There was a time when all a successful player required was a good guitar and an amplifier loud enough to be heard over the drummer. But then a little device called the fuzz pedal appeared in the mid ’60s, and soon the direct connection between guitar and amp went the way of the dial phone.
Nowadays it’s rare indeed to see a performing guitarist without at least several effects pedals at their feet. While the amount of effects pedals doesn’t necessarily dictate the proficiency of the player, there are a handful of “stompboxes” that, over the years, have become required tools of the trade. These little lifesaving tone enhancers/modifiers, and how they can be used creatively, will be the focus of this lesson. So whether you’ve just started to use pedals, or you’re the proud owner of a closet full of gadgets, come on in. All are welcome!
Often first in the chain (running order of pedals between guitar and amplifier), and within convenient stomping distance, is the wah-wah pedal. One of the most expressive effects pedals ever invented, it also tops the list as being the most physically demanding. Effectively, it needs to be “played” like a second instrument while simultaneously playing the guitar.
In simple terms, it’s a bandpass filter that creates a peak in the frequency spectrum, which can be shifted up and down via a foot-controlled potentiometer. The wah pedal can be used to imitate the human voice, or growl like a lion, cry like a baby and even chatter like a tree full of monkeys! But perhaps its most practical use is as a percussive tool, to enhance funky rhythms, as depicted in Ex. 1.
Be sure to keep a smooth, down/up motion with the pedal. Stay in time with the quarter-note pulse, targeting the treble tone (toe down) on the downbeats, and the bass tone (toe up) on the upbeats. The only variation is in the final bar, wherein the wah is used as a gradual tonal sweep, to anticipate the closing chord attack.
Keep in mind that while the above mentioned quarter-note rocking motion is ground zero for achieving the classic “chick-a-wah” sound, the wah-wah is ready and able to be manipulated back and forth at virtually any tempo humanly possible. Ex. 2 exploits a series of glissando-slides up and down the G-string for a “talking” effect. (Think Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai and a dose of Charlie Brown’s school teacher!)
The crucial factor is to start in the “up” position at the launch of each pick attack, quickly stepping down as you slide along the string. And incidentally, if you’re interested in that “monkeys” trick, try scratching out a flurry of muted 16th-note string attacks while slowly rocking the wah forward and back. And if you have the stamina, you can produce a warbling effect by sustaining a chord while rapidly rocking the wah as fast as you can!
Another pedal that players like to place first in line is the compressor. While maybe not as sexy as the wah-wah, the compressor can be used to considerably up the ante in the dynamics department. For example, many country guitarists rely heavily on compression to enhance their “chicken pickin’” licks (Ex. 3).
Set at a moderate level (Level and Attack knobs at roughly 12 o’clock, depending on the pedal), the compressor evens out the volume of the pick attacks. This in turn enhances the muted notes, thus emphasizing the “clucking” sound in the licks. The same moderate settings can be quite useful for providing percussive excitement to funk rhythms (think Nile Rodgers and Prince).
With the Attack knob maxed out, it can be possible to sustain a note or a chord until your speaker can’t handle it anymore. By the same principal, max settings can help coax elusive feedback from your amplifier. In the recording studio, the compressor pedal can be used to produce that feeling of being right next to your amp, even though it may be isolated in a room far away.
This is the pedal that singlehandedly started the stompbox revolution way back in the ’60s. Hands down the most dramatic pedal in the distortion family (boost, overdrive and distortion pedals), the fuzz is capable of producing the biggest single-note sound known to man.
Generally speaking, there are two basic types of fuzz tones: the bright, clipping sound of the early fuzz pedals of the ’60s (think Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff), and the fat, warm sounds introduced in the ’70s (the Big Muff reigns supreme).
Ex. 4 uses a Vox Tone Bender fuzz pedal (controls maxed out) to produce the “transistor” sound so prevalent in the psychedelic ’60s. If you really want to capture that vibe, dial in the cleanest possible setting you can on your amp; preferably a solid-state model. This will help the notes to “fizzle” a bit more.
Ex. 5 unleashes an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff for a creamy, legato nod to Clapton, Beck, and Bachman.
If the fuzz pedal is an instant transport back to the swinging ’60s, then the chorus pedal is a time machine to the “MTV” decade of the 1980s. This was the era of the “jangly riff ” (see Ex. 6) and a pedal like the Boss CE-2 was a must-have for any working Top-40 guitarist. The luscious, “swirly” sound of the chorus pedal is similar to the sparkly, doubling aspect of the 12-string guitar, but with an added, space-filling warmth.
