These days it seems everyone plays guitar. Part of the reason for this is that the cost of acquiring a quality, mass-produced guitar or bass has come down radically over the last decade or so, making these instruments extremely accessible for aspiring musicians in every stratum of society. Factor in the incredible number of online resources for learning how to play, and voila, there are now millions of guitar bands of all stripes operating in every far-flung corner of the world. This development is unquestionably a good thing, but for every positive there must also be a negative. One such negative: Although guitars, guitar players, and guitar bands are everywhere, there seem to be fewer players cultivating distinctive, signature tones. Thinking back to the classic rock era and the legendary pioneers of the instrument, such as Hendrix, Page, Gibbons, Ronson, and Fripp, each of these players had a very recognizable sound resulting from a combination of their playing style and the unique evolution of their equipment preferences. Back in the day, educated listeners were often able to tell who was playing guitar on a new song after hearing just a few notes. This is much rarer today, for a variety of reasons, but there are still a few well known guitarists that embody this very personal approach to the electric guitar and its unique timbre. If asked to name such a modern guitar slinger, the first one that would come to my mind would be Josh Homme of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. His tone and style are entirely unique, developed over a lengthy career that has spanned both underground and mainstream rock circles, and he has proven himself to be both a devoted student of the instrument as well as a very thoughtful, deliberate contrarian, especially where gear is concerned.
My and many people's introduction to Josh Homme's singular guitar onslaught was the now classic Kyuss album Blues for the Red Sun. This definitive entry into stoner/desert rock canon features some of the most idiosyncratic, bowel-rumbling heavy guitar tones ever committed to tape, and at the time of its release in 1992, sounded completely unlike anything that had come before. It was clearly the work of a guitarist that was consciously developing a unique and personal vision. This sound has mutated and progressed over the years as Kyuss broke up and Homme went on to form Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and a variety of other offshoots and side projects, but the core elements of his tone have remained in place. Unfortunately, Homme is notoriously protective of his gear secrets, actively spreading misinformation and outright lies in interviews, or just refusing to answer technical inquiries he deems too sensitive. I can't say I blame him, but perhaps to his dismay, most of the primary building blocks of his sound are rather easily sussed out. A simple internet search will reveal what pedals live on his pedalboards, what amps have bolstered his backline, and what guitars have filled his hands. It's hard to keep a secret with the Internet around.
General Principles of the Homme Tone
Obviously, like any great artist, the true sources of Josh Homme's tone are his head and his hands, but these subjects are far beyond the scope of this article, so let's start with some general gear guidelines. If you seek to summon a little of your own Homme sonic magic, you've got to hone in on the low end. A good place to start is with a neck-position humbucker. This is essential, and has been a consistent and crucial element of Homme's tone since the beginning. He has been quoted as saying that he used the neck pickup for "every note on every album." Over the years, in many different guitars, he has employed various neck position 'buckers from Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, and other custom makers, but more than any specific model, the most important features of these pickups are moderate to medium-hot output, and plenty of clarity and note distinction. Homme's tone is thick and dark, but it isn't muddy. Among his known pickup choices are Seymour Duncan's Custom and '59 models, and the rather brightly voiced DiMarzio Super 2's that came stock in the Ovation Ultra GP's that he used throughout the Kyuss years.
Other general things to consider are gain levels and tuning. Homme has never been a high-gain player. His sound, especially with Kyuss, has traditionally been the result of big amps cranked up, and perhaps pushed with a medium gain overdrive. His overall saturation levels are much closer to classic rock than modern high-gain metal tones. Regarding tuning, he has long been associated with C-standard, but in recent times he has used a variety of tunings, including D-standard and regular old E, among others.
Josh Homme is wholly responsible for the outlandish current used market value of the Ovation Ultra GP. This guitar, once thought (when it was thought of at all) as a poor man's Les Paul and fairly serviceable pawnshop prize, is now a rare and coveted vintage instrument worth upwards of 2500 dollars. Homme has owned three Ultra GP's over the years, using them nearly exclusively in Kyuss, and still rocking them regularly up through Queens' Songs for the Deaf tour. As of 2004, these guitars have been retired from regular use, but especially for Kyuss-era Homme tones, the Ultra GP is where it's at. As a side note, he has mentioned in interviews that his devotion to the oddball Ultra GP was inspired by Black Flag's Greg Ginn, who had a similarly single-minded devotion to another six-string oddball, the Dan Armstrong lucite-bodied guitar. Homme sought a similarly unusual guitar that could serve as his own vehicle for developing a unique style, much as the Dan Armstrong became an essential element of Ginn's groundbreaking work in hardcore and avant-punk.
Homme uses a much wider variety of instruments today than he did in the Kyuss era, a fact that is certainly evident from listening to the recent QOTSA records, which feature a rich and varied spectrum of guitar tones. These days he is best known for his selection of Motor Ave and Maton semi-hollow guitars, including his signature model Maton, the BB1200 JH. These guitars are outfitted with a range of different custom pickups (primarily humbuckers, of course) and hardware options, and seem to be his main axes for most stage and studio jobs. Other guitars that make periodic appearances include various Telecasters, an Epiphone Casino and Dot, a Gibson Marauder, an Airline Town and Country, an Echo Park Custom Crow, and many others. He reportedly owns upwards of 35 guitars of widely disparate makes and models, so he has clearly branched out significantly since his Ovation GP days.
