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Upfront Guitars – My personal rig rundown

August 12th, 2017

Players always like to see what other players are using, so just for fun here’s my current gigging and general playing setup.

Typically I bring a “Fender” style guitar with me, and for many years that’s been some type of G&L. Currently it’s a G&L ASAT Classic “S” with spalted alder top, swamp ash back, carmelized ebony fretboard, 12” radius Classic C neck and stainless frets. It did not start life an “S” but I realized that I really needed the middle combinations and modded it for the middle pickup (it did not have a middle rout). I’m a big fan of the neck-middle and middle-bridge much more than I am of the traditional Tele neck+bridge (which it does not even do…for now). It also has an Emerson wiring assembly which I put in every guitar I play.

ASAT Classic S

Prior to this I was using a Knaggs Severn which had a Strat type pickup arrangement with David Allen Strat Cat pickups. While the tone was great, I always hit the volume knob on that type of guitar, plus the fuller output and more mids of the G&L MFD pickups just “gig” better and work great with pedals.

The other guitar that has been in service for a while is a Knaggs Kenai. This is hands-down the best Les Paul style guitar I have played, and is much more open and articulate that most guitars of this ilk. And it’s very comfortable and only about 8 pounds. It also has Emerson wiring, a David Allen P-51 bridge pickup and a Sheptone Heartbreaker neck pickup. The P-51 is hands down my favorite bridge humbucker and you can do almost anything from country to heavy rock. The Alnico 5 Sheptone is a little more percussive than the P-51 neck, and sounds great with a touch of gain. Frankly, the stock Duncan SH-1 sounds very good too, and I could have easily used that.

deluxe and knaggs

For a long time I’d been playing through a Dr. Z Remedy and a Mojotone Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R, C10Q speakers. I still love it, plus it’s light and actually not too loud for smaller venues. But after all these years I finally discovered the Fender Deluxe Reverb, and the combination of tone and portability won me over. This particular edition came with a Celestion Blue and a matched set of groove tubes. Other than a Mullard GZ-34 I have so far left it alone. I’m tempted to stick it in a Mojotone Pine Deluxe cabinet to cut the weight a bit and round out the tone a little. I plug into the “2” jack on the Vibrato channel. For tone and ease of transport, no wonder it’s a fixture on so many house backlines.

With the Deluxe I use a Radial JDX to run an XLR line into the mixer. This does a great job of capturing the amplifier’s tone and is much more consistent than using a microphone. The line out is as much for the monitors as it is for adding a little guitar to the overall house mix.

The pedalboard is pretty simple affair and starts out with a Voodoo Lab Giggity. It’s essentially a boost and mild EQ. But for me it’s always on, as everything just sounds better that way (I have it just barely boosting the normal signal level). It’s also an easy way to tweak levels between guitars.

pedal board

The Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive is my “mild” gain pedal and I’ve been using them for probably 15 years. The deal with the pedal is that you can mix in clean signal to maintain attack and dynamics. I’ve also had the Lovepedal Kalamazoo for a number of years and this is my higher gain pedal, although not high gain by popular standards. While it’s in theory a TS-inspired pedal, it has more gain and is not as midrange heavy.

The Keeley Seafoam Chorus is a recent edition. It’s easy to use and can add a nice clean sounding chorus without cluttering things up. The Catilan Bread Belle Epoch tape delay gets used on a couple numbers, and the Lee Jackson Mr. Springgy Reverb only gets used with the Dr. Z. I may try one of the Keeley Tone Stations to consolidate the Reverb and Delay functions and make a little more room on the board.

Lastly, the Solodallas TSR is another “always on” item that acts as a line buffer, and also makes everything sound a little bigger, more 3-D and tactile, especially with pedals. It’s initially subtle, but you know when it’s off. I don’t use it to boost the signal, just condition it. The Strymon Zuma power supply is expensive, but it’s built like a Mercedes and can power just about anything. The Solodallas needed 300mA at 12VDC, and the Strymon is one of the few power supplies that will do this.

