How To Sound Like Derek Trucks
I have wanted to sound like Derek Trucks since the moment I first heard him play. In my opinion, Trucks is the ultimate bluesman. He plays with amazing feeling and has such a strong sense of melody. Perhaps most importantly, Trucks possesses an insightful and unique approach to lead guitar. For Trucks, soloing is not about showing off or highlighting his technical ability; it is about evoking emotion and moving his listeners.
Whilst a huge part of his ability to do this comes from Trucks’ fingers and playing style, his gear plays an important role too. Derek Trucks has a beautiful guitar tone that is perfect for the blues. It is a big sound that is warm and mellow, yet very precise. His notes always ring out with perfect clarity and his tone is never muddy.
Derek Trucks almost exclusively plays slide guitar. His playing style is heavily influenced by Duane Allman, and his rig and guitar set up reflects that. If you are a slide guitarist and you are looking for a killer slide tone, I would start by looking at Duane Allman’s set up, which I covered in much more detail here. That will give you the background and wider context to some of the points that I refer to here.
Although there are a lot of similarities between Trucks and Allman though, there are also some significant differences. Trucks has a cleaner and softer tone, and he has a very different approach to gear. So the information here will definitely give you more options and a different perspective on how to get some killer slide tones.
Even if you don’t play slide guitar though, there is a lot of information you can take away here that is still relevant. Trucks’ tone is beautiful, and will work brilliantly when you are playing regular guitar too.
So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Derek Trucks:
The Gibson SG
Derek Trucks has played a Gibson SG for his whole career. Although he has also occasionally played Washburn guitars, a Gibson Les Paul and a Gibson Firebird, the Gibson SG is the guitar with which he is associated.
Over his career, there have been 3 main SGs that Trucks has used. The first of these was a ’62 SG Reissue which he used for the majority of the ’90s.
After that, he moved on to a ’61 SG Reissue, which he used for around 10 years. This guitar originally came with a tremolo tailpiece, which Trucks removed and replaced with a stop-bar tailpiece. He also removed the pickguard. This was most likely for aesthetic reasons, and because he doesn’t actually play with a pick. He also decided to keep the Gibson Maestro Vibrola plate on. Besides these small cosmetic changes, this SG was pretty much stock. Trucks also used this guitar for around 10 years, before he switched SGs again in 2012.
At this point he started playing a Gibson Custom Shop SG modelled on the SG that was given to Duane Allman by Dickey Betts.
The specific guitar that Trucks plays was given to him by Galadrielle Allman, Duane Allman’s daughter. This has now become his main guitar, which he has used ever since.
Which SG Is Right For You?
If you want to sound like Derek Trucks, you need to get an SG. And here there are some brilliant options across a whole range of budgets.
In the lower price range, I would recommend going for an Epiphone replica:
After the entry level SG range, you get to the Gibson Tribute and Standard range. And here there is a bit of a jump in price. However the good news is that compared with Gibson Les Pauls and ES-335s, SGs are a lot cheaper. My top recommendations in this bracket are as follows:
Beyond this, if you really want to sound like Derek Trucks and are happy to spend a bit more, there are a number of options. In 2014, the Gibson Custom Shop released a Derek Trucks Signature model SG. This was based on the ’61 SG Reissue that Trucks used up until 2012.
The guitar is no longer in production, but you can easily buy new and second hand versions of the SG on Reverb. And in fact, you can buy this guitar for less than a lot of the other Gibson Custom Shop models. It currently costs around $2100/£1700.
You can also buy one of the Dickey Betts, ‘From One Brother To Another’ SGs second hand on Reverb. As a result of Duane Allman’s legacy, and the fact that this is Derek Trucks’ main guitar, models of this SG are more expensive. They currently sell for around $4450/£3600.
If you don’t want to go down the second hand route, but you still want a brilliant SG, then a Gibson Custom ’61 SG Standard would be my top choice.
Any of these guitars will help you to sound like Derek Trucks. They will also help with playability, especially if you are going to use them for slide. The SG has long been a popular choice amongst slide players because of the way you can easily access the upper frets.
