Guitarist Series: Thoughts on Effects...the Use and Abuse

For the uninitiated, or even those who play a different instrument, the world of the electric guitar can be massively confusing and intimidating. Just take a quick browse through the Guitar Center website (www.guitarcenter.com). You'll find what might even appear to be a ridiculous number of different guitar from all sorts of makers, many of which would appear almost identical except to the most discerning eye. Continue on browsing and you'd find another almost ridiculous number of amps ranging from tiny little "carriable" amps with speakers so small they can't possible sound decent, all the way up to massive 200watt stacks designed to shake the earth and rattle the teeth of everyone within a few miles. But if you were to keep on browsing you'd find what might be the most varied, intimidating and confusing of all the aspects of playing electric guitar... the effects pedals.

Even a short browse through any sort of effects pedals section, whether it be on a website or in person can make your head spin. Pedals have names like "crybaby, blowtorch, shredder, muff, screamer, squeezer, decimater, banshee, holy grail, rotovibe, phaser, flanger, distortion, fuzz, envelope filter, and a thousand other words that range from sounding vaguely "unmusical" to completely unrelated to music at all. Then to make things even more confusing there's tons that sound similar, provide the same effects or even provide multiple combinations of various effects. And THEN... if you add in the surging boutique and small time builders you can find in smaller guitar shops and online and you'll also have to sort through an endless line of similar circuit pedals that all sounds great, but as so close that sometimes only comparing them directly side by side reveals their differences.

To top everything off, you have a market that ranges from cheap $20 pedals all the way up to pedals that are legendary (sometimes because they're great effects, sometimes because they're merely perceived as having some ridiculous value) that sell for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars when they were originally made from like 10 parts for next to nothing and have a high probability of not even sounding good to your ear at all!

All in all, for someone new to playing guitar, or even just someone who loves rock and roll but doesn't play, this world of pedal effects can be enough to make them wonder how anyone ever makes sense of it all... or would ever want to.

And yet, the number of guitarists out there who love effects is huge, and growing everyday. I myself have recently really started to delve into the realm of the guitar effect and now I think I'm hooked... a problem, because I'm not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination and there are far too many to choose from.

If you're not an electric guitarist you might be uninterested in the world of guitar effects... I don't blame you. Reading back how I just described this aspect of the guitar market I'm a little scared myself, but the history of the guitar effects box, is really the history of rock and roll. Without the effects box, rock music as we know it would sound very different.

I believe the first guitar effects that weren't part of the amp (like tremolo) were designed to get that sound... THE sound... the sound of tubes in overdrive that was only achieved when someone decided to take their tube amp and turn it up to ten. A beautiful sustain along with all sorts of harmonics, rough edges and fuzzy little distortions are produced when the amp is turned up that high... the signal from the guitar literally overloading the tubes and causing them to fail to reproduce the signal 100% accurately. So guitarists everywhere started to set their amps up extra loud to get that sustain and overdrive that sounded so good.

Then to make it rougher still, people started taking razorblades to their speakers, producing the first really gritty and dirty rock and roll tones... the tones that set the stage for all that rock and roll would become from noise rock to death metal.

After a while when transistors finally came around, somebody decided that they could add that biting edge with an external box... add it and then some... and the fuzz box was born. Sure enough other designs followed as people got more creative and soon something designed to give variations in tone like the tone pots on the guitar... something called "the wah" was born as well. A little player named Jimi Hendrix would combine these three things... overdrive, fuzz and wah (amongst other things like feedback born from an overdriven amp)... and would change the face of rock and roll permanently.

There were others who utilized different effects boxes before Hendrix, but he was one of the first really popular ones to put everything together... a psychedelic landscape of fuzz, wah and feedback... and bring it to the masses. The way he utilized those effects to create such a wide range of tones would be the spark that lit the fuse and caused the effects industry to explode.

This was definitely a good thing...

Suddenly a whole new landscape was open to them. Along with regular guitar playing techniques and musical theory, there was now an enormous amount of different effects that could be utilized to make the electric guitar sound like anything from a baby crying to a jet taking off with afterburners on full.

There is something to be said for simplicity, style and beauty of an electric guitar plugged straight into a good amp, as a great electric guitarist can convey every emotion with just those things alone. Some songs though, sound better not with the emotions "just conveyed", but with them blasting through full force... it's as if some songs almost demand a certain effect. I mean what really would the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction", as if often used as an example, be like without the fuzz fueled guitar riff? This is why I like effects pedals. They expand a guitarist's pallet of tones so that they may better express themselves on the instrument. Certainly they aren't NEEDED, but some things are just easier to convey with a rip roaring fuzz pedal, or an endless landscape of delay to help it along.

And as I said, the history of guitar effects really is, in many ways, the history of rock and roll. As guitarists demanded more from their instruments, new effects were developed... which in turn opened the door for those effects to become the "effect to have" spinning off new genres based on the new sounds. The two are very much intertwined from the beginning and are developing side by side.

But there are problems that hinder this development.

The effects pedal industry has to be one of the best examples of supply and demand, with all it's shortcomings, on the face of the planet. It is very much driven by name recognition, meaning that if some famous guitarist uses pedal X... then suddenly pedal X's value skyrockets. Vintage fuzzes and wah's like that of Hendrix are well into collectible range of value and can sell for some crazy prices. It's especially crazy because musicians probably wouldn't even want to play the originals most of the time. The early effects were unreliable, noisy, unpredictable varied drastically from one to the next... yet everyone wants one.

This has spawned plenty of different builders' takes on the "famous tones". It could be the sound of an overdriven amp, or the sound of Hendrix, or Clapton, or Page, or... "insert your favorite guitarist here". This means that if you want those tones, there are an almost endless number of possibilities to try, each improved in some small way to make them more "usable" than the originals. A good thing as it gives guitarists plenty of options to choose from.

