How to sound like Jerry Cantrell

With Alice In Chains in town recently for the Soundwave festival and their own side shows, now seems like as good a time as any to look at the guitar tones of Jerry Cantrell. The band’s defining moment was the 1993 album Dirt, which stripped away the slightly 80s-rock elements of their debut and ratcheted up the dark, foreboding, Sabbath-y elements instead. Cantrell’s tone was huge and warm, and a lot more ‘boutique’ than most of his grunge-era contemporaries.

The Dirt album was recorded with legendary producer Dave Jerden (as was its predecessor Facelift and the acoustic EP Sap), and legend has it that on Dirt, Jerden had Cantrell use a multi-amp rig to fatten up the guitar sound, with each amp chosen for the particular frequencies it emphasised. If you want to copy this approach at home, you don’t need a whole warehouse of amps and a huge studio to record them in (although it helps). You can get somewhere close using multiple amp simulator plugins. I’ve had good Cantrell-like results in Pro Tools by combining Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier and Marshall JCM800 models from IK Multimedia’s Amplitube 2 for the bass and midrange, respectively, and the Bogner Ecstasy model from Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig 3 for the high end. Place each plugin on a separate track, dial out the frequencies you don’t need from each amp (for example, you already have a lot of bass from the Mesa, so turn it down on the other two models), and select the same track input for each track. Each part on Dirt was double-tracked, so you might want to do the same in a recording context, or use a stereo doubling effect live if you’re one of the growing number of guitarists who uses a laptop live instead of an amp.

Cantrell uses effects pretty minimally, but along with Kirk Hammett he was one of the main proponents of the wah wah pedal in the 90s. In this era he favoured the Jim Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Crybaby model, which has a bassier and much darker response than other Crybaby wah pedals – especially those available in the early 90s, when Jim Dunlop were still a while away from adding the myriad tone-shaping features available in some of their more high-tech pedals today. One way of getting close to this sound is to simply try to keep away from the upper register of the pedal’s travel, but that might get in the way of your performance. Through a lot of trial and error I’ve found (and verified by comparing this directly with the Jimi Hendrix wah) that you can get quite reasonably close to that sound with a regular Crybaby by simply turning down your guitar’s tone control. This is especially effective on the title track for Dirt, which features a snaky, wah-drenched melody like that would be a little too brittle if a more trebly wah sound was used.