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It’s safe to say that building your first (or second, third… 20th) pedalboard can be intimidating. The sheer amount of pedal options out there, power supplies, midi capabilities, buying the right sized pedalboard and patch cables… it can be really tricky to know where to begin. Let’s say you make it past all of these points, in which case the real work has just begun! Yet it’s easy and all too common to miss what comes next.
Today we are going to talk about 3 mistakes pedalboard enthusiasts often skip or brush past in favor of saving time, or due to a lack of experience or just simply because it’s hard to ask the question if you don’t know you’re supposed to ask it in the first place!
In no particular order, let’s dive into it.
Signal Chain Isn’t Important, Right?
It’s not rocket science. You buy a pedal that sounds great at the store or on a demo online and you expect that you’ll get that same sound once you put it in your rig. Fair assumption.
The thing us guitarists often forget is that that guitar pedal you heard on it’s own (guitar - new pedal - amp) will potentially sound drastically different once it’s on your pedalboard.
You now have to consider what signal will be feeding your new found glory box and what your new pedal is going to feed. Another way to say this - what signal is coming into your new pedal and what signal is coming out? This pedal will both be affected by the sound coming in and affect the sound going out.
If you play any guitar pedal on it’s own (guitar - pedal - amp) it’s going to sound different once another pedal is added into the mix. Let’s take a really obvious example.
You play your guitar into a delay into your amp. Your delay pedal is going to be fed by your guitar directly. Clean, crisp electric guitar. Beautiful. This means the repeats of the delay as well are going to reflect the sound it sees on it’s input (clean, crisp guitar).
Let's say you just finished watching Hendrix play a fuzz face (a fuzz pedal) and want to have that same sound. You add it to your pedalboard.
Now your signal chain might look something like:
Guitar - Fuzz Face - Delay - Amp
What will happen to your delay sound now that there is a fuzz before it? It’s going to completely change! Your delay is going to see a heavily clipped, fuzz signal and it’s repeats will follow suit.
I know this example is straight forward but the same principles play out with any other pedal you have on your board. You constantly have to ask yourself what is feeding this pedal and what will this pedal feed.
A less obvious example.
You go from one overdrive to two on your pedalboard. Which one should come first?
If you’ve read or watched anything I have to say on signal chain already you know what I’m going to say - try both and make up your own mind!
A general rule of thumb: your signal chain will sound most like the last pedal. In this overdrive example, you have a high gain pedal feeding a low gain pedal. Your signal will tend to take on the characteristics of the lower gain pedal. If you’re running a pedal with scooped mids last, your EQ (scooped mids) will tend to be quite present.
Take an octave pedal. Have you ever tried running octave before and after your gain pedals? It sounds completely different. When you run octave first, the octave is much less pronounced if it’s running into gain pedals. Run that same octave with the exact same settings after your gain pedals and it pops out in a mix like it’s the only pedal in your signal chain.
Signal chain matters. This is why I strongly advise you to never take someone's word for it. Use online forums, this blog post, videos from respected artists as a starting point and then start experimenting to come up with your sound! Check out this signal chain video comparing boost positions to get an idea of how to run experiments and their results.
Signal chain swaps to try
*a note here - if you hear someone say ‘first’, ‘middle’ or ‘last’ when referring to signal chain it generally means ‘before dry effects’, ‘after dry effects and before modulation/wet effects’ and ‘after wet effects before your amp’ respectively:
-Octave before and after overdrive
-Compressor before and after overdrive
-Boost before and after overdrive
-Tremolo before and after delay/reverb
-Volume first, middle and last
-Amp/Cab Sim middle and last.
-Mod/wet effects before your amp and in your amps effects loop (four cable method)
-Wah before and after overdrives
-Changing the order of your gain pedals
-Chorus into delay or delay into chorus
-Running your wet effects (delay and reverb mostly) in series and parallel
And many more…
Not Thinking Through The Sound You Want And How To Get There.
This point HAS to start with the big question - “What does good guitar tone sound like?”
You will most likely have something that comes to mind right away. Whether it’s thick, crunchy overdrive, clean funk tones, chime filled top end going through a vox tube amp or even fingerstyle acoustic… we all think of something different.
This begs the question - who is correct? Or better yet, can you be wrong? Is it ok to add fuzz to your acoustic guitar, compressor at the end of your electric guitar signal chain, to play a solid state guitar amp instead of tube or to roll your tone knob all the way off?