The patch cables are the UpFront Evidence Monorail cables that I have made for UpFront Guitars, and the guitar cables are Evidence Audio Melody.

While there are some new pedals that I’d like to try out — such as the Keeley White Sands and some of the Tone Stations — I’m wary about using a new pedal live without getting very familiar with how a new pedal interacts with the board, guitar, and amp. Lately we’ve been playing out more than practicing, and experimentation time has been limited.

 

Amps and Pedals: When Gain is not Volume

July 4th, 2017
Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Keeley D&M Drive with boost Boost and Drive

Here is a typical scenario: Guitar player in local bar band is playing along through a song, and now it’s time for his/her lead. The player hits his stomp box or gain channel and POOF: Where did the guitar go? Instead of standing out, the guitar fails to cut through, and sounds like and angry beehive, lost in the mix.

This is not an uncommon occurrence. Players mistake gain for distortion, or expect to get more gain and just get more distortion. It’s understandable, as on amps and pedals the terms gain, volume, drive and boost all get used quite interchangeably. But generally speaking where you apply the gain in your signal chain will determine whether you are creating more volume, more distortion, or possibly just a bunch of mud.

In a simple non-master volume amplifier, the volume control increases gain at the preamp level. The power amp section  is a fixed amount of gain. Whatever the preamp feeds it, the power amp section boosts it “X” amount. In this layout when the amp distorts, it’s the power amp tubes clipping. Unless your amp is 15 watts or less, this is pretty hard to do at reasonable volumes. This why some studio players like small low powered amps like the Fender Tweeds, old Supro’s, etc.

Master Volume amplifiers come in many shapes and sizes but most of them have some way of overloading a preamp tube (or tubes) and creating the distortion at the preamp level, and then using a second volume control (the master) to keep the overall volume level in check.

Any type of distortion causes clipping, which compresses the signal (reduces its dynamic range). The more distortion, the more the signal is compressed, producing a very even signal but with less ability to cut. Everyone has noticed how a clean guitar tone cuts through the band better than a heavily distorted one. The uncompressed dynamic range of a clean signal has a lot to do with it. Or if you use recording software, notice how much more peaky a clean guitar signal is than a distorted one? Clean guitar is much harder to track.

Let’s say you are on the dirty channel of your master volume amplifier, so you are already creating preamp distortion. If you hit a boost pedal feeding more signal into the amplifier, the effect is often to overload the preamp section even more, creating more clipping and compression. Distortion increases, but relative volume goes up very little or not at all.

Even if your “boost” switch is part of the guitar amplifier’s footpedal system, where the boost is applied will determine whether you get more volume (post preamp) or more distortion (in the preamp section). Pedals can do the same thing: If you pump a distorted pedal signal into a signal path that is already compressed, you are just layering distortion on distortion, further crushing dynamic range.

The concept of a “good pedal amplifier” is an amplifier that has enough headroom (clean gain capability) such that you can feed in boosted and distorted pedal signals without significantly overloading the amplifier. In essence the guitar amplifier is amplifying whatever you send in, but adding little or none of it’s own distortion.

A “bad” pedal amp would be a small Fender Tweed. They have so little headroom that any type of signal boosting device would just overload both sections of the amplifier, creating mush. At the other end, a Fender Twin or 100 watt Marshall can take a hot input signal without distorting, and have enough power to amplify that signal to very high decibel levels. If you listen to Angus riff on most AC/DC songs, it’s not heavily distorted, it’s just really loud. And it’s got great dynamics, bite and texture. Angus does not use any distortion pedals.

There are 15-30 watt amplifiers that are good pedal amps, and it has much to do with amplifier design, transformers, and tube selection. To generalize, a fixed bias amplifier tends to have a good amount of clean headroom (Blackface Fenders, many Mesa amplifiers) while a cathode bias amplifier may have great tone, but can be less forgiving to hot signals (Fender Tweeds, Vox, many Dr. Z EL-84 amplifiers).

