This is a guest post by Colin Wymore
If you scour through any comprehensive list of ‘greatest guitar players’, you will almost always find Duane Allman lingering in the top 10, and with good reason. In his short career, Duane became the go to session player at Muscle Shoals, electrified Derek and the Dominos’ Layla record, and started his own psychedelic blues band with his brother Greg that would captivate the U.S. rock scene in the early 1970’s. Considering he accomplished all this in about 5 years’ time is a testament to Duane’s prowess and it’s no wonder why guitarists everywhere are still trying to capture his sound. So with the spirit of Brother Duane in mind here is a breakdown of how to attain one of the most legendary guitar tones.
While Duane Allman is often associated with a ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop, his guitar repertoire was incredibly varied. In his early days and for quite a bit of his session work Duane bounced between Fender Stratocasters, Gibson ES335’s and a Gibson ES355 owned by his brother. In fact, its suspect that Duane actually used an ES345 when recording the first Allman Brothers album so you may want to take that into account when replicating his tone.
Nevertheless, the main sound we hear when we think of Skydog comes from Gibson Les Pauls. Duane started playing a ‘57 Les Paul Goldtop in late 1969 and by early 1970 Duane acquired a second ‘57 Goldtop (he traded the first to co-guitarist of the Allman Brothers Band Dickey Betts for a Gibson SG which he occasionally used live). This second Goldtop would become legendary. He used it during a number of early concerts, the Allman Brothers second album Idelwild South and of course Derek and the Dominos’ Layla. Interestingly, he ended up trading the famous Goldtop for a ‘59 Cherryburst Les Paul that would come to be equally important. This burst is what is heard when listening to the Allman brother seminal Live at the Fillmore East record. Finally, as if that wasn’t confusing enough, Duane acquired another Les Paul (this one a ‘59 tobacco burst he referred to as “Hot’Lanta”) that he used later on the Eat a Peach recordings.
If there’s anything to take from this it’s that to get a guitar tone on par with Duane’s your going to need a Les Paul. Fortunately for your wallet it doesn’t have to be a ‘57 Goldtop or the recently released Duane Allman signature series from Gibson. However, you should definitely seek out a vintage style Les Paul. Gibson has a number of Traditional and Standard VOS guitars (vintage original specification) that are ideal. At the very least use some type of Gibson or Epiphone with humbucking pickups. The bulk of Duane’s incendiary tone comes from humbuckers that offer a thick tone and low noise.
Note: While Duane played a number of Les Pauls one thing remained fairly constant: his pickups. Duane liked the PAF humbucker pickups in his famous ‘57 Goldtop so much he swapped them out and put them into the ‘59 Cherryburst. So if purchasing a vintage Les Paul isn’t an option (and it isn’t for many of us) you may want to consider simply purchasing some vintage style humbuckers and incorporate them into your current setup.
In terms of amplification Duane had two setups, one for playing live and one for recording. When playing live he used two 50-Watt Marshall Bass heads (model 1986) along with Marshall 4×12 cabs. In addition, his cabs were half-open-backed and sported JBL-D120 speakers (although it’s possible he switched out the speakers for Cerwin Vegas or even mixed them). This combination produced a pretty tremendous tone for the time. The 50-Watt Marshalls broke up early and allowed for more distortion than larger amplifiers. That in conjunction with open back cabs let his sound bleed and fill the stage more than closed backed cabs that just shoot sound in one direction. In the studio Duane most often used a blackface Fender Twin Reverb with the Allman Brothers and used a Fender Champ for Layla.
For the contemporary player trying to replicate Duane’s tone there’s a number of directions that one could take in terms of amps. The essential idea is you should look for an amp that can break up to significant distortion levels relative to the room you’re playing in. Smaller rooms mean smaller amp. Obviously you could be authentic as possible and run through dual 50-Watt Marshall Bass or Lead heads. However, since most of us won’t be playing the Fillmore anytime soon some type of Fender provides the best option. Fenders like the Tweed Deluxe or Tweed Twin have the capability of breaking up into Marshall territory at lower volumes. Similarly, a blackface Fender Twin with an overdrive pedal (e.g. Fulltone OCD or TC Electronic Mojo Mojo) would serve nicely. For the price conscious player a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe is a very versatile amp. It has 2 overdrive channels that can get a pretty thick tone like Duane’s.
Duane was a pretty straightforward player. It’s thought he may have used some fuzzboxes in his early days when he was playing Stratocasters but by his time in the Allman Brothers it was just guitar and amp: Les Paul + Marshall = Tone. Can’t argue with that equation. When he was using fuzzboxes he liked to run them on worn out 9v batteries, presumably to make the effect less harsh.
The final step in getting any legendary guitar tone lies in how that individual approached the guitar in terms of technique. Van Halen had his tapping, Hendrix his dive-bombs, and similarly Duane had his own unique approach. For one, Duane regularly switched between standard tuning and slide guitar in which he used open e tuning. Look to replicate Duane’s slide licks on songs like Statesboro Blues and Dreams by damping strings with your slide hand and plucking the strings with your fingers sans pick. When Duane wasn’t playing slide he used a hybrid picking technique, plucking the strings with both the rounded edge of his pick and his middle and ring fingers. Part of Duane’s big round tone can be attributed to the fact that he didn’t use the sharp edge of his pick, which allowed for a much softer attack.
In summary, there may not be a straightforward recipe to capture Duane’s guitar tone since his equipment varied from year to year. Your best bet is a Gibson Les Paul with vintage PAF style humbuckers plugged into a Marshall or a Fender Tweed amplifier. After that, it’s all about style and developing your technique to sound as close to Duane as possible…but remember: there will only be one Skydog.