There has never been a time in history when guitarists have had more choice for guitar related ‘gear’ than today. Instruments, amps, pedals, cables, plectrums, you name it, if you’re in the market for something new, you are spoilt for choice. We all like to own nice things, and I certainly take pride in all my guitar related purchases, but I have to admit, guitar pedals pique my interest the most.
I am very happy with my guitars and amps. I am very happy with my pedals, yet I still like to take an interest in what’s going on in the pedal market. It seems overdrive pedals are the largest part of the pedal market, followed by delay and modulation effects. There is just something about experimenting with new overdrive tones, and other effects that we guitarist enjoy. But as cool as these effects can be, they aren’t exactly what I would call necessary. Sure, some guitarists paint a sonic picture with their use of effects, and obviously they would struggle to do that without them. But when it comes to the average player, most of us just want to play guitar, jam through some classic covers, or write our own stuff, and so tend to rely on a few basic pieces of gear.
I play for a national Soul/Motown band. We are an 8 piece band of two vocalists, keys, drums, bass, guitar, sax, and trumpet. Guitars on Soul/Mowtown songs tend to play on beats two and four, where it is a small part of a much bigger sound. For this, I run my amp crystal clean (it’s 50 watts) and for the most part, it stays that way. If I need some overdrive, I use one of the three od pedals on my board. But the four pedals I use most are not sexy at all, and to many people, they may not be particularly interesting in themselves. They are what I call my utility pedals, pedals I wouldn’t be without at any gig.
No. 1 – Tuner
I opt for the good old Boss TU3. It’s built like a tank and has all the functions a guitarist would need. It has a bright LED dial, a muted output and being a boss pedal it has a buffered output, which does wonders for your signal chain – particularly if using long cable runs.
A pedal tuner is always at hand (or foot) whenever needed. On loud stages with a full band, headstock tuners are compromised by all the noise and vibrations going on, so a solid cabled solution is the best option. Some players tune up before they go on stage, but all kinds of things can affect the guitars tuning, so you never know when you’re going to need to tune up. Over the summer I played a few gigs in tents and marquees. The air was hot and humid so it takes time for the guitar to acclimatize. Initially, the tuning was all over the place, but knowing I had an accurate and solid tuner at the ready made me all the more relaxed. Having a decent tuner on the board is also about being professional. People pay a lot of money to hear my band, that means I have a responsibility to maintain my equipment, and provide a good performance. Being in tune is the most important aspect of this.
No. 2 – Compressor
I went years without using a compressor, but now they are an essential part of my sound. A compressor evens out the sound by reducing dynamic range – in essence making the loud parts a bit quieter and the quiet parts a bit louder. Compressing the guitar signal also adds sustain which is great for anybody playing a lot of clean stuff. A compressor can fatten up guitar tone without sounding overly ‘squashed’.
I use the Wampler Ego Compressor on my main pedal board. Compression is an important aspect of my live sound, so for me, it’s worth the additional price tag. As I play a lot on beats two and four with short, clean stabs. As well as fattening my tone, the compressor helps even out those stabs to keep the mix consistent and level.
The best way to approach a compressor is to notice when it isn’t engaged, rather than when it is. Unless you want a heavily compressed tone – think 90s country, or 70s funk, subtlety is the key.
If you’re looking for something more affordable, then the Boss CS-3 is a great choice. Nels Cline from the band Wilco swears by his CS3, and it gives a brilliant clarity to his playing.
No. 3 – Volume Pedal
A volume pedal is a great tool for us guitar players. Many use them for volume boosts during solos, creating swell effects, or as an expression control for delay and modulation effects. I use a volume pedal as a form of noise gate. My Fender Strat, as much as I love it, is prone to interference due to its use of single coil pickups. The odd times I play on a noisy stage, I ride the volume pedal, ducking the volume in and out between passages to prevent any noise. 60Hz hum amplified and then re-amplified by the huge PA system will wreck the experience for the audience. Noise gate pedals are great, however most players have little need for them on a regular basis. A volume pedal is a great way to keep the signal clean, maintain total control, can create some cool volume swells too!
No. 4 – EQ
The Boss GE7 is one of the greatest little boxes ever made. It is the Swiss Army Knife of the guitar pedal world. It is a simple 7 band graphic EQ with lots of uses, depending on where in the chain it is positioned. Master session player Brent Mason uses one directly after compression to even out the difference in frequency response of his various guitars. Other players (including yours truly) put the EQ pedal at the end of the chain to sculpt the overall tone before hitting the amp.
Over the course of a gig, a band will often get louder and louder. Rather than compete by turning up the amp, use the EQ pedal to boost the high mids. This will improve clarity without completing on volume. I am in a lucky position whereby our sound engineer can do what he wants to my sound out front oo the PA, and I can do what I need to on stage to give me a good sound. They may not have much of a sound in themselves, but EQ pedals help to shape the tone more than any other pedal. If you’ve not gone one on your board, it’s worth giving one a try.
So there you have it, four ‘utility’ pedals which, needn’t cost the earth, but give you greater control over your tone. They aren’t sexy, but they are reliable and offer a level of stability and flexibility which I and wouldn’t want to be without.
The pedals in this post