Ever since the 1970s, punk music has been one of the most prevalent styles in contemporary music.
A brainchild from the late 1960s garage bands, punk music heavily bases itself on fast guitar riffs, energetic drums, and rebellious lyrics.
So, how do you get that full, aggressive guitar sound that drives the heartbeat of a punk song?
This post will discuss guitars, EQ settings, amps, playing style (amongst other things) to achieve a rocking punk sound. Ultimately, to assist you to grasp the key components of a destructive punk guitar tone.
(Small note) This post will focus primarily on the classic punk era, so this post is not highly relevant to subgenres such as pop-punk and others. Sound good?
Let’s get right into it!
Achieving a Classic Punk ‘Sound’
As I mentioned before, punk music relies heavily on its energy rather than technical proficiency, complex harmony, or intricate guitar sounds. Therefore, power chords are the cornerstone of most general punk songs.
This, in turn, relies heavily on your strumming hand. Being able to create solid rhythmic patterns with strength and consistency is what makes or breaks punk guitarists.
Having said that, here’s a great video below teaching fundamental punk guitar techniques.
Fundamental Punk Techniques
When it comes to guitar tones, generally if it sounds bad then it actually sounds great for punk.
Having the right amp cranked up and a good distortion/fuzz pedal is fundamental in our pursuit of punk tones. Remember loose, loud, and aggressive tones are your friend.
Thankfully, this allows you to not overly worry about getting a bunch of gear to get a good-sounding punk tone. Punk guitar depends much more on your ability to create intensity and power.
EQ settings will help you fine-tune your sound to give it its own space within the other instruments (usually bass, drums, vocals, and a second guitar).
However, having a good feel for punk rhythm and energy, paired with a good amp/distortion pedal combo and proper EQ settings will lead you to find the ultimate punk guitar tone.
Now let’s dive into the gear…
Recommended Guitars for Punk
The Truth is that there is no ‘best guitar’ for playing punk.
The reason is that Punk is a simple and no-frills genre. Therefore, guitars associated with punk tend to mirror this ‘scaled back’ and ‘simple’ tradition. Meaning, a guitar with many fancy features is not required.
Therefore, choosing your chosen weapon for playing punk is a wide-open choice. With that said, I will offer a list of some traditional punk guitars used by a wide spectrum of punk guitar players. (keep in mind, this list is in no particular order.)
Traditional Guitars for Punk
Gibson/Epiphone Les Paul Junior
The Les Paul Junior, whether Gibson or Epiphone makes it, is one of the most popular guitars among punk musicians. The main reason behind this is the model’s overall simplicity.
There’s only one P90 pickup in the bridge position, and there’s the wraparound bridge. Additionally, the neck feels pretty comfortable, and the entire guitar is pretty light.
What’s more, punk musicians like the empty space on it, which can contain some stickers, or even carvings, adding to the guitar’s aesthetics. One of the most famous punk players using the Gibson Les Paul Junior model is Billie Joe Armstrong.
Gibson/Epiphone Les Paul Standard
Of course, the classic Les Paul Standard should not be omitted from this list. While not as simple and as straightforward as the Junior model, the Standard provides you with more options than the Junior.
But the main thing still remains – the guitar sounds powerful and raw, while still giving you more ways to shape your tone. And let’s not forget how awesome they feel, despite being just slightly heavier compared to an average electric guitar.
Gibson/Epiphone Les Paul Special
Comparable to the Junior model, the Les Paul Special model is another simple one made by Gibson and Epiphone.
The main difference between this one and most of the other Les Paul models is that it comes with a mahogany body without a maple top.
In most cases, it comes with two P90 pickups, which are quite popular among punk players. There are also some versions with humbuckers.
The original run of these guitars from the 1950s had the wraparound bridge, while the present-day version comes with a tune-o-matic one. Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls is one of the famous punk guitarists known for using the Les Paul Special model.
Gibson/Epiphone SG Standard
Gibson’s SG Standard is easily one of the most versatile instruments. You can see this same model being used by anyone from jazz to extreme metal guitarists.
SG Standard offers versatility, playability, and simplicity, along with a very devilish-looking design. Over the years, it became popular among punk guitarists. One of the examples is Alex Gaskarth of All Time Low.
Gibson/Epiphone SG Special
Of course, the SG Special model is another obvious pick here. Just like the Les Paul Special, this one adds some accessibility and simplicity to the equation, making it useful for punk music.
