The first thing to consider about rock guitar tones is the pickup configuration. The pickups in a guitar determine the way it sounds far more than any other factor. The main two kinds of pickups we have are humbuckers and single coil pickups. The age-old debate about the superiority of a Les Paul or a Strat, is in my opinion, at its core, a debate between single coil pickups or humbuckers! That is by far the main variable in how different they sound.
So which is better, and why pick one over the other? In terms of just sound, humbuckers generally have a fatter sound, and are more bass and mid range heavy. This is because they pick up sound from the string in two spots simultaneously so the tone is broader and less defined. They are also higher output, and the higher the output a pickup the more bass and midrange it will have out of the gate. The higher output will drive an amp more, leading to faster and more intense natural distortion from an amplifier.
Single coil pickups on the other hand, have less bass and midrange, and more clarity. They are picking up the sound from the string in one spot at a time. They are also usually lower output. You can generally hear more detail in their sound, and being they have a more narrow tonal spectrum, they take up less space in a full band mix, but can also cut through really well with their sharper and brighter tone.
But where the biggest difference lies in terms of rock music is how quiet humbuckers are. They do exactly what they are named for - they get rid of HUM. Single coil pickups act as an antenna for 60 cycle hum which is often better or worse depending on what room you’re in or where you’re standing and in what direction. It’s pretty strange how it varies day to day or room to room. This hum is usually not a big deal when playing clean in a live situation, but even clean it can be a problem when recording.
The next thing to consider is which pickup position to use - the neck, middle or bridge pickup? In general, a bridge pickup has a more aggressive and focused sound, so most rock players using distortion, are using their bridge pickup. With that in mind, what I consider to be the best jack of all trades guitar is an HSS pickup configuration. This gives you the humbucker in the bridge position, but single coils in the neck and middle position for the clear cleans when you need it.
The next thing to getting a great rock tone is to have the right amp and/or pedals. Some of the greatest rock tones ever known came from the amps themselves. However, we can get just as good tones from pedals. Both of these approaches are used by some of the greatest players with the best tone. If you’re just starting out, even your most basic BOSS overdrive and distortion pedals will work just fine. I still to this day use the classic Boss orange distortion pedal on my pedal board and it sounds great.
The last pedal you’ll want to have, if you are going to take a solo in a band situation, is a boost pedal. A basic clean boost will just bring you louder in the mix so that your solo will stand out. Some boosts are just clean, and some add midrange or treble, and also add drive.