Perhaps one of the most unique sounding guitarists since the inception of rock music was Randy Rhoads. Taken from life at a young age, he was ahead of his time in his playing and his tone. This is so much so that his legend lives on over 40 years later.
Playing like Rhoads may be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be difficult to get his tone. I’m going to explore some gear and settings ideas that can help you achieve the iconic sound of the late Randy Rhoads.
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It all has to start here. Cutting straight to the point, you’ll need a guitar with humbuckers. Rhoads was not a strat guy – he was often seen with guitars like Gibson Les Pauls and Jackson V styles like the RR1.
Hotter pickups will help you get closer to the Rhoads tone, but they’re not absolutely necessary. Rhoads used hot DiMarzio and Duncan pickups in some of his guitars, but he also had other methods of upping his gain. More on that later.
Randy Rhoads’ Amp Settings (EQ) and Amps
Rhoads made good use of Marshall amp heads. He had his own special ordered Marshall 100 watt (the white Tolex one) and was known to use a JMP 59 super lead MKII during the recording sessions for Blizzard of Ozz.
Vintage and custom amps can be hard to come by, not to mention prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the Marshall spirit can be found in most Marshall tube amps these days. Check out the DSL20HR or the ORI20H to get an idea of some affordable Marshall amps.
What’s really important is the amp settings you use.
Rhoads’ had a very mid-heavy tone, so you’ll want to crank the mid knob up. Start with your bass around 4, just enough to add body. Mids can go as high as 7 or even 8, and treble will likely need to be between 6 and 8 depending on your setup. Presence can be set to taste but will probably work well around 5 or 6.
Start with the gain around 6 or 7. Depending on your amp, and pickups, this may be too low. That’s ok, you can turn it up higher if you need to, just bring it up till it sounds saturated like Rhoads’ sound.
Randy Rhoads’ Pedalboard
The pedals Rhoads used had a lot to do with how he got his sound. There are a few key pedals that are must-haves if you’re after his tone.
The heart of Rhoads’ extra gain came from an MXR Distortion Plus pedal that he used to drive his amps further into overdrive. This is crucial if you have a more vintage-style amp that doesn’t have quite as much gain as a modern amp.
Other drive pedals will work, but if you want to be as authentic as possible stick with the MXR. In any case, have the pedal set up to be relatively clean but with lots of output.
On the MXR you might turn the output up to 7 but leave the drive lower around 3 or even less. Experiment with both in conjunction with your amps gain knob to get things just right.
If the drive pedal is the heart, then the MXR Ten Band Graphic EQ is the soul. Run this pedal AFTER the drive pedal, and set it up for a nice boost at 500 Hz and 1k Hz. This is where a lot of the extra mids in Rhoads’ sound came from.
An “honorable mention” is in order, because one of the most famous songs Rhoads played was Crazy Train. There is an undeniable chorus effect at work here, but it didn’t actually come from a chorus pedal. After the rhythm guitars were recorded, a very short delay effect was used with some slight detuning which creates the chorus effect you hear.
If you’re after that particular sound, I recommend an MXR analog chorus. Drop the lows a little, and boost the highs slightly. Keep the rate down below 10 o’clock and the depth no higher than noon. Run this in the effects loop if you can, but after the drive and EQ if not. In that case, set the depth a little higher to compensate.
Trust Your Ears
As with any sound you’re after, your ears are the ultimate judge. Listen to your favorite Rhoads’ songs and then play through your setup to see how close you can get. Experiment, play loud, and most importantly: have fun!