Tubes matter too. While the 12AX7 preamp tube is by far the most common, the EF86 tube (some Dr. Z, 65 Amps, Bad Cat, etc.) has more gain and clean headroom potential. They also sound different than a 12AX7, but they handle pedals very well.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

The fixed bias EF86 Dr Z. Z-28 makes a good pedal amp.

My own personal preference is to find a single channel amplifier with decent headroom and really good clean tone — pedals won’t make a bad amp sound good — and then go with pedals for overdrive and distortion. Real power amp distortion is awesome, but in a gigging situation where a lot of different tones/colors are needed, pedals are just more convenient and easy to modulate. If you are in a blues band and can put your Tweed on 10 and ride the guitar volume, it’s a great sound. But if you are in a wide-ranging cover band, the pedal-based format is more effective and flexible. For the record I don’t like feel or tone of attenuators, and feel it’s best to pick the right size amplifier for the job. Unless I’m outdoors I don’t play an amp bigger than about 20 watts.

You should also consider the order of your pedals. If your clean boost pedal is before your primary distortion pedal, it will increase distortion and some amount of volume. If it’s after your primary distortion pedal, it will increase volume more effectively with little increase in distortion. Arranging your pedals with an eye towards how they will interact can greatly increase their effectiveness.

If we go back to the hypothetical guitar player at the beginning of this post, think about some of your favorite blues and classic rock guitar leads. Quite often they are not wildly distorted, but there is a lot of texture, dynamics, and the personality of the guitar player comes through. Managing volume versus distortion can improve the quality of your lead work, and help it stand out better in the mix. I’m not talking about playing “clean” but that crushing amounts of pedal or preamp distortion can really suck the emotional life out of a guitar. Music is all about dynamics, and making sure your guitar does not vanish at that crucial moment can make or break the emotional impact of the song.

 

UpFront Guitars Goes To NAMM 2017

January 28th, 2017

OK, so we just got back from NAMM, and as always it’s a fun if not tiring and slightly deafening time. This is not a blow-by-blow rundown of the show, but a few quick observations on what we did and saw.

G&L – G&L did not display at the show, but the factory is 20 minutes away and so we dropped in for a tour. We spent quite a bit of time there, and got a very detailed tour from Ben the Shop Foreman (I won’t throw out a lot of names because I did not ask them that ahead of time. But you can read their build sheets). There is a lot that goes into a guitar, but the process takes place in four major sections: Wood shop, paint, polish and assembly. It’s pretty compact facility and G&L builds in a day what Fender probably builds in 15 minutes. It’s a group of people who build guitars and love doing it. And they are doing it better than ever.

The NAMM Show – With over 1100 exhibitors for just “fretted instruments” it begs the question, “how on earth does one make up their mind on anything?” The shear number of guitar manufacturers makes you wonder how anyone survives. Especially the small builders who are often making very expensive guitars in low numbers. Some of their work is exquisite and some just weird. But how they carve out their market niche and clientele seems challenging to say the least.

The amplifier market seems to be a tale of two cities: The big and fairly big guys like Marshall, Fender, Orange and Vox, and the boutique-ish small builders scattered throughout the show. With margins very thin on amplifiers, many of the small builders seem rather disinterested in dealers, and focus more on direct sales or getting picked up by Sweetwater. Supro is currently occupying the space between average and boutique, and the guitar world needs more of that. For us, the search continues for amp line that is inspiring and reasonably affordable. Sigh.

Keeley Electronics – Except for our beloved Solodallas, we have deliberately avoided pedals. The whole market seems insanely over-saturated, and like a lot of things at NAMM, how on earth does one choose? But pedal effects are a fact of life, and I have a pedal board, so who am I to judge? So we chose Keeley electronics. Why? They have a comprehensive line that covers just about everything, they sound good, are well built, and they shy away from gimmicks and silly stuff, like calling a volume knob “urgency” and nonsense like that. Pro-level pedals for regular folks that won’t cost you $400.

