Regardless of how deluxe one's amp is or how versatile one's instrument is, there comes a time in every guitar player's life when he or she realizes they just can't get a particular sound, no matter how much tweaking and fine-tuning they do. At the end of the day, your amplifier is your amplifier and your guitar is your guitar and the possbilities of different sounds will reach its limits. Oh, but wait! No need to despair! For among the miriad of technological advances within the last century and the some change (commercial airplanes, penicilin, the Internet, etc), man has devised the cunningly simple addition of guitar effects pedals. This week, I'm delighted to give you the basics on guitar effects pedals, how they're used, and what we've got at the shop. And then you, too, can have a big fancy pedal board the size of a shelving unit with every conceivable sound known to humanity at your feet! Or, just about. Let's start simple and work our way into the complex: first up!
Possibly the staple sound of modern rock music, a snarly, growly, crunchy distorted guitar has been one of the most sought after effects since Jimi Hendrix made the harsh-and-ugly popular back in the '60's. But of course, it wasn't just the pyschidelic era of rock that unhinged the interest in distortion. Hark back to the '90's grunge era, where every rock song from Seattle to Mars sounded like the musical equivalent of a drunk and stumbling sentient chainsaw seeking revenge on a ball-bearing factory. But, you know, in a good way. Essentially, a distortion effect is created by compressing the electrical signal of the guitar before it reaches the amplifier and then increasing the overall presence of the overtones in the sound. So basically, imagine a sound wave (your basic sine wave) with its swoopy hills and troughs:
That is your basic, clean guitar signal. Now, imagine Godzilla comes stomping in and karate chops the tops off the hills while stomping the troughs completely flat so you end up getting this:
That is the single dumbest way I can explain signal compression, but hey: it was exciting, right? Now, when the signal is compressed, the frequencies of the sound from your guitar are adjusted so that the overtones (basically the smaller, partial sounds surrounding the sound you're emphatically hearing) are raised up and are equal to the dominant sound. The best analogy we could come up with is if you were watching television while mom is upstairs vacuuming and dad is over in the other room practicing his tap-dancing. Now, imagine while you're trying to watch the T.V., mom vacuums her way downstairs and starts hoover-ing right in your ears, and dad obnoxiously taps his way out into the T.V. room and starts striking up a loud and shouty conversation with mom. The result? All those minor, background noises that weren't blending in with the sound of the T.V. are now all equal with each other and creating a giant cacaphony of nonsense. Sounds annoying, doesn't it? That situation may be, but distortion can be quite a tasty cacaphony of nonsense!
Before the effect could be condensed into a single pedal, distortion was usually achieved by simply tweaking your amp and driving your guitar signal as hard as possible while keeping the volume in check. Cranking the gain up on a amp while keeping the volume down to not-ear-bleeding levels would end up compromising the original tone of the guitar, and distorting it. It used to be (back in the day) that people hated the distortion and bent over backwards to avoid it. Nowadays, it is the most popular guitar effect and is used in almost everything. Remember the orange-pedal craze back in the '90's? I'll tell you, it hasn't exactly gone away with the times.
To keep things simple, we'll be using Roland's Boss pedals for all of our demos in this post. Here is a back-to-back comparison of clean versus distorted using a Boss DS-1 Pedal ($49.99):
That is a good example of your basic bread 'n butter distortion, thought these days you can find all kinds of speciality distortion that vary according to materials involved in the circuitry what kind of specific sound you're after. Some tend to focus more on warm, classic tube-like sounds to emulate amplifier distortion while others sound colder, brighter and harsher (typical for metal and squeelier rock stuff).
Moving on to the similar and often confused...
Now before we get into distortion, I need to make a quick important distinction between a distortion effect pedal and an overdrive effect pedal, because they are commonly confused with each other. Though they sound similar and often have a similar end result, overdrive is somewhat different from distortion being that the overall volume of the signal is a determining factor of the effect. Overdrive pedals focus on making what you've already got louder and more intense as your gain goes up, whereas distortion will sound as equally distorted tonewise regardless of how loud you are. Back in the days of the naked amplifier, distortion in your tone could only be accomplished by over-driving your signal through the narrowed threshold of your amp. Hence, the term "overdrive". An overdrive pedal seeks to emulate that natural effect, making it so distortion is only achieved at certain gain levels (just like on an amplifier); that is to say, the louder the signal, the snarlier the sound. So though overdrive achieves a distorted sound, it isn't exactly like a distortion pedal because it is dependent on the natural dynamic between volume and gain (overdrive creates distortion).