The Epiphone SG Special is intended as a budget-friendly guitar, although there are some advanced versions as well. Gibson’s SG Special comes with either P90 pickups or humbuckers, and there are versions with both the wraparound and tune-o-matic bridge.
Firebird is one of Gibson’s “offset” models, giving that unusual body shape, all while keeping things fairly straightforward.
Nonetheless, it’s still an instrument that offers a lot of versatility. Although it’s usually popular among blues and blues rock players, the Firebird model can be useful for punk music as well.
Most often, they come with mini humbuckers, offering that gritty and raw tone that punk players prefer. Some of the big names known for using the Firebird model include Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols and Captain Sensible of the Damned.
Rickenbacker is probably one of the most underrated brands on the market. Nonetheless, both their basses and regular guitars have easily recognizable designs, which made them quite popular among punk musicians.
And these guitars have a lot to offer. During the 1970s and the 1980s, they saw an increase in popularity among the new wave punk musicians. One such example is Paul Weller of The Jam.
The 300 series are especially interesting with their dual single-coil pickup formation, offering simplicity, unusual aesthetics, semi-hollow bodies, and some versatility.
If you have a great Stratocaster guitar, you can pretty much rule the world. Both Fender and Squier Strats are present in almost any genre that comes to mind.
Although they feature single-coil pickups, you can create a wide variety of tones, and all of them can fit the context of punk music pretty well. They’re especially useful if you’re into brighter and “twangier” tones.
If you’re on a limited budget and don’t know what to pick, any Squier Strat version is a safe bet.
Telecasters, be it Fender or Squier, are some of the simplest yet most diverse guitars. They’re usually pretty bright-sounding, adding some serious twang to the equation.
Two single-coil pickups on a solid body and a maple neck are all that you need. It’s a simple guitar built for rock ‘n’ roll. All you need to do is plug it in and crank your amp. El Hefe of NOFX is one of the best-known names in punk music to use the Telecaster.
The Jaguar is not only one of the most interesting “offset” models but is also one of the most interesting guitars overall.
Over the years, it got associated with grunge and psychedelic rock movements, but it’s also a very potent guitar for punk music.
It features a slightly shorter stale length (24 inches) and usually comes with two single-coils or two humbuckers. All of its features also made it popular among punk rock guitarists. One of the most prominent punk players that comes to mind is Johnny Marr.
Although underrated, Danelectro guitars saw a resurgence during the 2000s and 2010s. Back in the 1960s and the 1970s, they were popular among classic rock and psychedelic rock players.
Their simplicity and unconventional aesthetics are what made them really popular among new generations of punk guitarists. A model like the Danelectro ’59M NOS+ is a good example.
Mosrite is a pretty underrated brand of electric guitars. The company lasted between the mid-1950s and up to the early 1990s.
Some of the most important names in punk music have used their guitars, including the Ramones’ Johnny Ramone. We’d recommend these guitars to those who want to try something a bit different compared to the norm.
While they’re usually associated with metal music, ESP guitars are pretty versatile and especially useful for any kind of heavy stuff.
They might be a bit expensive, but they’re certainly worth it. Aside from their heavy hard-hitting tones, they’re also very potent tools for virtuosic players. With this in mind, we’d recommend them to all those who combine punk with other genres.
Comparable to ESP, Ibanez is another brand usually associated with metal music. However, their arsenal of products includes plenty of different stuff, including some of the more straightforward and even cheaper stuff.
Noodles of The Offspring has his signature model NDM1, which combines two humbuckers and one single-coil pickup, along with a unique body shape design.
In a similar way, many of Ibanez’s models offer a combination of simplicity and sonic variety.
Pickup Choices for Punk
As mentioned, the typical punk tone is smothered in aggressive gain, loose, and certainly in your face.
Therefore, different pickups will offer a selection of different tones. Your choice ultimately depends on your tonal preferences.
Let’s take a look…
Humbuckers -How they sound
Traditional Humbuckers sound warm and fat offering more bass and low-end thump. They are also the best at reducing feedback and noise.
Taming that pesky feedback when things get a little too hot. Although punk guitarists love and welcome feedback for dramatic and menacing effects.
Humbuckers sound less crunchy and piercing compared to single-coils and P90s when drenched in gain. Not as dynamic as single-coils but they sound fat and better equipped for handling high gain destruction.