Heritage Guitars – We’ve been looking at Heritage for about three years, but never quite made the jump. We’ve played a couple and they are awesome, but long delivery times, minimal marketing, and the secondary market made us skittish. But they’ve got new ownership, a renewed emphasis on artist relations and marketing, and better operations management that should bring down lead times and bolster consistency. So we are going to take the plunge, and while it will take 3-4 months to get our first batch, we are really looking forward to it.

Norman Guitars, Art and Lutherie – Acoustics have never been a big part of our business, but they are a big part of the market. We’ve dabbled in some higher end acoustics, but I’m convinced that if you can’t have Taylor or Martin, you’ll be forever swimming upstream. Their names are synonymous with the genre, like Kleenex. But everyone needs a solid, affordable acoustic, and we decided to go with two of Godin’s other historic  brands, Norman and Art and Lutherie. Both have been given a little bit of a reboot, and the new A&L guitars in particular have some very cool “Americana” finishes that are hip, and fit in well with singer-songwriter coolness. Take one to Brooklyn, and you’ll be an instant hit.

Best Booth Venue for Music – Taylor. The Taylor room always has interesting people, a nice stage and great sound. And usually a surprise or two.

Biggest Marketing Splash – D’Angelico. Where did these guys come from? Somebody has put some serious bucks into what I thought was a little jazz box company. Even Ukes for heaven’s sake. And Bob Weir was the invitation-only headliner on Friday night. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

Pianos, Band and Orchestra – This is not a guitar show, and the amount of space occupied by Piano, B&O and Sheet Music makes one think twice about what makes the industry tick.

Metal Heads – They keep the guitar industry alive and are the guitar’s most faithful supporters, even more than Blues. The autograph line for Steve Morse at the Ernie Ball booth always wraps around at least once.

Line 6 – Was not even in the convention hall, but in a ballroom at an adjacent hotel. I don’t follow the logic on that. Would you take a long walk through a crowd and security to look at a Line 6? Me neither.

Post Show Music in the Hotels – Take a nap, do whatever, but make a point of hanging out a the host hotels after the show closes for the night. The music is frequently good — at least performed well — and you never know who you will run into.

Pedal Amps – What’s a Pedal Amp?

September 22nd, 2013

Nearly every guitar player today uses some type of effect pedal, either for practice, recording or  playing live. Safe to say there is hardly anyone who does not own some type of effect pedal, making them both a great market for manufacturers, but also a real consideration when deciding what type of amplifier to use.

One of the frequent questions asked these days on the gear pages is what’s a good “Pedal Amp?” So what is a Pedal Amp? I would define a Pedal Amp as an amplifier that does not add extreme tonal coloration, and is able to handle high signal inputs without adding additional coloration or distortions. To some that does not sound like a particularly good amplifier, as for many old-school players the amplifier is an essential part of the sound equation. But for players that increasingly use various types of effects and digital modeling, the amplifier becomes more of an “amplification system” and less of a tone source.

Going back a few decades, the early amplifiers were instrumental to the developing sound of rock music. The happy accident of distortion, and then the use of lots of distortion as the essential rock guitar sound was not what the Founding Fathers intended. But as recording techniques, sound systems, and musical styles evolved, the concept of a pure unaffected guitar tone became increasingly rare. From the early days of cranking up small wattage amplifiers to get grindy tone, practically everyone today — well maybe not Neil Young — is using some type of effect to generate anything from mild to insane distortion. And while there are zillions of multi-channel amps out there, for flexibility’s sake pedals just allow much more room to mix and match tone.

So what makes a good Pedal Amp? In a word: Headroom. From a design standpoint, early amplifiers were notoriously short of headroom, both in the preamp and power sections. This of course gave them their warm creamy tone, but pump a high gain pedal into a Fender Tweed and the net result will be mushy distortion with very loose undefined low end. Practically speaking the pedal is creating distortion, and the higher input signal from the pedal is also distorting the preamp of the guitar amplifier. Distortion-on-distortion is not always desirable or musical.