Equally prevalent in the hard rock and metal ballads of the mid- and late ’80s, the chorus pedal fueled arpeggio figures such as the one in Ex. 7. In both of these examples, the Rate and Depth controls are set at 12 o’clock. Boost the Rate knob and you can emulate the fast setting of a rotary speaker (Fender Vibratone or Leslie cabinet). Think “Cold Shot” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. And for a luscious, rock solo tone, use a moderate setting on the chorus, push it with an overdrive (such as a Fulltone OCD) or distortion pedal (Pro Co Rat or Boss DS-1) and select your bridge pickup with the tone knob dialed down to take the edge off.
Phasers and Flangers
The chorus pedal can be a powerfully seductive modulation device, but in certain situations it can just sound too pretty. In such cases, a phaser (Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo) or flanger may be just the alternative you’re looking for. Similar by nature, both pedals produce a swirling tonal shift across specific frequency spectrums, but they are subtly different.
The phaser has a “throaty” quality (rather similar to a wah wah) and the pitch doesn’t waver, whereas the flanger can be adjusted to extreme levels in pitch variation. If money is a factor, the flanger is probably your best bet, as it’s capable of emulating the sounds of a phaser and a chorus pedal. (Andy Summers of the Police often used a flanger for his “chorusing” effects.)
Ex. 8 combines both a phaser pedal and a flanger to fortify an aggressive, hard-rock riff. The flanger is a T.C. Electronic Vortex, with Speed, Depth and Feedback set to 12 o’clock. This feeds an MXR Phase 90, with the Speed knob at around 9 o’clock. [Marshall amp simulation is courtesy of Fractal AX8.) For an “out of this world” sound effect, boost all the settings on the flanger to the maximum and strike random notes anywhere on the fretboard. Closest description is the sound of a ray gun battle in a 1950s science-fiction movie.
Often second-to-last (right before reverb) in the pedalboard chain is the delay pedal. Its primary job is to provide repeated signals (echoes) of the notes produced on the guitar. These echoes can be adjusted to occur anywhere from once to an infinite amount of times.
The time span between the picked note and the echo can also be adjusted. Popular delay times run from very short (approximately 30 to 50 milliseconds for a doubling effect; and 90 to 120 for a rockabilly-style “slapback” delay), to medium (in the 300 to 350ms realm for rock solos), to long delays for lush soundscapes.
Another popular setting is the dotted-eighth delay. This is where the delay is set to repeat a dotted-eighth note (or three 16ths) after the picked note. A useful setting for rhythm work (think U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)”), it can also be used to make it sound like you’re playing twice as fast as you actually are!
Ex. 9 provides just such an example with a revved-up blues riff. In actuality, it’s an eighth-note figure that, with the help of the delay setting, sounds like cascading 16th notes. Here’s a hands-on method you can use to dial in the proper setting. Set the Effect level to 50 percent (delayed note is same volume as the initial note) and the Feedback to at least six repeats. Set a metronome to the desired tempo (in this case, 132 beats per minute) and play steady quarter notes on an open string while adjusting the Delay knob with your free hand until you reach the spot where you’re hearing quarter-note triplet repeats.
Once you arrive at the proper time setting, adjust the Feedback to produce only one repetition. Now you’re ready to roll. (If your delay pedal has a tap tempo feature, simply tap in quarter-note triplet rhythms.)
In closing, let’s take a look at a couple of examples that combine several effects pedals. First up (Ex. 10) is one that produces an effect similar to a synthesizer. Using your guitar’s bridge pickup (preferably a humbucker), dial in a liberal setting on an overdrive pedal, feed that into a flanger with a moderate setting (controls at 12 o’clock) and plug that into a phaser set at a slow speed.
The last ingredient is a tremolo pedal (such as a Fulltone Supa-Trem) with the Mix level at maximum and the Rate adjusted to eighth-note rhythms at 144bpm. All you have to do is play the chords in whole-note rhythms and let the effects do the pulsating.
Let us not forget the reverb pedal! Often the last pedal in the chain, this stompbox provides the vital ambiance that enhances everything that comes before it. In this example (Ex. 11), it provides the final touch to a passage inspired by Eric Johnson’s orchestrated chord melodies. The starting point is a Strat-style guitar with the bridge-and-middle pickup combination. Plug that into a volume pedal (such as an Ernie Ball MVP), and then into a chorus with a moderate setting.
Next in line is a delay pedal set to around 500ms, a reverb pedal with a large hall setting with a long decay, and into a clean combo amp (Fender Deluxe or Twin Reverb). The crucial element in this example is the volume pedal manipulation. Make sure it’s all the way off (toe up) when you strike each chord. Quickly press it to maximum (toe down) and then back to the off position before the next chord attack. It takes some practice to master this volume swell technique, but the end result is well worth the effort.