POP PUNK GUITAR TONE

The Ultimate Pop Punk Guitar Tone Guide!

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The Ultimate Pop Punk Guitar Tone Guide! – Playing live and recorded!

So I’ve been working mixing a ton of diverse records lately, I’ve come to notice there’s one thing in common with all of them, no matter what flavour the song, new or old… THAT classic pop punk guitar tone. I’m always seeing posts like “What gear do I need to play pop punk” and a lot of the times people don’t really have great answers to this. I felt inspired to make a guide for the ultimate pop punk guitar tone. Let’s dig in!

Guitars

There are no hard and fast rules in this area. The kind of guitar you want if you’re playing or recording in a pop punk band is entirely personal preference. I’ll run through a couple of notes and my personal choices for playing live and recording.

Speaking generally, for chunky rhythm guitars you’ll want a guitar with a humbucker pickup in the bridge. Single coil pickups also have their place in the pop punk sound too, but they create a thinner sound, ideal if you’re looking for some medium gain layers to add texture to your parts. All depending on what flavour you’re after of course.

Humbucker equipped guitars have a bigger sound, while still keeping the clarity, single coil equipped guitars cut through the mix and are better suited to medium gain or clean guitar parts. With pickups, you have the option of passive or active. I’m a huge advocate of active pickups, EMG’s specifically. You get a huge “wall of sound” and a more compressed dynamic range. This allows you hit the input of the amp a little softer while retaining all the punch you could ever want.

When it comes to guitars I personally love a combination of a Les Paul, Strat and Jag. For the high gain or crunch parts I’d recommend the Les Paul with a humbucker configuration in the bridge position.

For leads or octave parts, the Strat and Jag come into play. Both Strats and Jags are well known for their cutting tone and versatility. They sound equally as good on clean parts too! One caveat to this is ultra high gain solos, you’ll want to grab the Les Paul for maximum shred!

Other specific recommendations would be humbucker equipped telecasters (like the 72 tele deluxe, any of the blacktop series teles), Jaguar HHs (think Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio).

Amps & VSTs

Amps and cabinets are where 80% of your tone comes from, making the right choices here is crucial. Amp heads all have different characteristics and gain stages, giving them their unique sound and response.

Your cabinet choice is your secret weapon here though. Find the amp that FEELS the best to you, and then pair it with a cabinet that SPEAKS to you. The cab shapes your tone, think of them like a huge EQ. You need a great starting point, and your guitar cabinet is your unsung hero in dialling in that pop punk guitar tone in your head.

There are two different directions you can take with amps though. You can either drive a cleaner amp with an overdrive pedal, or you can have an amp with a good high gain channel. Although some may disagree, both work well for pop punk. I’ll start off with clean amps with distortion pedals.

Clean Amps

If you’re driving a cleaner amp with an overdrive pedal, I’d highly recommend a fender style amp, or a Marshall Plexi for a crunchy pop punk guitar tone. Whats more is their clean tones are beautiful. They have enough low end thump, and take pedals extremely well. Be careful when driving a clean amp with an overdrive pedal, you’ll need to ensure your chosen boost has enough midrange to sound present in the mix, paired with a tight low-end for those high gain palm muted riffs. My personal recommendation would be the Maxon OD808 into the front end. A starting point for the pedal would be Drive at 0. Tone and level at 12 O’clock. Push the tone up to add some clarity in and balance the drive with the amp drive to really get things moving into riff city, population you.

High Gain Amps

I’d say about 60% of the pop punk bands out there touring right now use a high gain head or combo. They just sound huge and amazing. It’s pretty hard to go wrong with any tube driven high gain head, but I have a few tips/recommendations. I’d get a smaller wattage high gain amp, especially if you’re only gigging in medium sized venues. That way you can push the power tubes a lot harder, getting that saturated distorted sound. Those 100 watt Marshall / Mesa Boogie’s sound great but they need to be cranked in order to reach their full potential. Chances are, unless you’re gigging in stadium sized venues I doubt you’ll be able to get the most out of your amp. So, I would recommend something under 50 watts. Some examples are:

  • Orange Rockerverb / Thunderverb
  • Peavey 6505 MH
  • Mesa Boogie Mini Rectifier (on the expensive side for what it is)
  • Blackstar HT series

Use less gain than you think! A well EQ’d amp and an aggressive picking technique will get you closer to that pop punk sound than jacking the gain up all the way.

