What do you need to create your own signature guitar sound? The answer is, of course, nothing more than an axe, an amp, a dose of inspiration and some crazy fretboard skills. But many of the greatest guitar tones ever were, and are, bolstered with effects too. This week, then, we take a look at the different types of FX available to us guitarists, and explain when, how and why you should be using them…
If there’s anything people around the world share apart from biological imperatives, it’s humankind’s most common art form, cooking. With the benefit of skill, imagination and just a few quality ingredients, a good hand in the kitchen can concoct something completely new – a signature dish if you wish.
Take, for example, pesto, that classic Italian sauce.
Grab a few tasty ingredients, grind up a little of this, blend in a little of that, and with a few twists of the wrist you’ve whipped up a downright addictive delicacy. The basil is your base; a clove of garlic, a dash of olive oil, a tablespoon of pine nuts and a bit of cheese are the special effects that spice up its fundamental flavor. It’s a transformational process that creates something new, and to revert to a tired old cliché, the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
That’s pretty much how the sound of an electric guitar is shaped. Pesto is a composite of a few choice ingredients that lend the dish its flavor; our cherished tone is a composite of a choice guitar, amp and effects. With the right touch, one results in a mouthwatering sauce; the other in a lip-smacking piece of ear-candy.
And another old chestnut applies here too: less is often more.
Yes, with the right technology and a little know-how, it’s easy to bake your signature sonic pie. And cooking up a distinctive sound ranks up there with the most fun that can be legally had. However, there are a couple of pitfalls you need to steer clear of when experimenting with guitar effects, so without further ado, let’s get stomping on those boxes!
Broadly speaking, there are three types of FX: first, there’s the gain-type effect, such as distortion units, boosters, compressors and so on. They change the dynamics, or volume, of our guitar signals.
Then, there’s the group that change the sound by modulating or filtering frequencies or messing with the pitch. That would be chorus, flanger and phaser-type effects.
Finally, there’s the 3D contingent of space-time effects like reverb and echo, which are often collectively referred to as delays.
Now, that’s a simplified summary that cuts some corners, but it’ll do for our purposes here. Bear in mind that this is an art and a science, neither of which is dogmatic. Go where the muse takes you, because there’s no rights or wrongs here – just sounds you’ll personally like or dislike.
To further simplify things, we’ll look at these groups separately, particularly as it’s important to know where conventional wisdom says each belongs – and doesn’t belong – in your signal chain.
Of course, you can figure this out by trial and error, letting your ear be your guide. And you can always experiment. However, some golden rules have been established by broad consensus, more or less.
One applies to the fabled wah pedal. The vast majority of us will agree that it should be the first thing the guitar signal sees before it hits the front end of an amp, and that inserting a wah in an FX loop is not such a good idea unless you’re going for some pretty drastic filtering. That’s basically a given.
But let’s move on to greyer areas, namely the family of FX that tampers with the dynamics. Distortion units, boosters and compressors are much like the aforementioned wah pedal in that they do their job rather well plugged into the amp’s input jack.
A fuzz box adds a healthy helping of distortion to the signal. A booster pumps up it so it hits the amp’s input stage hard enough to saturate, breaking up the signal. A compressor irons out the dynamics in the signal, flattening peaks and troughs so that the volume level is more constant.
The general rule of thumb is that a distortion unit, booster or compressor fits in nicely between your guitar and amp.
Here’s a tip we’d like to share: if you ever get the opportunity to try a genuine treble booster, take it. It’s got to have an original germanium transistor, though. These living fossils sound great, and you can even get different versions tuned for different amps.
What we also love about these stompboxes is how responsive they are when you ride your guitar’s volume knob. A good treble booster turns the volume pot into a gain and voicing knob all in one. Back it off to tame the little brute, nudge it up to throw some dirt in the works, and crank it to unleash a screaming yet creamy monster of a sound!
Distortion doesn’t get much more musical than this.
It’s also well worth experimenting to find a great compressor pedal. Depending on the setting, a compressor can spice up a funky rhythm sound and add singing sustain to clean tones, enabling you to play clean leads with the kind of feel and response you get from distorted sounds.
That’s the secret to the soaring solos heard in many rock and pop songs. And when you try this, don’t be surprised if you hear a hint of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour in your tone – which is never a bad thing, especially when you consider the following short video we made to illustrate the point:
The second group, modulators such as chorus, flanger and the like, offers even more room for experimentation.
