How to Sound Like Duane Allman
Duane Allman is one of the greatest blues and rock guitarists of all time. During his short life and career, he changed the landscape of the blues. He adapted and built upon the bottleneck style of bluesmen like Elmore James, blending the blues with country rock and roots music. In doing so, he laid the foundation for bands like Gov’t Mule, The Tedeschi Trucks Band and Larkin Poe, amongst countless others.
His playing was innovative, technically brilliant and full of feeling.
Allman also composed some of the most memorable riffs and solos of all time. That includes those featured on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, the album that is generally considered to be Eric Clapton’s greatest musical achievement. And in addition to all of this, Allman played as a session guitarist for musicians like Wilson Pickett, King Curtis and Aretha Franklin, amongst others.
Duane ‘Skydog’ Allman has a killer blues guitar tone. It is powerful and fiery with a beautiful crunch; yet it is also a very precise and clear guitar tone.
Over his short career, Allman used and experimented with a wide range of gear. He used a lot of different amps and guitars, often for short periods of time. So here I am going to focus on the quintessential Skydog sound. The tone that you hear on albums like At Fillmore East and in Allman’s playing on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs.
Allman is of course a renowned slide player. So as a result, some of the advice here is more relevant for slide players. But don’t worry; regardless of whether or not you play slide, there is a lot of information you can take away here to help you recreate Allman’s beautiful vintage tones.
So without further ado, here is everything you need to sound like Duane Allman:
Over his career, it is estimated that Duane Allman played over 30 different guitars. These included a Gibson Les Paul Junior, a Gibson ES-355, a Fender Telecaster and a Fender Stratocaster, amongst countless others. There are however, two main guitars with which Allman is associated.
The first of these is a Gibson Les Paul. During the early years of the Allman Brothers Band, Allman played a 1957 Goldtop. He later exchanged this for a 1959 cherry sunburst Les Paul, but kept the pickups from his Goldtop. Finally, towards the end of his career, Allman played his ‘Hot Lanta’ Tobacco burst Les Paul, which he bought from Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
The second guitar with which Allman is associated, is the Gibson SG. Although Allman played his SG less frequently than his Les Paul, this was the guitar he set up for slide. Dickey Betts – Allman’s fellow guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band – gave Allman his SG, because he was tired of waiting for Allman to retune his Les Paul between songs every time he played slide. It was on this Gibson SG that Allman famously played ‘Statesboro Blues‘ at Fillmore East.
If you want to sound like Duane Allman then, I would recommend either opting for a Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson SG, or a replica of either guitar.
Gibson Les Paul
Original 1957 Goldtops currently sell for around $62,000/£50,000. The next best option – the replicas of Allman’s Goldtop that the Gibson Custom Shop released in 2013, also make a very expensive choice. The Custom Shop limited production to 300 models. And although second hand models of that guitar are available on sites like Reverb, the starting price is around $15,000/£12,000. So unfortunately, for most of us, neither of these are viable options.
Luckily though, there are a whole range of modern Gibson Les Pauls and Les Paul replicas to suit every budget.
In the lower price range, I would recommend going for either an Epiphone or a Vintage replica:
After Epiphone and Vintage, I would recommend one of the cheaper Gibson Tribute or Studio models. In this price bracket, my top recommendations are:
Finally, if you are looking to spend a bit more and make an investment, then either a Gibson Les Paul or a Custom Shop model would be your best choice:
- Gibson Les Paul Standard ’50s
- Les Paul Standard ’50s Goldtop
- Custom Shop 1957 Les Paul Goldtop
- Gibson Custom Shop 1958 Cherry Sunburst Les Paul
All of these guitars will help you sound like Duane Allman. And depending on the colour that you choose, they will also help you look the part too. Allman never played a Les Paul with a pick guard. So if you are looking for authenticity, I would recommend trying to buy a Les Paul without one. Either that or you can very easily remove it yourself.
If you are most interested in trying to recreate Allman’s fiery slide guitar sound, I would recommend opting for an SG.
The SG has now become a popular choice amongst slide guitarists. This is largely a result of Allman’s influence, but also because of Derek Trucks, who has carried on Allman’s legacy. Trucks – whose uncle Butch Trucks was the drummer in the Allman Brothers Band – is one of the most accomplished slide guitarists of all time. He plays an SG, and actually uses a replica of Allman’s SG, which was produced in a very small run by the Gibson Custom Shop in 2011, and given to Trucks by Allman’s daughter.
If you really want to sound like Duane Allman and are happy to spend a bit more, you can buy one of these Dickey Betts, ‘From One Brother To Another’ SGs second hand on sites like Reverb for around $4450/£3600. Beyond that, there are lots of great options to help you sound like Duane Allman across a range of different budgets.
In the lower price range, I would recommend going for either an Epiphone or a Vintage replica:
After the entry level SG range, there is a bit of a jump up in price, as you get to the standard Gibson range and the Gibson Custom Shop range. So if you are looking to spend a bit more, then in this bracket, my top recommendations are as follows:
Regardless of which SG you go for, you will need to adjust the setup of the guitar if you want to play slide. Don’t worry though, I’ve covered this in much more detail below.
The pickups that you use have a profound impact on your tone. So if you really want to sound like Duane Allman, it is worth paying close attention to this part of your setup. The Gibson guitars that Allman played were all fitted with early PAF pickups. These are typically not very high output pickups and they produce a beautiful and rich, vintage sounding tone.
If you buy a modern Gibson guitar that replicates an early model, it is likely to come stock with vintage style pickups. And these will help you sound like Skydog. If not though, then it could be worth fitting your guitar with more vintage sounding pickups. And here there are two different routes to go down, depending on whether you want a ‘hotter’, or a ‘softer’ and more vintage sounding pickup.
The first option is to buy a set of lower output, PAF style humbuckers. Some of my top choices here are as follows:
The second option is to buy a Duane Allman inspired set of pickups. In the early days of pickup manufacturing, there was not a standardised process. As a result, the pickups in early Les Pauls were all wound slightly differently. In addition, early blues and rock players would regularly switch the position of their bridge and neck pickups. This happened on Allman’s ‘Hot Lanta’ Les Paul. The pickups on this particular guitar were also a lot ‘hotter’, and had a much greater impedance than normal PAF pickups. A lot of players believe this gave Allman the extra edge to his tone that you can hear on the A & R Studios album.
If you want to recreate a similar sound, then I would recommend looking at either the ‘Hot Lanta’ Darkburst pickups by Wizz Pickups, or the ‘Hot Duane‘ by Ox4 Pickups. Either of these pickup sets will make a brilliant addition to your rig and help you to sound like Duane Allman.
Just as was the case with guitars, over the course of his career, Allman played a whole range of different amplifiers. In his session work and during the early days of the Allman Brothers Band, Allman played Fender amps. The Fender Showman head and the Fender Champ are probably the most significant of these. The Showman was the amp he used in the early days of the Allman Brothers, whilst the Fender Champ is the amp that he most likely played on the recordings for the Layla Sessions.
Towards the end of his career however, Allman switched to using Marshall amps. The Marshall JMP 1987T 50 Watt head and the 1986 50 watt bass head being the amps with which he is best associated.
In terms of their voicing, Marshall and Fender amps are basically on different sides of the tonal spectrum. In fact, the only real commonality between the amps Allman used, is their size. Aside from the Fender Champ, the Marshalls and Fenders that Allman played are large, powerful, high watt amps. They are amps that you need to crank if you want to get the best tones out of them.
As such, I wouldn’t recommend looking at amps of a similar size, unless you are also playing in large venues. To get the best from a tube amp you need to push it to the edge of break up. It is hard to do that with a big amp if you are doing most of your playing at a relatively low volume, in a home or studio environment.
With that in mind, and considering Allman’s various different setups, again I would suggest that there are two different routes you can go down, depending on the overall tone you want to achieve.
If you want a softer and brighter American style tone, I would recommend looking at Fender amps. Specifically, I would recommend opting for a small Fender amp that will give you a cranked sound, but at a lower volume. And thankfully Fender have choices to suit every budget. Some of my top recommendations are:
If you are looking for something with a bit more power and headroom, then either a Fender Twin Reverb or a Fender Super Reverb would be my top choice. Interestingly, until the last couple of years, the Fender Super Reverb was also Derek Trucks’ amp of choice. Whilst Trucks’ tone is of course not identical to Allman’s, Trucks has used that amp to amazing effect during his career.
Conversely, if you are looking for a more overdriven and heavier tone, it is worth looking at one of the smaller Marshall amps. My top recommendations here are as follows:
- Marshall SV20C Studio Vintage Combo
- Origin 20W Combo
- Marshall SV20H Studio Vintage Head
- Origin 5W Combo
Again, if you are able to play at higher volumes, then the 1987X Vintage Reissue 50 Watt Head would be my top choice. That very closely resembles the actual amp that Allman used. So with that amp you could get a similar tone, without having to pay vintage gear prices. Just pair it with a 4×12 Marshall cabinet, crank the volume, and you’re good to go!
Duane Allman’s tone came from his guitar, his amp and his playing style. He used almost no pedals at all to craft his tone. In his early years and during session work, Allman had a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face, which he reportedly powered using old 9v batteries. He claimed that these gave the pedal a warmer tone. According to some sources, Allman also used a Maestro Echoplex Tape Delay later in his career.
This was popular with a lot of guitarists in the 1960s and 70s, including Jimmy Page and Gary Moore, amongst others. Most of these players didn’t use the unit for delay effects, but rather as a boost pedal. It added a thickness and warmth to their sound and it was this that appealed to them.
The great news then, is that you don’t need to buy a whole range of new pedals to sound like Duane Allman. And in fact if you pair the right amp with the right guitar, I would argue that you don’t need any pedals at all.
Having said that, if you are looking to add some extra pedals to your board, the two to focus on are a fuzz and a preamp boost pedal. And here there are some great options. If you want a fuzz pedal, then the Dunlop JDF2 Fuzz Face would be a brilliant option. To replicate the sound of the Echoplex, I would recommend either the Dunlop Echoplex Preamp or the Xotic EP Booster.
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.
Coricidin is no longer sold in glass bottles. But if you really want to replicate Allman’s set up with authenticity, you can actually buy old vintage Coricidin bottles on sites like Reverb. Just one ward of warning – because of Allman’s legacy, these come at a premium. You will struggle to find one for less than $100/£100.
Thankfully, there are some much cheaper alternatives. A good place to start would be the Derek Trucks Signature Slide. Trucks was heavily influenced by Allman, and his slide is built to model 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.
If you are looking in a slightly lower price range though, then D’Addario do a great value bottle slide. There are also various standard glass slides from brands like Ernie Ball and Dunlop that you can pick up for less than $10.
Personally I use Silica Sound Slides, and I would recommend them to anyone. They have a whole range of different sizes and thicknesses, and all of the slides are handblown. They also have an extensive size and weight guide, that can help you figure out which slide is right for you. Their slides aren’t the cheapest around, but they are brilliant quality. As a bonus I think they also look great as well.
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 Duane Allman.
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.
Typically, slide guitarists use very heavy gauge strings. This allows them to apply greater force with their slide, without it hitting against the frets of their guitar as they move up and down the neck. I expected Allman’s strings to be heavy, but in fact he used surprisingly light strings. They were gauge .010-.038, which is particularly light on the bass strings.
There aren’t that many ready made string sets in this gauge, but Fender do offer a set of Jimi Hendrix Voodoo Child strings in gauge .010-.038s. So if you are looking to replicate the gauge Allman used, those could be a great option.