In the UK, Mick Jones from The Clash and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols used Gibson Les Paul models. Les Paul pickups allowed them to get fuller, heavier sounds.
If we move more into the modern punk era, there is not a specific guitar or model that wins over others. However, guitars with humbuckers allow you to get heavier, more modern-sounding tones.
P90S – How they sound
P90s are the in-between choice when it comes to tonality. They do not sound as thick as humbuckers but much fatter than single-coils. They sit in the in-between position on the pickup tonal spectrum.
They have enough ‘spank’ and ‘mids’ to permit a growling tone with a great balance of highs and lows.
P90s are a popular choice for punk players due to their ‘bite’ and clarity to be heard with other instruments on stage with plenty of low-end.
In addition, they have enough noise-canceling ability to reduce noise and annoying feedback when drenched in distortion.
P90s are also highly versatile with the option of a wide spectrum of usable tones for playing a range of genres and playing styles. Notably, P90s are the typical pickup of a popular punk guitar being the Les Paul Junior.
Single-Coil Pickups – How they sound
Admittedly, single-coils are not the typical pickup choice for this genre but they can certainly work.
US-based guitarists such as Johnny Ramone from the Ramones favored Fender for its crispy, cutting sounds, which gave them more aggressiveness and bite.
The problem with these pickups is they are the noisiest and are a culprit for heavy feedback problems especially with a roaring tube amp in the background.
In this case, you will largely need to keep an eye on the amount of gain you are using and adopt some sort of noise control with a gate pedal for example.
With that said, the benefit of single coils is they produce the most ‘spank’ and ‘crunch’ when combined with heavy distortion and fuzz.
Therefore, they cut through a band mix exceptionally well and can certainly be hard on stage. They can also create a more bitey and aggressive tone if you can balance the level of gain and EQ well.
With that said, you need to keep an eye on the mids and bass to make sure your punk tone doesn’t sound too thin and brittle.
Punk Tones – Amplifier Choices
When talking about the type of amplifiers, once again there is no specific type of amp to obtain a classic punk sound. Pretty much anything that is ‘loud’ and ‘aggressive’ will work.
Sure, you will require an amp with a solid-core sound to build upon with pedals and good EQ’ing to find your sonic space in a band mix. But primarily, how you EQ your amp and pedals are far more important than the actual brand itself.
With that said, there are 2 things to consider that qualifies for an ideal ‘punk amp’….
Loud and Aggressive
If you are solely relying on the amp’s gain to provide your distortion. Then clearly an amp with the ability to saturate and distort quicker is the best option for punk.
The term for this is amps with ‘low headroom’. In contrast, amps with high headroom tend to keep the signal clean and distortion-free even when the volume is cranked. A good example of these is Vintage Fender Tube amps from back in the day.
However, we are looking for the opposite. Punk requires a bag full of saturation and aggressive distortion for classic punk tones.
Therefore, choose an amp that is designed to distort quicker and emit a loud and aggressive distortion. If this is not the case, be sure to supplement with an additional distortion pedal.
A Quality Cabinet
A good punk tone usually needs to have a solid amount of bottom-ends in the mix. Therefore, when choosing a cabinet, you should bear this in mind.
Generally, we’d advise getting a cabinet with 12-inch speakers, as they’re usually better at handling and reproducing bottom-ends compared to smaller variants. Additionally, these cabinets should also be able to handle a lot of output power.
Looking at 12-inch speaker cabinets, there are three main variants – 1×12, 2×12, and the 4×12. Having a different number of speakers can change your tone.
While the 4×12-inch cabinets are usually the “standard” for many players, these other two options are also worth checking out. The 1×12 might be better if you’re aiming for more bottom-ends in your tone. But the more speakers you add, you’ll get more headroom and your tone will get more “depth.”
Tube vs. Solid State Amps For Punk
The “tubes vs. solid-state” question is one of the longest-lasting debates among guitar players. Let’s get one thing straight first – there’s not a “better” or “worse” option here.
It just comes down to what you prefer. With that said, there are significant differences between solid-state and tube amps.
Firstly, solid-state amps are not only cheaper, but are also lighter, simpler, and somewhat easier to maintain. They also have more headroom which keeps their tone “cleaner” and sometimes even more “sterile.”
This makes them a very good option for clean tones, especially if you want to keep things very controlled in terms of dynamics. As for distorted tones, they might sound a bit “fizzier” and sharper.