At the same time though, it also means that probably something like 90% of the effects out there are copies... they are variations on a theme per say... variations on the same circuit. This makes it hard for new designs to catch on, even if they might be better... unless of course someone famous tries one out. If that happens, then suddenly those designs skyrocket too (depending on how famous the person really is). What this leads to though is tons of great gear going overlooked simply because "no one famous has found it yet" and some truly mediocre gear selling like crazy because of name recognition. Plus the good ones that musicians want to play... well if someone famous plays them then suddenly they are out of the price range of the working musicians.

I don't want to make it sound like the industry is completely ridiculous and there is nothing good out there unless you're famous and can afford the best or whatever... That is most certainly NOT the case... it's just interesting to explore exactly how supply, demand and hype interact in the effects market.

Another problem with effects is that because there are key sounds that are the basis for so many of the pedals out there, copping other people's tones has become big business. Pedals aren't designed to sound "good" or "new" but are instead designed to get that great guitar tone from that great album that we all love and worship. I can't say really if this is because the industry is driven by supply and demand, and what people want is to sound like... well whoever... or if the industry makes pedals based on known good tones because they are what they think will sell, and it is in turn encouraging new guitarists to take the easy way out and cop someone else's tone instead of developing their own.

It's probably a little of both really.

In a way you could make the claim that this has contributed to the fact that so much of modern music sounds the same... true innovation isn't what's selling. The same tones we all know from when rock and roll was born, that's what's selling. I don't think I'd say effects are a huge factor in that though... instead I'd pin it on greed, but that's a topic for another article.

I also don't want it to sound like there are no effects builders or products out there making new and exciting effects that have never been heard before... there certainly are, and some of them are getting great recognition by musicians who appreciate new sounds. Those just aren't the majority... at least from what I see.

But the biggest problem of all for guitarists with effects probably is.... ABUSE!

Yeah, those of us who love effects... well, we love all the weird sounds they make, but rarely are many of those tones musical, or anything but cliché. Yeah it's fun to turn on every pedal we own and create a massive squall of effects where none is distinct at all and make a lot of racket, but it's not a sound that's going to appeal to many people. I mean what good would a painting be where the artist tried to use every color on every part of the canvas... it'd be a big brown smudge! The same is true for guitarists except that different effects are the different colors in our pallet. Each should be used for a specific effect and that's it. And with many effects, less is more and some subtle use can be just as, if not more, effective than slathering it on real thick.

Subtle use... the less is more approach... is definitely the key to success in many cases, but I can't tell you how many times I check out a band's music and it's just buried under layers and layers of God-knows-what effects to the point of excess. There are some musicians out there using lots of effects to good effect where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts... David Gilmour of Pink Floyd comes to mind... but usually it's subtle combinations that work best... not turning everything up to ten and seeing what happens.

It's also worth noting that lots of effects are not a replacement for good musicianship. Effects are only part of the pallet, musical tonalities, timbre, technique... these are further colors that can be employed, or mixed with caution to good effect.

So for someone, a new guitarist perhaps, coming into the world of effects it can be intimidating for sure. My advice is to use the tones of your heroes as a starting point only and instead try to craft your own tone... something that allows you to best express yourself. And don't necessarily trust so called "experts" on what good tone is. Take their advice, definitely, but don't call it law...Go by your ear and decide what you like, but do go by the motto that less is more. Also, if you really are a newbie... well do your best to try before you by, do TONS AND TONS of research (there are hundreds of pedal builders for lots of variety), ask questions, make use of good return policies and most important of all... think outside the box.

Maybe you're a plug in and play guy, nothing between your amp and your guitar but your instrument cable? That's fine too, but don't get so caught up in the "purity of tone" argument that you discount effects entirely. You never know you just might find one that adds that little something to go from great to amazing.

If you're already an effects lover like me... well remember that they do increase your pallet of tones, but don't mix those colors too much... brown smudges aren't musical to too many people. Also, just like with the newbies, try and craft your own tone instead of sticking to the normal pre-definite "good tones."

And if you're not a guitarist at all, but have managed to read this lengthy post none the less... well I hope that you have been inspired to think about effects as part of the rock and roll legacy as well as maybe learn a little about how they work, how they're used and how they've changed the face of rock and roll. The two really are deeply related and each has quite an effect on the development of the other.

Conclusion? They may be small and cheap, but without guitar effects pedals, rock and roll would never have come as far as it has... here's to the effects pedal!

Some great resources for effects research and information:

http://www.buildyourownclone.com/index1.html - A cool company dedicated to providing kits of clones of famous pedals so people can build and customize their own.

http://www.diystompboxes.com/wpress/ - Another great resource for those who want to DIY and build their own effects.

http://www.dailymotion.com/playlist/xpnt2_crazy-fuzz_fuzz-th3-sound/1 - Here you can find a bunch of clips from a fascinating documentary called "Fuzz: the Sound that Changed the World" all about those little effects boxes.

http://www.proguitarshop.com - A great vendor, but what's really great is their video library of demos... many of which are guitar effects. They're well done and are great for giving some idea of what an effect sounds like. I also recommend their YouTube channel, as there are even more videos available there: http://www.youtube.com/user/ProGuitarShopDemos

http://www.tonefactor.com/ - Another great vendor, and they too have a large number of demo videos available... as well as a YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/ToneFactor

http://www.harmony-central.com/ - A huge resource of all sorts of user reviews of all sorts of different guitar gear.

http://www.thegearpage.net/board/tgphome.php - A large forum and a good place for asking questions and getting different opinions from guitarists across the world.

- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - www.fifthcolumnmedia.com -