Ask Charlie...

Toys in the Attic…and Underfoot

Hello Troubadourians! How many of you use effects pedals with your instruments? One of the first columns I wrote for the Troubadour was about effects pedals. In fact, the first two columns were on that topic and there have been several more since then. I’m talking about things like compression, distortion, phase, tremolo, delay, and reverb. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that people tend to be fairly stubborn in their position on using or not using pedals. (I’m excepting tuners from that statement, because whether you use a tuner on the floor, in a box, in a rack, or clipped on your headstock, most people don’t think of tuners as “effects.”) If you do use effect pedals, which ones and why those? If you don’t use effect pedals, why not?

First, let’s talk about the players that don’t use effects pedals. I’ve found from talking to other players that regardless of whether they play electric guitar or acoustic guitar, the reason for eschewing effects is either the belief that no effects = purer tone or the admission that they have no idea how to use them. Simple logic supports the assertion that the simpler the signal path, the purer the tone. With electric guitars, the fine guitar – quality cord – good amp scenario, this is achievable, if somewhat limited. Achieving the same thing with an acoustic guitar is an entirely different effort. When someone pays many thousands of dollars for an acoustic guitar with a transcendent tone, amplifying that tone is anything but simple. I have yet to hear a boutique or vintage-level acoustic guitar that, when amplified, even approached the actual tonality of the guitar without extensive electronics treatments. It’s not a stretch to think of those electronics treatments as “effects” since they are affecting the amplified tone of the instrument. I have addressed the methodology of amplifying acoustic instruments in previous columns, so this time I’d like to focus more on electric guitars.

Why do we use effects on our guitars? We all start down that path at different times in our development but inevitably we are inspired to get that first effect pedal because we hear a sound that we want to make and can’t get it from our existing rig. Even “no effects” purists often use effects without using pedals. Reverb, tremolo – or both – in an amp are effects in and of themselves and they may be enough for those players. For others, something more complex or complicated is required. Like most players from my generation, I got into effects because I was playing “Top 40” covers and I needed to duplicate the sounds of the guitars on those records. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, keeping up with all of the sounds that were turning up on rock and pop records was a daunting process. It got to the point that the “hook” that made a hit record was nothing more than the latest effect on the main guitar riff. Think of the opening riff of Paul Carrack’s “Don’t Shed a Tear.” This led thousands of guitarists down the rabbit hole of believing that tone was in the effects we used and if we didn’t have the right effects we’d never have good tone. There is a video on YouTube called “Hitler struggles to nail Stevie Ray’s tone,” which has a good laugh at how obsessive we guitarists can be with achieving the tone, especially the tone of our heroes. It also defines the split that guitarists have had for years: Is the tone in the pedals or in your hands? This debate has been around almost as long as there have been effects devices.

Let’s take a look at the “tone tale” of some very famous and influential guitarists. Jimi Hendrix was the genesis of the Fender Stratocaster – effects pedals (fuzz, Uni-Vibe, wah-wah, delay/echo) – Marshall amplifier paradigm. Jimi directly influenced Robin Trower who has often been accused of being a Hendrix clone. Hendrix and Trower influenced Stevie Ray Vaughn. Hendrix, Trower, and Vaughn influenced Eric Johnson. Each of these players, by using very similar gear, have identifiably similar sounds, yet it is unlikely that even the casual listener would fail to discern one from the others. This also illustrates the old saying: You can’t just use one… usually. Hendrix started by only using a wah-wah pedal, mostly because that was the only effect available for guitarists to use outside of the studio. Soon, a fuzz (distortion) pedal, and Uni-Vibe (chorus/vibrato) unit became available and Hendrix took great advantage of those devices, often taking them in artistic directions that the inventors hadn’t thought of. Trower took these effects – adding the newly available Echoplex – and pushed the sonic envelope even further. Stevie Ray Vaughn took this effects ensemble in his own direction. Substituting Fender amps for the Marshalls used by Hendrix and Trower, SRV redefined blues-rock guitar playing for yet another generation of guitarists. Eric Johnson found the similarities in the playing and gear as used by Hendrix, Trower, and Vaughn and carried their legacy into the arena of live performance that the others had in many cases only been able to produce in the studio. In my opinion, these players – especially Johnson – make a strong case for the “it’s still in the hands” argument.

Yet, it is obvious that pedals can define tone, at least in the general sense. A distortion or fuzz pedal seeks to replicate the sound of a loud amplifier at a more controllable volume but guitarists will tell you that while similar, they do sound different. The four guitarists above realized this and also discovered that a fuzz pedal into a loud amp is yet another tone that can be used, which is different from either one by itself. So while defining tone, pedals can also enhance tone. Combining different types and amounts of gain in the signal chain creates all sorts of tonal possibilities. One more step beyond defining and enhancing tone, pedals like wah-wah, chorus, vibrato, and echo can be used to modify tone in ways not possible with just the fine guitar – quality cord – good amp scenario. Manipulation of time, space, and pitch adds dimensions to your sound that can directly affect the way you play and how you hear tone. Much is made of playing the space between notes; we can also play the space surrounding the notes.

That’s enough for now but I’d like to go into more specific detail of building a pedalboard the next time we meet.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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  • September 2016

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