Nailing that White Stripes tone
(Image courtesy of Fabio Venni, used under Creative Commons)
There’s an interesting part at the beginning of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud which instantly came to mind when writing this article. The film, for those who haven’t seen it – and you probably should see it – brings together three giants of the modern music world and discusses their approaches to learning, playing and developing on the guitar. These are Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. Three players well renowned in their own right, meeting up for a good old chinwag and to watch in awe as Jimmy P busts out the riff from Kashmir like it’s no big deal.
The part I’m referring to comes during the initial credits, where Mr White takes a few rudimentary items – a glass cola bottle, some nails, a plank of wood and a pickup – and in front of our eyes crafts this amazing sounding slide guitar which, when put through his 1960s Silvertone amp, creates this incredibly scuzzy, raunchy tone which resides at the very fringes of human decency. And it is in this act that you can see that while all three are extremely accomplished players, their approaches to guitar are very, very different.
For Jack White, the approach is simply ‘less is more’. It’s not about stockpiling guitars, amps and pedals. It’s not about chasing fads, or throwing money at a problem. Jack’s philosophy is more to do with making the best of what you have. It is therefore tricky to advise anyone how to sound like Jack White. He has a holistic approach to guitar playing which goes far beyond picking a certain brand or model of guitar. You need to think about technique, tone, style and approach.
There are, however, a few things which can point you in the right direction. For a start, we can discount anything overtly modern. Jack White’s gear is almost exclusively vintage, beaten up, trashy and worn in. So much so you’d struggle to find ‘new’ models. We’re not going to let that stop us trying though. So instead of simply telling you to trawl the auction sites for some of Jack’s famous, obscure and esoteric gear, we’ll focus on a few different things which can help you practically aim for that blues-infused, garage rock tone.
The list of criteria for a Jack White-esque guitar saw us discount approximately 94% of the guitars you’d find on a traditional high street, with many being either too modern, too cliched, or too ‘slick’. In the end, we plumped for a classy looking Gretsch and a slightly off-the-wall Farida. Jack is a known fan of Gretsch guitars, in-keeping with his love of American blues and roots music. The Gretsch G5435 Pro Jet combines a solid body and vintage looks with a couple of humbuckers screaming out for some filthy chords to be played through them.
The Farida CT36, on the other hand, has that kinda pawn-shop vibe, looking like a mash-up between four or five different guitar shapes all wedged into one. It shouldn’t work, but we totally think it does. It’s well made, looks fantastic and plays like a guitar a few brackets above it in the price range.
There seems to be two different flavours of amp which Jack prefers; crazy/old/broken, or Fender. Seeing as we don’t have a great line of crazy/old/broken amps, we’ve gone for the second option. Two very decent amps at different levels of the range. At the top end sits the Fender 1968 Custom Deluxe Reverb, which is a glorious reissue of an amp that sits smack-bang in the era favoured by Jack. It boasts, as you’d imagine from the name, a reverb so thick and cavernous you could drown in it, while tones at higher volume registers would be enough to make your knees wobble. It’s also a great palette for pedals, which is handy because you’re going to need some extra fuzz to get the tone we’re after here.
Also worth checking out is the brilliant little Fender Pro Junior. We love this amp because it’s about as pure and simple as you can get in an amp. It has one knob, to control the volume, and the rest is down to you and your technique.
In order to truly nail that garage tone, you’re going to need some help in the fuzz department. Not a sentence I expected to be writing today, but appropriate in this context. For real sonic hairiness, you can’t go far wrong with the Electro Harmonix Big Muff, which is still mangling guitar signals nearly 50 years after it was first released. Pictured here is EHX’s smaller, but equally awesome Little Big Muff.
Alternatively, the Jim Dunlop Fuzz Face Mini will help nail that vintage garage tone, while also leaving room on your pedal board for more experimental effects.
It may also be worth considering an octave pedal; we know that the White Stripes was just a guitar and drums so, to generate that low-end sound and further filth up your guitar, something like the Electro Harmonix Micro POG would be a welcome addition to your arsenal.
Jack also favours the frankly bonkers Digitech Whammy pedal for its unique pitchshifting abilities. He’s a known fan of playing using octaves, and was inspired having heard Tom Morello using the Digitech pedal in his Rage Against The Machine days.
Finally, the MXR Micro Amp is a firm favourite, in a couple of applications. For one, he actually had the pedal built into a modified Gretsch Twin Jet, making it a Triple Jet, while he also uses one with The Raconteurs as an ‘always on’ clean boost, adding grit and power to this tone.
Jack’s technique has been partly borne out of being self-taught, partly out of necessity. He has talked about combining lead and rhythm, vital as the sole guitar player in a band, via a subconscious habit of hiding the pick under his little finger for parts, then digging it out when he needs to let rip. No mean feat considering he only plays with the second, third and fourth fingers of his left hand as a result of a car crash. He’s also big on dynamics, the difference between quiet and loud playing, giving him a tonal palette that switches seamlessly between delicate acoustic playing and harder, riff-based styles.
We hope this article has helped. In truth, trying to approximate the sound of a guitarist so averse to ‘regular’ gear has been tricky, but we think any combination of the gear listed above will certainly get you somewhere in the right ballpark.