How to Make Your Electric Guitar Sound Like Rock

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Written By Sarah Barlow

Chief Music Officer

Making your electric guitar sound like rock requires the right settings, on the right type of music gear.

In this article, we will explore both the gear you need, as well as the way you need to configure that gear to make your electric guitar sound like rock.

There are many different types of rock sound you can achieve, but in this article, we will focus on a basic, general-purpose distortion rock sound common in many rock songs and styles.

For most of music history players and audio engineers alike went to great lengths to avoid ‘distortion’ as it did not suit the music styles at the time, however with the advent of rock music, people began seeking out the rock sound and looking for ways to create it on purpose, and predictably.

The first rock sound was created simply by turning up the volume too loud, and the clean sound starts breaking as too much signal is sent to the speaker, but over time other methods have been developed to create distortion.

The rest of this article will look at both the gear you need to create a rock sound on your electric guitar and the different settings you need to use on that gear.

What Gear Do You Need to Play Rock on Electric Guitar?

To make your electric guitar sound like rock, you will need at least a functioning electric guitar, and an electric guitar amplifier. and a lead to connect your guitar to your amplifier.

Electric Guitar

For the most part, any working electric guitar can be used to get a rock sound, as most of the rock sound is created by the amplifier of guitar effect you use once the signal has come out of your guitar through the lead.

The guitar settings, and pickups you use, do make a difference to the sound you get – but the actual rock sound and distortion is created by the amp of the effects pedal.

Electric Guitar Amplifier

There is a large range of music amplifiers available to purchase, but as long as you purchase an ‘electric guitar’ amplifier specifically, you will have the settings available to you that you need to make your electric guitar sound like rock.

The main thing you need an amplifier to have is either two different channels – one channel for a clean sound, and one channel for a dirty/rock sound.

If this is the case then you will have two different sets up knobs and you can create two different presets for yourself then just switch between them with either a button on the amp or foot pedal. But whether the amp is ‘dual channel’ or not it should have a knob that is labelled ‘Drive’ or ‘Distortion’ which will control the level of distortion applied to your sound.

If your amp is only a single channel amp, then this Gain/Drive/Distortion knob will be used in its entirety to control your sound (amidst other settings). Amps never used to have separate gain/distortion settings, people would just their amps up to full volume, and distortion would be the result.

This was great but the actual volume level would be extremely high. The addition of a separate gain/drive/distortion knob meant that we can keep the overall volume at the level we need, while still getting a great distortion sound.

Electric Guitar Lead

Any decent quality electric guitar lead will be sufficient to make a good rock sound. It is true that the length and quality of your lead can influence certain aspects of your guitars sound, but this is negligible in most cases and not worth paying attention to unless you are very advanced.

A basic, decent quality lead will be fine.

Electric Guitar Effects Pedal

Another way to create a classic rock sound on your electric guitar is to use an ‘in line’ guitar effects processor.

These come in many shapes and sizes from single stompboxes to more complicated multi-effects units. When using these units you plug the lead from your guitar into the effects processor and then take another lead to go from your effects processor into your amp.

When using these, you are usually using the effects processor to change your sound, and then putting that sound into a clean sounding amplifier and just using your amplifier as a speaker for your effects processor, instead of something that is influencing the sound very much.

What Gear Settings Do I Use for the Best Rock Sound on Electric Guitar?

Once you have the gear you need to create a god electric guitar sound, you then need to configure the settings on that gear to get the best result. The truth is, the best way to get the rock electric guitar sound you want, is to experiment on your own and see what you like, and what kind of settings get you closer to the sound you want.

But the below suggestions will give you a starting point, and explain some of the key concepts to get you started. We also link to some great resources and videos that go into a lot more detail.

Electric Guitar Settings That Produce A Rock Sound

On your guitar itself there are two main things you can control that will influence its impact on the rock sound.

Volume Settings

All electric guitar should have at least one knob (usually 2-4) that control aspects of the guitar sound output.

If you have multiple knobs find the volume and put that as high as it goes (up to 10) and then put any other knobs on a medium setting (around 5). You can experiment with other knobs later on, once you are already getting a decent rock sound.

As long as your volume knob is at max volume, you are ensuring that the guitar is putting out as much signal as it can, for your amplifier or effects pedal to work with.