Derek Trucks’ Signature SG is fitted with Gibson ’57 Classic Humbuckers. The Dickey Betts SG that he plays was originally fitted with a set of Gibson Custombuckers. These pickups are only available in Custom Shop instruments and you can’t buy them separately.
The good news, is that Trucks switched his Custombuckers for a set of bespoke DT Humbuckers from Cream T Pickups. This is a boutique pickup company that also makes pickups for Billy Gibbons, as well as various other notable blues guitarists. If you really want to sound like Derek Trucks then, and you are happy to spend a bit more, the DT Humbuckers would be my top choice.
Beyond that, the Gibson ’57 Classic Humbuckers would also make a great choice, as they are the pickups that Trucks uses in his Signature SG. But you can look at other options here too. A high quality set of lower output, PAF style humbuckers will definitely help you to sound like Derek Trucks. So a set like the Stormy Monday Humbuckers or Seymour Duncan SH1 ’59 Humbuckers could be a great choice.
Having said that, if you buy a modern Gibson SG that replicates an early model, it is likely to come stock with vintage style pickups similar to those in either of Trucks’ main guitars. So it is worth checking that, before you switch your pickups out for a different set.
Out of all of the elements of his rig, Derek Trucks seems to place the most emphasis on his amplifiers. Over the course of his career he has used a variety of different amplifiers. This includes amps from Fender, PRS and most recently, Alessandro AZZ Amplifiers. For most of his career though, Trucks has favoured a Fender Super Reverb. His only real departure away from Fender style amps was when he played a PRS HXDA 100W Head and a PRS Dallas 50W with The Allman Brothers Band.
Even the Alessandro AZZ amp that Trucks currently plays is very similar to a Fender Super Reverb; it is just larger and more powerful. This gives the amp more headroom, which means that Trucks can crank it without the amp breaking up or distorting. This actually sets him aside from a lot of other blues guitarists, most of whom seek out amps that break up and overdrive at lower volumes.
The main difference between these guitarists and Trucks, is that Trucks predominantly plays with a clean sound. And it is really this which dictates his choice of amp. He requires a certain volume and power to cut through the mix (there are 2 drummers and a horn section in The Tedeschi Trucks Band!) and he wants to be heard without his sound distorting.
Which Amp Is Right For You?
When choosing an amp that will help you sound like Derek Trucks, it is worth taking 2 important factors into account. Firstly, you should consider how much power you need. And secondly you should consider whether you are looking to play with a predominantly clean tone, or whether you would also like your amp to break up a bit.
It is all about striking a balance here. The larger and more powerful the amp, the louder you can play without your tone overdriving. That is great if you are playing gigs and want to play with a clean tone. If that is the case, then either a Fender ’65 Super Reverb Reissue or a Fender ’65 Twin Reverb would be a great choice. If you are a massive Derek Trucks fan and are happy to pay more, then you could also look at adding an Alessandro AZZ amp to your rig. Having said that, these are custom-order only and the prices start at $12,500/£10,150. So although they will definitely help you sound like Derek Trucks, they aren’t a relevant option for most players.
The good news, is that there are a lot more choices out there. If you are predominantly playing at home and you would like to have the option of cranking your amp, I would recommend opting for a small Fender amp. With one of these amps, you will be able to produce beautiful clean tones, and also crank the amp and push it to break up, but at lower volumes. Thankfully Fender have choices here that suit every budget. Some of my top recommendations are:
Beyond one of these Fender amps, it could also be worth like at the PRS Sonzera 20W. This is an American voiced, Fender style amp that more closely resembles Trucks’ set up when he played with The Allman Brothers Band.
Derek Trucks uses almost no guitar pedals at all. In fact far from believing that pedals will improve his tone, Trucks feels that they are actually detrimental to his sound. As he stated when talking about his set up:
You are always trying to find that connection between your hands, what you are hearing, and the amp, and for me, any time I plug into anything I hear it. Even through a tuner. It knocks it down. That’s how it feels. And sometimes, maybe I’m imagining it, but I always hear it.