I’m not qualified to answer this philosophical query but I might just ask a few more questions.
Let’s assume for now there is no one answer that follows the question. Instead, I think we can mostly agree that there are guitar tones that are better suited for different contexts (venues, band mates, skill levels), genres (overarching categories of music), styles (approaches, voicings and techniques and textures within a genre), musicians and tastes.
If you agree with this notion even in part, then it makes sense to think through the genres, styles and contexts in which you play. Whether it be grunge, pop, blues, fingerstyle, punk, country or something else entirely, you need to know where you’re going to have any idea of where you should begin.
This is getting deep. Mucher deeper than I had planned. Let’s lighten things up a bit.
Ok. Now that you know the genres, styles and contexts in which you plan on playing, it would make sense to pick the techniques, melodies, harmonies and gear that best compliment them. I have to say, we aren’t going to get into the first three, we are mainly going to focus on gear. There are many things I am not qualified for and teaching guitar technique and chord harmony is close to the top of the list.
You’ve decided on country music with a pop influence mainly at home and local pubs with other musos of moderate skill and audiences of anywhere from 25-100. Your stage volume needs to be easily managed and you will have a dedicated sound tech during shows. Not bad.
You won’t have a guitar tech though. Should you call this whole music career off? I mean, you’ll need to lug your own gear around.
Country pop, small to medium size local venues, minimal sound gear, good musos, no guitar tech.
This is doable.
Let’s start this next section by saying these are simply starting points. You do not have to look far to see professional musos breaking the ‘rules’ and creating their own sound within a genre and style. The only caveat here - you can do the same thing, just make sure you have the experience and ear to know why you’re breaking the rules. Don’t put a sitar pedal on your next country solo just because you want to sound different, know why you’re breaking the rules. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, you may just lose your next gig or session for being, ‘that guy/girl’ with no ear for context instead of the genius you truly are.
Guitar - Something tight, punchy, good on bridge and neck pickup and not too dark. Let’s go predictable here and say a Fender Telecaster. Curious what it might be for your genre / style? Take a listen to some of the influential artists in your chosen area and describe their tone. Write it down. Find an instrument that suits both yourself and the genre.
Amp - full sound, takes pedals well, not too much built-in gain, as country guitars tend to start out on the cleaner side with the ability to break up a bit with an overdrive or pushing the front end of the amp (pushing the amp with more volume until it naturally overdrives the preamp, creating overdrive). Country guitar tends to lean towards fender but also dips its toes into the more aggressive and chimy Vox AC30. Today let’s go with a common, affordable and great sounding Fender Deluxe Reverb. It’s a 1x12 combo (has one 12” speaker) which means it can still be quiet enough for a small gig but has plenty of volume for those slightly larger shows.
Guitar Pedals - We could go on for the next 10,000 words talking about guitar pedals for country music. We’re not going to do that but we are going to give some pointers so you can decide for yourself.
Compressor: Country guitar is often (although not always) tight, punchy and compressed sounding. Quick attack and high mids help define it. A compressor is a great way to aid in achieving this sound. You can overly compress and exaggerate this approach with any good compressor pedal and fine tune your sound to fit the context and style you find yourself in.
Check out the Wampler Ego Compressor, Keeley Compressors or one of my personal favourites the Diamond CPR1 Compressor.
Overdrives: Typically country music isn’t known for it’s over-the-top distortion and fuzz tones. This means you probably want to pick something along the lines of a clean boost to get above the mix in a solo and possibly a light to medium gain overdrive for thicker rhythm and melody lines. Between these two pedals and the volume pot on your guitar you have more overdrive options than you could shake a stick (or your tele) at. For a clean boost check out the Xotic RC Booster or Vertex Boost MKII. For low to medium gain pedals there are too many choices to even begin! Check out a tube screamer which has a mid-boost which will help you stand out in solos, the Timmy by Paul Cochrane which doesn’t affect your EQ nearly as much when engaged, and you can also check out a Klon based pedal which tends to push your amp and sound more ‘amp like’. One of my favourite Klon clones is the J Rockett Archer.