Of course, you can drop them in between your guitar and amp, but they usually work best inserted in the FX loop. Why? Well, with the latter option, your preamp gets a clean, clear signal without any phase shifting voodoo to muddy the waters. Usually, the purer the dry signal sent into the FX loop, the better the wet signal will sound when it’s piped back out of the FX loop. Simple.
A word of caution, though. One of the sins that makes many ’80s pop tracks sound so dated is the excessive use of chorus (not to mention those awful synths and e-drums – yuck!).
So it’s best to flirt with these effects and move on before they get tiresome. Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen have used flangers to great effect – pardon the pun! – but the list of metal or riff-heavy tunes that benefit from tons of modulated guitars is fairly short.
It’s usually more effective and interesting to kick these effects in to heighten the musical drama, say at the crescendo of a verse, during the climax of a solo, or to underscore a tectonic shift in the arrangement. Try using chorus, flanger, phaser and tremolo to accentuate select passages, as musical signposts and as interesting little punctuation marks.
Or you can just ignore all that and do what Andy Summers did during his days with the Police. Lots of those tracks are dripping with chorus. Either he forgot to switch the damn thing off or, more likely, left it on much of the time as a stylistic device, to create a signature sound. Ditto for the late, great bassist Jaco Pastorius, who took a similar approach on Joni Mitchell’s landmark Hejira album.
Or, unless you want to spend all night sounding like Keith Richards does on practically the entire Some Girls album, you should probably use your phaser a little more sporadically.
The same goes for tremolo, the hillbilly answer to vibrato, unless you’re in an Americana collective or a Pops Staples tribute band.
You have a choice to make here: is it going to be subtlety or overkill? Think of it as a bling thing, a choice between a simple band of silver on your finger or a huge gold necklace with links the size of a luxury liner’s anchor chain around your neck. Whatever works for you.
The last group of effects – the delays – does some pretty powerful stuff.
If you want to paint epic sonic images with bold brushstrokes, a delay unit is the tool for you. It’s fun, because fiddling with echoes is probably the closest any of us will ever come to messing with the space-time continuum.
It’s also effective, because great delay-laden lines have a way of worming themselves into our brains. Just ask U2’s accountant or Pink Floyd’s business manager. The clever use of echoes sure added a few zeros to the right end of the figures on their royalty checks.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) by U2, The Police’s Walking On The Moon and Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall probably would’ve been dull affairs without this magical ingredient. Its propulsive force drives these songs, and this force is strong enough to get even grannies’ fists pumping and middle-aged arena crowds jumping. It’s powerful stuff indeed.
The only way to get the hang of the various stereo, multi-tap and ping-pong delays is to experiment. If you run into trouble figuring out the delay time for a triplet or dotted pattern – that’s the timing that worked so wonderfully for the aforementioned songs – have a free app such as Delay Genie or Delay Calculator work it out for you. These tools will make the experimentation pleasurable rather than painful.
And if you do get frustrated, don’t give up.
With a little experience, a delay unit can be a fabulously creative tool and a tremendous source of inspiration. We can’t prove it, of course, but we’d be willing to wager that countless rock and pop classics were born of an idea that popped up while jamming away.
In any event, delay and reverb pedals are best plugged into the amp’s FX loop. And if the delay unit has a mix knob, you should definitely use the FX loop’s serial mode. This way, the dry signal gets patched through with the phase intact, and you can adjust the balance of dry and wet signals as you see fit.
Also, you need to watch your gain levels. Always match the input signal level to suit the effects unit. If the level is too high, you’ll hit that input too hard, which sounds rather nasty if yours is a digital device.
And if you want to use a volume pedal to control the overall level, be sure to place it all the way downstream, at the end of the chain. It should be the last device the signal sees before it’s patched into the power amp or the FX loop’s return jack.
Now it’s up to you to carve out your niche with your very own signature sound. Try anything and everything. Even if classic rock isn’t your genre, you can still borrow from the old masters.
We recommend checking out Classic Albums: Pink Floyd – The Making Of The Dark Side Of The Moon. Many effects and loops were still conjured up by hand back then, and Alan Parsons, at the time the band’s audio engineer, explains some of his tricks in this fascinating documentary.
It’s quite inspiring to revisit a time when effects weren’t handed to players on a silver platter and it took some real ingenuity to create those soundscapes…
First published: November 14 2014. Most recent update: October 16 2015.