The Ultimate Guide to Getting an Indie Guitar Tone

Of all the guitar tones that you could be looking for as a guitarist, possibly the broadest genre to explore is indie.

It’s a huge, amorphous category that includes bands that run the gamut from the edges of punk (Pixies, Nirvana) through jangly pop-rock (The Smiths, The Shins) to atmospheric art experiments (Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine). 

Within that galaxy of sounds lie some of the greatest guitar tones of all time, and as a guitarist naturally you would want to find out what makes them work. However, there’s no quick route to indie greatness.

The icons of the scene themselves arrived at their signature sounds through a whole lot of trial, error, and inspired messing around. How can you hope to recapture that spark, and use it to further your own sonic adventures? 

This guide is here to help you find that inspirational sound. We’re going to look at some of the fundamentals of indie guitar music, covering the guitars to the amps and, importantly, the effects pedals used by some of the most influential guitarists on the scene.

Then we’ll go through some frequently asked questions about indie guitar sounds. There’s a whole host of awesome guitar tones in the indieverse, so let’s plug right in! 

The Ultimate Guide to Getting an Indie Guitar Tone

What Makes Music Indie?

Indie as a term has a long and storied history, dating back to the ‘70s as a way of describing guitar pop. Through the ‘80s it solidified around the idea of independent musicians, meaning those without a major (or in some cases any) record label supporting them.

Naturally, this meant that indie came to be synonymous with a certain type of music, less polished than its mainstream counterparts but also freer in terms of where it cherry-picked its inspiration from.

Indie developed from something closely aligned to punk to encompass influences from metal, motown, disco, electro, rap, and country.

Indie music underwent a revival in the mainstream consciousness in the early 2000s with the breakthrough of bands like The Strokes, The Hives, and Franz Ferdinand, playing stylish, tight interpretations of post-punk and C86 indie-rock, before the scene changed again to a more widescreen, mainstream sound that aligned more closely with modern alternative radio rock.

This was uncharitably termed ‘landfill indie’ by many online publications, despite the presence of a whole host of great bands and excellent songs. 

Less of a genre and more of a mindset, indie music tends to prioritise poppy melodies, unusual combinations and juxtapositions of sound, and experiments with pop song structures and the whole formula of what makes a song ‘poppy’, whether that means smothering highly melodic songs in waves of noise or twisting them into new and interesting shapes. 

Indie Rock Rig Basics

Based on all that, how can you start to assemble an indie-rock rig? The basic starting points are single-coil guitars, classic clean amps, and a whole lot of effects pedals.

The indie-rock palette comes from a place of low-budget equipment and DIY tone shaping, and while you won’t be picking up sweet offset-waist guitars at knock-down prices from thrift stores anymore you can still incorporate that vibe into your tone.

You’re not trying to put together a sheeny, high-performance sound, rather something with character and an excess of feel.

This is great news for experimentally minded types, as you can’t really be wrong. You can only be more right. 

Guitars

Fender guitars are generally the core of most classic indie sounds, with the whole gamut represented pretty consistently.

Jaguars and Jazzmasters are popular choices because their unusual switching allows for interesting and unique tones to be created, but Telecasters and Stratocasters abound in indie music.

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Single-coil Gibsons like the Les Paul Jr and SG are also common sights, as are various semi-hollow guitars like Rickenbackers and Gretsches. There’s even space for 12-string guitars if you’re looking for some ‘80s and ‘90s jangle.

Whatever you can get your hands on that you like playing, that’s a good start for indie rock. 

Hum and buzz aren’t a problem, as a little bit of a rough edge adds charm rather than detracting from the purity of the musical vision; in fact, historically the ideology of indie music dictated that too clean a sound was in fact evidence that you were maybe focusing on the wrong thing!

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t turn up with a humbucker-loaded guitar and play indie rock.

Jim Adkins, frontman with Jimmy Eat World and one of indie and emo’s most respected musicians, regularly plays Thinline Telecasters with Fender Wide-Range humbuckers. If you can get your sound, it doesn’t matter how you do it. 

Amps

Once again, you’re faced with a world of choice. A vast amount of canonical indie-rock music was made using amps from three main families, those being Marshall amps, Fender amps, and Vox amps.

For big distorted sounds, Marshalls handle being driven hard and loud very well, particularly in their head and cab format; the slab of sound produced by a 4×12 cabinet is distinctively solid and perfect for gnarly walls of sound or hammering riffs.