Pickup Settings

Secondly, you need to choose which pickups to have activated.

Usually, your electric guitar will have multiple pickups which detect the string vibrations, and you have the ability to choose which of these pickups you want to be activated. Some guitar will have two humbucker pickups which are generally used for heavier distortion, or another common configuration is three single-coil pickups which produce a clearer tone.

Your electric guitar will have a pickup selector switch which enables you to choose either the pick =up closer to the rear (bridge pick up), or the pickup closer to the guitar neck (neck pick up), or all the pickups or a combination of (depending how many pickups you have). Typically, the best pickup settings that will create a rock sound are to use the bridge (rear) picks up.

Amplifier Settings

The settings on your Amplifier or effects unit will have the biggest impact on your ability to make your electric guitar sound like rock. Assuming you have either a ‘dual channel amplifier’ or single-channel amplifier with a drive/gain/distortion knob – the key to creating a good rock sound is how this gain/distortion setting interacts with other EQ settings on your amp.

Even a basic amp should have at least a knob for Bass and Treble, and may even have a Mid setting as well. For the purpose of this explanation, we’ll assume you have all of these, but ignore commentary on any settings you don’t have.

If you have a dual-channel amplifier, make sure you have the ‘distortion’ channel active and have all knobs on the medium setting. Start with Distortion/Gain/Drive knob down low and have all other knobs on a medium setting.

With a guitar string ringing, or after strumming a chord slowly increase the drive/gain/distortion knob and hear how it changes the sound as you turn it up. Stop the knob once you get to about medium (5) and see how that sound.

On many amps, this might be comparable to a classic rock sound used by AC/DC and other similar bands. From here you can experiment by turning up the bass and treble slightly (to 7) and see how that sounds, and if you like it better or worse and then just experimenting from there.

Keep in mind that as you increase gain/drive/distortion you may find that the overall volume of your sound has increased, and need to dial back the master volume a little bit.

Sometimes when you are turning up your overdrive or distortion setting you will need to dial back your volume a little, to keep the volume under control.

Guitar Effects Unit Settings

If you are using a stompbox to create your rock sound, then it is highly likely that it has very similar knobs to manipulate as your amp. There will be some kind of overall gain/distortion level knob, along with a few EQ settings.

Try the same method of having the distortion down low, with everything else at medium, then slowly increasing the distortion from there. If you have a multi-effects unit then you might have to set these same settings with a digital controller.

Is It Better To Use My Amplifier or Guitar Effects Pedal To Create a Rock Sound?

Professionals use a mix of amplifiers and effects units to create certain sounds they like.

There are certain aspects of distortion that are hard to produce with an effects pedal, but the pedals are getting better and better over time.

The majority of the population will not be able to tell the difference between a rock sound from an amplifier, compared to a rock sound from an effects unit, so there is nothing wrong with opting to use an effects unit. A benefit of effects units are they sometimes have a range of presents you can use that give you a variety of sounds to click through and experiment with, and you can also and you can also save the settings of sounds you created that you want to access again in the future.

If there is a specific player that you want to emulate research whether there is an effects pedal with presets that mimic them specifically, as many of these have been created.

How to You Know When the Rock Sound Coming From Your Electric Guitar Is Good

As a general rule, you want enough distortion to you that get the nice rock sound but not so much distortion that when you stop playing there is feedback and excess noise going on.

But the main indicator of whether your sound is any good is whether you like it, and it is the sound you are looking for. It can be painful to have a sound in your head that you are not able to produce on your amp, but it is worth pushing through the frustration and getting a sense of what changes in knobs create what sound.

Other Things To Keep In Mind When Playing With Distortion

Keep in mind that the more distortion you have, the cleaner your actions need to be on the guitar. If you have sloppy hand movements or pick work then the sound can get quite muddy.

Other Ways to Get a Rock Sound On Your Electric Guitar

If you don’t have an amp or effects pedal, there are other ways you can convert your electric guitar into a rock sound.

You can access a free music recording program such as Garageband, record your guitar into your computer or tablet (maybe using an iRig) and then once you have the recorded guitar, you can experiment with lots of presets and different sounds they have available within the different programs.

These sounds are getting better and better all the time.