5 "Guitar Sound" Terms, Explained...

Courtesy of Casey van Wensem

THIN, CREAMY, LUSH... What is it about guitar, music and sound that drives players to come up with such odd descriptive words for their guitar sound? 

Perhaps it’s that there really is no good way to talk about our guitar sound, so we resort to inventing terms to fill in the blanks for us. Or perhaps it’s simply that coming up with odd words to describe musical sounds is fun and makes us feel smarter than our friends who don’t understand the words we’ve made up. In any case, it’s time once again to decode some confusing audio terms. Here are five major offenders.

Probably nine out of 10 mixing tutorials for guitar compression focus on how to make the guitar sound punchy. But what does that really mean? How can something actually sound like it’s punching you in the face?

When engineers mix guitars, (especially crunchy sounding electric guitar with over-drive /distortion), they typically focus on using compression to even out the transients and make sure each frequency hit is at a consistent level with the rest of the band-width.

At the same time, they don’t want to over-compress the sound and get rid of all of the transients altogether. This leaves the guitar sounding consistent, but still full of dynamics – or, in other words, punchy.

While guitar players are often worried about thickening their tone, there are also instances when thinning out guitars can be useful as well. Sometimes mix engineers will thin out distorted guitars to make them sit better in a busy mix with lots of other instruments.

Rather than "muddying up” the mix, the distorted guitars will cut through in the high frequencies, creating separation between the guitars and the other instruments. You can accomplish this by cutting some low-end frequencies and/or adding high-end frequencies to the guitars.

At the same time, some people might hear a sound that’s been thinned out and think it sounds tinny or even harsh; achieving the right sound is all about balance and perception.

Guitarists tend to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to making up audio terms that no one understands. Have you ever heard someone talk about a chimey guitar tone? How about shimmery? You’re forgiven if you had no idea what they were talking about. Most professional audio engineers don't either!

Often, when guitarists talk about chimey or shimmery tone, they’re more than likely thinking of players like Johnny Marr of the Smiths or Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. These guitarists have a tone that’s bright and clean, but there’s also another special element to their tone that makes their instrument shimmer.

Marr was known to use a chorus pedal most of the time, while McGuinn often played a 12-string electric guitar. Another option would be to try playing in a Nashville tuning with the E, A, D, and G strings tuned an octave up. All of these methods tend to add more high-end frequencies to your sound, but also create more doubling between notes, which gives us the impression that the sounds are bouncing off each other, and thus "shimmering or chiming."

Lushness is probably one of the most overused audio terms today. It’s not difficult to define, but achieving the perfect balance of lushness without making something sound overly produced can be a real challenge.

Usually when a sound is defined as lush, it has a lot of reverb and delay applied to it; the notes sound like they go on forever and blend perfectly with one another. This is a great sound for vocals as well as instruments like guitars, strings, and synths.

The trick, however, is to use enough delay and reverb to enhance the sound, but not so much as to overdo it and end up in muddy or soupy territory.

Another favorite term among guitar players is creamy. This often comes up when discussing overdrive pedals. Many overdrive pedals offer a creamy tone, but which, a guitarist might ask, is the creamiest?

Creamy tone doesn’t necessarily refer to the band Cream (although they had some pretty creamy guitars), but rather to the perfect use of overdrive that adds just the right amount of sustain to every note.

Usually a creamy tone is slightly overdriven, but not distorted, often with a boutique overdrive pedal or even with tube amp distortion. In fact, when people think of a creamy blues guitar sound, they may be thinking of a sound that was achieved without any pedals at all. Simply finding the right balance between your guitar’s volume knob and the gain knob on a good tube amp can create all the cream you can handle.

All of these sounds are about balance. Use compression properly and you can make your drums sound real punchy. Use too much compression and they’ll sound squashed. Add a bit of chorus to your guitar to make it shimmer, but make sure it doesn’t get too trebly and become harsh. Perhaps this is why these terms, though sometimes ridiculous, are also useful – they allow us to describe the balance that good audio requires without having to spell it out in detail.

So rather than asking a producer to add a good amount of delay to your vocal – but not too much – you can simply say that you want your voice to sound lush. It may be imperfect, but at least it gets us closer to the sound we want.

Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada.