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How to play guitar like Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day)
Green Days and Billie Joe Armstrong's guitar tone is quite a unique sound in punk-rock. As a band they are often criticized for their music style being quite "simple". What this does mean it is easy to get the basics down, however to actually sound exactly like the band does is surprisingly difficult. In this guide I am going to cover the guitar's, amp settings, song style and picking technique. I will mainly aim to replicate the sound Green Day had in the early to mid 90's (Kerplunk, Dookie and Insomniac) however is takes little to modify it for their more modern tone.
The guitar that Billie Joe uses for all old songs is his old Fernandes Stratocaster, Blue. This was a Stratocaster copy that his mum bought for him off his guitar teacher when he was 11. The guitar has a HSS pickup setup with a Seymour Duncan JB pickup in the bridge. This gives the distorted tones that a stratocaster otherwise struggles to achieve well. The guitar is always played with only this humbucker selected, the other 2 single coils get no use. In recent years (post 2000) Billie Joe has used a Gibson Les Paul Junior, and says he enjoys the raw sound that it achieves, this guitar is slightly different in having a fat p90 single coil pickup, it produces a similar sound. However as mentioned before I'm mainly focusing on early green day tone.
The amp he uses is a Marshal Plexi Super lead with the "Dookie" (Bradshaw) mod.
To achieve the Green Day sound however you don't need this exact kit (it would be quite expensive to replicate it exactly). Follow these steps and you will sound very similar.
- You need a solidbody electric guitar with a humbucker pickup. The humbucker is crucial, I have tried to get a Green Day tone with my SSS strat and it just doesn't work. What make of guitar isn't hugely important. I play a Gibson LPJ (Review Here), however if you are looking for a the cheapest way then a Squier Affinity HSS will do a good job. Select the bridge pickup, ease off the tone control small amount.
- Amp wise almost any amp will get you relatively close. Billie Joe uses a surprisingly small about of distortion (rougly 5/10), most of that effect comes from his picking technique (Which we will come to later.). On the amp you need to turn down the bass to about 5/10 and up the treble to about 8/10. This should give the same bright sound that Billie gets from Blue.
- For Strings Billie Joe uses Ernie Ball 10's. String choice only makes a small difference however if you want to replicate exactly the sound then these are the strings he uses.
Green Day are often criticized for their very simple style of guitar. They have a reasonable point because most of their songs follow a similar pattern and are not as technically complex as songs from many other bands. I personally think this criticism is unfair as many other famous punk bands (Ramones) play with the same or even more drastic levels of simplicity.
Green Day songs are mainly focused around power chords. These are 3 note chords with your index finger on the highest string out of the three, your ring and pinky fingers are 2 frets down on the next two strings down. These power chords give a thick solid sound, unlike many other chords where the individual notes are more spread out and individually audible.
Many Greenday songs are just power chords without solos, for example
- When I Come Around
- Welcome to Paradise
- Basket Case
When Billie Joe however doesn't use powerchords the style of these parts is also unique. In very few songs does he have long solo's (Really only a few from 1039), he often indisperses a set of power chords with a quick "flick" of notes. For example on the song Christie Road where during the main verses at the end of each 2 main lines he holds two notes and does a very quick scale up down three notes. This is easier for beginners because it means you don't have to move your fingers during these quick mini solos however Billie Joe often leaves no gap before or after these and goes straight back into the main riff, thus you have to be very sure of your finger placing in the power chords to be able to return to them immediately.
During all the albums Pre Warning (1039, Kerplunk, Dookie, Insomniac) Billie Joe did all the guitar and vocals. This also shows why the song structure is simple, to allow him to belt out vocals whilst playying. Which I can say from experience is difficult to say the least.
As I mentioned earlier the unique distorted sound of Billie Joe's playing is not all from the amp or guitar, a lot of it is from his picking technique. He really attacks the strings this gives some of that tone, but also he often grinds his pick on the top of the guitar above the strings. He has mentioned in interviews that he hits the strings in chords with his thumb also, however I'm not 100% sure how he achieves this without taking the end of his fingers off on the strings. The wear due to this technique however is very obvious on his Black Gibson Les Paul Junior (Blackie).