While pretty standard rock amp heads like the Marshall Plexi or JCM crop up again and again in indie-rock, you’ll also find Marshall cabs being matched with other manufacturers’ heads to create different tones. Even amps that are more often associated with metal turn up in indie rigs!

For chiming leads and shimmering chords, indie-rock guitarists have long favored Fender amps such as the Fender Twin Reverb. Fender amps like this add a real vintage flavor to your sound, and pair brilliantly with single-coil guitars.

There’s not much that sounds like a Strat through a Fender Twin! Particularly for those Americana-influenced indie-rock sounds, the Fender Twin is a go-to amp for good reason. 

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Vox amps are also common in indie-rock circles for their chiming, bell-like qualities when  played clean, and their distinctive, piercing yet warm overdriven tone.

Vox amps also work excellently as what are known as pedal platform amps, i.e. amplifiers to build pedal-driven tone shaping on. Because their clean sound is so clear and crisp, they’re a phenomenal backbone for modulation effects and delays. 

The pedal platform amp concept is really important in crafting an indie-rock tone. The three amp styles discussed above are all staples of the genre for this reason.

Despite their differences, there are a couple of similarities between them that make them all good pedal platforms. Firstly, in their original state they are all valve amps.

This means that they use analog circuitry and vacuum tubes rather than digital circuitry or amp modelling.  You can buy versions of classic Fender, Marshall, and Vox amps that are solid-state.

These are generally less expensive, but shouldn’t be written off because you can still get great tones from them. However, for that true indie-rock sound, valves are where it’s at for vintage warmth and breakup. 

The additional benefit you get from tube amps is headroom. This means the level of signal you can feed into the front end of the amplifier chain before it starts to break up and distort. Tube amps generally have higher headroom, with the Fender having the most of the three mentioned here.

This is great for running a rig that’s full of effects pedals, because you can add more and more gain stages (increases in the level of your signal) and retain sonic clarity, perfect for chaining delays, reverbs, different distortions, and modulation effects. 

Effects Pedals

With that in mind, let’s move on to where a lot of the tone shaping is going to really happen in your indie-rock sound; effects. One of the key things that marks indie out sonically from other forms of guitar music is the liberal use of effects.

As a guitarist nowadays, you’re likely to be harking back to some classic sounds that were arrived at via trial, error, and an almost naive warping of older musical inspiration. Let’s go through some of the key pedal varieties that you’ll be looking at for your indie rig, starting with distortion. 

The Ultimate Guide to Getting an Indie Guitar Tone

Distortion, Fuzz, and Overdrive

Indie needs distortion. So much of what makes indie music great is in its combination of textures and dynamic shifts. To create cutting lead lines, blankets of noise, or abrupt changes of gear, you’re going to need some pedals that can dirty up your sound. 

The first category of these is distortion. Every guitarist is familiar with distortion pedals, and for indie you can have your pick of the bunch.

A whole swathe of the greatest indie music has been made with some of the most common-and-garden distortion pedals such as the Boss DS-1.

That familiar orange box was behind Kurt Cobain’s walls of sound, and its trashy, unsubtle sonic signature is perfect for laying down a big wall of power chords. Another indie mainstay is the ProCo Rat, a favorite of guitarists like Stephen Malkmus of Pavement and Doug Martsch from Built To Spill.

You can wring huge variations out of these simple pedals, so mess around and find the distortion that best suits your desired sound. 

Fuzz is a type of distortion that produces a less mid-heavy, sharper sound with more harmonic overtones than distortion.

It’s great for chunky riffs and thick, rich soloing. The absolute archetype of the indie fuzz pedal is the Electro-Harmonix Big Muff, a delightfully unsubtle fuzz that appears on pedalboards throughout indie. 

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Overdrive is a more subtle beast, creating the sound of an amplifier being pushed into breakup.

This warms and saturates the sound (adding more harmonic overtones and richness) without distorting it, and also creates great detail in your playing dynamics by breaking up more as you dig in harder.

Almost every pedal manufacturer makes an overdrive pedal, so you’re spoiled for choice in this area. Even super-cheap pedals like the Danelectro DO-1 are good here, because you’re looking for character and individuality rather than super-clean clarity. 

Reverb and Delay

You’re going to want to add some space around your sound, and that means you’ll be turning to reverb and delay pedals. Reverb simulates the sound of a space, and lets you determine the size and characteristics of that space.

From tight, country-style spring reverbs to huge plate reverbs, every type of ‘verb has a place in indie rock. If you’re thinking of massive widescreen modern indie like

The Killers, you’re going to want to be crafting big sonic spaces. If you’re adding a little character to your more intimate playing, spring or small space reverbs are perfect. Daniel Kessler from Interpol used an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail, which is a fantastic reverb pedal for dialling in those epic, chiming spatial sounds.  

