Do You Really Know Your Pedal?
Before I even start to elaborate on my opinions and the common education of this subject, please know that there is no wrong way to use your effects. Some of the greatest tones in history have come from pushing the limits of what was “typical” on this subject. What I want to share with you are the ground rules and function that best suits our favorite pedals. Just like any good jazz musician will tell you, “You’ve got to know the basic progression before you can start to really improvise”. It’s no different with effects. Let’s take a simple look at what each effect does, where it came from and how it can best be used.
Compression may be the most misunderstood effect on the planet. What does it do? I can’t hear it! Why is it so confusing? We all have said these statements at some point in our guitar tone journey. So let’s dive into the world of compression…
Compression makes soft things loud and loud things soft by bringing them both into a common point of range. It can be a very subtle effect or, on the other hand, very obvious. My first experiences with compression where when I began to study the technique of slide guitar. I learned that many players used it to make their single note slide passages have more fullness as well as sustain. The next big lesson in compression I received was in the studio. Most effects in the “Dynamics” family are most commonly used in the pre- and postproduction of recording. This is because they offer a more polished and focused sound to anything they touch. The most common in this group are; gate, limiter and, yours truly, compression. These techniques didn’t really take their place until the late 60’s and on into the 70’s. That’s why all that 70’s disco funk and pop stuff has this almost “shiny feel” to them.
Compression can give your guitar something that it hasn’t had. It can make your mix in a band situation finally stand out as well as give you nice string definition. When you strum a six-note chord, compression has the ability to bring all six notes into an equal range so that the chord becomes huge but still focused. In the higher registry it can add a snap that is pleasing to the ears as well as a more rounded tone. One of my favorite examples of this is the funk tune where you hear the guitar placing little “chinks” on the up beat throughout a tune. Another is when you hear a modern rock tune and the high gain guitars seem to still have articulation and sleekness about it. Compression adds a nice touch to things that otherwise would have gotten lost in the mix.
The best placement is usually first in your chain for different reasons. The first reason is because when it is run first, everything after has the effect applied underneath. This makes your sound consistent throughout dynamically. The second reason is because compression likes to louden things up and quiet things down. If placed after a distortion that has any noise at all, that noise will be brought to the top along with everything else. This is the reason most players always use it first in line. This is especially good if you leave it on all the time.
Overall, compression can be that quiet friend that is there but never in the way. Like many, I find myself never turning it off. There is a certain polished sound that just seems to add that studio quality to anything I play. If you have never tried it, you may have a life changing experience when you do.
For a more in-depth resource on the technical jargon and operation of a compressor visit: http://www.theguitarfiles.com/modules.php?name=AvantGo&file=print&sid=115
Possibly the most entertaining effect ever, Wah has found itself on countless recordings and stages along with almost every guitar hero known to date. Every kid loves to rock their foot back and forth to get that familiar sound that has molded tons of great riff, solo’s and rhythm passages throughout the years.
The Wah is pretty self-explanatory and finds its place in the very beginning of the effects order as well. I run my compressor before to smooth out the transition of the sweep a bit, but many like it before. Let your ears decide on this one. Another placement involving Wah is whether to place a fuzz/distortion before. I like having one of my dirt boxes before as it can add a huge vocal/synth type growl to the Wah. If you’ve never tried this, just stick a fuzz or heavy overdrive distortion like the RAT or Big Muff before your Wah. The result is nice.
Lets approach some issues with the common stock Wah such as the Crybaby or Vox. The first issue is its reaction with pedals like the Fuzz or Univibe. When a Fuzz or Univibe is run after a Wah, it can loose its character pretty fast. You may find that the Wah has no sweep and is lifeless. This problem can be fixed by installing a buffer into the output of the wah that comes on with the wah. This is a simple and efffective way to make your Wah play well with other effects. (See Our Wah Section)
The second big issue is the stock bypass of the wah. If you own a typical mass produced wah, it may not have true bypass. The Wah can have the worst bypass of almost any pedal ever made due to the switching that comes installed. This is easily treatable and very inexpensive to deal with.
For more technical info on how the Wah works check out: http://www.geofex.com/article_folders/wahpedl/wahped.htm
The Fuzz Box has seen many fads and eras come and go in the guitar tone realm. Its nasty, rough and usually brutal tone just sounds so good! Let’s dig into the history and use of this great pedal.