Amps and Cabs
With Kyuss in the early '90s, Homme relied mainly on a Marshall 100-watt JCM900 head driving an Ampeg 8x10 bass cab, a setup which was known to sometimes be augmented with a Tube Works RT-2100-ES head and Marshall 4x12's for live performances. This setup can be seen in photos of the band from that time period, as well as in the video for "Green Machine," and it was Homme's primary rig for the Blues for the Red Sun recording sessions helmed by producer Chris Goss and engineer Joe Barresi. Obviously, the JCM-900 is a fairly common amplifier for hard rockers, but combining it with a massive Ampeg bass cab certainly was an unorthodox choice that contributed greatly to Homme's signature bottom-heavy guitar sound.
By 1995 or so, around the time of Kyuss's brilliant and underrated ...And the Circus Leaves Town, Homme had transitioned away from the Marshall JCM900 and seemed to be exclusively using a pair of the Tube Works RT-2100-ES MosValve heads , which featured tube driven onboard preamp distortion coupled with a powerful solid-state power section. These were still used in conjunction with his Ampeg 8x10s, as well as the occasional 4x12 or other cabinet. His tone during this period is even more massive than before, in my opinion, with seemingly nothing lost by ditching the Marshall. This setup can be heard and seen in action on YouTube, in a video from Kyuss' 1995 Bizarre Festival performance in Germany.
Homme continued to use his Kyuss amp and cab setup into the early days of Queens of the Stone Age, but as his new band's sound developed, so did his rig. His tone during this era is noticeably less seismic, with the massive low end present on the final Kyuss record seemingly having been reigned in a bit. Not coincidentally, this is also about the time Homme began relying on vintage Ampeg combos, most notably the 60-watt, 4x10 VT-40 combo, which he said was the first amplifier he ever owned. The VT-40 is Ampeg's variation on the Fender Super Reverb concept, and it is known for its warm, fat clean tones and thunderous volume. Though he typically uses a variety of small amps and cabs these days, including vintage Gibsons, Silvertones, and Supros, the backbone of Homme's current live rig seems to be his four vintage VT-40's linked together by a Little Labs distro box.
Pedals and Effects
Now for everyone's favorite part, the pedals! While in Kyuss, at least, Homme actually used very little in the way of pedals. A common misconception is that he used an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff to get his thick low-end grind, but in reality his tone was primarily derived from his guitar and amp setup, and tremendous amounts of volume. It has been reported that he used a Boss SD-1 to push the amp for solos and other, higher gain sounds, and he definitely used a wah-wah with some regularity, which was likely a standard issue Dunlop Cry Baby. Some modulation sounds are present on Kyuss albums as well, but at least a handful of these were created in the studio using unorthodox recording methods. Engineer Joe Barresi has stated that some of the phase and flange-like tones on Blues for the Red Sun were created by an assistant engineer who stood in front of Homme's cabinets swinging a Shure SM57 in circles over his head. I desperately want this story to be true, and it may very well be, but it may also be one of those notorious tidbits of misinformation that the Homme camp has become known for, so perhaps we should take it with a grain of salt.
Moving on to Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, and the current Homme tone era, pedals have become a much larger element of the sound. Just as his guitar and amp collection expanded when Kyuss ended, so did his pedalboard. Word on the street is that there are a few stompbox secrets that Homme still keeps closely guarded, but for the most part, his pedalboard is stocked with fairly common effects from Boss, Dunlop, Fulltone, MXR, Electro-Harmonix, Moog, and other major makers. Highlights include a few unusual and/or vintage items, like a Univox Super-Fuzz, Fuzzrocious Oh See Demon, Lovetone Meatball, Morley Power Wah, and the luscious, tube-powered S.I.B. Echodrive delay. Interesting noisemakers include an EHX POG and Bass Micro Synth, a Digitech Whammy, an MF-101 Lowpass Filter and MF-104Z Analog Delay from Moog, and a Stone Deaf PDF-1 filter. Much of the rest of his collection (or at least what we have seen of it) appears to be off-the-shelf and utilitarian, which is actually not unusual at all for touring rock stars, who are generally more concerned with reliability and ease of finding a replacement on the road than they are with the esoteric sonic details many pedal geeks obsess over.
As we've seen, Josh Homme's thoughtfully cultivated signature sound has evolved significantly, yet remained constant and easily identifiable, over the course of a slow-burn career trajectory that has taken him from underground stoner punk guitar hero to widely respected mainstream rock icon. Starting with a minimalist setup and a slavish devotion to his chosen instrument, he has expanded his palette of tonal options radically over the years, while still maintaining his unique vision and a willfully unorthodox approach to the electric guitar.