Generally speaking, low powered cathode biased amplifiers (Tweeds, small Vox’s, lots of other low power EL-84 amplifiers) are not super candidates for pedals that have the capability of generating fairly high input levels. Even the relatively brawny 45 watt Fender Bassman won’t handle a lot of input signal without getting floppy. Hot input signals can come from distortion pedals or frequency modulation pedals (chorus, flangers) that tend to increase the signal level. Now boost pedals are made specifically to increase the signal, often for the purpose of overdriving the front end of an amplifier. But a boost pedal it typically only increasing the signal, and not adding its own distortion or other artifacts.

The boutique amp craze, with its plethora low power Tweed and Vox inspired designs (Dr. Z, Matchless, Badd Cat, Victoria etc) created some awesome sounding amplifiers that well-heeled baby boomers were craving. However they were not necessarily great at handling pedals, and even at 18 watts a Maz 18 is still damn loud. And this inspired the attenuator craze….and now everybody just buys pedals.

Fixed biased amplifiers — like Fender Blackface or similar designs — by virtue of their circuit topology have higher headroom and tolerate pedals better. Fender of course was trying to make louder and cleaner amplifiers to fill the larger venues that rock bands were playing. For that reason amplifiers that follow the higher powered Fender Blackface 6L6 tube lineage tend to be pretty good pedal amplifiers.

Once amplifier designers discovered master volume techniques and cascading gain (preamp distortion) techniques, amplifier designs became “stiffer” cleaner and louder. The general elimination of tube rectifiers in favor of diode rectifiers also increased headroom, and made the amplifiers sag less, and play cleaner under heavy loads. Distortion was now a design goal, not a by-product of marginal design or power handling capability. But to some, all these improvements — including dreaded solid state — took away some of the “organic” nature of the early amplifier sound.

Fast forward to the boutique amp craze and builders were putting all this “marginal” stuff back into amplifiers: Cathode bias, low power, and tube rectifiers. And at the opposite end of the spectrum some players are now using a totally digital preamp source — like an Axe Effect Fractal or Eleven Rack — and a powered full-range speaker system from JBL, QSC, or EV.

So back to the original topic: Good Pedal Amps tend to be more modern or higher powered designs that can tolerate strong signal inputs, and if they use a tube power amp section, have a solid state rectifier. If you are playing live or play at high volumes and want to use gain pedals, it’s advisable to avoid lower powered designs in the mold of a Tweed or Vox. Nothing against these amps — Robert Cray through a Matchless is a great sound — but it’s not a pedal sound. There are always exceptions to the rules of course, and some of the boutique designs using the EF-86 preamp tube (Dr Z. Z-28 for example) have quite of bit of clean headroom despite modest power outputs. It’s always dangerous to generalize.

Speaking of which, what about the Mesa Dual and Triple-Rec designs. Don’t they also violate the low power/tube rectifier rule? Yes, sort of. Up around 100 watts, tube rectifiers are pretty marginal AC-to-DC converters for creating the high voltage DC that power tubes need. By wiring two rectifiers in parallel, each rectifier is only carrying half the current, and therefore can share the load and maintain headroom (Fender did this on some 50’s amps for the same reason). A Triple-Rec adds one more rectifier for handling even higher powered designs. Mesa could have just used solid state diodes, but a Mesa Diode Roadking lacks marketing pizazz. Most Mesa — and modern metal — amplifiers are characterized by very “clean” clean channels and the distortion is produced by various combinations of tube and solid state wizardry.

Finally, here’s a personal example with the two amps I like to play the most: A Fender Reissue Bassman, and a Dr. Z Remedy head plugged into a Mojo Pine 4×10 cabinet with Jensen P10R/Eminence Blueframe speakers. Both are using virtually identical speaker arrangements, speakers, and cabinet materials. But the Bassman is an early cathode bias design with a tube rectifier, and the Remedy is a solid state rectifier design using four 6V6 tubes (not a “reissue” design but billed as having Marshall Plexi-style tone). They both have the same power output, about 40 watts. I love the Bassman tone, but in gigging situations using pedals for various levels of gain and effects, the amp loses definition, attack, and can get sloppy. Even on half power, the Remedy has better attack, low end firmness, and is overall tighter. Crunchy gain is crunchy gain. On full power the Remedy is really too clean for most situations except outdoor gigs. But both are 40 watt amps.

