Pedal Mania: 70+ Years of Crazy Stomp Boxes

Dave Hunter expounds on the joys of some weird-ass effects pedals.
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Longtime Guitar Player contributor Dave Hunter is no stranger to the world of effects pedals. In addition to his GP reviews and informative columns about everything from scale length to tonewoods, Dave has expounded on the joys of 12 unusual effects pedals for our friends at Reverb, the online marketplace for gear.

Writes Dave, “Ever since the dawn of amplification, we’ve had some oddball guitars and freaked-out amps unleashed on the scene. There’s something about the promise of crazy-assed sonic exploration that has delivered the balance of real nut jobs to the effects world.

“Whether the product of genius or lunacy, the better of these whacked-out creations sometimes prove a source of abundant creative inspiration. The lesser end up as novel distractions at best, sonic dead-ends at worst, but barrels of fun nonetheless.”


“In the world of whack, nothing’s more whacko than devices that mess up your sound by means of actual moving parts,” writes Dave. The DeArmond Tremolo Control is such a device. Released in 1946, it was arguably the first stand-alone guitar effect. It created its tremolo effect with a motor that rocked a small container of conductive hydro-fluid (and not mercury, as is often thought), causing the signal to ground out and mute in a rhythmic fashion. Dave notes that the fluid in these vintage units has often dried out but can be replenished with Windex, which has similar conductivity.

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This wild autowah is what resulted when London guitarist Vlad Naslas asked BBC studio engineer Dan Coggins to build such an envelope follower/trigger filter with “the most knobs ever.” This in turn led Naslas and Coggins to create the Lovetone brand in 1994. The Meatball is a deeply funky-sounding effect, full of thick, juicy and, yes, meaty-sounding filter effects. Unfortunately, Lovetone closed shop in the early 2000s, and the Meatball—like the company’s Doppelganger rotary/phaser, Ring Stinger ring modulator and Wobulator tremolo—now commands high prices on the vintage market.

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Another “moving parts” pedal, the Morley Rotating Wah Volume combines three effects in one—rotary, wah and swell—just as its name suggests. All sounds are available alone or in combination. What makes it especially unique—apart from its combination of these effects—is the rotary effect, which is produced mechanically using a rotating drum filled with electrostatic oil. The device was created by Raymond Lubow, who with his brother Marvin founded Tel-Rey Electronics, Morley’s parent company. Tel-Rey, in turn, licensed its “oil-can” technology to Fender and other companies that used it in their standalone reverb and echo units. Vintage units often suffer from dried-up oil, but don’t worry: plenty of eBay dealers will be glad to sell you replacement fluid for about $20 an ounce.

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Wah on its own is fine, but when combined with fuzz it becomes truly vocal-like. Electro-Harmonix decided to put the two effects in one pedal and came up with the Talking Pedal, a device that creates vowel-like tones in a male-pitched voice, with or without the use of the built-in Big Muff fuzz circuit. Rather than employ the treadle-and-potentiometer setup commonly found on wah pedals, EHX used a one-piece rocking chassis with an internal motion sensor to trigger the effect. While this prevents the pedal from being parked in a fixed position, the Talking Pedal’s rich and throaty formants are so addictive that you’ll want to rock this beast all night long.

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Writing about this device, Dave calls it “a 21st century circuit that instantly embodies ’60s psychedelia better than any actual effect of the era.” The Rainbow Machine combines octave-filter and pitch-shifting effects to produce, in his words, “utterly mad pitch intervals, octave filtering and atonal chorusing (often in combination), with anything from drum-tight to anarchically sloppy tracking, as desired.” The icing on the cake is a Magic control that adds “pixie trails” of arpeggiating decays that are processed through pitch-shifting processors. Used subtly, the Rainbow Machine can produce simple harmonies and chorus effects. But why use it that way when you can create some of the trippiest-sounding effects this side of 1967?

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More wah. Known as Zachary Vex’s personal favorite from the company’s Probe series, the Wah Probe lets you control its effects in the same way that you’d play a Theremin—by moving your foot or hand in proximity to a copper plate that acts as a Radio Frequency antenna. This allows you to do long, smooth sweeps or rapid attacks and takeaways. The Wah Probe’s lushness is down to Vex’s circuitry, which is also featured in the company’s Ooh-Wah and Seek-Wah. But, he tells Dave, “you only really get to hear it shifting phase the way it does naturally in the Wah Probe. As you sweep through it when you move your foot up and down, or your hand up and down, you can hear the phase twist, like it’s phase shifting at the same time as it’s wah-ing.”

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