Why choose one over the other, then, when the goal is a distorted signal? Because an overdrive effect preserves the original dynamic involved, keeping the classic tone of the old tube amplifiier trick where quieter is cleaner and louder is grittier. This is especially handy if you prefer the sound of a tube amp rather than solid state, but you don't want to shell out the bigger bucks for a tube amp. Here's an example of an overdrive effect using a Boss SD-1 ($49.99)
So far we've talked about pedal effects that focus on altering tone and not much else. But tone isn't the only thing that effects can change...
Because of Fender's dumb choice to call whammy bars "tremelo bars", it is a common misnomer to confuse a "tremelo" effect with "vibrato". Unlike a tremelo effect, vibrato can be achieved in a handful of different ways; sometimes by bending the strings, sometimes by using an expression bar, and then sometimes you can just use a dang pedal if you want a cool surfer sound or to give your guitar a little more blood and guts in the voice. So, in a sense, vibrato is used to somewhat imitate a human voice's ability to bend notes and can be done so without an effect circuit. Tremelo effect is different in that it is a not so much a matter of technique or altering the sound itself, but more of volume. Vibrato has to do with rapid variations of pitch in sound (making the sound go up and down really fast) whereas a tremelo effect is rapid variations in the volume of a sound. Tremelo is all about making the signal fade in and out rapidly to give it that rippling, shimmering sound. A great example of tremelo use in the intro to "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones. Here's a quick demonstration of tremelo using a Boss TR-2 ($99.99):
If you paid attention to any of the top rock hints in the psychedlic '60's (whether you can remember the decade clearly or not), you're familiar with the "wah" effect to some degree. While all sorts of different guitar effects were being popularized at the time, probably one of the most creative and iconic is the "wah" which, like a handful of other effects, alters frequencies and signal voltage in order to produce a voice-like effect. A couple of well-known examples are Hendrix's intro to "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" or the main riffs in "White Room" by Eric Clapton. Both guitars have a distinctive, whining, "waaaooow" kind of voice to them (which, incidently, has taken over funk side of rock ever since...and also soundtracks for adult films...bow-chicka-bow-wow). This sound is essentially achieved by manually rocking the pedal with your foot. Inside the pedal is a radial potentiometer that makes the voltage behind the signal fluctuate, sweeping through the different frequencies. It's basically acting as a bandpass filter, sliding particular frequencies up and down to give the guitar an illusion of voice, thus blowing the minds of all deadheads within a fifty-yard radius.
Time Delay Effects - Phase Shift, Flanger, and Chorus:
Now while doing research for this next portion of the post, I have to admit that even though I'm a freakin' genius (and humble, too), I had a hard time understanding the science behind phase shifting and flanging in their totalities. So, I'm just going to keep it pretty dirt simple for the sake of the blog because I don't want to risk jumping into a subject that is, admittedly, a tad over my head. But here is the gist of each effect:
Phase-shifting (and also, flanging and choruses) involves splitting the guitar's signal into two identical signals and then adding delay (and some other stuff) into one while leaving the other relatively as is. Then the two signals and blended back into one another, resulting in a couple things: a particular flavor of time-delay for each effect and a noticeably "larger" overall sound. For phase-shifting in particular, the result is a whooshing, spacey sound, kind of like wind and water all blended up in a riff.
Of course it doesn't get terribly complicated until you compare it to flanging, which is a similar time-delay effect in that it splits the signal, lags one signal behind the other, and then blends it back in with the original to create a sweeping, whooshy sound. When Ryan and I attempted to decipher exactly what makes flanging different from phase-shifting, the resulting research catastrophy almost caused both our brains to explode, but regardless of the precise technological difference, the real difference is in the sound. Here's a demo on the Boss BF-3 ($139.99):
The differences are subtle, but substantial. As for whichever one is preferred (flanging or phase-shifting), that is really up to you.
Chorus pedals, like the other two, splits the initial signal and delays one of them by a minute amount of time while adding in some reverb and general "shimmer". The overall effect is a full, multi-voiced sound, which makes sense for something called a "chorus" because that's exactly what it seeks to emulate: different sounds, pitches and frequencies all blended together to create a chorus of guitars. This was a brain-child of the 70's so, naturally, you'll hear a chorus effect on pretty much every single freakin' guitar in every single song between the years '79 and '89. And it isn't a surprise that the effect was (and still is) quite popular, because the effect is gorgeous. Here's the evidence from a Boss CH-1 ($99.99):
So there's just a little bit of an intro to the world of guitar pedals. In reality, there's hundreds of different kinds of pedals and all kinds of even more specialized sounds therein. I recommend stopping in the shop and taking a tour of what we've got. We might just be able to find the niche' sound you're after!