Having said that, I don’t think you don’t need to use such light bass strings to sound like Duane Allman. As I wrote about in more detail here, light gauge strings help with playability, rather than tone. Light guitar strings are not a key element of Allman’s sound. So if you are already happy with your strings, I don’t think you should feel obliged to use the same gauge.
In fact, in this case I would argue that the material from which the strings are made is more important. The Fender 150 Strings that Allman used were pure nickel. And strings made from pure nickel typically have a warmer, more vintage tone. The Hendrix Voodoo Child strings are not pure nickel. But Fender do offer a new version of the 150s (in .010-.046 gauge) that are made of pure nickel. So a set like that – or a set of Ernie Ball Classic Pure Nickel Strings (.010-.046) would also work well.
If you are playing slide guitar however, I would recommend opting for heavier gauge strings than those that Allman used. To play the slide licks that Allman did using such comparatively light strings is a real testament to his skill. If you are new to slide, and you try to use such light strings, you may struggle to stop the slide from hitting the neck of your guitar when you move your hand up and down.
Derek Trucks uses a custom made set of DR Pure Blues in a .011-.046 gauge; but even that is quite light by a lot of slide player’s standards. The brilliant slide guitarist Sonny Landreth uses .013-.056s! Long story short, don’t be afraid to experiment with heavier gauge strings when playing slide. Try some different strings out and see what works best for you. If in doubt though, I would err on the side of caution and opt for heavier strings – especially if you are only using your guitar for slide.
Additionally, it is worth setting your action higher on the guitar that you are using for slide. Again, this allows your slide to run up and down the strings without rattling against the frets. How high you set your action is up to you. If you are just using your guitar for slide, then you can set the action higher. This will allow you to apply greater pressure on your slide without risk of it knocking against the frets. If you are also using your guitar to play without the slide though, then you should be a bit more conservative. That will allow you to play slide, without making it too challenging to play your guitar when you take the slide off.
Lastly, when playing slide guitar, Allman almost exclusively played 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. If you want to replicate Allman’s beautiful slide licks, try tuning your guitar in the same way.
The final – and significant – element to consider, is the effect that Allman’s playing style had on his tone.
When Allman played slide, a huge part of his tone came from his finger picking style. He picked his bass strings with his thumb, and the treble strings with both his index and middle fingers. Then, when he wasn’t using his thumb or finger to pluck a string, he would use it to gently mute those strings that he wasn’t playing.
As an example, if he was playing a lick on the higher strings, he would rest his thumb across the bass strings to mute them. This gave his slide playing a lot of clarity and precision. It is a very challenging technique but one that is worth practicing if you want to sound like Duane Allman.
When he wasn’t playing slide, Allman used a pick. Apparently he played Fender Heavy 351 picks, but you don’t need to use the same picks to get those Skydog tones. Generally speaking I think that playing with a heavier pick is a good idea, but comfort sh0uld be the primary concern. Find a pick that is comfortable to use and stick with it!
It is not easy to sound like Duane Allman. Over his short career, he played a huge variety of different guitars and amps. He also crafted two very different sounds. The first of these was the softer, more vintage tone of his early career. The second was the more heavier, overdriven sound that he was moving towards with the Allman Brothers Band.
Additionally, he played two totally different styles. This made it necessary for him to use different guitars, and to set those guitars up in totally different ways. This means that unlike many of the guitarists I have covered in my ‘Sound Like Series’, you need quite a lot of gear to accurately replicate Allman’s rig.
If you are a huge fan and really want to sound like Duane Allman, then I hope that the advice here will help get you setup with everything you need. Conversely, if you don’t fall within that group, I would recommend instead that you focus on the part of Allman’s rig that interests you most. If you want a killer slide tone, look at how Allman set up his SG. If you want a heavy blues tone, get yourself a Les Paul and a Marshall and get going.
Take the elements of Allman’s rig that resonate with you, and adapt them for your own use. That way you can capture the spirit of the Skydog, without having to recreate every element of his setup.
Good luck! And if you have any questions or comments, just pop them in the box below, or send me an email on [email protected] I’d love to help 🙂
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