Have you ever been to a gig in a small venue and noticed that the guitarist’s pedalboard takes up half the stage? Have you found yourself carefully stepping around a pedalboard on the way to the bar or the toilet, because it extends out beyond the edge of the stage area? If so, you’re not alone. Nobody seems to know where or when it started, but we seem to have reached a point in live music where no guitarist feels complete unless they have ten or more pedals to choose from when they’re playing songs.
It’s time to get this situation back under control. No amount of pedals can make you sound a better guitarist than you are. If you are a guitarist and you have ten or more pedals to bring with you to a gig or a rehearsal, we’ll let you in on a little secret; your band secretly hates you. You take too long to set up before playing, and you waste too much time between songs messing around with your settings. On top of that, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you only use around half of them anyway. There are probably a couple in your collection that you couldn’t even swear to know the purpose of.
Playing with too many pedals is a recipe for disaster. As well as the increased chances of levels being wrong or connections failing, you’re at constant risk of stepping on the wrong pedal at the wrong time, and ruining a song. Going into the chorus of one of your tracks shouldn’t be a lottery. Playing guitar shouldn’t be like playing mobile slots, where you’re taking a chance on what happens next every time you press a button. Nor should you be hoping that all your pedals are lines up perfectly like a winning sequence of symbols in a mobile slot. In fact, the only connections between gambling and playing guitar we want to see are instances where it’s done on purpose, like the official slots of Guns n Roses or Motorhead. The only pedals that should be part of your regular gigging equipment are listed below. If you have any more than this, you probably need to take a more minimalist approach to your playing!
This is your big, friendly ‘loud noises’ pedal, which you may also occasionally see referred to as ‘overdrive.’ If you want a big, crunchy sound for the chorus of a rock song, you need a distortion pedal to do it. Many people feel that distortion pedals are the greatest musical invention since the guitar itself, but the truth is that they were never so much invented as chanced upon by accident. Many modern amps come with an inbuilt distortion feature, but unless you’re only looking for a very gentle distortion sound, then it’s probably not going to give you what you need. Valve amps aren’t really built to carry the sound properly, and even good tube amps can’t produce the sound as well as a quality pedal. If you’re playing punk, rock, metal, or indie, you won’t be able to get by without a good overdrive or distortion pedal.
Levels are a huge problem for bands – especially when playing in a smaller venue, or working without a sound engineer. Getting everything to the right volume to be louder than the drums – but not so loud that it drowns out the vocals – is a feat of sonic engineering. All of the hard work you put into getting everything where you want it during soundcheck will be ruined if you have a guitar signal which refuses to be tamed. A compressor is the answer to that problem. To explain what a compressor does very simply, it curbs the louder parts of the signal, and boosts the quieter parts. That makes your clean guitar sound ring out. Best of all, it stops the gentle or fast notes from disappearing under the weight of everything else. Try plucking a single string without a compressor, and then doing the same thing using the pedal. The note sustains far longer, and so the subtleties of your performance are easier for everyone to hear.
- Wah Wah
Never did a musical device have a name as onomatopoeic as the wah-wah pedal. In the hands (or at the feet) of an unskilled player, the wah-wah pedal is just a way to make your guitar sound like a police siren. Under the control of someone who knows what they’re doing, however, it’s a thing of beauty. If you’re unsure about whether it would bring anything to your sound, may we bring to your attention the fact that Jimmy Hendrix used to use one? If it’s good enough for one of the greatest players ever to wield the instrument, it’s good enough for you. Careful use of this pedal allows you total control of frequency, allowing you to alter both pitch and tone. Wah-wah pedals are probably more closely associated with funk than they are any other style of music, but as Hendrix has shown in the past, they have plenty of applications for other types of player too.
We said earlier that there’s no such thing as a pedal that can make a bad player sound good, but there are pedals which can make a good player sound better. The delay pedal is one of them. If we want back in time half a century or so, delay was something that could only be added to a recording within the confines of a studio. Now, thanks to advances in technology, it’s at the feet of every guitarist who owns a pedal. Delay pedals can make thin sounds much thicker, and when used correctly can give the impression that more than one guitarist is playing at the same time. If you’re a bare-bones band – a drummer, a bass player, and a guitarist – some liberal use of a delay pedal will give you a much fuller sound, and therefore mean you sound and feel much less exposed when you’re on the stage. That’s much better for you, and much better for your audience as well.
- Treble Booster
Playing the lower notes on your guitar is a troublesome endeavor when you’re playing live. Once you’ve dropped to a certain level, the sounds your guitar is making will blend in with whatever your bass player is doing, leaving you with a muddy mess of sound within which neither of you sounds great at your instrument. To avoid that, you end up going in the opposite direction and going up a few notes. That renders half of your fretboard useless. Avoid that problem by having a treble booster, which allows you to go as low as you like while retaining enough treble to have the notes ring out clearly and pierce through the bass. It’s not the most exciting pedal in the world, but it does a vital job.
If you feel like you need anything more than the five pedals we’ve listed above, ask yourself why. Ask yourself what you feel you could gain by having another pedal that isn’t listed above, and what it would bring to your sound. Better still, why not ask your bandmates their opinion? Their honest thoughts might surprise you!