Pop punk guitar amp settings

Amp settings don’t matter as much as you think they do. Start out with your amp dialled in with every setting at 12 O’Clock. From there you’ll want to tweak the drive so the amp is responding to riffs and palm mutes how you like, from there head to the midrange dial, this is where your guitar sound lives. Adjust this to your liking and then dial the bass and the treble around that.

All of the above can all be applied to amp sims too! I personally use amp sims for nearly everything I do. I love the flexibility and ease of swapping out heads and cabinet IR’s to really shape my ideal pop punk guitar tone plugin tone. Some great plugins I’ve found are the Line 6 Helix VST, Guitar Rig 5 and Guitar Rig 6 (Yes.. they do sound different, fight me), Amplitube 5 and Tonex. If you want to get a little lairy with the tone though, the TSE Audio X50 is an AMAZING emulation of the 5150, super high gain. If you’re looking for a pop punk guitar tone on a budget, there are a ton of pop punk guitar vsts available for free. Simply type “pop punk guitar vst free” and you’ll get a list back! Some of my favourites are the Lepou Lecto, Lextac and Hybrit. You’ll need to pair these with a great impulse response for your guitar cab. Some great responses can be found here, both free and paid.

Guitar Strings – Best Guitar Strings for Pop Punk

You really can’t go wrong with Ernie Ball guitar strings. Depending on the tuning you’re in, if you’re playing pop punk you’re probably in Standard, Drop D or Drop C. Ernie Ball Heavy Bottom Skinny Top are my string of choice here. The low strings stay pinned for aggressive palm mutes and riffing, and the lighter top strings allow for jangling leads and big octave parts.

Pedals

Pop punk isn’t a very effects driven genre; you could get by quite well with just a guitar and an amp. However, pedals give a pretty nice flavour to your rig and are great when used musically. I’ll list a few suggestions:

  • Compressor (great for cleans)
  • Delay (good for cleans and lead guitar work)
  • Phaser (used on basically every blink 182 song…)
  • Flanger (great for transitions/bridges)
  • Tremolo (Hey Greenday.. I’m looking at you)

Quick Recap

  • Use less gain than you think, make sure you can hear the sound of the guitar through the drive.
  • You don’t need a hundred effects to get a great pop punk guitar tone. With the right Guitar + Pickup, Amp & Cabinet and bang! You’ve got your pop punk guitar chain dialled.
  • If you’re recording at home, you don’t need a fancy DAW to get an amazing tone. If you’re on a budget, even with free guitar sim vsts, you can even get an amazing pop punk guitar tone in garageband! Great for demoing or tracking in songs to send to your mix engineer.

How To Get Pop Punk Guitar Tone

So let’s sum this up, you’re a guitar player or you’re producing your own band. You’re searching for a great modern pop punk guitar tone.

  • Get your hands on a Les Paul and a Strat or Jag.
  • Make sure they’re loaded up with Humbucker pickups.
  • Select your amp and cabinet (Real or VST Plugin). Don’t stress on this, find an amp that responds the way you like, make sure you can hear the tone of the guitar through the drive.
  • Select your cab, think of this as your overall tone shaping, or a giant EQ that’s horrible to carry up stairs.
  • MAKE SURE YOUR GUITAR IS SET UP CORRECTLY. I can’t stress this enough, any tone will sound like trash if your guitar isn’t correctly set up and intonated.
  • That’s literally it, there’s subtleties, but that’s all just tweaking the dials slowly until the tone is speaking to you.

Good luck everyone! It’s not a science, it’s based on feel, so whatever you do, make sure you’re FEELING that tone.

If you’re looking to have your band’s next song mixed and mastered to a commercial, radio ready standard, get in touch with me on the form below, let’s make some magic!

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