The great news then, is that you don’t need to buy a whole range of new pedals to sound like Derek Trucks. The one guitar pedal that Trucks does have in his rig is the Dunlop Echoplex EP103 Delay pedal. He uses this occasionally for specific delay sounds, but more frequently he uses it as a boost pedal. A lot of guitarists used the original Maestro Echoplex Tape Delay in this way in the 1960s and 70s. Bluesmen like Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Gary Moore are just some of the notable players that used the Echoplex to add thickness and warmth to their sound.
If you want to do the same, and are also looking for a delay pedal, then the Dunlop Echoplex EP103 Delay pedal would make a great addition to your rig. Beyond that, a preamp boost pedal or a clean boost pedal would also make a great choice. To replicate the sound of the Echoplex, I would recommend either the Dunlop EP101 Echoplex Preamp pedal or the Xotic EP Booster.
Volume & Tone Controls
Given the simplicity of his rig, Trucks makes to a lot of changes to his tone using the controls on his guitar. As he once stated:
I’m always messing with the volume and tone. I mean, if it sounds good the tone will stay put unless you’re going for an effect, like rolling all of it off and just getting that, ‘the woman tone’ or whatever. But I’m messing with the volume pot quite a bit, and that’s where you are getting a lot of the swells and a lot of the dynamics.
Trucks treats 8 on both the volume control on his guitar and on his amp as his limit. He believes that when it comes to volume, less is more. And when you push the volume too much, you can sacrifice clarity, and risk ending up with a ‘muddy’ sounding tone.
If you want to sound like Derek Trucks then, it is worth keeping these 2 ideas in mind. You don’t want to chase more volume or overdrive at the expense of clarity. You want to develop a clear and precise guitar tone. Secondly, don’t forget that you can make profound changes to your tone using nothing more than the controls on your guitar.
Duane Allman famously used a glass Coricidin medicine bottle for his slide. As the story goes, Allman started playing slide when his brother Gregg gave him two presents for his birthday. The first was a copy of Taj Mahal’s debut album, featuring Mahal’s version of ‘Statesboro Blues‘. The second was a bottle of Coricidin, because Allman had a cold.
As a result of this, a lot of slide players have since adopted a similar approach, and Trucks is one of them. He doesn’t use the actual Coricidin bottles, which are no longer produced. Instead, he uses his own Derek Trucks Signature Slide. This is made by Dunlop and is built to replicate Allman’s Coricidin bottle. It is the same weight and is closed at the top. It also has the same indent at the bottom of the slide where the lid for the medicine bottle would have originally been. So if you are interested in authenticity, this would be my top choice.
If you are looking for a slide in a slightly lower price range though, then I would recommend either the Dunlop 272 Blues Bottle or a standard Ernie Ball Glass Slide. You can pick both of these up for less than $10.
How To Choose The Right Slide
Whichever brand you go for though, just make sure you use a glass slide. Metal, brass and porcelain/bone slides all sound different to glass. Glass has a warmer and thicker tone, and that is what you need if you want to sound like Derek Trucks.
Beyond that, the key factor is comfort. You need to ensure the slide fits properly and that it gives your chosen finger a bit of breathing room. If it’s too snug then you will have difficulty getting it off after playing (because your finger will expand when it warms up). You should also pay attention to the weight. If you want to play fast licks and solos then you don’t want anything too heavy, as the slide will just slow you down. Conversely, you want something with enough weight to press down on the strings.
Try a few different slides out and experiment until you find the one that works for you.
Derek Trucks’ Slide Guitar Set Up
Generally speaking, slide guitarists use very heavy strings and set a high action on their guitars. This allows them to apply pressure to their strings and move their slide up and down without it rattling against the frets.
Comparatively speaking, Derek Trucks has quite a conservative set up for slide. He uses a custom made set of DR Pure Blues strings in a 0.11-0.46 gauge. That might sound heavy, but by comparison, the slide guitarist Sonny Landreth uses 0.13-0.56s!
