Not Quite Plug and Play
by Cullen James
When it comes to playing guitar there is so much involved in getting "the sound." Basically, you first get an amp. Second, effects. Sprinkle with liberal amounts of mojo and carry on. Sort of.
Over the course of this piece, I’m going to discuss some of the basic effects common in most popular music. I'm going to assume that clean signals are equal (which they in no way are) and talk about effects in relation to the same signal.
Starting with the recording of Rocket 88 -- considered by most music historians to be the first rock and roll song -- electric guitarists have been looking for ways to modify their sound. Some want a unique way to define their sound, some want to match the mood of the song.
Country music has a distant, jangle and employs the unmistakable whine of the steel guitar. Disco used the well-known "waka waka" sound with a wah pedal. Metal uses heavy amounts of distortion, using both overdriven amps and outboard pedals.
As time and technology has pressed on, so has the amount of gear a guitarist uses.
Guitar Geeks says this rig is circa 1990, but you know The Ramones guitar sound never changed significantly over the decades they performed. You can see that he uses no effects. He uses a signal box to change between "clean" and "overdrive" channels on his Marshall stacks.
It was very common for early punk and hard rock artists to use the amp's distortion and then add outboard effects as necessary. This practice is not quite as common today among rock artists but many heavy metal guitarists enhance amp overdrive with external distortion.
Paul Gilbert, of Racer X and Mr. Big fame, is another effects minimalist. He is from the school of old. His set-up is a great example of using the amp's natural overdrive and clean channels and modifying that sound with external effects. He uses a wah, phaser, chorus and delay to get all the sounds in his arsenal.
If you are familiar with either Racer X or Mr. Big, you know what Gilbert plays. For those who aren't, he uses a chunky, thick, heavy rock sound for most songs. His solos pierce the rhythm section with great tone and texture. He's a neo-classicist and one of the greatest technical guitar players that came out of the '80s and '90s.
The following is by no means an inclusive list of effects, but is a run down a few of the more popular effects in modern music:
Distortion: Literally distorts a clean signal. It modifies the waveform of a signal by introducing odd harmonics. Some amplify the signal greatly (overdrive) or clip the peaks to impart a dirty, chunky sound. They vary in sound from the "fuzz" guitar of the '60s to the stomping thud of Pantera.
Interestingly, fuzzy guitar was first used in the song Rocket 88. As the story goes, the amp they were using broke and Sun Records producer Sam Phillips liked it and went ahead and recorded it. Since then, many guitarist have slashed speakers to get their distortion. Pete Townsend of The Who and Tony Iomi of Black Sabbath are probably the most famous examples of this practice.
Delay: A delay effect produces a copy of the signal going through and reproduces is either once (slap) or multiple times (echo). Most of these delay effect parameters can be set to either create a light echo effect similar to a reverb, a sharp, direct repeat of what is being played, a slow volume-decaying echo, or various other effects. Delay is one of the most essential effects of the modern guitarist.
Vocalists have also been known to rely on this effect. Remember this the next time you listen to Jane's Addiction.
Chorus: Also creates a copy of the signal being played, but the delay time is so short that you can't hear a separation in the sound. So, the signal comes out sounding thicker, as though more than one instrument is playing. A Flange effect is similar, but creates a more liquid sound.
Phaser/Phase Shifter: Creates a "whooshing" sound in the signal. It sounds like its lightly vamping in the signal you're playing. This effect can usually be modified from light to severe.
Wah Wah Pedal: This pedal modifies the amount of a signal's frequency coming through, by use of a foot operated pedal. As the guitarist rocks the expression pedal back and forth, a higher or lower amount of the frequency is allowed through. The most typical sound is a "wah." Think of Jimi Hendrix's intro to "Voodoo Chile" for an extreme example of wah-wah use.
Octavizer: An effect witch creates a synthetic tone for the incoming signal an octave higher or lower. Sometimes, some of these effects have parameters for you to create harmony tones as well, usually called, guess it ... a harmonizer. They allow you to texture and blend different tones and usually, like a chorus, add just enough delay to sound like multiple instruments are playing.
There is a wealth of effects out there, and these barely scratch the surface, but I could spend entire posts detailing individual effects. So, moving on, I want to talk briefly about the difference between stomp boxes, multi-effect pedals and rack effects.
As you can see in the examples above, both Johnny Ramone and Paul Gilbert use foot switches to change which channel they're playing. Well, a stomp box is similar in that it turns its signal on and off. Usually a stomp box is a single effect that is activated by, well, stomping on it. You control the amount of the effect by the knobs and such on the pedal. The signal is added to your sound by plugging your guitar into the pedal and then running the signal out of the box to the amp. The more effects you have, the more you have to daisy chain plugs before you get to the amp.
Stomp box effects are usually considered superior to multi-effect set-ups. The prices of these pedals reflect this attitude. A well-made, popular pedal can cost from $80-$150. If you want to use a lot of effects, you can see the cost can be prohibitive. However, if you break a box, you only lose one effect, which brings me to...
Partially to offer a budget solution guitarists, partially to clean up the clutter of all those boxes on the floor, companies began offering multi-effect pedals and systems. The most common multi-effect floor systems combine several effects, several different "amp sounds," the ability to dial in your own unique combinations of these effects, multiple pedals to change between effects and sometimes an expression pedal to modify the effect you're using.
The benefits to using a multi-effect system are varied. You don't have a bunch of pedals all over the place. You plug into one device and out to your amp (or other effects, if you want). The cost is almost always cheaper than buying stomp boxes to get all the same effects. And, now, the higher-end multi-effect systems offer digital recording options, computer hookups, drum machines and many other features.
The downside is that most of these systems are considered to have inferior sound in comparison to their stomp box cousins. They also don't tend to be as flexible as the individual effect pedals. However, a lot of this is changing. As technology progresses, the gap is steadily closing. I remember that in the late '80s, no one wanted multi-effect floor effects. Some of them might have been good, but they were looked upon with such disdain, that there were few models around. But today, Digitech's GNX3 and GNX4 are considered the "industry standard" effect systems for the amateur guitarist. The greatest downside is that if you break one of these, you lose EVERYTHING.
Basically, the rack effects are similar to a stereo component system mounted into a metal rack. These rack components do different things. One might be a multi-effects system that you can use a floor pedal board to change effects. One might just be a delay system. There are line conditioners. There are power conditioners. There are many, many different rack effects out there. And you are going to pay for them.
The upside to rack systems is that they tend to offer the greatest variety of combinations and effects. The downside is that they are generally very expensive, require a rack mount to be very portable, and sometimes require external items to operate well.
This article was run because Ernie asked me to. If you have any special requests, feel free to let me know.