Modulation: Typically you won’t hear a lot of modulation in country music. This doesn’t mean it’s not there, however it does mean it’s often used in a subtle way. Since this band has a pop influence I think you could get away with having a chorus and possibly a tremolo on your board, but they aren’t crucial. Check out the Boss CE-2W for chorus, Fulltone Supa-Trem OR if you want to save space and get a wide range of modulation check out something like an HX stomp or Eventide H9 which are multi-effects units. Lastly, an EHX Micro POG for octave can also serve you well. Typically pitch effects are in their own standalone unit. Using them in multi-effects doesn’t sound quite the same.
Delay and Reverb: One of the most iconic sounds of country guitar is slapback delay. For those of you that aren’t aware, this is a very fast, often single repeat of a delay pedal that makes it sound like a guitar is doubling everything being played right after the initial note is hit. The Boss DM2 is a pedal that is widely used for this sound although many others will do a great job. The downside to the DM2 is no tap tempo which, depending on context may or may not matter. Also check out the Strymon Timeline for a wide range of easily controllable delays.
Reverb is also a great option to have up your sleeve. Keep the mix on the lower side so it doesn’t overtake your sound. Let your reverb compliment rather than be the staple of your tone. Check out the Blue Sky by Strymon, The Immerse (or similar) from Neunaber, Eventide H9 (multi effect) also has some great reverb and delay sounds on board
Of course there are many other sounds the country music guitarists use. But I’ve just covered some of the most common here.
We can’t talk about pedals without talking about power - don’t get great pedals and bad power (or patch leads for that matter). Get a good, isolated power supply. Check out Strymon, Cioks, TrueTone and Voodoo Lab for great options. The main thing in choosing power is making sure you have enough individual power outlets for all of your digital and high current pedals. For a lot of overdrives and analogue pedals you can often share a power tap. As a general rule, err on the side of having a spare tap or two available just in case you want to easily add a pedal or one of your shared power taps needs to be isolated.
I Don’t Need To Practice, I’ve Got Boutique Guitar Gear!
Every piece of gear, whether guitar, amp or pedals can achieve a unique sound that other pieces of gear simply cannot replicate in the same way.
You’re going to be hard pressed to get your fender strat to fill the shoes of your Gibson Les Paul, or your Matchless Lightning to sound just like your Fender Deluxe. The same goes with most guitar pedals. I mean, I just spent all of point #2 telling you that gear choice matters!
One of the hardest truths to hear and truly understand is that you can’t buy tone! Tone is in the fingers. We’ve all heard it and SAY that we agree with it, but let’s be honest, we still buy gear for a change in our sound quicker than we pick up the guitar and practice in order to change or grow our sound. Myself included.
This is best demonstrated with a story. Grab a seat.
I was playing guitar back home in Sydney, Australia at my then church, Hillsong. I stepped out to grab a few things after soundcheck. I could hear what was happening through the sound system but I couldn’t see anything.
Shortly after I left, I heard my rig being played through the sound system. It didn’t sound like me playing (obvious, but wait for it). It sounded EXACTLY like Nigel Hendroff. As if his own board, amp and guitar were there, set up and soundchecked. He was using my guitar, my pedals and my amp, my cables, but it sounded like him.
Let’s get the obvious, disappointing truth out of the way and confirm that in 1 min, he made my rig sound better than I could have ever hoped or achieved. Disappointing and inspiring all at the same time (he is an infinitely better guitar player than me).
What were the constants between when he played through his rig vs. my rig? Nigel! The only constant was the musician. The life experience, the years of practice, the technique, the melodies, touch and feel. HOW you play your gear matters on an order of magnitude more than WHAT gear you play. Gear still matters, don’t get me wrong, but if you want to truly change, grow or even tweak your sound - sit down and practice creating those new tones and techniques.
It’s unseen, not sexy, not nearly as exciting as buying new gear and it’s not a fast and easy solution, but it makes the biggest difference by far.
Find a sound/guitarist you like and learn the technique before you learn the gear. How do they fret their notes? Are they precise and methodical, or a bit sloppy and inconsistent? Both will yield a different result (and depending on context, genre and style, neither one is ‘bad’ or ‘better’)! Do they strum or pick individual notes? Do they prefer a hybrid pic technique or economy or alternate or something else altogether? Do they EQ their sound bright? Dull? Scooped?
Keep asking questions and keep searching for answers. Along the way you will interpret and experiment how they get their sound and in doing so will create your own. Do this with as many artists as you can and before you know it you will have a sound unlike anyone else, not based on gear but on experience.
I hope these three points have given you something to think about, consider, disagree with, improve or just maybe encouraged you to keep going on the path you’re already on.