Crafting a pedal board and using it appropriately is a bit of an art form that requires some careful thought and attention, both before and after you’ve purchased your effects. The way you implement and use every pedal you own makes the difference between being able to compliment your sound and simply hiding behind your effects.
The term “hiding behind your effects” has always seemed kind of stupid to me. No one ever accuses a keyboard play of that, yet they use more effects than anyone. The term seemed more to me like a quick way to discredit someone who was an accomplished guitarist. If they weren’t any good on the guitar, wouldn’t people just say they were a terrible player instead of, “Well see, he’s just hiding behind his effects”?
Aside from the fact that I don’t like the term and I believe it’s misused, it is true that guitar players can misuse and misappropriate their effects. Whether or not that can hide poor play is up for debate.
What I want to talk about is how to use effects in a way that complements our own sound, style and niche that we find ourselves in as guitar players. Instead of having effects that fight our sound or overtake it, we want to use them in such a way that it makes what we’re already playing better, and hopefully avoids the ‘hiding behind our effects’ tagline.
We’ll take this in two parts: How to Avoid Hiding and How to Compliment.
How to Avoid Hiding
Even if it’s not on purpose, poorly placed effects can drown out or overpower the melody and the musical aspect of what you’re playing. To avoid this, we’ll need to keep in mind a few things:
- Pedals (exception for pitch shifters) don’t add any musical quality to what we’re playing, thus their “effect” on the music needs to be a secondary attraction and not a primary one.
- Sounds that add or take away from the volume or clarity of what we’re playing need to be used more carefully or sparingly.
- Certain effects (particularly distortion) can give you the sense that you’re making fewer mistakes and therefore can play faster.
It’s important to understand that what effects bring to the table is a secondary or complimentary piece to the music you’ve already created, thus they should not be relied on as a structural aspect of the music. They’re just decorative, and keeping them in that context can help to avoid the unpleasant event of having them overtake the music that we’re playing.
Here are a few practical ways we can avoid this mistake.
1. Careful effects placement in every song.
I used to plan out my effects “strategy” for every song on my set list. I went through each verse and chorus, taking into account overall volume and intensity as best I could predict it. This will vary depending on your situation, but a few minutes of deliberate planning can go a long way for anyone.
2. Standardizing effects that can increase gain or volume.
Establishing standards for your gear’s settings is a good idea no matter what, but particularly in the case of pedals that increase your gain or volume. Distortion pedals are an obvious example, but other effects can increase or decrease volume as well. Make sure you take the time to calibrate the settings of your pedals with the settings of your amp so that everything comes out evenly and you don’t end up overpowering you own sound.
3. Avoid “Saturation” If you’re Not Using Distortion
Saturation with delay or modulation effects usually just sounds too muddy. These effects though they can be used frequently, should be dialed back enough to avoid sounding like they’re taking over the notes. Phaser and chorus effects are particularly susceptible to this.
The way you apply these to your own rig will vary depending on how you have your gear set up, what pedals you use and what kind of music you play; though in general, they can be helpful to anyone who might feel like their effects take over at times.
The trick lies in understanding that “overusing” effects doesn’t necessarily refer to the length of time, but rather the way they sound in an allotted time. In other words, you could have a delay on for an entire song sounding great, and you could also have it on for 10 seconds sounding awful. The trick is to get your settings right and to avoid overpowering the musical aspects of the song.
Let’s look at step two.
How to Compliment
A lot of the answer to this question can be found in the inverse of the answers to the previous question, though we can still discuss some specifics. Remember that our goal when using an effect of any kind is to compliment our sound and ultimately improve it.
Here are a few things an effect pedal should do when we’re using it:
- It should call attention to the notes and sounds we’re playing instead of distracting from them.
- It should cause the sound to make more sense and be more emotionally satisfying than it would be without it.
- It should be the secondary feature, taking a backseat to the note itself.
I could probably sum this all up by saying, a well placed effect means the notes and overall sound are better off with it, than without it. If it all fits together than it will ultimately improve what you’re playing and not be a distraction.
Putting complimentary effects into practice is best achieved by following the steps for “Avoiding Hiding”, as following those guidelines means your effects will be generally well placed. However there are a couple intentional steps we can take to try and use our effects to compliment our music.
1. Use effects in spots that are musically more subtle.
A good example of this would be a simple lead part during a verse of a song, where things are often quieter and a lead guitar is basically just in charge of adding mystique and effect. In that situation a nice delay or phaser will definitely make what you’re playing better. Look for these opportunities as they’re ripe for heavy pedal use.
2. Use them in conjunction with the ebb and flow of intensity in a song.
Using loud swelling effects during the chorus make more sense than kicking them in during the verse. Use the louder more full effects during the more intense parts of a song and the more subtle quieter ones during the less intense parts of a song. It sounds simple, but it can make a huge difference in how your guitar playing fits into the music. While it can be applied differently depending on the situation, the general rule of matching intensity stays the same.
Unfortunately, effects are a double-edged sword. They can either make a song or break it, and it’s up to us as guitar players to figure out how to harness that energy and use it properly. The fact that it’s not an exact science is probably just as much of a good thing as it is a bad thing.
Let me know in the comments section below. How do you keep your effects from overpowering your sound? When is too much, too much?
Thanks for reading!