Reverb was one of the first effects guitarists used, and there's an established reverb vocabulary, a set of rules by which we expect to use it and to hear it. Reverb is something that usually trails our playing, adding a sense of dimension and depth. It also serves to place our music at a specific point in time, with reverb tails hanging in the air to remind us of notes that we've played but which are no longer being sounded. Would Van Halen's self-titled album have sounded so significant and powerful if we didn't have that breathy guitar reverb in the right channel, reinforcing the notes Eddie had just played? Well, probably, but it's still a pretty cool sound.
But you can do a lot more with reverb than to simply use it to provide a vague smeared echo behind our notes. Here are three of my favorite non-reverby reverb tricks. One requires no outboard gear at all, while the other two are best suited to a digital reverb - either a pedal, a rack unit, a multi-effects unit or software plugins.
I first noticed this one when I was about 14, jamming on my extremely cheap guitar and testing out some Yngwie licks. I had a super-long guitar cable in those days, wound around a big metal spool. (It picked up radio signals when I used it with a certain distortion pedal, but that's another story). One day while my folks were out, turned my tiny 3-watt practice amp up to 10, cranked up my distortion pedal's gain knob and went to the other end of the house. What I heard was a quite reasonable simulation of the tones I heard on Yngwie's Rising Force album: rounded attack, full body and smoothed treble even with my buzzy, noisy amp and pedal. Try it! It's fun to do at home, but it's even more fun on a recording when you can really crank up the amp, place the mic a decent way back, and pick up that glorious depth. The further you place the mic from the amp, the less treble you'll pick up, so this can be a great way of fattening up the tone of an otherwise thin guitar. It's also quite inexpensive (unless it gets you evicted) because all you need is volume, a microphone and a little bit of distance.
The Industrial Keyboard Pad
I'm pretty sure I borrowed this one from an old Trent Reznor interview in the 90s. Want an atmospheric sound which fulfills the role of a keyboard pad but you don't want to use keyboards or MIDI? Try this: dial up a reverb sound about two seconds long, then set the mix so you have 100% effected sound. Next, hold down a root note and its octave, and strum the heck out of them, as fast as you possibly can. The result will be a distant, forlorn, vaguely guitar-esque but certainly not keyboard-ish tone. Experiment with the perfect reverb length and pre-delay times to match the tempo of your track. And you can enhance the effect by feeding it into a more conventional stereo reverb with a short time on an effects bus.
This is my secret weapon. So don't tell anybody, okay? It's kind of based on The Yngwie but it's much more up-front and a little bit exotic. And I stole it from listening closely to pop vocal production. Hey, I'm not a pop music fan (and I'd probably lose my job as a metal columnist for Beat magazine if I was) but I'm a firm believer in looking for inspiration wherever you can find it. And what I noticed was that a lot of producers seemed to be running some interesting reverb tricks to thicken up the voice of various pop singers while maintaining that direct, breathy quality. Here's how to do it on guitar: dial a very short reverb time - less than 100ms should more than suffice, but somewhere around 70-80ms is ideal. Then set the reverb level at around 70% of the volume of the original note. And now, dial in a long pre-delay time. About 40-80ms is good. What you'll get is an effect that's somewhat similar to slapback delay, but thicker and without the crisp attack. Again it's a great way to thicken up the tone of a thin guitar, but since you're keeping the original direct note as well, you still get all the fine details. It gives power chords some additional wallop and it helps to bring out a pretty impressive series of harmonic overtones when you're playing lead. And it creates a sort of aural illusion that makes your super-fast speed-picking seem even faster.
What about you? What are your favorite reverb tricks?