Recently I dug out my old copy of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace,’ an album which had a bit of a cult following before Buckley’s death in 1997. Aside from his distinctive singing voice, Buckley was a very accomplished guitarist who spent some time learning music theory at Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
For amps, Buckley used a dual rig of Fender Vibroverbs and Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier combos, with an Alesis Quadraverb digital rack unit for ambient effects. The cream Fender Telecaster with a mirror pickguard that he is most often associated with was on loan from a friend, and in addition to a Rickenbacker 12 string he sometimes played a few Ibanez Talmans.
There are several tricks to getting that clear, sonorous clean tone Buckley was known for. Let’s look at ‘em.
You don’t need a high-output humbucker for Jeff Buckley tones. A neck single coil, particularly a lower-output Telecaster-style unit, will give you that bell-like top end and tight bass. I find that this type of pickup sounds best with a laquered maple fretboard, which seems to emphasise the ‘snap’ of the string, and add a bit of acoustic-like zing.
Look for an amp which has high clean headroom, meaning you can turn it up loud without the amp distorting. However, this doesn’t mean ‘look for a quiet clean amp.’ You’ll need something with enough power to get some real travel out of the speakers, and you’ll find that even with clean amps there’s a sweet spot in the volume where the speakers really push the sound out, yet compress just enough to even things out nicely too. A little gentle compression such as from an MXR Dyna Comp pedal may help you achieve a little of this effect if you’re on a budget, but really there’s no substitute for volume.
When people think ‘clean tone’ they often think ‘chorus pedal.’ While Jeff Buckley used chorus from time to time, he used it more as an occasional effect than a big part of his sound. Try an analog-style chorus with a tone control which allows you to trim off some of the high end, and run it through the front of the amp for vintage warble, rather than through an effects loop. For distorted sections try an overdrive pedal rather than a full-on mega-gain distortion box, and keep the tone control relatively subdued. Telecasters can sound a little harsh with too much distortion, but they can sound great when you roll off the high end you discover a whole new, smoother sound underneath.
The final important element is to pay a lot of attention to how and where you pick. If you pick closer to the fretboard you’ll get a little ‘clickiness’ through the neck pickup, and more of a hollow tone. If you pick closer to the bridge, it’ll be brighter and sharper. Varying between these extremes is a great way of moving from a quieter verse to a louder chorus and back again.
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