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Stomp Box Basics: How 10 Essential Pedals Work

Ted Drozdowski
|
10.10.2012

Ever since Jimi Hendrix conjured up “Purple Haze” with an octave pedal, a distortion box and his wiry imagination – and made one of the most eloquent anti-war statements with the pure sonics of “Machine Gun” – electric guitars and effects pedals have been kissin’ cousins.

Jimi HendrixIf you’re new to the world of effects or if you stepped away for a few years of the post-Y2K boutique pedal revolution, the available array of tone-coloring and tone-bending devices can be overwhelming. Some shops that cater to creative guitarists have cases stocked with literally hundreds of brightly colored boxes, all begging for a place on players’ pedal boards.

But cutting through the maze of candy-colored stomp boxes is a direct path that can take you to a place where the sounds on most classic and not-so-classic recordings can be duplicated or approximated. And the stepping-stones of that path are the 10 essential pedal functions that comprise the fundamental tone-tweaking tools.

If you’re considering building a basic pedal board or simply looking to expand beyond the sound of a guitar and amplifier for the first time, here are the primary stomp boxes to consider:

Tuner

Sure, this seems basic, but a good stage tuner is invaluable. And today, dependable stage tuners are available for $100 or less. Nothing you do will sound good if your guitar is out of tune, and whether you’re a working musician or jamming with friends in a garage, issues with tuning always will develop because the condition of your instrument, room or outdoor temperature, humidity and other factors all challenge tuning. The best floor devices will have bright LEDs – bright enough to be detectible in sunlight, ideally, and should have chromatic as well as standard tuning modes should you venture into open tunings or your own Sonic Youth-y creations.

Distortion

The world of grind, growl, fuzz and fizzle is incredibly diverse. A major guitar magazine recently published a cover story reviewing 100 distortion boxes, and that left plenty of pedals in this highly competitive niche out. The key to acquiring the right distortion for you is defining your needs. A basic distortion pedal works by compressing the peaks of a guitar’s signal and adding overtones. But there are complications. Some pedals use tubes for warm, amp-like tones. Others use germanium circuits, which also tend to be warm and more responsive to the dynamics and attack of a performance. And then there’s silicon-based circuits, which have a brighter, edgier sound that often makes them the natty shredder’s best friend.

A little research in this department is required for the distortion pedal novice, or even the long-time user of classic devices like the Distortion+ or Fuzz-Face who may be interested in checking out the new generation of dirty stompers. But the rule of thumb is that if you’re looking for a traditional sound, like a Big Brother and the Holding Company fuzz tone or a Stevie Ray howl, stick with the traditional models or their modern emulators. And from there on it’s a brave new world of manufacturers and boxes that further color distortion with everything from low-level ring modulation to Theremin-like functions.

Individual boxes in the same model line may vary, too, so it’s best to try a few once you’ve circled in on the particular kind you want, if that luxury is available. 

Tremolo

This is the oldest electric guitar effect. In fact, the first stand-alone effects unit besides reverb was a tremolo device produced in 1948, and shortly thereafter tremolo became standard issue in several families of amplifiers, including Gibson’s. Tremolo creates a rapid variation in the volume of a guitar’s output. Trem stomp boxes blend the signal from your guitar with a carrier wave that is inaudible, creating the sonic dropouts that produce the iconic stuttering sound heard on so many Bo Diddley recordings and the intro to “Gimme Shelter,” among other classic tracks. Some tremolo units also have a stereo panning function, which moves the signal between two amps. Others have knobs for altering waveforms. Typically, tremolo stomp boxes have a similar basic set-up to the units built into old amps: a dial for “intensity,” “depth” or “rate,” (all controlling the degree of suppression of actual guitar volume) and another for “speed.” And between them lies a world of classic sounds.

 

Wah-Wah

Here’s another historic pedal, etched into rock history by Hendrix, Clapton, Beck and Page on a host of great recordings: “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return),” “White Room,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Dazed and Confused” and so on. A wah-wah creates its instantly recognizable, voice-like sound by sweeping through the frequency of a guitar’s signal. And, in most cases, the sweeping is done by foot and it is most effective if it’s done in time with the sequence of notes being played. See-sawing the pedal up and down opens and closes a potentiometer similar to the one in radial dial household light switches. But, in this case, the change in voltage alters the signal running to the amp. Canny designers have radically altered the wah pedal since the ’60s, building in wider sweeps and additional functions like distortion and panning. Some take the middleman – or at least the knee – out of the equation altogether, with wah stomp boxes that can be preset to perform wah functions with the tap of an on/off switch.

