Carl Verheyen on Tonal Options

August 7, 2014
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OVER THE YEARS, I’VE HAD many live rigs. In my early club days, it was a guitar through a single one-channel amp. But in the ’80s and early ’90s, my rig had expanded to one of those elaborate, multi-amp switching systems. Huge “refrigerators” containing multiple amp heads linked with a wall of rack gear are rare at present, but these systems are emulated somewhat in today’s digital multi-effects, and some players may still embrace the era of overly abundant tonal options. Well, here’s a cautionary tale...

In the early ’90s, my monster rig was the victim of a disaster moments before a concert at the Key Club in Los Angeles. I used a massive switching system with two 16-space racks controlled by a state-of-the-art, custom-built switching board. I used MIDI to change the effects—not only for each song, but for each section of a song! My reverbs, delays, and modulation effects would change from verse to chorus to solo. Amps would be switched in and out of the various loops, and all 16 songs in the set were programmed into the rig’s 99 presets.

Well, after soundcheck, one of the stagehands accidentally tripped over the main power cable that supplied AC to the rack system. In an instant, the entire rig shut off and turned back on. At first, everything seemed to work, but I soon realized that every one of my 99 presets were gone. Hours of programming timed stereo delays, pre-delayed reverbs, rapid-fire tremolo effects, bizarre backwards sounds, and more were down the drain. But my biggest problem was that I had a show to do in 90 minutes.

Luckily, I kept an emergency backup kit with extra cables, a tuner, some tubes and fuses for amps, a Tube Screamer TS-9 and a Cry Baby wah in my car. I was able to MacGyver together a rig using a 2-channel, 60-watt Jim Kelley head, the tuner, and the TS-9. I used the amp’s dirty channel for my crunch tones, and the Tube Screamer to saturate the solo tone a bit more.

Far from a tragedy, this was an important day in my life. I realized I didn’t need all that gear to sound good. The sound was in my hands, and I was much better off if I actually understood my own signal path and could trace down potential show-stopping problems myself. In addition, people came up after that show and said, “You’ve never sounded better.” That was a big clue the days of listening to always-present-and-ever-changing chorus, reverb, and delay effects were over. I decided then that it was better to have two amazing sounds than 99 decent sounds.

It’s also a lesson that you can learn. The astounding number of available sounds at a guitarist’s fingertips these days is almost frightening, and the options can prevent you from, well, playing. But if you keep in mind what I learned at the Key Club—trust your fingers, follow your ears, and, in a sense, avoid distractions—you should always be able to step on stage and unleash some good sounds and great playing.

Carl Verheyen is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.

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