Another post in response to several requests I received regarding what to use in order to get the "soukous guitar sound".

Again I have to say first that I don't have any special authority to give advices regarding soukous guitar other than my love for this music.

The first assumption that I would like to challenge is that there is one "soukous guitar sound".

There are in fact many, as the sound of the guitar in Congolese music evolved from the acoustic guitars of the very early rumba, to the fender guitar sound of the first music superstars all the way to the chime sound of the 80s and 90s and the bright ringing sound of these recent years.

 As always, the best advice that one can give is to follow your ears and your taste (and, yes, your pockets). Anything can work, as long as it works for you.

That said, the sound that I usually associate with soukous guitar is the sound of the late 80s and the 90s, Diblo Dibala, Alain Makaba, Dally Kimoko.

For that kind of sound what I would use is a Ibanez strato-like guitar, possibly 24 frets but not necessarily, better if with humbucker pickups at the neck and bridge positions (a classic HSH configuration) and hardtail bridge (fixed, no tremolo). I like the quality of those guitars, the neck is usually designed for high distortion shredding but works perfectly for soukous, just like the pickups that they use. I tend to prefer the sound of the neck pickup.

You will see a lot of soukous guitar players using Ibanez guitar, as well as ESP/LTD, which I believe is endorsed by Diblo Dibala, the BC Rich Warlock guitar that has become the trademark of Werrason's guitarists, and many others. I guarantee you that if you have a $3000 PRS it would work fine for soukous as well.

I also love the big box jazz guitars that you see in old pictures of Franco or Dr Nico, as well as the fender jaguar, which was a hit in Kinshasa in the late 60s and in the 70s. Just a different sound.

The amp can be only one: Roland JC-120!
Clean at crazy high volume, very linear response, almost hi-fi, cold and brilliant sound and the best chorus ever heard. In reality even a smaller Roland Cube would do, including on-board effects, which are very handy. At the other extreme the choice could be a fender amplifier, maybe a twin reverb, or another tube amp such as Vox or Orange. I have seen all of them used and sounding great in a soukous context, not to mention the sound of the origins: the fender jaguar and tube amps used in congolese music in the 60s and 70s. If they worked then they must work now as well!

My opinion is that the JC-120 gives you more control and it is easier to set. It does not emphasize any specific frequency and it does not give a clicking attack to every note like many fender amp would. On the other hand it weights a ton, and that can be an issue.

As for the effects my view is also simple: a good reverb/delay, a chorus and maybe a compressor.

My personal preference for the reverb goes to the spring ones found in the old amps, the not so clean ones that tend to resonate with the guitar, but any stomp pedal you can find available nowadays would work, really. The best chorus on my book is still the JC-120 one, but of course there are tons of good chorus pedals out there, for every pocket. The compressor is useful to make your lines more even and also to give you a little boost for the solos.

In my mind the closest thing to the soukous guitar sound without the guitar is the likembe, or maybe a vibraphone. That is a good reference if you want something to guide you in finding your sound for soukous, but other comparisons may be equally legitimate.

Summarizing, MY soukous guitar gear would be:

  • Ibanez 24 frets strato-like guitar with humbucker at the neck and no tremolo
  • Roland JC-120
  • any decent delay/reverb stomp pedal
  • any decent compressor pedal

That said, rest assured that if you give Diblo almost any guitar and any amp he would sound as good as ever. If you don't believe that then check out what kind of sound Roxy Tshimpaka is able to get out of an Epiphone Les Paul 56 gold top with P90, using the bridge pick up and a fender mustang amplifier (transistor, modeling amp): here. It is pretty much the same sound that he had 30 years before with a fender stratocaster and some amplifier that certainly was not a fender mustang.

In the end it really is up to you and your taste (and your hands, and your ears, and your pockets etc. etc.).