How many pedals does one man need?

Not a month goes by when I don’t see a new pedal or effect launched. I’m a gear head, no doubt about it. But even for me its starting to get too much.

Effect pedals are meant to add color to your sound. Admittedly there are guys like the Edge from U2 and Trent Reznor from NIN who have made using effects an art in itself but modern music seems to suffer from the ‘same generic guitar sound syndrome’ because of too many effects being used. When Hendrix used an effect it cut through and was prominent because overall songs had more breathing space back then and effects were a novelty. Listen to any pop or rock song now and its packed with sound – too many effects are being used and nothing really stands out. Overall mastering volumes are higher than they have ever been and dynamics have been sacrificed at the altar.

Garbage in, garbage out. Keeping this age old adage in mind will be a good thing for anyone starting out on the guitar. It really is better to get a decent grip of your instrument before messing with effects.There was a Satriani interview where he said that in his days as a guitar teacher he would have guys come and tear it playing through processors; he would then make them play completely clean to assess how far advanced they really were as guitar players and most players were not as good as the delay soaked shredding had suggested at first glance.

There is so much guitar related stuff out there that its easy for someone starting out to feel obligated to buy and use a whole bunch of pedals. Its almost as if you’re not good enough unless you have a blinking space ship at your feet. I talk from first hand experience since I have been guilty of buying too many pedals myself.

Too often I have found myself with pedals on my board that I hardly ever use. Like the compressor. I have read and heard ‘people who really know what they are talking about’ say that a compressor is essential for great tone. Though I do find it great for recording, for live playing I much prefer the dynamics of rhythm playing without it – except the Boss CS-2; you gotta love the CS-2! Other compressors I’ve tried all add a degree of squishiness that bothers me.

So many of my guitar heroes use a Wah that it seems almost obligatory to have it on my board. More often than not it takes up too much space for how sparingly I use it.

I grew up using Multi-FX processors like the Boss GT 8 and when I switched to pedals I tried to emulate a Multi-FX processor with a pedal board. I had to have every effect, all the options. At one point I had 15 pedals on my board being controlled by a Rocktron patchmate in turn being controlled by a Rocktron MIDI controller. It was a pain to set up and carry and a nightmare to troubleshoot in case something went wrong. Did this board give me great guitar sound? Did it enhance my playing? No, not really. How many of those pedals did I use less than 10% of the time? About 7.

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The humble guitar-amp setup doesn’t have a chance. Spending hours learning how to use an effect has its place, but trying to fit your music around that effect rather than the effect around your music is counter productive.

I’d like to narrate an interesting incident. We were the headlining band for a college festival. Lots of time to set up and sound check I thought and so I pulled out my big board for the show. This is a mammoth beast with 12 pedals on it. As things turned out the show started late and every band before us exceeded their allotted time. We were left with 20 minutes to set up. I practice setting up regularly in the jam room and have timed myself. It usually takes me less than 10 minutes to get the whole thing going. I hit the stage like a whirling dervish and had the whole thing set up in the usual time, however when I plugged in I had no sound. The crowd was getting restless and so was the rest of the band as I struggled to identify the problem. I considered going straight into the amp but luckily was able to identify that the problem lay in the FX loop section of my set up. I just plugged into the preamp pedals and into the amp. We got on with the show and to my surprise I had one of the best tones I have ever had on stage. I had no delay, no reverb, no chorus and no boost and as it turned out – no problem! I was forced to use the volume and tone knob of the guitar more than I usually do and the results were great.

I may just be going through a phase but right now I’m leaning towards a minimalist set up. Maybe just a tuner, an overdrive pedal, a modulation of some sort and delay/reverb.

Speaking of delay I have the Strymon Timeline on my big board. This is obviously a fantastic delay pedal and when I bought it I had images of me crafting unique delay textures to give me more songwriting options. However I find that when I’m playing live all I want is one long delay and one short delay. It would be great if we could all sit around and write songs around interesting guitar sounds but given limited practice time this is mostly not how it works out.

I have a lot of overdrive and distortion pedals (e.g Analogman, Barber, Timmy, Wampler) and they’re great but to my surprise one of my favourites has turned out to the humble Ibanez TS-9. I bought it used a few months ago and the pedal dates back to the 80’s. I didn’t expect much from the beat up green box but was so pleasantly surprised when I plugged it in – some of the best low gain overdrive I have heard in my life, especially playing through the neck pickup. I have an Ibanez TS-7 and had never bothered with the TS-9 because it was more than the double the cost and so many people said they sound similar. Yes they do sound similar but the TS-9 is a much warmer pedal.The whole thing gets me thinking – are so many of the FX pedals we have now really better than ones in the past? Do we need so many overdrive pedals on the market? There is great video on youtube where a guy compares about 10 low gain overdrive pedals to see which sounds the best. The result. They all sound exactly the same!

Another question which begs to be asked is that in the context of playing in a band does it really matter what kind of distortion pedal or delay pedal one is using? As soon as the whole band kicks in, nine times out of ten it won’t matter – distortion will be distortion and delay will just be something to annoy the drummer. And if you can actually make out subtle nuances of your tone in the setting of a hard rock band going for it you’re gonna get screamed at by your vocalist to turn your damn volume down. On a rare night in a club with a good PA system your tone may really be discernible but on the whole as long as you have a good basic guitar sound it will not really matter.

All you really need is a good guitar and a good amp. Guys with feel can make this set up sound fantastic. And guys without feel, well it doesn’t really matter how many pedals you have.

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