The following is a guest post by Robert Kittleberger of GuitarChalk.com. If you are interested in guest posting, please contact me!
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 youâ€™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 â€œhiding behind your effectsâ€ 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 werenâ€™t any good on the guitar, wouldnâ€™t people just say they were a terrible player instead of, â€œWell see, heâ€™s just hiding behind his effectsâ€?
Aside from the fact that I donâ€™t like the term and I believe itâ€™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.Â Instead of having effects that fight our sound or overtake it, we want to use them in such a way that it makes what weâ€™re already playing better, and hopefully avoids the â€˜hiding behind our effectsâ€™ tagline.
Weâ€™ll take this in two parts: How to Avoid Hiding and How to Compliment.
How to Avoid Hiding
Even if itâ€™s not on purpose, poorly placed effects can drown out or overpower the melody and the musical aspect of what youâ€™re playing. To avoid this, weâ€™ll need to keep in mind a few things:
- Pedals (exception for pitch shifters) donâ€™t add any musical quality to what weâ€™re playing, thus their â€œeffectâ€ 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 weâ€™re playing need to be used more carefully or sparingly.
- Certain effects (particularly distortion) can give you the sense that youâ€™re making fewer mistakes and therefore can play faster.
Itâ€™s important to understand that what effects bring to the table is a secondary or complimentary piece to the music youâ€™ve already created, thus they should not be relied on as a structural aspect of the music. Theyâ€™re just decorative, and keeping them in that context can help to avoid the unpleasant event of having them overtake the music that weâ€™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 â€œstrategyâ€ 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 gearâ€™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 donâ€™t end up overpowering you own sound.
3. Avoid â€œSaturationâ€ If youâ€™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 theyâ€™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 â€œoverusingâ€ effects doesnâ€™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.
Letâ€™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 weâ€™re using it:
- It should call attention to the notes and sounds weâ€™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 youâ€™re playing and not be a distraction.
Putting complimentary effects into practice is best achieved by following the steps for â€œAvoiding Hidingâ€, 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 youâ€™re playing better. Look for these opportunities as theyâ€™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 itâ€™s up to us as guitar players to figure out how to harness that energy and use it properly. The fact that itâ€™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!
Robert Kittleberger is the founder and editor of guitarchalk.com. You can visit the site at http://www.guitarchalk.com/ and follow Robert on Twitter @guitarchalk.
10 years ago
I disagree. Fuck subtlety. Use Sovtek Big Muffs at maximum filth levels. Use catastrophic levels of bass fuzz at all times. If you’re not very good, you’re not very good. A few pedals won’t change that. Get whatever pedals you want and find the sound you want. This also means learning how to use and play with them to get those sounds. But when you get there, be loud. Your neighbours are probably jerks anwyay.Reply
10 years ago
What’s screams to one man may whisper to another. But yeah man, i think i leak the other way. Mix shit up. Get weird. That’s the point of all this, right? Effects Bay, not Vintage Tone Bay.Reply
10 years ago
Sometimes, the effect IS the song. Think of “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” or “Tales Of Brave Ulysses” where the wah makes the song. Or Hendrix doing “Machine Gun”. Think of almost anything by Robin Trower. Pedals are like colors, and the guitarist is the painter. Maybe you’re a master and you paint a gentle landscape. Maybe you’re a Picasso and you unleash the anger in your soul. I’ve got a Line 6 FM-4 for times when I want my guitar to sound like anything BUT a guitar.Reply
10 years ago
Well, piping in so far have been a couple of proudly ignorant attention seekers from the 15-year-old-adolescent-male-mentality demographic… a very few of whom grow older (but not necessarily “up”), maintain their state of ignorance, join a band that gets lucky — if not ever much accomplished — and end up taking a brief bow on one of the vacuous “late night” shows that exist to shill for mega-corporate interests and their disposable “talent”. Hosted by similarly amateurish and unaccomplished practitioners of the art of comedy — people, who like so many lousy guitar players, show little inclination to buckle down and learn their purported craft — it all “fits” together, I guess, yielding an unrelieved and minimally differentiated wash of sub-mediocrity for minds cluttered with the detritus of CrapCulture (but largely empty of meaningful ideas) to drift off to.
Hiding behind effects and cranked high gain amps, Robert, is EXACTLY what these guitar “operators” do! One after another, “successful” bands show up on these purported entertainment vehicles [a.k.a., Big Revenue producers, due to cheap production costs… as in, you get what you pay for]; and within a matter of seconds, it is obvious that “these guys can’t play”.
So much potential creativity and inspiration is nipped in the bud by a mindless, thuggish squashing (the work of predatory, monopoly-minded, under-regulated corporate interests; in bed with corrupt, paid-for politicians; in the service of greed, not art) …of the eclectic old school Top 40 format and the formerly real variety shows… and also of the independent labels and radio outlets that used to be able, for a time, to play on the big stage commercially.