With this in mind, they’re usually considered to be a great option for rock, punk, hard rock, and metal. Overall, they’re a better option if you like to keep things simple, or if you prefer a more “sterile” kind of tone with no dynamic response.
On the other hand, tube-driven amplifiers have a vintage-oriented tone, with a significant influx of lower mids and bottom-ends.
Although somewhat more fragile and expensive, they’re praised for their dynamic response and warmth. This is due to them having much less headroom, making it easier to distort the tone, even on clean settings.
- Mesa Boogie
EQ Settings for Punk Tones
EQing your sound is crucial in getting any desired tone. I actually would say that learning the EQ frequencies and how they affect your overall sound is one of the most important things you can learn.
When speaking of punk music, we usually want to lower bass frequencies and increase mid frequencies. Highs will vary according to your guitar and pedals.
Let’s start with the bass. Usually, when you increase your amp’s volume or add more distortion to your sound, bass frequencies naturally increase.
This is something that might prove to be a bit deceiving when playing on your own, as your sound will be fat and punchy.
However, you must take into consideration that once you are part of an ensemble, filling bass frequencies is not the guitar’s job, it is the kick and bass’ job.
By lowering the bass knob on your amp or your pedals, you can leave that room open for the kick and bass, which will naturally give more clarity to your sound.
In punk rock, mids prove to be the most important range of frequencies to boost. The reason is that the guitar is almost always the main element to drive the song.
This will mean that the guitar has to be considered present to create that impact. By increasing overall volume and boosting the mids, you can get to a point where your sound is full and stands out nicely.
Be careful though, not all pedals cover the same range on their mid knob, and you have to listen very carefully to how your sound is affected.
Highs is a tricky one for guitar. Usually, the more volume you add to your amp, the more the high frequencies will be naturally boosted (same as bass).
However, the more gain you add to your sound, the more likely it is your sound will start getting muddy and lose top clarity.
My best recommendation to you is to start with a relatively mellow sound on your amp. As you add your distortion pedals, make sure their tone knob is turned up to acquire more highs.
You must be very careful to ensure that with each pedal your sound doesn’t get abruptly loud, bright, or dark. The more subtle the changes are, the better your sound will potentially be.
An extra tip I can give you is to not have your guitar’s tone knob cranked all the way.
By having a little headroom for more clarity, you can decide to make your sound brighter if, at the end of your experimentation, you don’t get the brightness you were looking for.
The Most Important Thing
As you can see, there are many parameters you can adjust and blend to create different punk sounds.
For simplicity and proper understanding, I’d recommend you spend some time on each parameter individually before advancing to the next one on the signal chain.
However, if there is one thing I recommend you do, starting today, is to listen to different punk guitarists.
There is nothing better than actively listening to your favorite sounds and trying to discern what you like about them. In time, you’ll begin finding patterns and tricks to get a heavy, rocking punk sound.
Which Pedals Are Best For Punk?
Of course, this is also very advantageous for someone who favors simplicity in their sound. There’s a LOT that can be done with a simple guitar-to-amp setup.
As punk advanced into the modern era, the use of pedals became more important than ever. Distortion/Overdrive/Fuzz pedals became crucial in the shaping of your tone.
Paring a good, clean amp with a potent distortion or fuzz can allow you to get a more modern, nuanced tone.
The key to this mix is to be aware of the level of gain you use on both your amp and pedals. You are looking to add small increments on each gain stage, so you avoid muddiness and lack of a clear-sounding tone.
In essence, any amp with a solid gain structure will do the trick. If you want your tone to sound more old school, vintage tube amps from Fender, Vox, or Marshall will do the trick.
Modern-sounding punk tones can come from heavier amps such as Mesa Boogies, Line 6, or KATANA modeling amps.
As we progress from the simple guitar-to-amp approach to a more complex sound, the use of pedals becomes more and more influential.
I won’t be getting deep into effects for embellishing your sound (yet…), so let’s discuss the main area of pedals we’ll need: Overdrive-Distortion-Fuzz.
As I mentioned before, what you are looking for is stacking subtle increments of gain to get a more harmonically complex sound. You can achieve this by using a progression of amp’s gain to distortion pedal to overdrive.
When doing this, you must make sure that you don’t overdo your gain and that all of your gain stages (amp only, amp-distortion, amp-distortion-overdrive) have a balanced volume.
You must also make sure that your EQ levels and overall brightness/punchiness improve with each pedal, instead of making your tone muddier.