Overdrive

Distortion pedals are also overdrive pedals, but there is a distinction between the two functions and this family of boxes is more specific to the latter. Pure overdrive pedals are all about giving you more of what you’ve already got, while a distortion or fuzz pedal is going to add its own dirty personality, color and tone. For example, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s favorite pedal was the classic Tube Screamer, which, strictly speaking, is an overdrive rather than a distortion pedal. His breakout contribution to David Bowie’s hit “Let’s Dance” used this box brilliantly to produce a rich, warm, extremely well-rounded and expanded version of his basic guitar sound. Overdrive boxes warm up overtones at low volume and get more snarly and distorted only after their gain knob or the guitar’s volume has been rolled up considerably. Distortion pedals, on the other paw, will produce the same growl at any volume. Some players opt to have one of each on their pedal boards – the overdrive for tonal warmth and the distortion for fuzz, which creates all kinds of possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle grit.

 

Vibrato

This is one of the most underappreciated effects in modern guitar, but was a frequent flyer in the psychedelic ’60s and can be heard on the opening of the Electric Prunes’ “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night” with a little special studio sauce ladled on top. The VB-2 vibrato pedal was also a secret weapon of the sonically adventurous alternative-rock-era group Catherine Wheel, audible on their radio hits “Black Metallic” and “I Want to Touch You.” Gibson began adding a vibrato circuit to its electric instrument amps in the late 1940s, making vibrato another of the most durable effects. Vibrato, as anybody who owns a guitar with a whammy bar or has a good touch on the fret board knows, means slight or rapid variations in pitch. Like the wah-wah, this is a particularly voice-like effect. Typically vibrato boxes allow you to control and modify the true note being played by altering its pitch with a “pitch” or “depth” knob, a “rise” knob that defines how fast the effect will appear after a note is struck and a “speed” knob to define the tempo of the effect. The deeper the depth and faster the speed, generally speaking, the crazier and more intense the ululating quality of the line being played becomes. Various modeling boxes have this effect built in, but none have equaled the best vibrato boxes of the ’80s, which are hotly sought by players and collectors today.

 

Phase Shifter

Hendrix tunes such as “Pail Gap” and virtually any hit by Robin Trower feature generous amounts of phase shifter, as does Van Halen’s “The Cradle Will Rock.” Phasing, along with chorus, leads the parade of modulation effects, which split and blend signals to create new sounds. Essentially a phase shifter cuts a guitar signal into two signals, and pumps up some tonal aspects of one while lessening characteristics of another. Exactly what sonic range is affected depends on the model of phase shifter. The result is an especially breathy or rippling sound, depending on where the effect’s “speed” control is set. Lower is more gentle; higher more radical.

 

Chorus

Alternative rock guitar players loved the chorus pedal. It appeared often on tunes by The Cure, but Larry Carlton also used chorus on many studio sessions with his Gibson ES-335, and even Kurt Cobain cranked a chorus pedal way up for Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” True to its name, the chorus seeks to duplicate the multi-voiced sounds of the likes of choirs and string sections. As a modulation device, it splits a guitar’s signal in two and adds delay and vibrato to one half of the split signal while leaving the other unaltered. Typically a chorus box’s dials can affect the depth of that vibrato and pitch change, and can increase or decrease the blend of the altered portion of the signal with the original tone.

 

Delay/Sampling

Digital delay pedals and samplers began creeping into the guitar vocabulary with bands like U2 and The Cure. The original delay units were tape-driven, like the Echo-Plex used by Jimi Hendrix (“House Burning Down”) and David Gilmore (Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”) in the ’60s and ’70s. But in the mid-’80s, as digital effects came into use, the delay and early delay/sampler pedals came into vogue. While many effect connoisseurs frown on digital stomp boxes, the plusses of digital delay and sampling over tape are obvious. Primarily, there’s no tape to snarl, wear out or sputter. Today’s delay pedals can also get effects that were once produced by reverb tanks, like authentic-sounding rockabilly slap-back, and hearing The Edge play arpeggios through a delay pedal on “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a sublime listening experience. Plus digital sampling allows players to create and store as many as 99 loops in a single stomp box, doing the work of a virtual armada of tape recorders.

Flanger

And let’s not forget the flanger – a tad anachronistic but still a real head-turner. The flanger uses a solid-state transistor to duplicate an old studio tape trick called flanging. It creates a sound similar to a jet aircraft taking off. In the old days this was accomplished by recording a track on two synchronized tape reels and slowing one down by pressing the edge of its reel – a process dubbed flanging. The pedal duplicated this by creating a second signal that is variably delayed by the circuit and added back to the true signal. The most famous example may be Heart’s 1977 hit “Barracuda.”

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