My general rule of thumb for any amplifier selection is to find the best clean tone that makes you happy and then go pedal shopping. If your favorite tone is clean to slightly crunchy, you may never need pedals and a smaller lowered powered “old school” amplifier may be the ticket. But if you are like most players, make sure the amplifier of your dreams has sufficiently stout headroom to serve as a suitable platform for whatever pedals you decide to use down the road.

For more information on platform and pedal options at Upfront Guitars:  www.upfrontguitars.com

Guitar Pedals – What’s with all the Stomp Boxes?

February 10th, 2013

On a recent business trip, I took along a recent edition of Guitar Player to read on the plane. In that issue they had a special section where they reviewed sixty guitar pedals. Sixty. Six Zero. Even at that, there were several well known brands that were not even represented! Every day it seems that there is a new boutique pedal maker out there with a new take on and old classic, and occasionally something really different. What is going on?

In the interest of full disclosure, UpFront Guitars does not sell many pedals. Honestly, I have found that it’s a bad fit for my business model, and I don’t do well with them. To be taken seriously, you need to carry lots of brands, and there is a lot of competition from the eBay used pedal market where players are frequently dumping their latest experiments in sonic bliss. Also, many of the boutique builders sell direct, so there you are carrying somebody’s pedal and they are selling against you. In that case why have dealers? But this is not about sour grapes, it’s about why there are so many darned pedals out there. I have a few theories:

Low barrier to entry – As I have said in previous writings, it’s not hard to get in the pedal business: Buy a die-cast box, a soldering iron, benchmark a few classic designs, and you’re in business. OK, not that easy, but a lot easier than making a guitar and much better certainty of sales. Pickups have become this way too. The raw materials are very easy to obtain, and boutique winders have sprung up all over the place. Most of these “noveau” builders are not breaking any new ground, so it’s hard to say what they are doing other than saturating the market. This is not to denigrate the folks that are really turning out new imaginative product, but it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a ton of me-too stuff out there.

The 2009 Recession – The recession in 2009 was bad for a lot of things, including musical instrument sales. The only category that grew during that time was effects. People still wanted to buy some type of new toy, but had to watch their wallet. Stomp boxes fit the bill even when guitar and amp sales were tanking.

Modeling Amps – Is it just me, or does it seem as though the craze over modeling amps has blown over? Aside from really sophisticated stuff like the Fractal, Eleven Rack, and Kemper, many amps have sort of gone “basic” again. Possbily buyers have decided it’s more flexible to have a couple pedals than it is to buy a box of so-so “amps” in the form of a sterile sounding combo amp. To me, the affordable modeling stuff has typically sounded blah to occasionally awful, and most players settle in on one or two sounds anyway.

Active secondary market – This is also known as “used pedals”. Don’t like what you just bought? You can probably get 60% of your money back in ten days on eBay. Most players don’t keep pedals long enough to wear them out, and the Next Greatest Thing is often for sale used a few weeks after they hit the streets. It’s not nearly so easy to sell your amp if you don’t like it, and shipping it can be daunting.

Cheaper than Amplifiers – The amp market is pretty terrible these days, especially at the upper end where even some of the well-known names are struggling to move product. There are also lots of “used” amplifiers for sale dirt cheap as dealers try to unload inventory while trying to respect MAP pricing (which further depresses new amp sales). Plus look at the well known amp builders that are now making pedals: Mesa, Bogner and Rivera to name a few. All three of these companies make expensive amplifiers, and the market for high end stuff is limited (and an imported “value” line can hurt your image). If you cannot sell someone an amplifier, sell them the essence of your amplifier in a box. While fundamentally I maintain that a great amp is worth your hard earned money, it’s tempting to do a pedal-makeover to breathe some new life into your old rig. I’m not sure that a pedal will make a bad amp good, but the economics are tempting. I have carried some of the Rivera pedals, and while they are good they violate an important rule: Price. Keep it under $179 and it’s almost an impulse buy. Price it at $250 or higher and buyers look elsewhere.