In 1961 a legendary Nashville session cat Grady Martin was recording a guitar track for a Marty Robins tune, “Don’t Worry”, when his guitar amp starting acting crazy. For the first time, this beautiful but ugly Fuzz sound was recorded to tape. When the track was released, a band called The Ventures heard it and immediately asked their friend Red Rhodes if he could replicate the sound. Well guess what? He did. and that is how the Fuzz effect took flight. A few months later The Ventures released their album “2000 Pound Bee,” which is believed to contain the first recordings of the new Fuzz circuit. I never imagined that, as my dad made me listen to Marty Robins in his car, I was possibly hearing the invention of the effect that changed Rock & Roll. Popularity in the sound grew when The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davies used an amp that’s speaker had been slashed with a razor-blade to record their 1964 hit “You Really Got Me”. This was the first time that a song driven by distorted power chords was ever made popular.
The fuzz circuit was first produced and manufactured by a company called Maestro under the name, “Fuzz Tone” Model FZ-1. In the summer of 1965 Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones used one to record “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. Because of the success of that single, The FZ-1 was completely out of stock by December.
Because of the circuit’s character and design, it sometimes has problems working well with other pedals such as a Wah. There are easy ways to fix this problem if it occurs. The most common place for Fuzz is first in line due to its impedance. Many great sounds have been found by trying it in different places such as after a booster or overdrive.
Other classic Fuzz pedals include the Electro Harmonix “Big Muff Pi”, Fuzz Face, Shin-ei “Companion”, Vox “Tone Bender” and the Mosrite “FuzzRITE”
The most used pedal circuit in all history is most likely the Ibanez/Maxon Tubescreamer. It’s hard to find a guitarist who doesn’t use this pedal regularly or at least own one. Popular pedals such as the Fulltone Fulldrive, Boss SD-1, Visual Sound Route 66, Cusack’s Screamer, Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive and about 1000 more by almost every pedal maker on the planet. To better explain overdrive/distortion, let’s look at the origin of this classic pedal.
Once upon a time a man named Mr. S. Tamura got creative. He noticed that players had problems getting good tone in small venues where they couldn’t crank their tube amps. Because of the nature of the tube amp, the louder it is played the more it breaks-up into a natural crunchy overdrive. Tamura developed his circuit to simulate that break-up by using a method known as a variable gain op-amp circuit with symmetrical diode clipping. Most every modern overdrive or distortion uses this method, if not something similar. Now that we understand why overdrive came about, let’s talk about how we can use it in general.
Most guitarists will place their drives after Wah and compression but before other effects like chorus and echo. This placement provides a natural feel that works best with the other effects. Whether you’re playing Texas Blues, Indie Rock or Heavy Meta,l you are using an overdrive/distortion.
Other classic Overdrive/Distortions that are NOT based on the Tubescreamer are the Boss DS-1, Pro Co RAT, Marshall Bluesbreaker and the MXR Distortion +.
This family of effects includes chorus, phaser, flanger, univibe, and many others. The most popular of this family is chorus. Chorus is when individual sounds with roughly the same timbre and nearly (but never exactly) the same pitch converge and are perceived as one. That’s a nice way of saying it’s ever so slightly bending your pitch in layers upon layers. For guitar this can be as subtle as glassy shimmer or a strange space warble. Some of the best uses of this effect in my opinion are artists like Andy Summers of The Police and Eric Johnson.
Another classic effect from this family is the Univibe and Phaser which closely resemble each other. The Univibe was brought to the forefront by such artist’s as Jimi Hendrix and Robin Trower and is my personal favorite. Listen to Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock and you will hear the pulse and throb that makes the Univibe so unique. It’s almost as though it breathes with your signal creating great textures and huge lead tones not possible with any of the other modulations. The Phaser was made popular by the likes of David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and many others. It is a little smoother and tame in many ways. The Electro Harmonix “Small Stone” and the MXR “Phase 90” are the two most popular pedal forms.
Flanger is a little different in function than the others. It finds its function by layering delayed signals slightly delayed by 20 milliseconds or so. This creates what is referred to as a comb filter. The Flange effect originated when an engineer would literally put a finger on the flange, or rim of a the tape reel so that the machine would slow down slipping out of sync by tiny degrees. The result was an effect like listening through a drainpipe. The Flanger is known for it’s thick swirling sound made popular by such artists as Eddie Van Halen.
