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The context here is electric guitar but I think the question stands more generally: what kind of steps/questions should I be asking myself as I attempt to methodically reproduce a tone?

I'm sure it's as much an art as it is science, but it would be helpful if there was some kind of framework to utilize when I feel I'm stuck or can't get sufficiently close to a tone. I often can make out parts of the tone, the easy ones, like: "oh there's some reverb, probably an octave pedal, distortion, ect." So at times I wonder, maybe with a trained ear, one could break down any tone into fundamental elements like that. However, other times, no matter how many times I listen to a song and tinker with my dials I can't get anything close. And often this type of frustration is coupled with not knowing the term for what I want to add -- often I'd hazard there is no official term. There are just these little "touches" and "it-factors" I hear but am unable to recreate in practice.

Now I don't have any illusions of grandeur; surely a lot is accomplished in post and I'm not trying to go for perfect replication. That said, I think I have enough of an ear for what should be feasible live and it's just a matter of experimentation with software / hardware. That's the bit I'm trying to focus on getting better at.

The more I think about it though, the more I realize how broad the solution space could be. I'd think that software approaches might differ a lot from what tone reconstruction steps could be taken on hardware alone. So to keep the scope within reason, let's just go for simple heuristics for hardware-based tinkering. Software may be a bit out of my technical aptitude, but I may revisit this for a later question.

That's not to say hardware is any easier: there are so many different pedals and each pedal has a handful of dials and even the placement of the pedal on the signal path makes a difference.

Question

What kind of rules of thumb / basic frameworks can I refer to when I want to get somewhat serious about accurate tone settings for a song? (assuming I have the hardware in the first place, conceivably part of the answer my always be trip to the music store)

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    It's not just the equipment, pedals, guitar, amp, even leads, but the way whoever is playing. I've said before that if you went on stage as any artist finished playing, and picked up that same guitar, you still wouldn't have the same sound he produced a couple of minutes before.
    – Tim
    Jul 26, 2022 at 9:01
  • I’d start by doing web searches for how they got that tone. But also I’ve long since stopped trying to find the tones of others and focused on finding my tones. You really need multiple guitars and a modeling amp system to be able to approximate any other tone, because the gear matters. Jul 26, 2022 at 11:48
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    I still stand by my Variax & Amp Farm for this type of thing. Most times I'm not copying, though I am often influenced by what a given guitar or amp pushed me towards. If I am, sometimes there's a revelation if I manage to discover just what the original artist tended to use themselves.
    – Tetsujin
    Jul 26, 2022 at 12:35
  • For the kind of music I listen to, the part of guitar "tone" that comes from gear is fairly irrelevant in what makes the music interesting or good. It's the song, the feeling, the chords, the rhythm, the timing, the picks and bends. If these are good, it cannot be spoiled with any "tone". If they're not good, it cannot be rescued with any "tone". Though a good tone can still make it feel more inspirational to play. And some effects like guitar synths, harmonizers and "freeze" pedals can make the whole experience completely different, it's like a different instrument. Jul 26, 2022 at 15:24
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - whilst I definitely agree that it's the guitarist who makes all the difference, I know I can recreate the sounds of given tracks/artists, even if I can only squeak out a pale imitation of their guitar part. If I can get one or two riffs right, that will often confirm it. Other times, it's like '6 or 12-string rikki through a vox definitely sounds like [60s band xyz]' I can get the hippy sound or the beatles sound, even if I never play their songs - though bear in mind that I'm more sound engineer than muso, so maybe I listen "differently".
    – Tetsujin
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:49

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After lots of comments above… and the declaration that I am in no way a purist in this. Close enough is close enough. I don't get into the argument that modelling amps just aren't the 'real thing'.
Also, I very rarely play covers, so for me this is usually just an intellectual exercise, or a point to go from if I want a 'sound like xyz' on whatever record. This makes 'perfection' less important, it's the feel of what that sound can do.

Of course, there is always the consideration that the guitarist has at least as much effect on the sound as the gear they use - but that's just a bridge too far for this answer, so let's look at the gear. You do have to acknowledge, though, that you have to 'play in the style of', if you're going to sound like.

I think one approach to this is to have an awareness of what the particular artist may have used in the first place. These days, that kind of info is not impossible to pick up on the interwebz.
After that, it becomes familiarity with which guitars sound like what, what an amp will do to affect a sound generically, how effects pedals influence this.

I have a Variax & Amp Farm. This gives me ~40 different guitars & ~15 different amps with multifarious pedals & effects to test out for any investigation of this sort. You learn over time what gives at least some of these their unique characteristic. Flipping between basic guitar types can sometimes quickly tell you… not a Fender, not a solid Gibson, hmm… might have been a Rikki. This is an imperfect solution, but after a while, you can generally set off in the right direction just with a practised ear.

You can divide things up by 'era' sometimes, to make the choices perhaps slightly easier. This, of course, gets simpler the further back you go. If you're trying to figure out a Beatles setup, then you can immediately discard any amp or guitar not available at the time. No Dumbles, H&Ks or JCM800s. No PRS or 7-string behemoths tuned down to D.
Some research & some guess work… Vox was the amp of choice early, Fenders later. John & George went from 'jazz-era' semi-acoustics to solids, Gibson or newer semis, Rickenbacker. They would swap & change, but the choice is still fairly limited. Watch "Get Back" if you want more detail.

Knowing just this can push you in the right direction.
I watched McCartney at Glastonbury this year, which gave me the impetus to find the guitar sound from "Let Me Roll it", which I'd always considered very Lennon-esque. Took about 5 minutes, it wasn't a tough sound to get. From there the sound in Cold Turkey became easier to find. [I didn't keep the settings, so can't look up what I did. It was just 20 mins of fun.]

Knowing 'Hendrix used a Strat & a Marshall' will set you off in one direction - but then you discover he also had a fuzz box; which nails the sonic distinction. No 60s Marshall had a high-gain structure, so it had to be a fuzz box. Precisely which one is far less important.
Sometimes on a very simple setup, the choice of guitar becomes paramount. Wind Cries Mary is in my mind the 'epitome of a Strat'. I use to have a 64 Strat which could do it to perfection. I currently have three newer Strats of various quality & vintage, plus the Variax, none of which can do it justice.

Sometimes you can get really close, then have a revelation - changing the 'mic', or the angle to the speaker cabinet, or moving it further away can make a lot of difference. Of course, in software, this is a couple of clicks to achieve.

Guessing what pedals someone uses can be approached in the same way. Without the info, again it's experience - that sounds like a phaser. I don't know which one, but it's a start. This sounds like it's got a lot of room on it - did they do it with two mics or is it just 'reverb' added later?

I honestly don't know how you would do this without access to at least modelling versions of the gear you are looking for. You cannot make a Strat through a 60's Marshall sound like a Les Paul through a Mesa Boogie, or vice versa.

If you get into amp modelling, then you get a slew of presets with them - usually with some hints as to what they can be used to emulate. Spending some time going through these to see what they're made of can be a great help in familiarising yourself with what each component adds to the overall sound.

One additional point - I'd hazard a guess that 90+% of any sound isn't achieved in post. It's done at source, as that's what the guitarist has to play against at the time of recording.

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