Delay pedals create repeats of the sound you’re playing, and can be used to add a little flavor around the edges of your sound or to create awesome patterns. There are two main types, analog and digital.

Analog delays use a bank of capacitors to repeat the signal, which results in a delay that degrades as it repeats, becoming warmer and darker over time.

Digital delays use a different chipset that effectively synthesizes the signal. They are capable of emulating analog delays, but also of providing crystal clear repeats that retain the same sonic details over time. Which variety you choose is really up to you, depending on the sound you’re looking for.

Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine uses a range of both types, but the Boss DD-7 digital delay is a key feature of his pedalboard, along with analog pedals like the Mooer Ana Echo Delay

Modulation

To add further color to your tone, take a look at phasers, flangers, and chorus pedals.

These all take your signal and bend it back on itself in a variety of ways to create mesmerizing, shape-shifting sounds. There are other effects too like tremolo and vibrato, which add flickering shifts to your tone by either modulating the pitch or the volume of the signal. 

At its basic level, chorus is the most subtle of these effects, replicating your signal multiple times with a slight lag so that it is layered slightly out of phase with itself. This thickens the sound, giving it a character that can go from shimmering to watery.

It sounds incredible running into a reverb, and can produce really interesting effects when combined with delay. Johnny Marr’s signature guitar sound from his time in The Smiths features a whole lot of chorus, mostly supplied by the redoubtable Boss CE-2

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Flanger pedals take your signal and layering it on itself at a slower speed than the original. This simulates the sound of two tape machines being played together but at different speeds, with all the warble and pitch difference that you would expect.

They can be used subtly to thicken up a track, replicating the sound of double-tracking your playing, or to create whooshing, swooping sonic mayhem. Going back to pedal legends Boss again, the BF-3 is a great flanger that will enable you to dial in all sorts of awesome sounds. 

Next up, we have phasers. Rather than changing the speed of the signal, phasers change the phrase length of the layer that’s being added.

This produces a similar but recognizably different effect to a flanger that has a vocal, almost chewy sound that’s great for adding interest and movement to chord playing or freaky modulation to lead parts.

There are a lot of phasers out there, but the simplest and arguably greatest is the MXR Phase 90, a simple orange box with only one knob (labelled ‘Speed’) that sets the length of the repeats. 

Somewhat confusingly, given that the tremolo arm on guitars changes the pitch of the strings, tremolo pedals modulate the volume of your signal. You can change the speed and the depth of this effect to create different sounds.

Looking once again at Johnny Marr, one of the most iconic uses of a tremolo pedal is in How Soon Is Now by The Smiths, creating that pulsating rhythm that underpins the whole track.

He achieved this by using four different amps in the studio, but you can get your own slice of tremolo action with a pedal like the TC Electronic Choka, which takes up a whole lot less space!.

Vibrato, on the other hand, does change the pitch of your signal. Again, you can change the depth and rate of this variation in pitch to create different effects, from gentle detuning and thickness to full-on wobbly warbling.

Vibrato is commonly used to create a slightly off-kilter vintage sound. Mac DeMarco uses a Boss VB-2W to add that pawn-shop charm to his tone. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Although we’ve covered a lot of ground in this exploration of indie guitar tones, there’s a huge amount of sonic space out there to navigate and many questions to ask.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about getting that indie tone nailed, compiled into a handy reference guide!

What Guitar is Used for Indie? 

That’s a whole can of worms right there, but as we discussed at the top of this article it really is up to you. Classic indie tunes have been made with all sorts of guitars, and while single-coil designs dominate there are no rules here.

Fenders, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, Gretsches, anything goes. As long as you can get the tone you like and it feels good, it really doesn’t matter. 

How Do I Get The Jangly Guitar Sound?

‘Indie jangle’ is a sought-after sound, and can be created in a variety of ways. You can use chorus to double your signal. You can use a 12-string guitar, which adds instant jangly thickness.

You can even put your arranger hat on and have two or more guitarists play complementary parts that create a jangly sound. There’s no one route to that classic jangle. 

How Do You Sound Like An Indie?

The short answer is, any way you like. Indie as a genre is a playground for sonic experimentation, whether you’re trying to frame your tight pop songs reflecting your classic influences like James Mercer from The Shins or bending the whole concept of rock music into new shapes like Sonic Youth.

In indie music, you can let your imagination take flight!

Andrew Patterson
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