Modulation is a love-hate relationship. If you like it, you use it a lot; if you don’t, you probably never will. I find that even though I don’t use it a lot, there is a place for everything especially in the studio.
The Octave effect dates back as far as notes have even joined forces. The guitar can benefit from this effect as it adds textures, fullness and even ambience. One of the oldest pedal forms is the Octavia Fuzz produced in the sixties. While producing a Fuzz tone, it also had a lower octave. Other pedals like the MXR “Blue Box” and the Dan Armstrong “Green Ringer” are good examples of analog Octave with distortion.
Over the years, technology and the advance in electronic processing have birthed other units like the Digitech “Whammy” and the Electro Harmonix “POG.” These offer such settings and octave up or down as well as harmonies and real time bending of pitch with a foot controller. Whether you’re looking to beef up a riff or make crazy organ sounds, octave may be your next best friend.
The Tremolo effect is the best example of a simple idea that changed history. Its first sighting in the guitar world was under the name Vibrato. Why Leo Fender called this effect Vibrato while calling the Vibrato arm of his new Stratocaster design a Tremolo arm is unknown. The Tremolo arm is actually creating what we know as Vibrato while the Vibrato circuit was producing a Tremolo sound. Some things we will never know… Anyway, back to the Tremolo pedal.
The sound is simply the opening and closing of your signal. The same effect can be made by rocking a volume pedal back and forth to turn the signal completely up or completely down. Some circuits use light to produce this process. A small light bulb will flash in time with the speed adjustment. As the light flashes, light controlled resistors open and close your signal. The great thing about this effect is that it fits in virtually every style of music and has been used as a staple in everything from blues and country to the British invasion of the 60’s.
I can remember hearing U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” album from my older brother’s room next door. I wasn’t really into music at the time and didn’t have a clue about what I was really hearing. Now I understand that The Edge was using delay to make his riffs and patterns fly above the rhythms of the band. Let’s take a closer look at an effect that has found a voice in every style and era of modern music.
Have you ever shouted across an open area only to find your voice bounce back in a second or so? That’s delay/echo. It is when a sound or signal is recorded and then repeated back at a controlled time. The first delay effects were achieved using tape loops improvised on reel-to-reel magnetic recording systems. Ray Butts’ “Echosonic” (1952), Mike Battle’s “Echoplex” (1959), or the Roland “Space Echo” (1973), used magnetic tape as their recording and playback medium. Electric motors guided a tape loop through a device with a variety of mechanisms allowing modification of the effect’s parameters. Analog delay came about in many forms including the Boss “DM-3”, Electro Harmonix “Memory Man”. The late 1970’s and 1980’s led to the development of the first digital delay effects. They were initially only available in expensive rack mount units until Boss released the “DD-2” Digital Delay pedal in 1984.
Today’s technology has brought about the ability to use super small SMD components and IC’s to create delay circuits that are small enough to fit in the body of a guitar! Both Boss and Line 6 have pedals that offer multiple types and replications of vintage or modern delays in a small pedal form. These make it easy to achieve classic delay tones without owning vintage and expensive equipment. Another huge improvement is found in the quality and function of Looper type pedals that use the same principle. With modern music styles and production techniques, rest assured that there will be exciting new delay units in the future.
Reverb is essentially layers upon layers of delay or simple echo. As the signal is stacked on top of itself over and over, it produces a long decaying tone that we all love. The sound itself is as old as time, but it holds a key part in so many elements of music today. The first Reverb circuits were found in early Tube Amps and used a spring chamber to create the effect. Rack mount digital versions were created in the 80’s, and today we have hundreds of quality units made by manufacturers all over the world. Some of the most popular pedal forms of Reverb today are the Electro Harmonix “Holy Grail”, Boss “RV-5” and the Danalectro “Spring King”.
Reverb tends to sit most comfortably last in the pedal chain as if it were coming from your amp. I have rarely ever seen anyone use it differently.
If you were a surgeon, you would hopefully know your tools. If you we’re a race car driver, you would know your car. My advice is to know what is possible from your guitar. Experiment and learn as much about tones and textures as you possibly can. You won’t be disappointed!