, besides being a sound, these bands represent a spirit: yes, take time to select your guitar, your amp and your pedals, but don’t forget for a second that this is about songs, ideas and emotions. And another thing: If you notice that you are taking yourself too seriously, drop everything and start again, the world will thank you.

 

Article originally written by Santini Rose in Spanish

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Joe has been singing since he can remember and started playing guitar when he was 10. He's been using it as a songwriting tool ever since. He is passionate about melody and harmony and admires musicians who create these in unique ways. Check out his alternative / indie projects Best of Feelings and Zef Raček.

4 comments

    Fun, but worth pointing out that you can get decent tones out of any amp that has a good enough clean tone.

    The analog channel of my Champion 40, for instance, works wonders considering it’s price.
    So the “don’t even try without something like X” is kinda funny and all, but let’s not disenchant the young’uns with their starter packs, right?

    All the stuff mentioned is the staple, but thinking of PJ Harvey’s 4-track demos, anything can sound really freaking cool if you use it right 😉

    As a rough and general idea, yes everything on this list will link to the stereotypical indie/alt rock genre, however, indie rock isn’t necessarily defined as a specific thing, make it your own, in my opinion it’s more of an expressive and ‘out there’ form of music, I use jaguars, jazzmasters, strats and sometimes a tele into a Laney CUB, but some people I know use casinos, explorers, es-335s and some ibanez guitars that I don’t remember, but the point is that use what guitar, amp, pedals you want, though if you want a versatile rig get an amp with a great clean tone and great clean headroom and you’ll be able to run almost anything into it.

    Indie music is any music that is produced independently of the mainstream record label. Alternative music is different from the popular music that is usually heard. Alternative music is often indie music. Indie rock and alternative rock are often used interchangeably. Nevertheless, there are some differences between the species. Initially, the term “indie” was used for British-based music, while “alternative” was for Americans.

    I’d sort of agree with Jan, but from the bands listed I understood the article to be about ‘indie rock’ – which I don’t remember being used until Sebadoh / Pavement / Dinosaur Jr – as a way of distinguishing them from grunge.

    Certainly when we were using indie in UK in the 80s, it had some very specific conventions – you could be indiepop, or indie but never indie rock – even if you rocked as hard as MBV. And Goth and Grebo were ‘alternative’ rather than indie.
    If you were on 4AD – you were alternative, if you were on Creation – indie.

    I’m being a little facetious, but it was always as much about image as music (Mega City Four played power pop as jangly as Teenage Fanclub, but their audience crossover was about zero because their image appealed to different subcultures)

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