How to Play Psychedelic Rock Guitar
If you’ve never heard of the Electric Prunes, the Seeds, the Remains, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Count Five, Blues Magoos, the Amboy Dukes, the Shadows of Knight, the Standells, the Leaves or the Strangeloves, this article is required reading. They are the forefathers of psychedelic rock – the American bands that put fuzz tone on the map and, in some cases, even the charts and inspired the garage rock renaissance of the ’80s that still continues at the grungy rock club level today.
Even Jimi Hendrix arrived on the heels of outfits like the Count Five, whose marvelous distorto-extravaganza “Psychotic Reaction” hit an amazing number five on the Billboard pop chart in 1965. And the 13th Floor Elevators, led by now-famed acid and electro-convulsive therapy casualty Roky Erickson, put their textbook 45 rpm disc “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on radio in July 1966. For perspective, consider that Hendrix didn’t record his first single “Hey Joe” until September ’66, and note further that the aforementioned Leaves had recorded and released a far trippier version of “Hey Joe” than Hendrix’s a year earlier.
These early psychedelic rock bands were, for the most part, not terribly skilled musicians, but they had faith in a concept. Much like the punk rockers who came along a decade later, they believed rock ‘n’ roll should revel in electricity and energy, and be loud, dirty and unruly, and should be in the hands of the people.
You can hear these influential bands putting this manifesto into action by checking them out on YouTube or on compilations albums like the Nuggets and Pebbles series. The latter collects releases by ultra-obscure regional garage bands. The king-daddy of these comps is the Lenny Kaye compiled Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965—1968. First pressed in 1972, before Kaye became the lead guitarist in the brilliant, ground-breaking Patti Smith Group, the two-LP set remains the essential primer in psychedelic/garage rock ‘n’ roll.
Kaye’s compilation was reissued several times, and in the late ’70s it got the ball rolling on the garage rock renaissance that would blossom in the early 1980s thanks to a sprawling roster of revival bands that includes DMZ, the Lyres, the Fleshtones, the Chesterfield Kings, the Dream Syndicate, the Prime Movers, the Pandoras, Plan 9 and the Creeps. None of these bands broke of the club circuit. There was a common knowledge, perhaps even a sense of duty, that dirty rock rooms were exactly where this music had been born and where it should remain.
What these revival bands also had in common was furious energy, a snotty attitude and a retro sound that was rich in fuzz and volume, typically anchored by three solid chords and a consuming passion for gut-leveled rock ‘n’ roll. They also shared a taste for retro gear. Even today recreating the six-string sounds of the original psychedelic era requires following rules chiseled in vinyl by the likes of the Seeds and the Standells.
If tunes like the former’s buzzing “Pushin’ Too Hard” and the latter’s “Dirty Water” speak to your heart, you might want to learn the original vocabulary of psychedelic rock guitar. Here are same basics to consider:
• Guitars: Sure, you can play psychedelic rock on any model of guitar, since solid-, hollow and semi-hollow body instruments all found their way into the original crop of the music’s pickers. But having an authentic look and a bold classic tone is part of the psychedelic rock vibe, so instead of pointy headstocks, built-in electronics and ultra-hot pickups, think meat-and-potatoes axes like vintage-styled Les Pauls, SGs and ES-335s. The genre’s signature distortion shouldn’t come from the instrument, or even the amps, as much as effects boxes.
• Amps: To recreate the sounds of the 1960s, think about gear that was available to players like the young Ted Nugent in the Amboy Dukes or John Michalski of the Count Five. This was the pre-Marshall era, and Epiphone and Gibson were key amp makers along with Supro, Kay, Magnatone, Univox, Silvertone and others. What all of these amp brands have in common is that they will break up as they are turned up. Several of them, including Supro and Silvertone, are being manufactured to original specs once again, but plenty of the originals are available at cool guitars shops and ebay. Let’s admit it, hunting for gear you want is half the fun.
• Effects: Forget digital delays and flangers, of any other effect that wasn’t available as a stomp box by 1968. The authentic-era effects are tremolo and reverb — both preferably generated by an amp — followed by wah-wah, phase shifter and maybe an octave pedal, and, of course, fuzz tone. The latter is absolutely essential. Think about going vintage here as well, with pedals that are either classics or are designed for retro tones. We’re talking the Gibson Maestro (deployed by Keith Richards on “Satisfaction,” the Big Muff (a version was available in ’68 as the Muff Fuzz), the Distortion + (a backwards looking ’70s invention) and other boxes with a good, buzzy base. An excellent modern distortion box that can do just about any job is the Z. Vex Fuzz Factory. Metal oriented pedals will be too bright. Smooth gain boost pedals like a tube screamer will be too clean.
• Arrangements: Classic psychedelic rock songs stick to the basics. If you’re looking to write something that sounds genre correct, three or four chords will do, and I-IV-V is the predominant pattern, since the first wave of American psychedelia followed the blues boom of the ’60s.
• Licks: Basic bar chords are the rhythmic stock in trade. And when it comes to lead guitar, you can’t go wrong staying inside the major and minor blues scales. The best guitarists from the original psychedelic era never found a pentatonic run they couldn’t make their own via tone or phrasing.