Trucks also sets his action as low as he possibly can, whilst still being able to play slide. This actually makes it more challenging for him to play slide. It requires him to use a lighter and more delicate touch. It does however help with playability when he isn’t using his slide. That is because he doesn’t have to press down so hard on his strings.
In addition, Trucks tightens his tailpiece down to the body on his SG, which he believes adds a feeling of stiffness to his strings that is conducive to slide playing.
Finally, Trucks almost exclusively plays in open E tuning. From low to high, this tuning is as follows: E-B-E-G#-B-E. This means that when you play all of the open strings together, your guitar sounds an E chord. This tuning was first used by early Delta bluesmen, and is still one of the most popular tunings amongst slide guitarists.
How To Set Your Guitar Up For Slide
If you have a guitar for ‘regular’ playing and a separate guitar for slide, then you can make quite drastic adjustments to your slide guitar. You can set the action really quite high and use heavy gauge strings. This will make it easier to play slide, especially when you are starting out. You can apply more pressure to the strings without the risk of your slide rattling against the frets. This will allow you to play with a heavier and less precise touch, and still sound amazing.
The drawback to this approach is that it will make your guitar much more difficult to play without your slide. The heavier your strings and higher your action, the more pressure you need to apply to play each note. This makes it difficult to play chords and very difficult to bend the strings or apply vibrato.
If you want a guitar that you can use for both slide and regular playing then, I would recommend adopting a more conservative approach like Trucks. Raise your action to the lowest position you can whilst still being able to play slide guitar. Try playing without the slide and see how you get on. Do the same thing with your strings. Use the lightest gauge of string that you can whilst still being able to play slide.
Keep experimenting with both your action and the gauge of your strings. Adjust your set up until you find the sweet spot where you can play slide, without making it too challenging to play your guitar when you take the slide off.
Derek Trucks has a very unforgiving guitar rig. He plays his guitar straight into his amp, and uses almost no effects. Adopting this approach has 2 significant implications. The first, is that Trucks has to play with absolute clarity and precision. He doesn’t have any overdrive pedals or other effects that will mask his mistakes (not that he makes any…) or enhance his sound.
So to get the best out of his rig, Trucks has to really focus on his playing style. And if he wants to adjust his tone, then he has to use either the controls on his guitar, or to change how he his playing.
If you want to sound like Derek Trucks then, it is worth placing as much emphasis on this, as it is on the gear you use.
Firstly, you need to learn how to play finger style. Like a lot of slide players, Trucks never uses a pick and instead plays with his fingers. This is almost a necessity if you want to play slide, as you have to use your fingers to mute the strings you aren’t playing. Otherwise you get a lot of unwanted noise and buzz from the slide.
Even if you aren’t playing slide, it is still worth using your fingers if you want to play like Trucks. Generally speaking, playing with your fingers produces a warmer and softer tone. It also gives you the option to snap and pull at the strings in a way that is impossible with a pick.
Learning finger style is not easy, but it is crucial if you want to sound like Derek Trucks. Not only will it help you with slide playing, but you will be able to use your hands like Trucks to dig in and add bite and aggression to your sound, or to back off when you want your tone to clean up a bit. You will be amazed at how much you can change your tone, just by altering your attack.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Many of the of the guitarists I have covered so far in my ‘Sound Like Series‘, have extensive rigs. They switch between different guitars, use a number of different amps, and have a plethora of different pedals. Trucks adopts the opposite approach, and he is very unusual in doing so. There are very few guitarists – especially in the modern era – that have such simplistic rigs.
That Trucks is able to produces a variety of beautiful blues tones with his set up really is testament to his musicianship. He has an amazing touch and feel, and is able to alter his tone through changes to his playing style and adjustments to the controls on his guitar.
It really goes to show how much tone comes from the fingers. That of course is not to say that gear doesn’t play a role. The gear you use and the way you set it up has a profound impact on your tone. But rather it shows just how much you can achieve with a simple rig. Focus on getting the basics in place, and then work on mastering your craft.
Not only will this help you to sound like Derek Trucks, it will also make you an infinitely better guitar player.