Retrocon 2024

A Nostalgic Look Back at the Guitar Sounds in the '80s

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The 1980s represented a period of innovation and evolution for the electric guitar. Hard rock, metal, blues, and pop guitarists developed tones and techniques that continue influencing players today. In this in-depth blog post, we'll break down the key guitar sounds that defined the '80s era.

Digital Magic Meets Analog Grit

The 1980s saw massive technological shifts in how guitars were recorded and processed. Digital rack units, modeling amps, and algorithms allowed for guitar tones never before possible. Ambient effects like chorus, delay and reverb could be crafted with scientific precision thanks to digital units from Japanese innovators like Roland and Boss.

Yet despite these advances, most guitarists still relied on the warmth and mojo of analog tube amps. Fender, Marshall and Vox amps with vacuum tubes continued to be the tonal foundation for guitarists across genres. Even with digital effects, the distorted tube amp remained the heart of the guitar signal chain.

This blending of analog grit and digital magic crystallized the guitar sounds of 1980s. Chorus and delay effects breathed new life into tube amp distortion, while modeling amps allowed for radical experiments in guitar synthesis. The decade showed how these technologies could complement each other to expand the creative palette.

Eddie Van Halen and the Super Strat

No single guitarist shaped the sound of 1980s guitar more than Eddie Van Halen. His blinding technique and modifications to the Fender Stratocaster gave birth to the "Super Strat" guitar. These guitars sported humbucking pickups, Floyd Rose tremolo systems, and thin necks ideal for rapid soloing.

Brands like Kramer, Charvel and Jackson churned out hot-rodded Super Strats to meet demand from the new breed of shredder that Eddie inspired. The Super Strat's focused, aggressive tone and dive-bombing tremolo techniques came to define '80s guitar virtuosity. Yet Eddie's touch and tone always stood apart from the countless imitators.

Eddie often paired his Super Strats with vintage Fender amps like the Deluxe Reverb. The splashy Fender spring reverb complemented his forward-looking guitar work. This vintage tube ambience continues inspiring artists today, often via spring reverb plugin emulations from Universal Audio, Eventide and others. Eddie pioneered the fusion of cutting-edge guitar technology with old school grit and vibe.

High Gain Marshall Amp Heads

While Eddie waved the flag for customized Super Strats, the Marshall amp remained the tonal staple for rock and metal. The Marshall JCM800 head in particular provided the ideal balance of rich mids and searing treble. Its all-tube circuit delivered face-melting overdrive eagerly exploited by the biggest bands of the decade.

Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne built their thunderous wall of sound upon the JCM800's foundation. Metallica and Slayer took the gain up further, pushing those EL34 power tubes into new territory. Even bands outside metal found inspiration in the JCM800's blend of clarity and hair-raising distortion.

For a generation of guitarists, the Marshall JCM800 was the amp. Chorus and delay effects helped tame and thicken up the JCM800's saturation. But at its core, the decade's guitar sound was defined by the warmth and fury of Marshall all-tube distortion.

Chorus and Delay Ambience

If Marshall tube amps formed the decade's tonal bedrock, effects like chorus, delay and reverb provided the atmosphere. Chorus in particular became a go-to tool for enriching distorted guitar tones.

Used subtly, chorus added texture and spaciousness. The Boss CE-1 Chorus Ensemble was a favorite pedal for this. Cranked up further, chorus became an effect in its own right. It gave a shimmering underwater warble that defined groups like The Cure. Some amps like the Roland JC-120 even included stereo chorus built right in.

Delay effects also grew in popularity, with pedals like the Boss DD-2 dominating. Used tastefully, delay lent depth without overpowering the guitar tone. Extended delay settings created soundscapes perfect for psychedelic and experimental bands. Reverb pedals and rack units similarly expanded guitar tones into cavernous new territory.

These modulation and ambience effects allowed for guitar tones not possible just a decade prior. When blended with distorted Marshall tube amps, they added new dimensions while retaining an organic feel.

Perfected Palm Muting and Whammy Work

While effects expanded tonal possibilities, guitar technique also rapidly advanced in the 1980s. Trendsetters like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads mastered sounds that lent a futuristic edge.

Precision palm muting gave chugs and riffs machine-like rhythm and chunk. Metallica and Slayer in particular exploited palm muting's textural potential. Def Leppard also used palm muting combined with layering to craft colossal guitar crunch.

Whammy bars found new expressive purposes in the hands of shredders. By violently diving notes, guitarists could create unsettling, aggressive effects. The decade's fascination with virtuosity led to lightning-fast fretting hand moves as well. Squealing pinch harmonics, finger tapping, sweep picking and shimmering arpeggios announced the arrival of guitar athletics.

Both palm muting and whammy/fret hand tricks gave '80s guitar work a high-tech vibe. Even on an old Strat through a Marshall stack, guitarists summoned tones never before conjured.

Lasting Influence

The 1980s forged guitar technology, technique and tone that reverberates louder than ever today. It was an era of experimentation, evolution and amplification that no guitarist or fan can ignore. From the minimalist New Wave jangle to Yngwie Malmsteen's neoclassical shred, the decade broadened every definition of guitar music.

Marshall high gain, shimmering chorus doused riffs, violent whammy dives, blinding arpeggio runs. No matter your preferred genre, '80s fingerprints cover all modern guitar. Its influence just grows stronger each year as new players discover those pioneering sonic moments. From girls' bedrooms to packed arenas, the sounds crafted in the 1980s will rock on indefinitely.

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