We’re into the bonus round for this month's focus on Why Guitar Tone Matters! As there’s 5 weeks in March, I get one last post to talk about one of my favorite topics of conversation with artists and engineers, and actually, this particular part of that topic is arguably one of my favorite subtopics to focus on…
Today, we’re delving into the broad spectrum of Guitar Pedals, and why they are both the key to unlocking various tonal doors, but also, why they don’t have to be too complicated either.
Let’s dive in!
What Makes Pedals Important?
There’s actually a few different answers to that question, but the main one is that it’s another tool to be used in tandem with other parts of the guitar or bass rig to find the sound in your head. There’s many, many pedals out there, with major companies such as Line6, Boss, MXR, Ibanez, Electro-Harmonix, and more dominating the market for a number of years however, since the late 90’s there’s been a massive boom in smaller companies and boutique manufacturers creating even more pedals to add to the plethora already available.
The main functionality of a guitar pedal, that I personally think can help more than anything else to help you achieve the tone you’re chasing, is in the form of distortion and overdrive pedals. These types of pedals and their circuits don’t just allow for exactly what their names say (i.e. distortion), but they quite literally affect the tonality of the guitar tone in a few different ways before the signal actually reaches the amplifier resulting in EQ shaping, add harmonics, sustain, and more being added prior to anything the amp is designed to do.
Now, this can be very useful when you’re playing mainly clean guitar tones, but need to ramp up the gain for parts that may be more emotive such as a solo or rhythm sections that need a little extra something to really get the feel you want from that section of the song. Thankfully, in terms of distortion and overdrive, there’s only really 5 main circuits that have been designed, that manufacturers have then made minor adjustments to and then made their own pedals from there on; Josh, from JHS pedals is a much more educated man than I on this topic, so if you want to learn more about those types of circuits then you can do so below:
The Order Of Operations
What order you arrange your pedals really does matter, and can give you some surprising results if you’re not too familiar with using pedals in general. Experimenting with the general order is great, but there’s a few simple guidelines rather than strict rules that I usually like to suggest being followed in order to get the most out of your signal chain. In short, the best way I personally find ordering my pedals on the board is by having all the practical effects such as compression and a tuning pedal, or buffer, before my overdrive and distortion pedals. Effects such as chorus, flanger, phaser, etc. can also be placed before or after, but it really depends on your preference - I personally prefer them after the things that will distort my signal allowing for a cleaner effect to be translated.
The FX send and return is a critical function of the amplifier and many pedals that replicate the preamp stage or similar. This loop is placed after the preamp, but before the poweramp section of the amp, allowing you to splice in FX after the main distortion of the signal has been applied allowing you to get maintain the actual unaffected sound of your pedals in the FX loop rather than placing them elsewhere in the signal chain and utilizing the main input of the amplifier instead.
The overarching reason for this is simply that distorted reverb doesn’t always sound that great in many cases, and so it’s better to place it after all the parts of the chain are going to potentially add their own character or distortion so you get a much cleaner emulation of the space you want your guitar to sound like its within.
Delay into reverb is always going to be a gateway into most guitarists' hearts, but the point at which the delay is placed can also matter as well. Placement in the FX loop prior to the reverb will give you a much cleaner representation of the actual sound the pedal is achieving, whereas before your overdrive pedals, and into the main input of the amp will give you much more sustained and obvious results but also will mean that your delay pedal is distorted a few different times, in different ways (which can be really fun!) so make sure you try out a few different placements when you’re recording or playing to find out what you like.
Thankfully, Neural DSP's Nolly Amp-sim has a delay pedal between the overdrive options, so you can experiment prior to moving your own board around to see if you like this sound.
The Diamond In The Rough
There's honestly so many pedals out there that I doubt most of us will ever get a chance to play even 10% of them; but there’s something special about the moment you plug into a new pedal and you know it's going on the pedalboard forever without even a second thought. There’s a few pedals like that for me, in particular was the Russian Pickle from Way Huge which is what I like to nickname ‘Kurt Cobain In a Box’ because of how close my guitar tone gets with it switched on, to many of his famed songs.
But I think the most important pedal I actually use aside from my guitar tuner is the impulse response loader I have. I can’t tell you how many times it’s been an absolute lifesaver at shows when the house cabinets really aren’t at all up to scratch and you don’t have any option but to use them - we even arrived once to a venue where the 4x12 cabinet had one of the speakers basically ripped in half and the others barely worked, but the front of house engineer assured us it was still in perfect working order…
Thankfully, having the IR Loader pedal meant that I was able to send the signal of my amp into a loadbox (such as the Two notes Torpedo range) and then into the IR pedal loader to emulate one of my lovely HH1 and Blackhole JZ mics in front of a Mesa 2x12 cabinet and then send that signal to the front of house to be sent out the PA allowing me to play with the best sound possible and not compromise on my tone. If you’re unsure where to find some great impulse responses there’s a bunch of great ones from both Bogren Digital and Ownhammer that I love using, but moreover, make sure you always have that safety net if you’re a gigging musician - you never know when you may need it!