How To Use Pedals Effectively
Throughout my years in the gear circus, I’ve noted a sharp divide between guitarists who do and don’t use pedals. This all or nothing mentality has contributed to a stigma on either side. You’ve got players who won’t practice without at least five pedals on (and half the time they’re fiddling to find the right tone), and you’ve got players who think they need a new amp when they start craving some variety in their sonic pallet. Although one could write an encyclopedia about the different varieties of effects pedals out there, this blog will break it down to the most common stomp-boxes available, and describe how to use them to color and enhance your tone rather than change it completely.
Compression/EQ: Starting with the basic sound of your guitar is the wisest approach. If you play in a large or loud band, the issue is often “cutting through”. This can readily be achieved with EQ or compression. Compression will tailor the highs and lows of your instrument and maximize the forward thrust of your attack. If you overdo it, you’ll lose complexity and dynamic response, but when applied lightly, many would say that a compressor makes you sound “tighter”, “thicker”, “better”. Bear in mind however, that any other pedals you use will impart a certain amount of compression, as well. Don’t squash your tone. A good EQ pedal can be enormously useful on its own, or in the context of other pedals. For those who play through amps (or guitars) with a limited number of knobs, an EQ can open up new worlds of possibility. It’s also a great option for heavy players who want to differentiate their lead tone without reducing the level of “dirt” stacked upon it.
Boost/Overdrive/Distortion/Fuzz: Although potentially blasphemous to equate all these terms, the basic principle remains similar. It’s a box that pushes your amp harder. How hard is up to you. Initially, this effect was achieved by simply turning a vacuum tube amp all the way up, but to mitigate the staggering volume associated with this method, other means were devised. Think of it like a spectrum from transparent (just louder) to saturated (clipping like mad). It’s worth mentioning, however, that “fuzz” (the most extreme form) was initially produced by a poorly seated tube: https://youtu.be/aL6MNGHeEuI, and is not for the typical singer-songwriter. My suggestion to those who love the sound of their guitar and amp together, but want a bit more gain and grit every now and then, would be a transparent overdrive with the gain/drive/grit/etcetera pushed bit past noon, and the volume set roughly 50% above your clean signal. If you plan on hitting it mid-song, test it out before the set begins. Knobs get shifted in transit and the only thing worse than deafening your audience is emasculating yourself with a callow lead tone (especially if you stomp on it hard, with a sneer, as most players seem to.)
Reverb/Chorus/Flange/Delay: As electric guitar bodies aren’t big enough to generate much natural reverb, many players elect to imbue their tone with a bit more space, color, and dimension. The first reverbs specifically intended for guitars were spring reverb units, which sent the electrical signal through a spring to produce a wet, surfy wash around the overall signal. Whereas reverb seems to alter the overall sonic context in which the guitar exists, echo and delay effects capture and repeat passages at variable lengths. Echo effects tend towards more organic repetitions, such as one might find in a natural cave, while analog and digital delays offer uncanny flexibility. Chorus effects double and ever so slightly detune your signal to give the effect of two instruments superimposed on top of one another. Flange functions similarly to chorus, but the doubled signal is slightly delayed at varying rates, foregrounding the frequency spectrums around each note, and creating an artificial bloom of overtones.
As you further navigate the myriad pedal builders, options, and textures, bear in mind that subtlety is key, especially with the time-based effects. Until you’re capable of wielding your electric like a psychedelic paintbrush, nimbly sailing over oceans of delay, it’s best to keep the time low, what they call a nice “slap-back”. It’s nice to have tonal options to weave throughout a set, but sometimes pedals stand out most when you turn them off. Try and make your footwork an extension of the discipline you’ve cultivated in your hands. Think about the song, and flavor accordingly.