The Secrets of Stoner Rock Guitar
Stoner rock, a genre characterized by slower tempos, thick low end, psychedelic drones and retro-inspired production, seems to be stronger than ever at the moment. If you really wanted to, you could probably trace the stoner rock guitar style back to a certain iconic metal band: there are elements present in the stoner rock bands of today that seem to flow directly from Tony Iommi’s propulsive rhythm in Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” There are other stylistic quirks that are consistent with ideas Iommi was exploring on albums like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, particularly with regard to incorporating psychedelic drones and bent notes. Oh and Iommi’s use of intervals like the half-step, the minor third and the tritone (or flatted fifth) also seems to have influenced stoner rock’s sinister sense of melodic menace. And yet there are other elements of stoner rock that seem to have developed outside of the direct influence of Mr. Iommi, especially when you consider the more aggressive elements of modern stoner metal bands like Electric Wizard and High On Fire: Sabbath were always dark and heavy, but they rarely sounded pissed off in the way that many modern bands do. Bands like Kyuss (and later Queens Of The Stone Age) seemed to build their energy on punk minimalism rather than metal darkness. If you’re just starting to explore this style, here are some general elements that you can incorporate into your playing to give it some of that stoner rock edge.
The typical stoner rock tone tends to have plenty of attack and lots of presence in the midrange. These are qualities that you’ll find in P-90 pickups, like the P-90S pickups on the 2014 Les Paul Melody Maker, for instance. This model is ideal for stoner styles because of its two edgy-sounding pickups and its Satin finish, which allows the wood to breathe and to sound more open in the high end. The Dirty Fingers humbucker is also a great pickup for stoner rock styles, with hits high-output level and punchy triple-ceramic-magnet construction. Then again, some stoner rock guitarists - and Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme could be included in this category - seem to prefer pickups that are lower in output, which allows you to retain clarity if you wish to edge more towards stoner/sludge territory with super-high levels of gain: if you start with a high-output pickup and jack up the gain from there, you might sacrifice a little detail. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what you want to do!
Les Pauls, Explorers and SGs tend to be very popular stoner rock guitar choices - players seem to appreciate the enhanced sustain of the set neck and the midrange warmth of mahogany.
You can get some really intense stoner/sludge tones by chaining several distortion boxes together, and often you can get to the really great tones by using low to medium gain levels on several pedals all at once, rather than jacking up the grit on each pedal all at once. Just make sure that you’re quick with the volume knob to zap any unwanted feedback before it happens! You will notice an increase in your signal’s noise floor if you employ this method, so you’ll either want to use a noise gate or incorporate that background noise into your sound. And many stoner players are into good old-fashioned fuzz boxes rather than traditional distortion pedals. The EHX Big Muff Pi is an especially popular choice because of how it thickens up the tone, and carefully you can fine-tune the high-end response through its Tone control. And during key moments you might like to try an octave pedal to add an extra note an octave below the one you’re playing
Many stoner rock guitarists like to use amps that provide a thick low end, such as the Orange OR100 or Marshall Super Bass - that’s right, you can get killer stoner tones by running a guitar into a bass amp. Bass amps tend to shift their whole frequency range down a little compared to a guitar amp, with more powerful lows and less ‘airy’ highs. This also makes them a great foundation upon which to build your multiple layers of gain. The Sunn Model T is also considered a classic of the stoner genre because they’re loud, the have a huge low end and they remain pretty clear up to very high volumes.
What to Play
Back in 2011 we looked at ‘evil musical intervals’ - the aforementioned minor second, minor third and flatted fifth. These tend to be the exact intervals that also work really well in stone rock (although there are plenty of other intervals that can work too, but these ones are particularly reliable). And another characteristic of the stoner sound is the use of slow, deliberate string bends. As you’ll see in the ‘evil intervals’ article, a very purposeful slow bend of, say, a quarter step or a half step bend at a slow tempo can add some serious power and authority to a riff. And if you have two guitarists or are multi-tracking your guitar parts, the slight differences between each guitarist or each take will thicken up the sound even more.
Ultimately, how much or how little of the stoner rock style you adopt is up to you. A lot of the things that work great for stoner styles hold true of angular math-metal too, or King Crimson-style progressive rock, or more general alternative styles. Beyond these pointers, what really makes it become stoner rock is the attitude, and that’s something that you have to bring to the music yourself