So here we have it: A couple of generations who would rather play video games, get fat, and shop for ring tones than actually sit and LISTEN — or DANCE competently and creatively, and enjoy a SATISFYING sort of fun, for that matter — to the sound of quality music (rock, or otherwise) reproduced properly with respect to allowing the elements of artistic interpretation — the “message” — to come across. And, as Keith Richards put it so succinctly, these bands may have the “rock” [enough noise and thrashing about will do for that, I suppose], but they DON’T have the “roll”!
Under circumstances like these, it’s not so surprising that popular music today is “produced” out of a computer box — not really composed — and that people just treat music, even the better varieties, as mere aural “chewing gum” or sonic “wallpaper”, well off center stage among the misplaced priorities of the present moment. Music is so undervalued that it’s largely now just a commodity barely worth stealing, let alone paying for. And again, you get what you pay for.
Delusional young would-be guitar players keep picking up guitars (and recording devices, and D.A.W.s, et.al. …ad infinitum on that stuff, it seems) with the ignorant notion that there’s still a music business out there offering a career they can crack into. It’s like young black men ignoring their education with the idea that they’re going to play in the N.B.A.
But credit, then, to those who truly get the concept of amateurism [see “amo, amas, amat”, etymology fans] — something completely different from amateurishness — and just play for the love of it. But playing for enjoyment and REAL satisfaction is not the same as just playing around, something the clueless Ryan and Dean fail to grasp. Let these types hide behind the murky “brick wall” effects and saturated amp cacophony; since to actually hear the hopeless incompetence without the smokescreen would probably be even more discouraging to one and all.
So, Robert, I think your essay here is a bit disjointed (as my dashed off, minimally-edited response is a bit inelegant), having a disconnect between it’s opening argument, to which I have taken some issue; and the very worthy and sensible prescription for appropriate, thoughtful artistic expression that picks up from there. Your points are very well taken, and I applaud you for presenting them here for those wise enough to pay attention and concentrate for a few minutes.
As a solo performer who doubts the dependable effectiveness of an acoustic guitar and a fifty minute set in a maximally-distracted instant download, ‘click’-you’re-outta-there age, I remain VERY interested in Hank’s most helpful presentations at Effects Bay. I do have a lot of little boxes to play with; but my real interest is in having the tools available to put across a coherent and consistently engaging “delivery of the message”. I choose (and write) quality material, each piece having a reason to be there; and I try to make each and every song the star, the focus of attention — as opposed to the affectations of the performer obliterating all meaning from any song that actually had any to begin with. I didn’t see Beyonce’s “real live” performance on the crass spectacle that is a Super Bowl halftime show… but I can imagine — and feel confident I didn’t miss anything resembling the craft of artistic expression. You can catch yer celebrity “fix”, as required, anytime. That, and bouncing parts of the anatomy, are things that come cheaper than “a dime a dozen” these days.
Your list, in contrast, Robert, is an excellent framework around which to build the skills of a true artist. Thanks!Reply
10 years ago
There are times that I do want the effects to overpower the notes but not many. I have one delay preset that does just that so it adds an ambient drone to the song. you can still hear the notes but it softens them tremendously. It sounds pest to me when the keyboard player is doing slower single note stuff and puts me in control of the ambience.Reply
10 years ago
At the risk of muddying the waters — there is certainly a multitude of songs which are ‘made’ by the effects used. And the right effects can add tonal qualities that can make a ‘great’ song out of one that otherwise requires very limited playing ability. That said, I think the point made by the ‘vintage tone’ folks is that effects are not, in the end, a real substitute for knowing and being proficient with your instrument and amp.Reply
10 years ago
Yes, Angelo, Jim, Robert — It’s never about some arbitrary rules; at least for rock & pop, it isn’t. It’s just a matter of what works.
For those old enough to have been there and heard it AT THE TIME, Keith Richard’s fuzz tone on ‘Satisfaction’ bored its way out of a 2-1/2″ AM radio speaker to convey both a startling WTF?-factor… AND as the more effective statement of convention-flouting rebelliousness than any of Mick Jagger’s vocal or anatomical posturings. You hardly needed lyrics…Reply
10 years ago
@Fred, dude thanks so much for the awesome feedback! I’ve got half a mind to post your response as an article and credit you with a guest post haha. Would you mind?
Anyways, to the first couple comments @Ryan and @Dean I’m not advocating that you neglect the use or enjoyment of your effects. They absolutely can make a song better.
But that’s just it. I’m saying that you should allow them to do so as a secondary element. Not as the primary attraction. Being smart about how you use them doesn’t disregard their use. It improves the outcome.