The theory of “What the heck” – What other product promises the ability to transform your sound at such a low price? Plus installation could not be easier: Just plug it in. It’s not like a pickup, which requires some dis-assembly, soldering, and the risk that it won’t sound good (some makers like Seymour Duncan now offer solder-less pickups to lower the skill barrier). Pedals are like a new diet shake or a magic wrinkle cream that promise so much for so little effort. It’s actually marketing genius; and has certainly been a boon for magazine advertising, stores and e-tailers.

But do stomp boxes really transform our playing enjoyment, or just give us a shiny new object to chase instead of playing our guitars? The music industry benefits from this constant “pedal churn” but does the player? To me, pedals are like pizza: Most of them are pretty good, and rarely are they awful. Yes, there are some “bad” pedals out there, but I don’t think it takes a lifetime to find a few pretty good ones to form your core sound. My board has been pretty solid the past three years, and is mostly gain pedals, one modulation pedal, and a reverb. Some were carefully chosen and some were just cheap, like a BBE Minder Bender because I needed chorus for a couple songs and did not want to spend a lot. So what’s on there now is:

  • Peterson Strobe Tuner
  • Lovepedal Kalamazoo
  • JHS Charlie Brown
  • Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive (ten years and running)
  • BBE Mind Bender
  • Lee Jackson Mr. Springy Reverb

That’s it, and I used my own “brand” of Evidence Monorail patch cables. Plus I don’t have any more room on the PedalTrain. I have been messing around with a Voodoo Lab Giggity, which is not even an effect so much as it is a parametric EQ of sorts. But I like it, and if it stays, something may have to go.

I do like other pedals: A have a Fulldrive that I used to play a lot, and I like a lot of the Wampler stuff, but it’s not as if they get me to some new musical place. If I don’t like the way I sound, it’s probably me and not the pedal. If your new pedal makes you want to play more, that’s great. If it just makes you want to re-arrange your board instead of playing, that’s not great. For a person who sells gear, this is dangerous advice. But I guess there is no quick route to being a great musician, and pedals are not the musical equivalent of Rogain. Playing, playing with other people, and optionally playing live are what really makes us better. Everybody has heard a great guitar player in a guitar store making a $150 guitar sound good. There’s a reason for that: Practice, and the gift of talent. We can’t all be gifted, but we can all practice.

The Guitar Pedal Boom – Too much of a good thing?

July 21st, 2012

As anyone who is even a casual player has noticed, the last few years have been truly explosive for the guitar effects market. The rise of stomp box mania has defied current economics trends — sales even grew during the recession —  and is now over a $60 million segment of the MI industry. The number of brands and selection is dizzying, and just browsing one particular online guitar website revealed that they carried over 120 brands!

Why are pedals so popular?

Well for starters, as far as guitar gear goes, pedals are cheap thrills. With the vast majority of pedals being priced under $150, it’s not a big investment to try out a pedal, and if it’s not the cat’s pajamas you can sell it to a friend, put it on the shelf, or stick it on eBay. To some degree it’s pretty hard to wear out a pedal, so a used one on eBay is typically a smart choice. I have a theory that pedals are like the proverbial Christmas Fruitcake; there is actually only one, and everybody just keeps passing the same one around.

For a budding manufacturing or mad scientist, going into the pedal business has a fairly low barrier to entry. Practically everyone uses the same die cast box — now that guy is making a killing — silk screening and painting is pretty low tech (some people even skip the paint) and the actual cost of the components are pretty low too. If you don’t mind hand soldering, there is no need for fancy assembly or wave soldering equipment. It’s also pretty easy to find schematics online, or just back engineer your favorite stomp box. Now there are obviously many serious companies out there doing lot’s of research and making significant investments in R&D and manufacturing. But for somebody who just wants to get into the business, it’s a lot easier than making guitars, amps, or speakers.

