Not long ago, I didn’t have too many guitar
effects pedals lying around... maybe five or
so, maximum. Around 2003, I was invited to
join an elite group of immensely talented
people who made high-quality effects pedals. Suddenly, I was the recipient of many
prototypes and special, one-off custom
pedals. Prior to joining this group, I didn’t
use many stompboxes. However, there were
a couple of people and events that inspired
me to try a few of these electronic gizmos
to discover whether they could make my
playing sound more unique, or contribute
something good to my tone.
Before we go further, it has to be said that
there are quite a few guitarists with a minimalist or “purist” mindset. They believe
that all they’ll ever need to cover a lot of
sonic ground is their guitar and an amplifier. While this type of thinking is perfectly
okay for some forms of music (blues is a
good example), it can be a limitation when
extra tonal ingredients would particularly
useful, or even necessary.
It was The Mermen (a well-known surf
instrumental band out of San Francisco)
that got me interested in incorporating
pedals into my own playing. I saw them
about three times a week, and watching
Jim Thomas, the Mermen’s lead guitarist, had given me plenty to hear and see.
One thing I immediately noticed was that
they never played the same song the same
way twice! Yes, the effects pedals did have
something to do with that particular aspect
of their musical freedom. It was after I met
Bjorn “The Mad Professor” Juhl in mid-
2003 that things started to come together.
Bjorn had taught me that guitar tones were
all about texture, and showed me how
these various textures could be carefully
blended into one another to create even
better (yes, stellar) guitar sounds. Years
ago, effects pedals generally were not nearly as good as they are now. There are some
real clever minds out there in this arena of
guitar gear madness (as you’ve no doubt
seen for yourself in these pages).
One of the first things you must do to
actually hear what a pedal sounds like is
to set it for unity gain, so when you switch
the pedal on, the volume of your amplifier should optimally be the same as it was
before depressing the switch. You don’t
want the amplifier blasting out just yet;
take this one step at a time. Once you
understand what each pedal does best, you
can start experimenting with stacking them.
Although this can take some experimentation, setting the various levels and tweaking
tones so they blend in nicely with your guitar and amp, the results will be well worth
it, because you’ll have a much greater palette of tones to play with—which will make
you a much more versatile guitarist. Here’s
something else to consider: not all pedals
will sound wonderful together. There are
many combinations that sound amazing,
but not all of them!
Have you ever felt that modeling pedals aren’t quite as good as the real deal?
In my opinion, we still have a way to go
before amp modeling will sound and feel
as good as the hardware it emulates. The
models of a VOX AC30 combo I’ve heard
to date don’t sound remotely close to the
real thing—especially because of those
original speakers. Nice try, but not yet
guys. On the other hand, there are many
pedals out there now that sound like very
good tube amplifiers—and they react like
Prototype BJFE Blueberry Bass OD
a good amplifier does, too. The sensitivity
of your own touch on the fingerboard will
seem very familiar to you. This is what I call
Organic Modeling, the skillful use of great
quality electronics to aid you in your search
for tonal bliss.
About five years ago, I played bass in a
local band. The band’s leader was one of
these purist types who hated pedals with
a passion. One night I brought a pedal to
rehearsal that Bjorn had mailed to me, a
bass overdrive pedal that could emulate any
distorted bass sound you’ve ever heard. It
was Bjorn’s BJFE BlueBerry Bass Overdrive.
When I was setting up for rehearsal, the
band’s leader saw the pedal in front of me.
After the first song he told me to take it out
of my chain. I was disappointed, because
I had just gotten it that day, and I was
infinitely curious about what this bright red
pedal could do for my sound. The following
week I couldn’t help myself—I had to take
another stab at it. This required stealth.
I placed the BBOD behind my bass amp,
where it wasn’t in view. Since this pedal
was very touch sensitive, I knew that I could
put the drive control up to about noon and
just control the distortion directly with right
hand finger pressure. Our rehearsal sounded
really good and the band’s leader was very
pleased with the band’s performance and
my bass sound, too. Can you imagine what
happened when I showed him the reason
my bass sounded so good? Ha Ha Ha! The
moral of this story is: try everything you
can get your hands on to create your own
unique sound. Your tone might be hiding in
one of the pedals sitting in a dresser drawer.
Happy hunting. See you next month.
is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings"
( sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence
on the trends in the strings of today.