Besides, if you disagree, just take the time to craft an articulate response instead of dropping the f-bomb.Reply
10 years ago
So, while I think this post is ridiculous, I’m more annoyed by the comments. I agree with the first responders, and I’m not 15 and fat, Fred. I’m also not a bedroom player. Additionally, for 75% of my playing, stick to plain old OD or Fuzz with some delay and reverb. But, occasionally, I like to have some fun with my pedals. I could play all my music clean through my amp with no reverb and no mistakes, but I would hate that so much. I would be uninspired. You need to open your mind a little bit and understand that not everything is the Rolling Stones or AC/DC. And, the main reason I’m commenting is because you used such a generic way of disregarding someone else’s opinions. “Well, if I call them stupid, fat, 15-years-old and ignorant, my opinion will hold that much more gravity.”
Thanks for outlining what a “true artist” is. Oh, and the completely unrelated Beyonce reference. Genius.
And, Robert, maybe you should classify genre up front – like classic rock or folk or something. Because the frame of reference you seemed to be working from seems to be limited in scope.
How about a heavily filtered funk bass line? It doesn’t work without the pedals. It doesn’t matter how well you play it. How about Smashing Pumpkins without the Big Muff? Or The Cure without flanger. The Edge (though I dislike U2) without a delay? He’s known specifically for this. Would you tell EVH (also not a Van Halen fan) he uses too much phaser? How about My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive or Swervedriver, etc.? Or tricks that Johnny Greenwood uses, include massive amounts of delay feedback? What about using insane distortion feedback and having that effect just make the song? Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Jesus and Mary Chain, Pixies, etc. I could go on and on.
You laying the guidelines as to when it’s okay to do “loud swells” is ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that a number of pedals and giveaways on this site are aimed at people who completely go against your wisdom. Again, you should state what kind of music you play so people can simply choose not to read. For instance, “I’m a folk guitarist and I think only spring reverb should be used and that cathedral and reverse reverb are awful.” There is no playbook for music. What sounds good sounds good, if it’s an acoustic guitar or a guitar drone on a looper.
The overall synergy of the music is the primary attraction. How the bass, vocals, drums, guitar, etc. all work together. Not everyone is out to be Angus Young or SRV or some other generic or over-copied guitarist.
There you go. No “f-bombs.”Reply
10 years ago
This is hilarious.Reply
10 years ago
1. You clearly need to do some work on your reading comprehension skills or attention span. [I may have saved you the trouble of saying the same, Robert!]
2. There were 2 posts, in case you also missed that; and the two should be considered complementary… naturally.
3. Don’t put words into my mouth, please — particularly when they reflect your own state of incomprehension or confusion, and not what I wrote.
4. BTW, a number of your comments — in themselves — probably accomplish more to underscore certain points I made, for the discerning reader, than anything I could add at this point. So, thanks.Reply
10 years ago
I’m glad you’re having fun — that’s the spirit! Seriously. If you’re interested in quality results and making progress as a musician, just think carefully about the really crucial & pertinent points Robert, and may I say, yours truly, brought up; because they apply to ANY kind of quality music with which you might want to engage. A point lost on Rob, BTW.
Some measure of ignorance is certainly not a crime and is perfectly normal… and that can be ‘fixed’ to a useful degree… here and there, anyway. Of course, someone who doesn’t want to admit to the more or less expected level of ignorance is likely working under an insurmountable handicap when it comes to getting a bit more clever. Just ask reasonably intelligent person who has, like me, passed six decades about how “with it” they really were at, say 20… After they stop laughing, you might hear one or two constructive gems of wisdom.
You may have heard somewhere what they say about stupidity in that regard, in contrast to mere ignorance. Hint: one is [probably] permanent! Just try to fall on the right side of that divide and you’ll be fine. Good luck, and KEEP PLAYING — I lost the connection for 25 years due to this and that… I’m having a lot of fun now.Reply
10 years ago
Fred, trust me, my reading comprehension skills far surpass yours. I did note there were two, which is why I stated first responders – with an “s.” Additionally, I did not put words into your mouth. You did quite the job there. As I assumed, you will just continue to insult everyone else to make a point rather than try to use any sort of intelligence and persuasion. I don’t agree with you, therefore I am ignorant. Yes Fred, because you are 60, please enlighten us on the proper way to do things. Because you are nearing retirement age, that clearly makes you a musical expert with “constructive gems” to share.
I also would also question your comprehension because of your inability to understand what I wrote. You come across as a doddering old fool (to take a page from your book). But hey, “old dog” and all. I’m sure you know the saying.
Keep on being pretentious, boring and pedantic. It’s working for your image.Reply
10 years ago
I’d rather hide behind effects than hide behind blinding technique with little to say .Reply
10 years ago
Man, tough crowd. Still not sure what I said that was so divisive.Reply