One other factor — at least to me anyway — is that if you are looking for great sounding distortion or gain, which is by far the most popular effect type, a pedal is quite often better sounding than most “gain” channels on two or three channel amps. There are many players out there with multichannel amplifiers that tend to play only the clean channel, and rely on pedals for distortion and modulation effects. Why is this so?

Well if you look back to the early amplifiers and the onset of distortion, the distortion was caused by the power tubes clipping, which turned out to sound really good; warm, sweet and very musical. A low powered amplifier with limited headroom such as a Fender Tweed would distort at a reasonable volume level. It sounded great, and everyone saved their hearing. But bands were playing ever larger venues and needed larger amplifiers, with more wattage, and more headroom. Now the amps were louder, which was good, but that warm power tube clipping was gone. Try and get a Fender Twin to distort, I dare you. Players needed volume and distortion that they could control.

But some clever engineers came of with the master volume control. This allowed the player to essentially overdrive a section of the amplifier, but control the overall volume level with the master volume. Presto! distortion at listenable levels. But the characteristic of the distortion was different. It was not warm and creamy but more harsh and fizzy. This is the because the distortion is produced by clipping the preamp tubes, and this distorted sound is then fed into the power tube section for amplification. It’s a sound, but not the sound of an amp being played at the limits of its clean headroom.

Early master volume amplifiers were often harsh and raspy, with an edgy tone that was anything but musical. Fender’s foray with master volume controls in their 70’s Silverface amps were vile, sounding somewhat like a Kazoo Orchestra playing Smoke On The Water. Obviously amplifier designers have gotten much better in producing musical overdriven sounds, typically still by using preamp distortion. The famous Mesa high gain sound is essentially multiple preamp tubes each over-driving the other to produce a thick chunky distortion tone. This is sometimes called cascading gain, and it can sound really good. If you’re a fan of metal, it’s where it’s at.

But this type of distortion is actually fairly easy to emulate using solid state components. It’s not so easy to make a pedal that really sounds like a small amp working hard on a Saturday night, but fuzz and higher gain distortion sounds can be quite convincingly created in a small metal box. It looks a hell of a lot more impressive to have a half stack, but a 1×12 or 2×12 combo with good headroom and a couple pedals can sound pretty mean.

My apologies for a highly compressed and somewhat biased view of amplifier history, but many players have found that an amplifier with a good sounding clean channel is the perfect “canvas” to paint on with the pedal of your choice. Often a well-crafted little box will sound better than an amplifier using preamp distortion to achieve high gain sounds. That’s my experience anyway, and my choice in selecting an amplifier is totally focused on finding the best natural tone possible, and using pedals to color the sound in a way that suits my musical leanings. I also happen to like a little “natural” tube grit to my tone, so I tend to play fairly low powered amplifiers, but even so I’m never going to turn my amp up to “10” for a solo. I’ll use a pedal. As far as I can tell, the only people who turn their amps up to “10” are on YouTube, and live in very small bedrooms.

So pedals are inexpensive, they are plentiful both new and used, and the low investment required to get in pedal business means that lots of people are making them. So it’s all good, right? Sure, there is nothing essentially wrong with having too much of a good thing, and over time the number of pedal makers will reach some sort of natural Darwinian limit: The really good builders with grow and thrive, and the hacks and pure copycats will fade away. I’m of the opinion that pedals are somewhat like pizza: None of it is truly bad, and everyone finds their favorite. There are however many bad amplifiers, and spending $300 on some boutique distortion pedal with rare germanium diodes will not hide the fact that your amp sounds like crap. Start with the amplifier and speakers first. Get your core sound down to where you really love what you hear with nothing more than a guitar, a good cable, and your amp. Then go forth and experiment with the little die cast boxes of your choice.